Here I regularly list reviews only of those books that I have felt strongly about, books that I have found wonderful and others which have made me angry or have disappointed me. Most of my reviews are published on Amazon.co.uk
Over-night success Burton as a writer should learn from first early mistakes, so should their agents and publishers
THE MUSE by Jessie Burton
When I saw Burton’s first novel in the bookshops, the highly promoted The Miniaturist, I was more than motivated to read it – we had been laying plans to move to Holland for two years. I had bought and read Simon Schama’s wonderful doorstopper The Embarrassment of Riches about the ‘Golden Age’ in Holland. Some time earlier I had devoured Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and my favourite, Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, both written with economy of language and fully developed characters.
The The Muse cover, all pretty pretty with swirling flowers, a couple of tasteful pistols shooting sprays of yet more flowers, a typewriter and a couple of little paint brushes, not forgetting two snakes (a hint of The Essex Serpent?) – what did this cover promise? As a graphic designer/art editor, later novelist myself, I know that a cover must reflect the content. On reading I found that the only thing flowery about this book was the often forced phrasing, metaphors and clichés. The story deals with a very modernist painting, more in the line of the Blaue Reiter movement, even fauvism, with a dash of Leonor Fini or even Dali thrown in. So, what was the dainty embroidery of flower sprigs doing on the cover?
This packaging is of course in no way Jessie Burton’s fault. She must have, after the thundering promotion and success of her first book, have blind trust not only in her editor (who should have used a red pen on the ‘over-writing), but also in the marketing team of the publisher (note to myself here: – I shall definitely insist on the right of approval, or disapproval, for my next two books which are in the offing).
I always make a point of reading first novels about which are praised to high heaven – I want to see what the fuss is about, what appealed to agents and publishers.
Initially, The Miniaturist engaged with a more flowery writing, but by the second or third chapter, the unlikely metaphors and clichés began to make their entrance. I don’t know what was more irritating, the over-wrought language or the fact that after only a few pages I knew exactly what the central plot would be – her new husband was homosexual and would not only disappoint his new bride but engage in unseemly behaviour with handsome young men and would end up in the canal with a rock around his neck, as was the custom of the religious zealots enforcing their moral societal codes. And so it was what happened at the end, via a slow, tortuous tale with rather stereotypical characters whose personality seemed to stop at the surface of their elaborate outfits, as seen in a host of paintings of the period. Perhaps Burton chose deliberately to depict their suppressed emotions, with the result that they turned out to be rather cardboard.
Characters may well behave in an emotionally repressed manner, but under the surface is often a volcano, ripe for the writer to exploit. Miss Burton did not do this. Her women and men remained flat.
I recently found her second book The Muse in a charity shop in Den Haag. Two Euros was not much of a risk to take, so I thought that perhaps Jessie Burton had taken note of what had been written about her first novel by very respectable reviewers. To be fair, I felt sorry for her at the time. To be praised to the heavens for her very first novel must have been overwhelming – Richard and Judy – all festival appearances imaginable – the lot. But then came the reviews, many of them bad. Her agents and editors should have taken more care to ‘clean up’ the manuscript of its stylistic faults and character development. I am told she suffered a burn-out afterwards, and, in The Muse, I clearly felt the strain of ‘having to writer another over-night success’.
So, to The Muse. It gently plodded along, it wasn’t until I got into the two hundred or so pages that anything interesting happened. Up to that point Burton was busy trying to ‘build up’ a mystery. Again, not even half-way through the book I more or less knew how the story would end. The Spanish Civil war was sketched out, but no more – a bit of shooting, a bit of bombing, not the war drama it really was. Burton restricted ‘the war’ to her three characters.
The whole book feels as if the writer is nervous, frightened even, forcing herself to write, whatever it takes, without allowing the story to be real in her mind‘s eye, ‘to flow out’, so that the writer gets lost as they write, becomes the characters, experiences what the characters do.
It is hard to fathom with whom Burton identifies most, though, as in many novels now, her central character turns out to be … a writer. The secondary central character, a Miss Quick, is also thin in depiction, not much more than a sketch. Presumably, Burton thought that this made the character more mysterious – not so. The few superficial descriptions about Quick’s elegant wide trousers, her nervy appearance, don’t suffice to make her real. As the book is set in two time periods – the Spanish Civil War and London, 1967, the reader has the expectation that Miss Quick is the key to the story in the end, but with all the complicated writing, one finds it hard to care whether she will turn out to be either the young painter, Olive, or the Spanish servant, Teresa. As in The Miniaturist, the end leaves one indifferent. One might react with, yes, “of course”, no more. The limp resolution in Burton’s first book sees the young wife just standing there as her husband is thrown into the water and the rock tied to his neck drags him into the murky canal. There was a total absence of drama and emotion in the writing.
The Muse is full of tortured metaphors too numerous to mention, as well as the usual clichés (feelings described as ‘tsunamis’ etc, etc.).
Miss Burton, though in her thirties, doesn’t seem to have real insight into people’s psyche. She is a diligent researcher though. Her entire bibliography and acknowledgments read like a the account of an obsessive researcher – but no matter how much a writer researches, if the information is not digested, computed, distilled so that the writer can truly ‘live’ the story, it falls flat.
In a two page bibliography 30 book titles are cited as inspiration/ sources, as well as five films – all followed by a page of acknowledgements but diligence does not make good stories This may impress the younger agent fraternity, but it will not sock it to the well-read audience – there are 15 sources about Caribbean immigrants in England (a professor no less advised on the single handful of lines in the Caribbean Patois, the sort of language one could ask (or axs) anyone in London in two minutes. More professors are cited in an advisory capacity, 10 sources about the Spanish war, seven on the subject of art (incl. John Berger) – rather excessive when there is talk about one single key painting – as I mention before, a mix of Leonore Fini, Dali and Blaue Reiter.
In the media this second novel was also much praised – when I read the word ‘unputdownable’ I know that the (paid newspaper and magazine)reviewer has skim-read the book, though any professional recognises the ‘second novel’ syndrome. Real readers however say they are disappointed, that the book is lukewarm, slow, over-complicating things to no good effect. Whatever other work for theatre or in other directions Miss Burton has done, she ought to take note when it comes to novel writing. What good are the sales of a million books in thirty countries if nothing is learned in the process? Well, perhaps the money is what counts?
I would advise Jessie Burton to change her editors. She is obviously not a brilliant plotter or able to look into the hearts and minds to live her characters and with her words often twisting around each other, where is she to go now with the pressure exerted by her publisher and agents?
Reading the first chapters of her third, The Confession, I find the same faults.
Joanne Harris and other well-established authors recently accused agents and publishers of being obsessed with first time authors, the instant hit-makers, the new Wunderkind, instead of looking after those who have stayed the course and sold millions of books, purely on the quality of writing and storytelling. Of course, there is an advantage with promoting ‘newbies’. They are desperate to be published, they are pliable. Some have not only had their stories changed so much, that it ended up being hi-jacked by their editors, relationships swopped, titles changed beyond recognition, (drop that character, put some sex into it). Even Ian Rankin abandoned his first novel because it was no longer his book. And once the ‘new’ discovery has be jacked up to ‘book of the year’ status, called the fresh voice, preferably accompanied by a young, attractive photograph, the new author thinks he/she can take a breath. Not a bit of it – the mad roundabout of the festivals starts and while they are supposed to be writing their ‘second hit’, they have to charge across the country and talk about writing instead of actually doing it.
Tom Rob Smith, to cite but one example, suffered the same fate with his first and wonderful book, Child 44. The two that followed (we must have a trilogy at any price, to publish in the next two years), were badly written, badly plotted and one of them, totally preposterous in the parts which read like a cardboard imitation of a James Bond movie. It was the typical ‘second novel’ written under pressure. To be fair, Rob Smith had the Child 44 story more or less handed to him be a true life story about a Russian mass murder, so this may explain the poor quality of the writing in the 2nd and 3rd books in which he was obviously writing about events he didn’t and couldn’t make real, not matter how much research was done..
Tom Rob Smith however seems to be made of sterner stuff then Jessie Burton. He has gone on to write and produce films and TV dramas. His literary work didn’t recover from the hype until he wrote The Farm, once again based on personal, true events.
I am speaking from personal experience here – my agent ‘loved’ my manuscript, then suggested a number of substantial changes, some feasible, others not. I had taken the precaution of finishing the first two volumes, leaving the third, shorter volume 3 as yet unwritten but sketched out. I am resisting the idea that I have ‘at least’ three volumes here, the proposal being that ‘we’ can spin my manuscripts out to run over the horizon. I however already have other projects which are waiting to be written. I am currently living in Holland, and although I am happy to promote my forthcoming books, I hope I will be spared the festival tours – unless of course, my books are hailed as the new sensation, the new young kid on the block (there will be a surprise in store on that count) and the trips are fully paid for and organised by the publishers. They after all will be making the money by selling the translation rights.
THE NINE LIVES OF ANTOINE MONTVOISIN by Angela Elliott
Angela Elliott’s book deals with the real live character Catherine Montvoisin, or ‘La Voison’, Paris poisoner, abortionist and organiser of black masses. She was known for her notorious network of poisoners whose tentacles reached all the way to Louis XIV and his many mistresses who wanted their rivals dead.
Elliott’s has imagined the story behind the gruesome Paris scandal. Her book depicts the domestic life of the unfortunate husband, Antoine Montvoisin, former draper ruined by the collapse of the bridge on which he plied his trade. Antoine is desperate to regain the love of his forbidding wife. He is dismayed to discover that his wife is not only the infamous La Voisin poisoner, but also a prolific abortionist – she has buried a multitude of aborted babies under his precious garden. By trying to stop her horrific practices he puts himself into mortal danger. Now the wife tries to poison him, repeatedly – poisoning unwanted husbands is her every day fare, even if it’s her own.
The author depicts Antoine as an endearingly befuddled and often inebriated man in his middle years who manages to bumble through his wife’s various attempts to bring about his horrible death. By the scruff of the neck, Elliott skilfully drags the reader through 17th Century Paris, with its filth and stench of cess pits and the attending low life on the one hand, while the scheming poisoner wife La Voisin throws extravagant parties for corrupt priests, alchemists, high nobility and Louis XIV’s mistresses – as they sip fine wines and suck on delicacies, their satin-clad, bejewelled shoes tread the grass above the graves of their aborted infants.
Elliott’s language is part Molière farces, part downright gothic as the gruesome story hurtles to its end.
This is not Angela Elliott’s first venture into the past. Her book THE FINISH, also exquisitely researched in both language and setting, is a thrilling tale of the life of an 18th century Covent garden prostitute turned detective to save her own life.
THESPIANS by MICHAEL HASTED – ISBN 978-1785103988 26/12/2014
I loved this book. Anybody who is interested in the theatre and how actors go about their business will be fascinated. Written in a light, conversational manner by the author who first set foot on the stage at the age of sixteen, THESPIANS charts the lives of many well-known actors from their first spell-binding glimpse of the magic of theatre, (sometimes at the age of three) all the way through school plays, drama school, their very first job in the theatre and their progress to becoming the well-known faces we know today.
All the contributors to THESPIANS learnt their stage craft in repertory theatre – Steven Berkoff, Zoë Wanamaker, Stephanie Cole, Timothy West, Tom Conti, Felicity Kendal, Robert Powell, Leslie Grantham and many more share their stories, some going back to before the war, the make-do and mend 1940s, the ground-breaking 1950s and 60s and all the way to the 1980s when repertory theatres all over England fell victim to the machinations of the Arts Council and its short-sighted accountants.
Amazingly, the majority of the contributors to the book still regularly appear on our screens as well in our theatres. There are inspiring stories about drama schools, the National Theatre, the RSC and touring both in the UK and abroad.
And there are many laugh-out-loud anecdotes on the infamous theatrical landladies, stage disasters, wardrobe malfunctions, auditions etc., all wittily recalled by the actors concerned – and a very distinguished cast list it is too.
This is an absolute must read for those who love the theatre and relish an insight into how actors work and live, what they think and what they feel. *****Highly recommended.
The INFATUATIONS by JAVIER MARIAS June 2106
Marias and this book was much praised by James Naughtie so I was intrigued to read this author I didn’t know. Javier Marias is not a writer for the impatient reader. The way he tells his stories makes them feel small, almost uneventful, but thickly wrapped in philosophical questions and self-examination. He is an indulgent writer, indulgent with himself and his desire to explore the minutiae of every turn of a story, he meanders in the detail of possibility, real or imagined, past, present or future, to the extent that at times one wonders whether one will ever see the resolution of the initial story. I am not a reader of fast paced crime novels but often read an author precisely for his style of writing. But here, after a few chapters I felt trapped in a confession booth with a person who is talking without interruption to himself and who is examining and analysing everything that has gone before and everything that might yet be coming – in short, the world of an obsessive worrier. As a reader I felt as though the story was taking place behind a thick screen – slow and muffled. Javier Marias’s father was a philosopher and Marias himself, in this book, poses an important moral question: – When is a person a murderer, when he commissions a killing, even for humanitarian reasons to save his best friend a long, painful death, or when he actually pulls the trigger or plunges a knife into the victim’s heart? Marias as an author sounds more like a psychiatrist talking to himself. We writers are always told – show, don’t tell. Perhaps Spanish writers are under no such pressure.
The other thing that bothered me with this highly rated book was that, although the main character is supposed to be a woman (it took a while for me to realise it), all I heard was Marias’s male voice. For me an author must convince from the start that he can inhabit a character, male or female, old or young, but Marias seems to have only one voice, his own.
Those who are generally respectable reviewers, in this case anyway, seem to make a cult of the obsessive writing of Marias. My reservation may simply be that I don’t know Spanish literature too well to judge fairly, perhaps this kind of writing simply does not translate well into the English/Northern European culture. Having read both this and A Heart So White, I think I may be ready to have another go at Proust.
A HEART SO WHITE by JAVIER MARIAS June 2106
A story about parallel events – one real in the case of the character’s father, only revealed very late in the book, the other imagined when the narrator watches a woman waiting for someone outside a Cuban hotel. As with Marias’s Infatuations, there is only one point of view – that of the writer in the role of his central character. A Heart So White is an easier read than The Infatuations but has the same tone. Marias is given to exploring the minutiae of possibilities of all situations, large or small, veering off into unconnected avenues of thought, taking detours to such an extent that one asks oneself – when is he going to get back to the story? Intriguing but circuitous.
PRINCE OF PRINCES – THE LIFE OF POTEMKIN – 26/12/2014
With its weighty 634 pages this book seems intimidating but is absolutely worth a read. Potemkin was much maligned after his death by those who were jealous of his genius and his powerful position as Catherine the Great’s lover, secret husband and in every way her equal. Montefiore puts this to rights, detailing Potemkin’s complex character. The extravagance of his nature and lifestyle are almost impossible to grasp in this day and age – with his power and money he could command not only the greatest riches the entire world had to offer but also the best engineers and all manner of experts from all over the world to build his Black Sea navy and carry out his projects of building new towns in record time in conquered territories such as the Crimea. He travelled everywhere with an English landscape gardener who created an instant English garden for him, even in the many battles he fought. Not only that, as he was a great lover of music an orchestra of some 200 musicians and ballet companies were at his beck and call at all times, wherever he went.
I do however have a major criticism of the book : In Potemkin’s age a fraction of 1% of Russian society enjoyed in absurd level of privilege and luxury whilst the Russian population starved, died of cold and suffered unimaginable hardship as ‘souls’ (mostly peasants owned, bought and sold or given by Catherine the Great to her favourites in their thousands). I do not expect Potemkin to have had all that much thought for them, but Simon Sebag Montefiore should at least, in his 634 pages and probably nearly 300,000 words, have found a page or two to include something about the general conditions of the everyday life of the Russian population at the time. It’s great to immerse oneself in the life of the rich and powerful, but a little heart and compassion for the remaining millions in Russia would have been in order here. ****
Every year I review events at the CHELTENHAM LITERATURE FESTIVAL
This year the accent was on all things theatre and my reviews appear on the website STAGETALKMAGAZINE.COM for which I am a main contributor.
Miklós Banffy event at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, 11th October
Although the Cheltenham Literature Festival, like most book festivals, has in recent years, for literature lovers, in any case, veered towards the inclusion of a somewhat disproportionate number of celebrity biographies (some grumble that in future it should be renamed ‘book festival’ rather than ‘literature festival’) there are still real discoveries to be made, albeit in the small side rooms instead of the large tents. One such this year was today’s event, presenting the work of one Miklós Banffy, a Transylvanian/Hungarian multi-talented aristocrat/author, playwright and politician, all rolled in one. Though half of my family has the same origins and social background as Miklós Banffy (in school in France I hid the fact that my mother came from Transylvania for fear of being called a vampire), I had no knowledge of Banffy at all. He was the author of the trilogy A Transylvanian Tale, also called The Writing on the Wall, which traces a story of a character not unlike himself from around 1904 onwards, a time when the Balkans were heaving with trouble and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on the point of imploding. The novels were published in 1934 and 1940.
Banffy was the director of the Hungarian State Theatres from 1913-1918 where he promoted not only the theatre arts but also musicians, giving Belá Bartok his first break. With the upheavals of WW2 he became more and more involved with political matters. In a vain attempt to prevent the destruction of his massive, baroque chateau of Bonchida he remained after his wife and daughter had fled. His estate was looted and burned down by the retreating German army. He was not reunited with his family until 1949 and died the following year. It wasn’t until 1982 that the Hungarian communist regime relented and allowed publication of some of his work. In 1999 his trilogy was translated into English. The castle is currently being restored with involvement of Prince Charles and European heritage funds among others.
During the festival event, Julian Evans, biographer, travel writer, Académie Francaise prize winner for his translations of French literature and author of BBC Radio 3’s series on the European novel The Romantic Road, and Artemis Cooper, biographer of Patrick Leigh Fermor both gave us a taste of the beautifully translated work of Miklós Banffy’s. I for one am now on the hunt of an English translation of his plays. What a find.
Here I regularly list reviews only of those books that I have felt strongly about, books that I have found wonderful and others which have made me angry or have disappointed me. Most of my reviews are published on Amazon.co.uk
NEW REVIEW : 13th December 2014 – THE MINIATURIST by Jessie Burton – *** minus * = ** (although it’s a huge thing to write a book, no amount of hype can cover up the glaring faults in this book)
I am a great fan of Holland, its rich history and fantastic art. I had great hopes for this book as its publication was preceeded by much praise and pretty pictures of yet another miracle first time author. The story line and setting are all mentioned, if not given away, by earlier reviewers.
At the start with I thought the writing well crafted, after a while it became contrived and over-written – it takes a lot to be able to write in the true style of a period (for an excellent example, see Angela Elliott’s THE FINISH, the story of an 18th century Covent Garden highly intelligent prostitute who gets involved in a murder and investigates). Sadly Jessie Burton does not reach those heights of credible language – she often writes like a kitten trying to unravel a ball of wool.
After the third chapter it was blindingly obvious to the reader that the problem with her new husband was homosexuality (that is in fact the ONLY story line). For Jessie Burton to think that she could string us along until much later in the book seems naive. As for the ending of the book – as Mister Knightly said to Emma – badly done.
I am beginning to feel rather sorry for Jessie Burton, although I shouldn’t – she’s got published after all, with a lot of trara at the launch. But there are a lot of bad reviews piling up in this instance. I think that she was badly advised by her agent/publisher who should know better – if they think she holds such promise they should have protected her from being over-exposed and then be shot down by the likes of … well, me, and a lot of other well-read readers-journalists-writers.
It always amazes me how agents and publishers take on novels that have such glaring faults. Bettina Bauer’s so-called ‘first’ suffered the same faults and disappointed in the same way. In the case of Jessie Burton I suspect that the increasing trend for taking on ‘marketable, pretty young things’ is a parallel to how all female violinist suddenly started to look like sexy, hair-tossing fashion models. There is no doubt that Jessie Burton has good command of language and vocabulary but she tries too hard to show it off. What she does need is to work harder (or made to work harder by those who promote her) on her plots and sub-plots. She also needs a LOT more real experience of life, time to observe and understand people’s behaviour, not only to write better characters but also to give her readers a LOT more credit. I am surprised that neither she, nor her agent and publisher seems to be aware that anyone who picks up and buys a book about 18th century Holland by definition has wider interests, and perhaps knowledge, than the readers of pot-boiler crime fiction. Over-written, flat characters, predictable and unsatisfactory plot resolution.
NEW REVIEW : 3rd August 2014 – The Savage Garden, by Mark Mills **
Well, here is another cry from the heart – though I would much prefer not to have to say what follows.
I read quotes of reviews; it all looked like the sort of book I would love to read. Words like ‘unputdownable’ from reviewers always put me off, but when the Times reviewer says ‘elegantly written’, ‘crisp prose’ (The Spectator), ‘beautifully written, (Literary Review) and ‘mesmerising piece of writing’ (Independent) I thought I was onto something exceptional. A Times reviewer even said it was ‘full of mystery and menace,’ – this reviewer must have lived a sheltered life to be so easily frightened.
I always give a book a chance until I am well into it before I either judge or get irritated. Here it is not the plot that I find fault with, though there is a cultural, mythological overload (to me it read like someone showing off all his classical education which would not sit well with readers who have not been to the hallowed red-brick universities; this Mark Mills never lets us forget). He seems to have so much knowledge and is eager to pack everything in, even if it has little to do with the story which stalls completely at times. Albert Camus’s quip that ‘some people can be over-educated’ came to mind. The writing here is very uneven, at times it has the tone of some pompous official, staring into the distance over your head, trying to wax lyrical – ‘ Fearful he was being drawn out of his conversational depth he headed for the shore’, at other times the language is too casual – someone is ‘a bit put out’, (did Mills not have time or bother to go back and polish his writing here??) All in all, I got the impression this book was written in a hurry with the author reaching for the nearest available stereotypical phrase hovering on his word-shelf.
There are long and tedious explanations on Renaissance values, uttered by the main protagonist’s feckless brother (I am very familiar with this period as well as with the history of the Middle-ages). The story comes to a complete halt in chapter 16 with a tale about the old Italian aristocrat’s trip to Sumatra in an attempt to debunk Darwin’s theory by capturing and killing orang-utans. The sex scenes are also rather schematic and adolescent, with the central character portrayed as not much more than a naïve puppy of a teenager seduced by the stereotypical, sex hungry middle-aged Italian woman inn keeper (this image is as old as the one of all French women wearing frilly suspenders and using a handkerchief in lieu birth control).
It is very disappointing to find this book, and most of all Mark Mills’ writing of it praised to high heaven by reviewers of reputable magazines and newspapers. Surely they can’t all be his friends or former Cambridge buddies? I am forever on the hunt for authors who write really well – I learn a lot from them, both in what to do and what they don’t do well – so despite my qualms, and as I never want to dismiss an author who did win the award for best debut novel with The Whaleboat House, I am about to start reading the latter to see what all the fuss was about. When an author is over-praised it can often back-fire. The original talent becomes corrupted by the pressures of turning out a quickly penned follow-up bestseller (as it happened with the author of Child 44). Or there are huge pressures to write adaptations for the large or small screen, something that almost ruined once golden boy of all New York, Paul Auster, as well as the phenomenal plotter and supreme master of the German language, Patrick Süskind of Perfume fame.
I have only just realised that some time ago I read Mills’s House of the Hanged but stopped reading it after getting annoyed by the rather cardboard characterisation of the main protagonist’s relationship with his step daughter in a scene of something to do with playing tennis. Reviewing The Savage Garden a reader said that it was so flat it could have been written from a travel guide to historic Italian gardens. While I don’t agree with him/her, I think that it appears that, at most, a couple of day’s roaming in such a garden, (and there are many in Italy, I worked in Venice a couple of times) could have given rise to this book. The other rather strange thing is that the book is set around San Casciano, a rural area near Florence where the real-life and gruesome murders of the notorious Monster of Florence took place. From the 1980s onwards a yet officially unidentified killer or killers ritually murdered around 18 people, mostly young couples of lovers, leaving them lying at the edge of vineyards in full view, the young women with their sexual organs sliced out. So with the author finding himself in the very same village it is not hard to imagine that he envisaged murderous intrigues lurking between the idyllic Tuscan vines.
Some may wonder why I get so annoyed with some books – it is simply because I think many writers these days get praise when it is not due – see my other reviews on my website or on Amazon.
NEW REVIEW : JULY 2014 ROUSSEAU’S DOG by David Edmonds and John Eidinow ****
David Edmonds and John Eidinow’s book about these two 18th century philosophers is not about philosophy or the two men’s philosophical clash. It is the very human and very public quarrel of two diametrically opposed characters, David Hume, the practical and Rousseau, a man torn by his emotions. The title Rousseau’s Dog is not to be taken at face value – people hoping to read a nice story about a dog will be disappointed, though I can’t imagine that anyone with a notion who either man was, would expect this. Here the actual dog is Sultan, the creature Rousseau cared about and loved more than people. Anyone who has ever had a dog will know that dogs have a natural capacity for unquestioning loyalty – and they don’t doubt, criticise, desert or answer back. But here there are perhaps two other dogs that come into play. David Hume, or Le Bon David as his adoring French supporters christened him, was pressured into helping Rousseau flee to England, thus making Hume into his servant/dog. The other dog of course is what Churchill called his ‘black dog’, or bouts of deep depression. Rousseau certainly was a manic depressive, and increasingly paranoid. No doubt the persecution he suffered both in Switzerland, as well as in France for his revolutionary ideas expressed in his writings made it impossible for him to ever trust a single human being again. Whilst in England, and living in self-imposed isolation, he was torn hither and thither by his overactive imagination and moods. To find that Hume had all his mail intercepted, opened and often not passed on to Rousseau would drive anyone to suspect a plot – whether in the 18th or the 21st century. Le Bon David Hume, in awe of and fearing Rousseau’s brilliant power with the pen, feared the loss of his hard-won status and gradually began to spread false rumours which showed his increasing insecurity, all the while taking on airs of the wronged benefactor. For a great man and a great mind, who, on first knowing Rousseau behaved like a star-struck teenager, the life-long bachelor Hume did himself no favours by resorting to petty subterfuge.
Some of the most telling details in this book come from Rousseau’s passion for nature and his personal relationship with a scullery maid who bore him five children and who remained by his side until he died. It perfectly illustrates the longing for a simple life after fame has struck – like a rock star who cannot cope with fame, the fame many aspire to, but when it explodes it cannot be undone.
Anyone with even a slight notion of the 18th century Enlightenment period will find Voltaire’s poisonous quips occasionally cropping up. D’Alemenbert and Diderot, the two men imprisoned for publishing one of the greatest encyclopedias ever, also appear as Rousseau’s friends and the great time of the salons littéraires in the Republic of Letters come to life here. David Edmonds and John Eidinow’s book is a great read.
March 2014 – AN OFFICER AND A SPY by Robert Harris ***** (six stars if I could)
The Dreyfus affair, as it became known, has been like a hard stone in the shoe of the French conscience. I cannot remember any time during my childhood in France not hearing about it. Whether this was out of a deep shame that such an injustice could ever have occurred in France or whether it was because in the end Dreyfus was simply ‘pardoned’, as if he had committed the crime of treason after all. He was convicted and sent to Devil’s Island on the forged evidence of a single piece of paper.
Alfred Dreyfus’ ordeal was unimaginable. He was kept in irons on Devil’s Island, enduring years of not being allowed to exchange a word with his guards, boxed in like a rat in a trap, not to speak of ill health and malaria. The French Army chiefs simply wanted him to die. Whether today’s French teenagers are still told about him I cannot say as I have lived in England for the last ten years. The case was one that broke France, perhaps even more than the thousands of crimes of collaboration under the German occupation.
In J’ACCUSE, Emile Zola’s open letter to the president which occupied the entire front page of the daily L’AURORE on the 13th January 1898, Emile Zola reasons that the top generals decided (on the basis of this single telegram, later proved to be forged) that Dreyfus ‘must have been’ the traitor. From then on all other army ranks had to obey. The French army, Zola wrote, is based on obedience, therefore it becomes impossible to contradict or question a superior officer. The supreme chiefs and of the ministry of war of the army had decided Dreyfus ‘must be guilty’, everyone else was then under the obligation to furnish whatever proof the chiefs wanted to see, even if it was fabricated. For the French secret services from thereon it was an impossible scenario – if a little ‘Jew’ (their words), whose reserved manner did not make him a very likeable character was declared innocent, then the entire top echelons of the army and the ministry of war were guilty. To make it worse, many of Dreyfus’ family members found themselves in German territories after the annexation of the Alsace.
Zola was fined and jailed for a year for libel for making the information public. Even at the very last moment, at the end of the retrial of Dreyfus, when the truth was finally coming out and the army chiefs resigned, retired or suddenly died, a gunman was hired to assassinate Dreyfus’ lawyer in order to prevent him from cross-examining General Mercier, the Minister of War.
Robert Harris retraces the story of Colonel Georges Picquart. Picquart was the only man who followed his conscience. It earned him banishment to the Tunisian colony, an attempted posting into Bedouin rebel territory from which no white man emerged alive, a succession of spells in prison, but he held firm. Had he been assassinated as soon as he discovered the truth the world would never have known about the false conviction of Dreyfus. In essence it is a story of a whistle blower. It proves that at times it takes one, and only one man, to have the courage to say: Stop, this is morally and legally indefensible. And here Edward Snowdon comes to mind ….
Harris’ book is an enthralling read. It is very personal story involving the reader from the outset in the twists and turns of Picquart’s undercover investigation and the dangers it brings with it. The Dreyfus story is as relevant today as it was in 1894. Some of the forged evidence was not revealed until 2003! One is left wondering why people have not learned the most basic lesson when it comes to information – that it can be suppressed for a time, but not forever. Even in Ecco’s Name of the Rose the church forbade certain books on laughter and humour of all things and even then it was impossible to suppress information. The only difference is that in the 13th century, as in the 19th, it just took longer than in our internet, social media world.
March 2014 – VIENNESE ROMANCE by David Vogel * for the book – **** for Vogel’s poems which unfortunately do not appear in this book
I hope great hopes for this novel. I partially grew up in Vienna, know it well with all its mixture of culture left over from its imperial days. Unfortunately, the foreword is the most interesting bit. The story is that of one Michael Rost and his rather lukewarm love longings/ affairs. A never ending list of characters come onto the scene like stereotypical cardboard cut-outs, few of which are crucial to the story. With a city which is one of the most multi-faceted in central Europe, the hero of the story seems to barely leave the famous Ring boulevard and a few unnamed cafés. At times I even wondered whether this had been written in Vienna at all.
It is understandable that the Gnazim archive in Tel Aviv would want to bring David Vogel to a larger public, but it might have done better to publish more of his poems. A biography of Vogel might have been a better read.As a writer and a reader I make the distinction between a fascinating and tragic life story and an unsatisfactory work of fiction. In a good novel every single character has to be there for a good reason; it demands a plot, fully explorer characters and a satisfactory resolution at the end.
David Vogel appears to have been a restless character, not only in failing to finish his novels. Like his character Rost in this book, he seemed to be drifting without a plan and this, in Vogel’s real life, proved to be his undoing. His need to constantly move on, from Ukraine to Vienna, from there to Tel Aviv, to Berlin and Paris, where he was arrested by the Nazis and sent Auschwitz where he died.
THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PYJAMAS by John Boyne – – – – – 0 stars
It was with utter relief that I read David Cesarani’s review of The Boy in the Striped Pyjama’s. Finally, someone has called a spade a spade. There has always been a reluctance to criticise books written about the holocaust. It remains an almost off-limit subject. Criticism is often too easily construed as being either anti-semitic or holocaust denial.
When it came out the book received huge publicity by both publisher and in the book trade, but when I read it I became angry. It read like a poor attempt at a fairy tale.
I come from a European family. My father’s family was torn by political battles. Between siblings committed communists, socialists and enthusiastic Nazi’s (mostly the girls and women) undermined each other and, in 1945, denounced each other. My mother’s side was part Hungarian/Romanian. My aunt’s Polish-Jewish mother committed suicide in 1942 in Berlin with the help of her daughter, her son-in-law and a Berlin hospital doctor in a bid to avoid a frail 72-year old woman being transported to Theresienstadt and from there to Auschwitz and straight into the gas chamber. Had they been caught they would all have been shot – the Gestapo toured hospital wards, dragged suspected suicides from their beds and shot them and anyone who had assisted their failed suicide. All this I found in my aunt’s account, written in secret in 1943, after her mother’s suicide.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas made me angry for a number of reasons. The boy in the book is supposed to be nine, but the author gives him the reasoning of a four year old, of the type that asked a one legged man why he got rid of his other leg. It’s the sort of thing four-year kids ask, but no nine year old would have been unaware of the misery of his so called play mate in the camp. To argue that the book was intended to be a fable is ludicrous and no defense for the bad writing of dialog or characters. The events that took place in the concentration camps were so unimaginable that to try to add to them in this way is bordering on the indecent.
I have also seen the film, which was better balanced, but not much better.
The wives of high ranking Nazis, as shown in the film, savoured the life of luxury, the privileges and the status. They chose not to look and not to see. If they showed dissent, they were banished from the families for fear of endangering their husband’s career – or indeed his life. Many Nazi men were devoted fathers. Their children were their pride and joy, but also their capital – the more the better, as it demonstrated an active contribution to the survival of the aryan race. The children however, and I know this from my father, were so thoroughly brainwashed in their schools, that even the most high-ranking parents did not dare voice any dissent in front of them for fear of being reported to the authorities by their own children, some no older than eight or nine. Children were also coerced by their Hitlerjugend leaders to divulge what was being said around the dinner table at home. In this respect, the author has distorted the reality of Nazi Germany, and its children in particular, to an unforgiveable degree.
The holocaust is not a subject that lends itself to fairy tales. A fable? It sounds like a feeble excuse, an afterthought, a justification for writing a story which doesn’t stand up.
THE BOXER AND THE GOALKEEPER: Sartre vs Camus by Andy Martin *
I wasn’t expecting a book about Sartre’s boxing career, nor about Camus’ prowess. Having been educated in France and aware of the Existentialists from a young teen-age, I had great hopes for this book, but…
The book, by its cover – hard, pugilistic, with echoes of Russian Futurist graphics. By its notes, as well as the author’s biography on the back flap, (making him sound like a kind of Hunter S. Thompson or a `philosophy warrior’) promises to be very readable. Not so. It felt more like staggering through the undergrowth of a wood after a great storm – in knee-deep snow.
It is undoubtedly a fastidious analysis of the two men, very revealing about Sartre, but also about the author. Having read most of both Sartre’s and Camus’ work in French I found a British author trying to trump what French intellectuals do to excess – analysing everything to destruction. Martin has shredded the innards of both men’s work and then introduced his own philosophical speculations – the book is really about him displaying how many philosophers’ names and quotes he can cram in. A colleague of mine, a former student of Andy Martin, describes the book as ‘lazy work’. There is no doubt that the author has a vast knowledge of the subject, but he seems unconcerned about communicating it to a slightly wider audience which may not be have his encyclopaedic knowledge when it comes to listing philosophers.
What Martin has produced reminds me of little boys who gape at the beauty of a dragon fly and then proceed to dismember it to see what makes it so beautiful.
Sartre, who said `l’enfer, c’est les autres’ (Hell is others or `hell is other people’) is portrayed as many French readers have perceived him – a monstrous, envious, scheming and destructive man, driven by his own inability to overcome his unfortunate appearance. He was his own hell, unable to live life in a true, human way. Did he really pose the question `What is the meaning of skiing?’ Perhaps he did. That question, utterly devoid of a basic understanding of what it is to be alive, made me truly sorry for him, perhaps for the first time.
Camus, who comes across as infinitely human, said that `it is possible to be too intelligent ….’ and that sums up how I feel about this author and this book.
On page 94 Martin cites the problem of `An academic trying to be a novelist. Some indefinable obstacle prevents the reader in participating… (!) Perhaps this remarks was the author’s unintentional self-diagnosis.
Perhaps this book was really written for those students who already whisper Martin’s name in awe.
NEW REVIEW – OCTOBER 2013
THE SPECTRE OF ALEXANDER WOLF by Gaito Gazdanov / Pushkin Press *****
Seduced by the exceptional visual and tactile quality of both design and paper I picked up this small book by instinct, knowing nothing at all about its author. It was the kind of experience one can only have in a bookshop while browsing. I would never have discovered this book or its author; no amount of imaging or blurb on the net would have had the same response from a book buyer.
Gaito Gazdanov wrote in Russian. He fled his homeland, landing in Paris after having fought with the White Army aged just sixteen. This novel felt a little more like a short story which had been expanded, but it is none the worse for it. At no point does the author allow the tension to drop. A young Russian soldier roams aimlessly across the battlefields of the Russian steppes. A lone rider shoots his horse. Delirious from heat, thirst and exhaustion, he in turn shoots the enemy soldier and rides off on the latter’s white stallion. Years later he finds the exact account of his ‘murder’, retold by an apparently English author by the name of Alexander Wolf. Is this a coincidence or did the man survive the shooting and has changed his name? The search to meet the author begins.
Gazdanov’s life as a refugee in Paris in the 1920s brought long periods of unemployment, sleeping on park benches or in the Metro. When he finally became a night time taxi driver he had the money and time to attend lectures at the Sorbonne and write in the daytime; he quickly became part of the Paris literary scene.
Bryan Karetnyk’s translation of the Russian original could not be better. It is sensitive, thoughtful, lyrical and precise. Gazdanov was a fan of Nabokov long before the latter became famous so it comes a no surprise that one finds an echo of Nabokov who had also fled Russia after the defeat of the White Army in1919. I could well imagine that a good translation into German would have similarities with the beauty of Hermann Hesse or Patrick Suskind’s writing; a good translation into French might bear some resemblance to the best of Proust
This is not ‘a page-turner’ in the usual sense – one turns the pages long after one had meant to close the book to get on with one’s own life. Nor is it a crime novel, rather the story of a predestined killing.
ROOM by Emma Donoghue ****
ROOM is a story that will wake you in the middle of the night and you will ask yourself;’What if this had happened to me?’ The most scary discovery for me was the fact that the abductor had planned the room in all it’s minute and evil detail – surrounding the entire prison with unbreakable wire mesh, including under the floor boards. It was this that kept me from sleeping.
The strange and beautiful perception of language of the five year-old is superbly handled. It is funny, touching, heart-breaking in its simplicity and child logic. ‘Ma’, with her boundless creativity in how to organise their days within the confines of their small prison, is what keeps them alive. One reads this book, hoping almost against hope that they will be saved.
But why, oh why, do some write at length in their ‘reviews’, giving away a book’s resolution. A review should never recount the whole story line, thus taking away the opportunity for new readers to discover the book for themselves.
What all the reviewers seem to have missed so far is that the story is not only about heroic mothering, it is ultimately about trust, a child’s trust and the eventual hard road to un-learning to trust in the real world.
Strangely, I have been unable to chuck this book onto my basement pile which is taken away periodically. The book has stayed on my bedside table, as if in some strange way the child still needed watching over.
TOMMY GLOVER’S SKETCH OF HEAVEN by Jane Bailey *****
Jane Bailey writes beautifully about how children reason in difficult times. The language of the eight year-old evacuated girl made me laugh out loud. But she writes equally movingly about Tommy Glover’s life in the orphanage, where cruel adults exercise their authority and cover up their own evil doings by performing charitable acts – it is eerily reminiscent of the recent scandals involving vulnerable children. I will not give away the ultimate dramatic resolution of the plot. Read this book!
TRAVELS IN BLOOD AND HONEY: Becoming a Beekeeper in Kosovo,by Elizabeth Gowing *****
is an outstanding book, from the point of view of the quality of the writing as well as its unusual premise. From the minute you start reading you’re dying to know more about the people Elizabeth Gowing meets in Kosovo, a country which is still rough around the edges and sometimes rough in the middle too. Her experiences with the people of all walks of life, from diplomats to farmers wives who don’t seem to have learnt how to read, are never described with anything but respect and wonder – there isn’t a hint of either a patronising or condescening tone.
In reading the book I have rationed myself – I consume one chapter at the time as each one feels as satisfying as a good meal. And that is not even talking about her wonderful descriptions of learning how to keep bees.
SHE’S LEAVING HOME by Joan Bakewell 0 star
I read this book, or rather I forced myself it to read it to the end, more out of duty to Joan Bakewell than anything else. With her record I thought she might come up with something fascinating at the end, but no such luck. The book, from the first chapter is thoroughly BORING. Its attempt to paint a picture of innocence coupled with extreme good luck (the girl Martha, after a tepid home life in which nothing at all happens, finds herself embraced by a group of people who are all sweet and kind and caring). I am exactly of that generation, 17 and in London in 1963. All the characters are irritatingly limp. I think the problem is that Joan was actually not of that generation – she was born in 1933, not in 1945 or 1946. She is the Pre-War generation, not a Baby-boomer. She might just about have made the Beatnik phase which preceded ours.
By the time the `Sixties’ happened she was 30, nearly twice our age – in our eyes that was old. To us, at that time, anyone over the age of 25 bopping around the clubs in a mini skirt looked ever so slightly sad in their desperation to be ‘with it’. And that is the problem – she wrote this story as an observer, not as a participant. The ’60s were a time of unbridled energy, anyone intellectualising it was not really part of it.
I have huge respect and liking for Joan Bakewell and admire her work, but at least for this book, I must say that she is no novelist. If you want to know about a young girl’s life in the early sixties, see Lynn Barber’s wonderful An Education.
What makes me quite angry is that this book is published because ‘a name’ wrote it, not because it is a good story well told. Agents and publishers turn down much better books, simply because authors are not household names
ANY HUMAN FACE by Charles Lambert 0 stars
Not what it says on the box. The blurb, cover and author’s credentials promise a good and intriguing thriller set in the complicated and corrupt Italian society. It starts well, but then gets bogged down in the complications of sad and lonely homosexual relationships, or lack of them. Anyone not overly fond of gays will have many of their prejudices confirmed – that gay men go from one sexual adventure to another, solely based on trivialities such as man’s cute appearance, performance in bed and Tin Tin hairdos (a silly detail that Lambert returns to again and again). This is a very one-sided portrayal of gay men in my experience. Even though much of the book is written with touching sensitivity, it doesn’t compensate for the absence of a story well put together.
The author seems to forget that he set out to write a story about crimes committed. Nothing is resolved as it should be in a good thriller, or even a moderate one. One is left with a feeling of sadness for the existence of gay men. One begins to suspect, perhaps wrongly, that the book is largely autobiographical, as it endlessly wallows in the characters’ thoughts and ever more complex emotions. There is nothing wrong with wanting to write a book with an agenda to portray this kind of life, but then don’t promise a thriller.
I suspect the real fault lies with the marketing by the publisher, so one should not attach too much blame to the author. Nevertheless, given that Charles Lambert writes so well, he should have been able to exercise sufficient objectivity, as any reasonable author should, to control the arc of his novel. Agents and publishers reject so many novels, it’s a mystery how this one got through. I suspect they read the first two chapters only.