Babel, Isaac: Odessa Stories

So were gathered together our group, perhaps with “spectacles on their nose, and autumn in their hearts’, as Jewish intellectuals were characterized by Isaac Babel in his book of short stories. These were written mostly in the 1920s and the edition we had in front of us was translated by Boris Dralyuk, known professionally by the proposer. His translation was generally considered superior to previous attempts. Indeed, the proposer substantiated this view by reading comparative packages from the earlier translation by Macduff. The earlier version seemed too literal, missing the feel of the original Russian in the proposer’s opinion. In particular, the audience noticed the superior dialogue which gave a much better rendering of the Jewish vernacular.  

We had a sustained discussion of the validity of the American colloquialisms to reinforce the texture and nuances of the plot. “All right. You got words. Spill” (Benja Krik in the King). “The chief, he got all the cops together …” and so on. On balance, the jury was split, with the majority perhaps favouring the transposition to low-life American. (See comments on Runyan below.)

Having visited the city as a tourist fairly recently, the proposer also wondered that the author and translator had been very successful in capturing the ‘tone’ of early 20th century life in Odessa. Arguably, port cities have a particular culture, maybe due to a strong itinerant population. Sometimes, there is a sense of lawlessness as in these stories. Think of Marseille as depicted in “The French Connection”. This book is centred on the Jews and their ability to rule the city through a gangster culture, portrayed in Odessa with a distinct mentality. Before WW2 it was permissible to depict the Jews as violent gangsters capable of random violence.

Babel was regarded as one of the most important authors in post-revolution Russian literature. He was brought up in Jewish community, and was interested in the art of the short story. Particular cited influences included Kipling, and Maupassant, as serenaded in the sketch of Odessa near the end of the book. He is the intellectual perhaps personified in the schoolboy. Although written in the first person, they are only semi-autobiographical and he has moved the elements about to make it work.

With a background in journalism, these could perhaps be considered as sketches rather than stories, and the parallel with Dickens’ observations of London life were noted. Babel fought in the Red Cavalry, and had an ambition to be a Soviet writer, but it is clear that his subject matter, sometimes satirical, did not endear him to the authorities.

The book was open to general discussion. All concurred with the quality of the dialogue, and loved some of the descriptive text, for example the descriptions of the sky, of the sun (“!a piece of jam”, “a decapitated head”). In Odessa he talks of the need for the sun, and of Gorky’s love of the sun, whereas people in Nizhny Novgorod etc. are flabby, heavy … incomprehensible, touching and immensely, stupefyingly annoying.

The characters were well drawn, with a real feeling of underclass. The similarities with Damon Runyan were noted by several readers, but I fear the MBG were not the first to observe this! However, Runyon could be considered a comic writer, Babel less so although “The End of the Almshouse” in particular is darkly comic. At least one of us dug out his copy of ‘Runyon on Broadway’ and tried to make a direct comparison. In general, he felt that the stories were also less well plotted than Runyon, and is some cases the motives and outcomes were not clear, for example in the killing of Froim the Rook after conflict with the Cheka or secret police.  On the contrary some said, this encapsulated the random nature of the Odessan violence. Another point of difference from Runyan was the greater emphasis on casual, random violence, as in the instance above when Froim is killed for no strong, apparent motive.

Strong socio-economic clashes were brought out so well in Babel’s text, again notably in the story of the Almshouse. “We’ve crushed the Tsars.. no more Tsars, no-one gets a coffin”. Alas, someone does get the coffin. And so the Department of Communal Economy reorganizes the cemetery and organizes their attack against the Burial Brotherhood who made a few coins by use of their coffin for hire.

A comment was made on ethnic characteristics, always a bit risky these days. He drew the co-occurrence between the many red-headed characters that were Jews and Scots. For example, Babel refers memorably to the “bosun, a pillar of red meat, overgrown with red hair”.

We further complimented the descriptive prose; the book’s strengths lay not only in the dialogue. For example, “their journey took them down a joyless, scorched, rocky road, past mud-brick shanties, past fields smothered by stones past houses gutted by shells, and past the plague mound” or “the whistle of asthma, the wheeze of submission escaped from the chests of retired cantors, wedding jesters, circumcision cooks and spent sales clerks”. This is powerful stuff!

Oh well. Having concentrated to a greater degree than is perhaps usual on the book in hand, without too much digression on historical inaccuracies or perverse analogies, it was left to X to introduce a note of trivia. Did we know that Efrem Zimbalist Senior, the Russian violinist mentioned in “The Awakening”, was the proud father of Efrem Zimbalist Junior who appeared in 77 Sunset Strip. No we did not! Subsequent browsing suggested that Junior was even held up as a role model for real FBI employees. Hmm, and you’ll be telling me next the actor who almost got the part of  Rick in Casablanca (played by Bogart) became President of the United States. Then you’ll be telling me that a reality TV …. (Leave it there! Ed.)

Finally, there was a discussion on women’s’ versus men’s’ versus mixed book groups. I don’t recall all the main issues but I do know we did a straw poll on how many male and female authors we have read. If you want to know the answer, it is easy. Just look at our index of authors.

We had now left the text completely. We realized it was time to home.


Endo, Shusaku: Silence:

“Religion is the root of all evil”. A view proffered by one member of the monthly book group as it met to discuss Shusaku Endo’s book, “Silence.”

This controversial statement dominated the evening’s discussion and the group’s attempts to understand and appreciate the complicated themes tackled in Endo’s novel.

The host and proposer of the book provided a brief introduction, making the connections between Endo’s upbringing, his personal experiences and the novel.

Born in Tokyo in 1923, Endo’s mother converted to Catholicism and had him baptized. He found himself in a tiny minority of Catholics in Japan His commitment was not strong but his interest in 20th Century Catholic fiction led him to study French Catholic novelists at Keio University in the late 1940’s and to enroll in the University of Lyon to continue his studies. On returning to Japan his writings addressed the difficulty of reconciling the contradictions within Japanese culture with Christian ideology.

He contracted tuberculosis while abroad and had a lung removed. Endo described faith as being as awkward as a forced marriage and as uncomfortable as a Western suit of clothes.

“Silence” is considered by many to be Endo’s masterpiece. It deals directly with the religious concerns, which plagued his entire life. He died, aged 73, in 1996.

It has been described as “ one of the twentieth century’s finest novels” and received the “Tanizaki Prize in 1966. A film based on the book, directed by Martin Scorsese, was released in 2016.

Endo’s novel is set in 17th century Japan, a country that had initially embraced Christianity through the efforts of Saint Francis Xavier and had now outlawed it. The plot is based on the attempt by two young Portuguese Jesuits to encourage and support those remaining believers in the brutally hostile environment generated by the politics of the time.

Father Rodrigues and Father Francisco Garppe travel to Japan where they find the local Christian population driven underground. Suspected Christians were forced to renounce their faith by trampling on an image of Christ (a fumie ) or be imprisoned, tortured and killed. The two priests are forced to look on as other Christians are tortured and are told that all they need do is renounce their faith in order to end the suffering of their flock.

Rodrigues struggles to come to terms with the suffering of his fellow Christians. Suffering which he can bring to an end by apostatizing. He is also tormented by Christ’s silence. Despite his pleadings and prayers and the torture and persecution he witnessed, God remains silent.

The group discussed the historical context. The Shimabara rebellion signaled a tightening of Japan’s national seclusion policy and the officially endorsed persecution of Christianity.

It was suggested that the Japanese chose to end relations with the Portuguese and Spanish because the evangelizing of Catholicism undermined the authority of the then government and threatened it’s wider trading ambitions. This was debated and led to the suggestion that deeper cultural factors were involved in the eventual expulsion of the Europeans.

The discussion focused on the groups understanding of Japanese culture, it’s apparent contradictions and how these manifested themselves in the novel. The traditions of honour and politeness contrasted with a reputation for brutality, cruelty and aggression. The use of torture as a means of both physical and mental torment juxtaposed with the caring and sharing attitude of many of the books characters.

The group returned to the topic of religion, exploring its impact on society over the ages for both good and bad. Providing a moral framework for people, bringing them together on the one hand and inspiring conflict on the other. It was pointed out that throughout the centuries people of various religions persecuted and killed people of other religions. Typically unproven belief is stated as factual by many religions and taken to extremes by some followers motivated by their belief that their religion is the “true” religion

It was suggested that faith is not a way of understanding the world but stands in opposition to science and scientific method and as a result is divisive and dangerous.

Comparison was made with secular ideologies. While it was asserted that religion or religious disagreements were directly and indirectly the cause of conflict and were responsible for the deaths of countless millions it was also pointed out that Marxism as practiced in many dictatorships and to a lesser extent Facism and Natzism were also responsible for the death and suffering of many millions of people.

This debate about the worth of religion over the ages was temporarily postponed while further consideration was given to the novel.

Endo’s narrative technique of presenting the first half of the novel as if it were written by Rodrigues in letter form and then switching by adopting a third person perspective was considered to be a clever device. It was thought to help to build the reader’s interest, their care for the wellbeing of the central character and to intensify the sense of loneliness and isolation in a foreign land. It was also thought that it added suspense and uncertainty to the fate of Rodrigues’s who struggles to hold on to his faith and is driven to question the very existence of god.

“ He had come to this country to lay down his life for other men but instead of that the Japanese were laying down their lives for him.”

It was thought that while this narrative device strengthened the novel, it resulted in a lack of dialogue and consequently no alternative points of view were forthcoming. It was thought that this was both limiting and challenging for the reader.

The vivid descriptions of the environment; at certain times peaceful and serene and at other times threatening and foreboding; alternatively representing the presence and absence of God were much admired.

Endo’s many references to Judas throughout the text interested the group. Rodrigues missionary to Japan was motivated by the news that his mentor, Father Ferriera, had denounced his faith and apostatized, as a result, he was considered to have betrayed his faith. The character of Kitchijiro is also presented as a betrayer and carries a strong Judas likeness but as the plot unfolds it is Rodrigues himself who, by committing apostasy and being complicit in the persecution of the faithful, takes on the mantle of Judas. Just before he tramples the fumie God’s voice tells Rodrigues.

“For Judas was in anguish as you are now”

Endo’s clever use of these characters to explore whether betrayal is ever justified or can be justified within Christianity was one of the many greatly admired features of the novel

Rodrigues had doubts about his faith almost immediately after he arrived in Japan and Endo skillfully built on these doubts using the silence of God to further undermine his beliefs.

The realization that Christ had never been silent but that the internally conflicted Rodrigues had had “no ears to hear or eyes to see.” brought focus to the novels central exploration of who God is.

Silence enables the freedom of choice and it is this that Endo tries to reconcile.

The debate about religion continued. Members of the book group have diverse religious beliefs. Christian, Roman Catholic, Humanist, Agnostic, and Atheist. Some appeared apathetic. A significant number are scientists by profession whose training and experience are based on analytic thinking. The synergy, or lack of synergy between Science and Religious belief has been much discussed. Some suggested that  intuitive thinkers are more likely to be religious but that getting them to think analytically can weaken their belief.

It follows that they brought a skeptical view to the conversation on religion. The need to find evidence to prove or disprove ideas about religion or the existence of a god or gods was considered essential by some. However it was one of those scientists who suggested that it was important to retain an open mind. He reminded us that not too long ago people believed that the world was flat. Scientific evidence proved otherwise; demonstrating that what might be considered unlikely or inconceivable today might be evidenced in the future. The fact that there is little evidence presently available to support the existence of God does not mean that God does not exist.

The group concluded that while “ Silence “ was not a comfortable read it was intensely moral, challenging and thought provoking. It proved to be a catalyst for sharing diverse views on religion. It raised profound questions about faith and culture. About the differences between East and West and the never-ending debate about who or what God is. Perhaps the application of science will confirm the existence of a “divine creator” but not in my time.

Goldacre, Ben: Bad Science

Ben Goldacre is a British physician, academic and writer.  From 2003 to 2011 he wrote a science column, ‘Bad Science’ in The Guardian.  The book was published in 2008.

The proposer had the book lying unread on his shelves for some years and in response to the repeated urgings of his daughter, a research scientist in the fields of immunology and cancer, had finally got around to reading it.  Himself a scientist, he found that it brought to light some issues – about medical research in particular – of which he had been previously unaware.

The group’s responses to the book were predominantly positive, but one member of the group (another scientist) had once shared a stage with the author and found him somewhat overly confident and assertive about his opinions – perhaps even untrustworthy.

However, there was little disagreement with the fundamental argument of the book, which identified problems in the ways that the media presented science to a lay audience, and attacked various branches of pseudo-science such as homeopathy, the cosmetics industry and nutritionists.

Our conversation about the book tended to the diffuse and anecdotal rather than the taking of positions and counter-positions.  This blog can only take the form of a rather undifferentiated list of some of the things that cropped up.

The BBC Radio Four programme ‘More or Less’ was praised for its critiques of data used by politicians and others to justify their views.  Like Goldacre, the programme’s approach is to question the exact methodology lying behind tendentious statistics and factoids.

It was pointed out by a doctor among our number that in spite of the comprehensive refutation of the science behind doubts of the MMR vaccine’s safety, the issue has refused to die away.  Non-scientists continue to stir up trouble (vide Donald Trump tweet from March 2014:  “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!”) (Goldacre quoted another writer’s definitions of lying, truth-telling, and bullshitting, and we agreed that Trump was the perfect incarnation of the bullshitter).

The recent furore over the Volkswagen emission trials was discussed.  The trials results were reported as ‘cheating’ in the media.  It was suggested that if real drivers could drive in the efficient manner of the software running the engines during the trials, then the same results could be obtained.  Were the low emissions reported actually ‘cheating’?

The conventional media are the chief target of Goldacre’s criticisms.  One of our group had discovered the practice of paying for articles in colour supplements and advised against considering any information from such sources as reliable.  Personal experience with The Times on an issue had convinced him that the broadsheets were as culpable as the tabloids in conveying misinformation.  However, he admitted that The Guardian had so far not disappointed him, in that although guilty of occasional factual errors, it did not seem to have descended to outright mendaciousness on any issue of which he had knowledge.

We agreed that contemporary social media also offered infinite examples of the abuse and distortion of information. 

Richard Dawkins and George Monbiot were quoted as good writers who, like Goldacre, set out to upset and confound their opponents.  It made for engaging writing when someone had an axe to grind and wrote with a kind of controlled fury.  However, it was pointed out that such writers, including Goldacre, were not above using the wiles of rhetoric in making themselves persuasive.  On the other hand, one of our group defended his capacity for making decisions on the basis of facts and statistics, unswayed by rhetoric.

Our doctor mentioned the medical writings of Richard Asher (1912-1969) as being superior to those of Goldacre.

We discussed various science and history pundits on television.  The importance of public understanding of science was agreed upon, but nevertheless some of these popularising figures were rather irritating.

It was mentioned that the website ‘Bad Science’ was still active and one of Goldacre’s current concerns was the use of statins.

In relation to Goldacre’s examples of challenging the proponents of bad science, the danger was that it could bring those very people into prominence, and thus legitimise their views.  It was felt that this was a particular difficulty for the BBC, with its obligation to provide ‘balanced’ coverage of issues.  The misinformation propagated by the ‘leave’ campaign during the run up to the Brexit referendum might have been a beneficiary of such ‘balance’.

One reader questioned whether there really was a ‘golden age’ of medical discoveries which is now over, as described by Goldacre.  Our scientists and our doctor concurred, but it was suggested that maybe we were now on the verge of a new period of medical advancement with gene therapy. Goldacre, writing in 2008, could not have been expected to go into this subject.

We liked Goldacre’s analysis of the positive effects – sometimes underestimated – of the placebo effect in making people feel better.  One of our scientists recounted his recent period of time in China.  Having a heavy cold, he was taken to a pharmacy in China where people lay on beds with drips attached.  Having talked his way out of this particular treatment, he was later persuaded by a well-meaning colleague to wear a microwave heated jacket for a morning… and subsequently felt much better!

It was pointed out that people often like to see a particular doctor – the placebo effect in operation.  Medicine is an art as well as a science.

Another member of the group suggested that universities seemed to be too keen to release information to the press.  This was in the context of hope-inspiring cancer treatments that later proved disappointing.  Those with experience of such matters identified a common process by which an academic publishes a peer reviewed paper, the public relations department at the university latches onto it and promotes it, and then the press exaggerates its significance.  Where precisely does the fault lie, we wondered, when the public is mislead on the significance of some scientific discovery?  The writing of the peer-reviewed paper was in itself an organisation and ordering of what one of our scientists described as ‘fumbling about in the lab’.  Our human cognitive proclivity for identifying patterns where none may exist could result in misleading conclusions.  Another reader raised the issue of the book’s title in this respect – ‘bad’ science could be inept or misleading (as in the research paper) or morally ‘bad’ (as in the distortions of the press).

The arguments of the book were felt to be applicable to many fields of human activity beyond medicine and science.  For example, people tend to become paternalistic and defensive about ideas that they have originated or to which they have tethered their reputation.

Discussion moved onto the general gullibility of people – for example the readiness of people in the mid twentieth century to have all their teeth removed because of the ‘superiority’ of dentures.

We wondered if the data that would emerge in due course would support the recent introduction of the 20mph speed limit in many parts of Edinburgh on safety grounds.

We were interested in how different health scares took hold in different countries.

We agreed that – in principle – we should trace back the information given in media sources to its origins.  Of course we don’t always have the time and motivation to do this, so we sometimes have to take the pronouncements of trusted sources at face value.

Discussion moved onto the current political campaign for the upcoming general election, and the statements made in the media.  For example, a nurse had been featured on television who used a food bank – presented as a disgraceful situation – but we wondered how food banks monitored the degree of need of their clients.  There was also a difference between the ‘average salary’ of a nurse, and the ‘average earnings’ of a nurse (taking into account overtime payments).

We then got onto the subject of the alleged decline of the Labour Party.

And then onto Economics.

And then onto Education.

And then onto Deep Learning (your correspondent had never heard of this).

By this time the room was in pitch darkness.  Our host groped his way to the light switch and we could all see who we had been talking to.  For this reason, or perhaps because we had now put the world completely to rights, we soon disbanded and made our way out into the gloaming.

Burnet, Graeme Macrae: His Bloody Project

There’s been a murder!

There’s been another murder!

There’s been a triple murder!

No, we hadn’t gathered together on an unseasonal April evening to discuss Taggart, the longest running crime drama on UK television, but the Scottish literary sensation shortlisted for the Booker prize of 2016. However, this was not so much a ‘whodunnit’ but rather a ‘whydunnit’ as the perpetrator was known from page one. Was Roddy Macrae guilty as charged or were his actions guided either by mental instability or somehow justified by the social conditions of his time? Told as a collection of unreliable accounts; from Roddy himself, his legal team, expert (or not so expert) medical witnesses, his neighbours in the village, and even the popular press, we were asked to assemble these disparate accounts to form an understanding of the mind of a murderer, of contemporary society, of the role of the media, of mid-19th century thinking on psychology and the vagaries of the Scottish legal system. Phew! Fortunately, your scribe had two bottles of Scottish ale with him to stimulate the ‘grey matter’.

Intent on preparing for the cut and thrust of literary discussion, and distracted in opening an ale, your scribe regained attention to find an animated discussion of hats. He recorded mention of stetsons, deerstalkers, panamas, fedoras, bowlers, a fez, top hats, berets, bobbles, flat caps and so it went on. Apparently hats “maketh the man”. (Shouldn’t that be manners? Ed.) One of our number was once known as ‘Digger’ because he had once worn an Australian hat (with corks?). I opened my copy of the book but couldn’t find the significance of hats in the plot or character development, so I wondered what prompted this debate. We moved ahead.

The proposer explained his book choice. Brought up in Dingwall and a frequent visitor to Applecross, he felt an affinity of place. His great grandfather worked as a ground officer on a large estate in Sutherland, a little bit like the constable. On a positive note he liked the layout of the book as found documents and the clever writing which made the events seem real. The characters came across strongly although some were possibly rather stereotyped. The description of the hard life of the crofters contrasted strongly with the privileged on the estate. With medical background, he enjoyed the seemingly accurate details of the post mortem and the discussion of criminal anthropology, a “science” which has since been discredited. In today’s milieu, he suggested that Roddy’s behaviour could have been seen as autistic. On the negative side, he thought some of the description of the murders overly detailed and macabre, the sexual mutilation sketched over. The beauty of the area wasn’t remarked – of course, we can enjoy the scenery on a fine day but it is a different proposition if one has to scrape a living from the poor land.

He also sketched a few details of GMBs life. Born in 1969 in Kilmarnock, he pursued a conventional middle class development to read English at Glasgow University In 1999 he took a degree in International Security Studies at St Andrews, but the seeds of creative writing had been sown.  Yet, when he won 2013 Scottish Book Trust New Writers award, he did not to take up their offer of mentoring, feeling he should develop his own ideas through His Bloody Project, his second novel. In interviews (e.g. Glasgow Herald) he has cited a debt to Simenon and acknowledges the influence of Kafka, (“There are no regulations. You might as well ask to see the air we breathe… The regulations exist because we all accept that they exist.”). He talks too of the similarities with Hogg (Confessions of a Justified Sinner) and of the influence of an 1835 French Murder (a Frenchman called Pierre Riviere, who brutally murdered his mother, his sister and brother with a pruning hook.

The floor was open to general discussion.

First, we echoed the proposer in praising the depiction of the hard existence in highland crofting communities, at the mercy of the weather, the poor soil, the laird, the church, permanently in rent arrears, the difficulty of creating, let alone profiting from selling excess produce. The local people of Culduie are ridiculed by the landed gentry at the local market and unfairly depicted as a sub-species by both the press and the medical profession. It is amusing, if not atypical, that the villagers of Culduie themselves find someone to look down on in the slovenly, wanton inhabitants of the shoreline village of Aird Dubh. We enjoyed the sparse, simple prose and felt the book gave psychological; and social insight into the mid-19th century highland land and living.

Criticisms started to emerge. First, one member talked of a recent Restoration murder mystery he had read in which a woman was accused of being both a murderer and a witch, “An Instance of the Fingerpost” set in Oxford in the 1660s by Iain Pears and published in 1988. Dealing with a similar theme, the difficulty of ascertaining the truth of an event through contradictory accounts and evidence,  he felt that HBP paled by comparison. He talked of the rather unappealing character of the father. He was disappointed that there was no twist in the tail, that there was no real development of plot ( … unlike Taggart which developed the same plot more than 100 times! Ed.). He found the prose dull and unremarkable. He quoted a review of the book he had found that complained of a miserable book describing miserable people in a miserable setting, leading cribbed and confined lives. While not going that far, he could see the reviewer’s point.  Finally he said he had trouble believing the crofter’s boy could write; this did not ring true. That Roddy can produce such a well written if unreliable document is surprising to many, and this view was reinforced by another member.

A rebuttal was attempted. Far from being a criticism, the success of the author in depicting such ‘miserable’ lives should be viewed as a success not a failure. Indeed, to the external observer the existence is miserable and certainly stripped to the bare bones when compared to a cosmopolitan existence in Edinburgh or even Inverness. Of course, our own perception of what is important in life may be viewed as arrogant in comparison with a more basic set of values. As regards the authenticity of the accounts, the device of unreliable narrator may be clichéd, but is Roddy capable of the narrative? This is an interesting point, despite the influence of the schoolmaster. However, the preface considers the point while maintaining the ‘faction’ that these are found documents – acknowledging that no-one actually saw Roddy write anything, and the possibility that Andrew Sinclair wrote or assisted in large part could not be dismissed. It is not just Roddy that displays unexpected talent. Indeed James Bruce Thomson is also rather taken with the charms of Carmina Murchison, “clearly a woman of some education”, perhaps acquired in Kyle of Lochalsh.

What of plot development and twists? Is the book dull? This raises interesting questions as to what extent an author should embellish the truth to improve such development; indeed, “embellishment” is a common complaint in recent UK TV dramas that relate to recent real events (e.g. ‘The Moorside’, shown in February 2017 to similar critical acclaim) but in these cases the living can contest it. Who complains of embellishment in “Wolf Hall”? Of course in this case, there is no real problem of altering facts as there are no facts. Hence, some of our number felt that the plot should have been strengthened while others felt that the illusion of fact was well maintained by the well written prose. The jury in Inverness may have decided Roddy’s fate, but the book club jury is still split.

Although our medical advisor was well content with the relevant research, our legal consultant was less pleased, citing major flaws in the handling of the defence and trial in particular. First, the exact designation of Andrew Sinclair was called into question. Referred to primarily as an advocate, e.g. in the opening line “I am writing this at the behest of my advocate, Mr Andrew Sinclair”, and hence able to represent his client in a high court in 1869, the letter of appeal for clemency is signed “Mr Andrew Sinclair esq., Solicitor to the Prisoner”. Is this a basic error by the author? There was some discussion of the use of the words advocate and solicitor in the more general sense, but this issue was not satisfactorily explained.

Further, he felt that the lack of preparedness of Andrew Sinclair with regard to his only witness’s testament fell somewhat short of professional standards. In mitigation, it was pointed out that this witness had a somewhat arrogant and opinionated view of lower classes, manifest in his visit to “the well” at Culduie, and might have been difficult to work with. Further, Mr Sinclair was hardly well practiced in cases of this magnitude. Certainly, the lawyer was not prepared, but is this not believable? Talking of alternative strategies, in addition to the issue of insanity, could he have better selected the jury and mounted a defence of mitigation based on social injustice? Whether such social injustice justifies violent action all too pertinent. Alas, the letter of clemency was too little, too late. There was also some discussion of the general preparedness of lawyers in general but to avoid litigation, we won’t record it!

We returned to the allegedly weak ending. Certainly, it lacked the aforementioned twist that is so often present in current crime writing, where obvious suspects are introduced then discarded until some previously unforeseen motive is suddenly introduced to explain the crime. Could there have been a more subtle twist based on his mental state or status as representative of his class? Should there have been a more subtle twist based on his mental state or status as representative of his class? The ‘contemporary’ witness statements, the prisoner’s account, the press cuttings, the medical evidence, all combine to paint an ambiguous picture of the accused. At the end, the verdict seems justified on the basis of the evidence, but the group remained split on whether the author had been too devoted to the “factual” narrative at the expense of suspense and surprise.

Our earliest critic added to his theme. There is no-one to care about in the book. He suggested that we can only empathise with characters that have some aspiration or goal. In real life, people do not always have aspirations. Roddy was seemingly content to live out his life tending to the croft, and had no apparent interest in pursuing a more enticing challenge through education, and had no real interest in going to Glasgow. None of the other characters seemed to seize the opportunity presented. Could this have been the start of a glittering change of career for Andrew Sinclair? This discussion seems to echo the ‘twist’ in that some thought the author was skillfully maintaining the illusion of a factual and accurate account and others thought he had a responsibility to add the extraordinary to the ordinary life to create outstanding literature.

Finally we turned to humour. Again some found it lacking, but others enjoyed the satirical portrayal of the various professions, e.g. the contrasting evidence of Munro and Thomson, and of the several journalists who seemed to like a drink, surely a savage libel on an honourable profession as anyone in Jinglin’ Geordie’s (an Edinburgh hostelry) will assure you on a Friday evening. The exchanges between Sinclair and the various witnesses in particular seemed often amusing. No? Not everyone was convinced. Roddy’s new companion, Archibald Ross is described as one whose appearance “caused a great deal of mirth” but on this at least we all agreed. We felt Ross was rather out of place in the general cast, although he would no doubt enliven the film version with his visual japes.

And so we concluded. A straw poll suggested two members very much in favour, three lukewarm (“I gave it three stars on GoodReads”) and one definitely against. Oh well, first there is a failure to win the Booker prize, then failure to achieve unanimous approbation from the Monthly Book Group. We look forward to the next novel.

Ferrante, Elena: My Beautiful Friend

My Brilliant Friend” was published in Italy in 2011 as  “La amica geniale” and published in English translation in 2012. It is the first of an enormously successful four part series known as the “Neapolitan Novels”, which followed a number of shorter novels in which Ferrante had honed her skills.

Flanked by an intimidating pile of Ferrante books, the proposer fessed up to having borrowed the first two novels from his wife when he ran out of reading material in Australia. Such was the grip of the Neapolitan novels that they bought the last two volumes when they reached Wellington.

He noted that, usually, when introducing books we say something about the author’s background. But ‘Elena Ferrante’ is a pseudonym. Ferrante holds that “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.” She argues that anonymity is a precondition for her work and that keeping her true name out of the spotlight is key to her writing process. “Once I knew that the completed book would make its way in the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume—as if the book were a little dog and I were its master—it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.”

Last year an Italian journalist claimed to have identified Anita Raja, a translator who lives in Rome, as Ferrante, based mainly on her recent high earnings and acquisition of real estate. This identification caused a storm of controversy, with many enthusiastic fans taking the view, shared by the proposer, that Ferrante was entitled to her anonymity.

We dwelt briefly on this aspect. We had no reason to question the motives that she (or, less plausibly, he) put forward for anonymity, but anonymity had some obvious other advantages. First, it meant that friends and neighbours were unlikely to take offence if they suspected they were the basis for an unsympathetic character. Secondly, it meant critics would not the classic mistake of trying to interpret the books by reference to her biography. And, thirdly, the mystery could only help to enhance the aura around the books.

Ferrante has said she considers the four books to all be part of a single novel. We examined the close-together dates of publication and concluded that she must have done all, or almost all, of the writing of the four books before the first one was published.

For the proposer this was a fantastic novel, with some major themes, such as the difficulties of bright working class children getting a good education, particularly girls in traditional societies. It was important to remember that the novel was set in the 1940s and 1950s. The theme of one bright girl getting a good formal education and the other not is worked out in the later books. The book was not just set in a temporal, but in a geographic and cultural context. Naples was the important geography, but the cultural was southern Italy, where routine violence, including within marriage, was endemic, and where private rules enforced by the Camorra were more powerful than public justice.

The difficult politics of Italy were brought out well, with the Fascists defeated but still influential and the Communists important. Changes in society were well illustrated as the books move through time to the present.

We then turned to some comments sent in from our correspondent in China. “A story about growing up, beautifully told. Many intertwined themes about the human condition. Tensions of the schooldays (I’d almost forgotten them, how a clever kid survives school). The distinctions between affection, infatuation, lust, love, friendship. Ambition that’s confused by immaturity. Contrast between the academic/spiritual and the materialistic mind-set.  Gender issues: boyishness and girlishness contrasted; how women are shaped by men and by the social structures around them; how women find it hard to be assertive. Why do boys have to fight. The social tensions between families – how people can’t cope with a simple wedding ceremony.

The book made me recall my own adolescence – a dreadful time. But I think the adolescent passions of we Brits may not match those of Italians. 

Some reviews say it’s a story of Italy itself growing up (a young country) and I’m sure there’s something in that…..”.

 Another enjoyed it, liking the growing up theme and the relationships in the village, but feeling the book was overlong. The book above all was about insights into the female psyche, and this was reflected in the on-line comments. Not having realised until the end that there was an index of characters, the broad cast of characters with similar names was confusing. (This latter comment was echoed by a Kindle reader, who strongly recommended not reading it on a Kindle, so that it was easier to flick back to the character index!).

We debated whether this was a “feminist” novel, with the conclusion that it was not, at least in the sense that there was no feeling of a feminist agenda. The focus might be the female narrator and her female friend, but the weaknesses and failings of both females and males, and the realities of the social structure, were recorded dispassionately.

One example was the scene in which a friend’s father tries to seduce the young Elena. The writer conveys with considerable insight the confusion, and ambivalent mixture of repulsion and pleasure, experienced by Elena, and does so without, at least overtly, being judgmental.

Another reader found the very vivid and powerful detail had sucked him into the book. “I enjoyed it so much I rationed how much I read at a time so as to prolong the pleasure”. It was beautifully written, and for whatever reason he simply found it compelling.

He had visited Naples a year ago – “a spectacular place” – and had enjoyed the vivid recreation of it in the book. Of particular interest was the ghetto, or “barrio” in which they lived (the next book, which he had moved on to with alacrity, extended to other northern cities). Did the behaviour of the families in the barrio reflect just Neapolitan or wider Italian behaviour? For example, women getting beaten by their husbands was widespread in the fifties, probably throughout Europe.

But wasn’t the private justice of the Camorra a more unique feature? Well, plenty of people still came into Accident and Emergency in Glasgow with serious assault wounds and refused to tell the police who had done it. Revenge might be taken privately, often through a gang. And, the more we discussed it, the more we felt that many of the intriguing things in the book could have been found in other poor European cities in the fifties, rather than confined to Naples.

Another reader had also found the book most enjoyable, and in several ways impressive. The book might be mistaken for a very commercial historical saga, but several things lifted it. There were flashes of psychological and sociological insight, and of philosophical reflection, clearly and pithily expressed. There was a compelling exploration of friendship, and how it can change over time and be destructive as well as supportive. And there was the paralleling of the development of the characters against the post-war changes in the city and country.

The two female friends were sharply delineated, as to a lesser degree were their lovers, while the wider cast of characters – at least in this first book – were fuzzier.

The shape of the book was that of a “bildungsroman” or coming of age novel. However, it differed from the classic bildungsroman structure in two ways. First, it is about the coming of age (if reaching sixteen can be accepted as coming of age in a Neapolitan barrio) of two people, not one.

And secondly, it is normal in a Bildungsroman for the protagonist to become gradually reconciled to the values of the society that they have questioned. But this novel ends on a very different note as, in the climactic wedding scene, Elena comes to see the barrio culture as a trap from which neither she, nor her brilliant friend Lila, can ever escape. It is almost a Marxist perception in a novel that has occasionally mentioned Communists, and dislike of them, but not in any way explored their philosophy.

At that moment, I knew what the plebs were, much more clearly than when, years earlier, she [my teacher] had asked me. The plebs were us. The plebs were those that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts…

In broader discussion we noted that the translation – which read very well – used American idiom, and the proposer explained that the days of having one translation in British and one in American idiom had now gone because of the economics of the industry. We wondered, but were unable to resolve, how the original had handled the question of Neapolitan dialect, as the text frequently referred to whether or not the character was choosing to speak in dialect or in Italian. We did note though that the author used little by way of dialogue, which perhaps helped the novel to flow quickly.

We wondered about Romeo and Juliet as an influence with its story of young love in Verona across a boundary of family feud. We were also amused – or perhaps, remembering our teens, not amused at all – by the discussion of the best way to jilt someone as seen by a teenager (p. 251).

We were intrigued by the girls’ intention to write a modern version of ‘Little Women’, itself a coming of age story about three girls. And we were also intrigued by the opening of the novel showing Elena, who has shown writing ambition but not been published, choosing as a much older woman to write the book which we were now reading in published form.

One thought that evolved in discussion – and one of the things about a Book Group discussion is that it should be a dynamic process – was how similar the names were of Elena (known as “Lenu”) and Rafaella (known as “Lila” or “Lina”). And – in another echo within an echo, or reflection in a reflection – Elena is of course also the nom-de-plume of the novelist.

The book was so convincing it would be easy to think that it was autobiographical, but the similarity of the names “Lenu” and “Lina” had us reflecting that it was common for writers to take two sides of their personalities, or of human nature, and create them as different characters (the extreme example being Stevenson’s ‘Jekyll and Hyde’). To say the friends here represent, say, reason versus instinct, might be to oversimplify, for while the rational Lenu is better educated, the intuitive Lina is cleverer than Lenu.

However, something of this kind may be going on. There is certainly a basic opposition in their natures – Lenu being dutiful, educated, and through education capable of analysing situations and manipulating people, whereas Lina is brilliant, spontaneous, and capable of cruelty and violence. Lina has blossomed from ugly to beautiful, whereas Linu’s emerging beauty has been ruined by adolescent acne. And one of the intriguing features of the book is how the two friends interact, and how when one is in the ascendant the other is in the descendant…….

………and so we went on………and on…….. 

As R.L.S. himself wrote in ‘Talk and Talkers’:

There can be no fairer ambition than to excel in talk.…..There are always two to a talk, giving and taking, comparing experience and according conclusions. Talk is fluid, tentative, continually ‘in further search and progress’, while written words remain fixed…….


Shriver, Lionel: The Mandibles, a family 2029-2047

Lionel Shriver is a libertarian southern Democrat, born in 1957, daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Realising herself to be a ‘tomboy’ she felt uncomfortable with her ‘girly’ name, Margaret Ann, and so she changed to Lionel. She has a BA and MFA from Columbia University. She describes herself as an expat, having lived in Nairobi, Bangkok and Belfast, and now mostly in London.  The upside of being an expat, she explains, is that “I live in a larger world, emotionally, politically, and intellectually”.  Rather little can be found of her private life, except that she is a keen cyclist and is married to a jazz drummer. Interesting insights into her character and views can be read in Bomb magazine: where she is described as ferociously intelligent, uncompromising, independent, opinionated, driven, scorchingly funny, contrary, passionate.

This is her 12th novel.  The most well-known was her seventh, about a school shooting, called We Need to Talk about Kevin. It was awarded the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction, and became a movie in 2011. She is also a successful journalist, writing for the New York Times and the Guardian. She would legalise all drugs and stay out of foreign wars. She is critical of government, noting that in the USA there are 170,000 pages of Federal Regulations and it costs 6 trillion dollars annually to enforce them. This quote gives a flavor of her work: “In an era of weaponised sensitivity participation in public discourse is growing so perilous, so fraught with the danger of being caught for using the wrong word or failing to uphold the latest orthodoxy in relation to disability, sexual orientation, economic class, race or ethnicity that many are apt to bow out”. And also “to progress is merely to go forward and you can go forward into a pit”.

Turning now to the book itself: the year is 2029. The author tells the story of a family living in the USA, where the economy has collapsed. The national debt has risen to an unsustainable level, and the dollar is all but worthless. The Federal Government sends the army to people’s homes, looking for gold to confiscate, including small items like wedding rings. Some go to extraordinary lengths to hide gold items of great sentimental value, but there are harsh penalties for those who are caught. The financial crisis afflicts the whole western world, and to restore stability the International Monetary Fund, supported by countries including Putin’s Russia and super-rich China, has recently launched a new currency unit, the bancor. The US refuses to use it, and makes the bancor illegal in America – possession constitutes treason. How rapidly America has changed: by 2027 the US President is currently a Latino and the first language is Spanish.

The story follows the fortunes of a Manhattan family, the Mandibles. Great grandfather Douglas Mandible sits on a fortune made long ago but is now a sprightly 97-year-old and has shown no signs of passing the family wealth to children and grandchildren. Now it’s too late: the president ‘resets’ the national debt, treasury bonds become void, and the family fortune is wiped out. The family includes his dementia-impaired wife, and his daughter Enola who lugs around a paper-copy of her latest book. One family member is a therapist, one works in a homeless shelter and one is an economics professor. But the economist loses his job because funds for universities are not what they were and his particular flavour of economics is considered inappropriate for the times. As the economy crashes out of control, crime soars, looting is commonplace, people lose their homes and there is a food and water crisis. Property rights evaporate and fourteen Mandibles end up in one small house. Desperate measures are required to survive: grandson Willing is good at stealing whilst the 17-year old Savanna becomes a successful prostitute. No questions are asked.

Through skillful use of dialogue the author’s views on global economics are articulated. Flows of money and social behaviour are collectively a good example of a complex system that can go wildly out of control. We are reminded “Money is emotional… worth what people feel it’s worth. They accept it in exchange for goods, and services, because they have faith in it. Economics is closer to religion than science.”

The plot itself moves rather slowly. When things seem completely desperate the novel fast-forwards to 2047, and we see that things have reached a new and rather more tolerable quasi-stable state.  Law and order are restored. The currency is now a new dollar linked to the bancor. Citizens are given a cranially-implanted chip that records their financial transactions so that tax can be accurately levied. Not everyone is chipped: there is an outside world, where people are un-chipped and live a simple pastoral life. This appeals to Willing, who tests the widespread belief that crossing the border to join the un-chipped world will trigger an explosion in one’s head.  And there is another border – a fence between US and Mexico to keep out the illegal American immigrants.

What did we make of the tale? We spent much time discussing whether it could actually happen. We decided it could, although we struggled with the economic theory. None of us are economists, but between us we reached an adequate grasp. There seem to be four possible ways in which our society might conceivably collapse: economic Armageddon, spread of a deadly virus, revolution against the government and climate change, or any combination of the four. The book reminds us that we need to take care, our civilisation is much more fragile than most people realise.

Is the book anti-American? Yes, it is. In the book, the US in no longer a supreme power, the American dream has evaporated and there is little hope of a full recovery. Almost all the characters are behaving badly – Shriver has said she likes to craft hard-to-love characters.  No one is a hero although Willing comes close to being the protagonist. In fact the character development is rather weak, as in most science fiction. But this isn’t really science fiction – it is a new genre, rather like a book we read some months ago, Submission by Michel Houellebecq, which dealt with another kind of crisis and was also set in the near future but this time in France.

We agreed that the story is highly topical. It was written well before Trump became the US president and just before the Brexit vote. Both of these turns of events persuade us that our liberal Western democracies have become inherently unstable – practically anything is possible – something which few people are prepared to accept or even discuss. The thought of dystopia inevitably disturbs and undermines our very existence. Yet our nations are increasingly polarised, moving towards what one Mandible describes near the end of the book: “Government becomes a pricey, clumsy, inefficient mechanism for transferring wealth from people who do something to people who don’t, and from the young to the old — which is the wrong direction.”

Some said the book contains humour but others were unconvinced. There are distant cousins called Goog and Bing, named after search engines. Ho ho. Why is the family called Mandible?  Presumably because they are examples of greedy consumers. The ‘joke’ is that they are the ones that will always suffer most in a financial meltdown, and others may laugh at their humiliation. An example of shadenfreude, presumably.  Above all, Shriver likes to shock, and in doing so there isn’t much room for humour.

We agreed it is an interesting book, but the interest comes mostly in thinking about and discussing the shocking issues raised. Yes, we might all have to face an economic Armageddon. Be prepared.

Harding, Thomas: The House by the Lake

To my left stood a row of modern brick houses. To my right stretched an unkempt hedge. And then, there it was, my family’s house. It was smaller than I had remembered…hidden by bushes, vines and trees. Its windows were patched with plywood. The almost flat black roof was cracked and covered with fallen branches. The brick chimneys seemed to be crumbling, close to collapse…” The House by the Lake, p.2

The Monthly Book Group descended in force on Morningside “when frost was spectre-grey”. But it was Thomas Harding, not Thomas Hardy, they had come to discuss.

Outside the grey spectres of Br*xit and Tr*mp haunted the world, while the big news was that Hearts had drawn the Scottish Cup holders Hibs at Easter Road.

[Hmmmm……I like that so much I’ll say it again… “the Scottish Cup holders, Hibs”]

The proposer had been impressed when he had gone to hear Thomas Harding at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Pleasant, engaging and articulate man, riveting story, great photographs. So impressed, indeed, that he had gone to buy the book…. but the queue in the signing tent was long and he had instead gone outside to Waterstones, and bought the book at a discounted rate…

[a discounted rate?!… that by me again??]

Thomas Harding, aged 48, was a journalist by background. He had written two previous books, one of which “Hanns and Rudolf” (2013), had been particularly well-received. He was, though, perhaps best known as a maker of documentaries for television.

“The House by the Lake” (2015) told how Harding had returned to his grandmother’s summerhouse by a lake near Berlin. A Jew, she had been forced to leave to escape the Nazis. The house by the lake was now derelict. The book tells the story of his quest to save the house, and his unearthing of the histories of five previous families who lived in it. It shows how the house’s history intersects with that of Germany’s tragic century –  World Wars, genocide, military defeat, occupation.

The proposer found the book fascinating. Harding was able to weave the story together with facts from his own life. His research was very impressive, although, as he acknowledged, he had to invent many of the details in “faction” manner to bring the characters and events to life. He had shown great energy in pursuing his quest. Although he did not shirk from recording the faults and weaknesses of the people he spoke of, including family members, he did so in a restrained and non-judgemental way. He was the objective researcher, not the finger pointer.

The views of the group revealed a varied response. In the red corner:

This is a brilliant piece of very human research into a house and its owners over a period of a century. It says so much about German life with so many insights and a perspective that illuminates the earlier books the Group has read about war time Berlin and the Holocaust.”

Others agreed that following a house rather than a family was an excellent and unusual approach. It was gripping to see the twists and turns of the house’s fate as it descended from rich man’s luxury to doss-house.  And it was remarkable that so many historic events should take place so close to the house.  For example, the notorious Wannsee Conference, where the “Final Solution” was worked out, took place nearby on the shores of the same lake, and the Berlin Wall went through the garden.

The themes appealed to many:

 “We attach great sentimental value to houses, not just financial value, because we live in them as families. The story of the Wall was also gripping for me. And the book is a timely reminder when there is a rise across the Western world of nationalism and racism.” 

Another felt that this account of the rise of Nazi racist populism makes you aware of just how impossible it is to control events as an individual. You only have an illusion of control as an individual, a thought that terrified him.

“….yes, this section reminded me of Kafka’s ‘The Trial’, where an ordinary person is suddenly arrested by the state without reason and his world is turned upside down”.

Another fan of the book had lived in the Potsdam area, which made it easy to visualise the whole area covered by the book, and feel it come alive.

However, they were now coming out fighting from the blue corner …

“I started off thinking it would be very interesting, but after page 40 it became less so. The author seemed not to have an opinion on anything. There was no edge. In fact it annoyed me that he was such a nice guy…”

Another had similarly found the earlier characters interesting, but the post-war residents of the house were “deeply boring”. It would have been more interesting to learn instead how Elsie and Bella had lived in Britain, and how they had come to prosper in their new surroundings.

And, in a flurry of jabs, the history was “Readers Digesty” and the book was all a bit ‘Tiggerish”!

Moving in with a left hook to hit the book when it was down…. “It has a dull style, peppered with facts, and, as I read in bed, I found I nodded off pretty quickly. It was good, but could have been shorter and better written…

And a right hook from another…. “Harding does detail very convincingly the turn of the fascist screw on the Jews, but the rest is less detailed, and no character comes alive. He is a journalist, not a novelist”.

A red corner reader who had found the book “almost a page-turner” went over to the blue side with the advice that the author needs to get a life and stop going back into his family’s past. The house had become an obsession, a sort of “reverse request for immortality”.

And more comments that the book was not particularly well written. “It didn’t particularly excite me, other than the insight into how Jews felt as the seriousness of the Nazi threat began to emerge.  There is no real build-up of characters, and no scope to develop the history of the house. The book ends up as a fairly superficial social history of 100 years of Germany.

[This fist fight was all getting a bit confusing for your poor scribe. I knew I should never have started on that dry January….]

However, the contest began to subside, as the blue and red sluggers tired. They started to recognise a degree of substance in the views of the other corner, and looked for some common ground.

When I say ‘the whole world knows’, I really mean ‘I think’….”

The style was precise rather than evocative, and Harding was indeed no novelist, but he did not pretend to be. It was not all superficial, as some of the details were quite revelatory – for example the scale of reparations to Jewish people by Germans after the War.

The people in the house after the War might be boring, in the sense of being “low life” or dysfunctional. But wasn’t that part of the tragedy of the house itself, as it fell into disrepair?

Many found the account of life under Communism in East Germany fascinating, and were intrigued by the stories of life at that time, such as that of the drugs for children good at sports, and the incompetent spy.

And although it would indeed have been interesting to learn more about Elsie and Bella in Britain, wasn’t the point of the book to focus on what the house saw?

For the house by the end becomes an observer, a mute and fatalistic observer, of the lives of its residents. And, at least for some, the description of the final decline of the house achieved the sort of resonance absent in much of Harding’s precise writing.

But now they had punched themselves out altogether, and left the book behind.  They were off debating, and of course sorting out, schools education. And after sorting that out they were on to The Donald…..

Thinking that might take a little time, your international roving reporter started on the long journey home, fearful of grey spectres over his shoulder…