Bulgakov, Mikhail: The Master and Margarita

As a consequence of the lockdown due to the coronavarius pandemic, the Monthly Book Group met via video conferencing to discuss the month’s book. The proposer first read the book many years ago. He had no knowledge of Bulgakov but read the book in order to pass the time of day as he recovered from a hip operation. He found it a bit silly but quite amusing in an odd sort of way.

He was reminded of this recently when the group read “ The Man Who Was Thursday” by G.K.Chesterton, which was described as a “phantasmagorical romp through London”. and was considered  diabolic in a clever and entertaining way. The similarity with Bulgakov inspired him to re-read “The Master and Margarita again and to recommend it to the Group. On the second reading he became much more engaged in the substance of the novel, and the messages and meanings behind the storyline. At one level it is simply absurd, funny and ridiculous but at another it reflects the angst and frustration of a great talent living in constant fear of being “found out”

Bulgakov was born in 1891. His mother was a teacher and his father was a priest. (Both his grandfathers were clergymen in the Russian Orthodox Church).This family history of religious belief  might partly explain the quasi-religious storyline. He studied medicine at Kiev University and on graduating became a physician at Kiev Military Hospital.

At the outbreak of the First World War he was sent to the front where he was badly injured. As a result of these injuries and the pain associated with them he became addicted to morphine. He overcame this addiction in 1918 but in 1919 he fell seriously ill with Typhus. Recovering from this illness he abandoned his medical practice to pursue a writing career. Despite some success he found his work increasingly criticised and subject to the control of the state.

The novel was written between 1928 and 1940. Bulgakov recognised the danger of publishing the book in his lifetime and continued to edit it right unto his death in 1940. The book was eventually published in 1966/7 thanks to the persistence of his widow. In 1929 his writing career was all but ruined when government censorship stopped the publication of any of his work. In despair he wrote to Stalin who provided him with work but, more importantly protected him from arrest and execution.

The proposer obtained much greater insight into the circumstances which informed the writing of the book through reading “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” Mikhail Bulgakov: A Life in Letters and Diaries. by J.A.E, Curtis. This book details the precariousness of life during the Stalinist purges and provides an understanding of the day to day existence of a man grappling with persecution.

It is against this background that Bulgakov creates a twilight world where nothing is as it seems and the fantastical, paranormal and downright evil are treated as every day occurrences. People lie routinely and are unjustifiably rewarded. Bulgakov’s characters are in a sort of living hell but remain able to find amusement in what is happening around them. Survival depends on the human spirit’s ability to make sense of the absurd to rationalise and to detect humour in the diabolic.

It is a hugely complex novel which the proposer has now come to appreciate, having initially discounted it as being too frivolous to warrant the scrutiny of the Monthly Group Group.


The overall response of members was to praise the choice. It was much enjoyed as a funny, likeable, sparkling, deeply serious and often baffling unpredictable  satirical tour-de-force. There were quite distinctive styles  of the different parts of the book. The different styles and worlds both contradicted and reinforced each other. The Devil is in Moscow but God has no role in Jerusalem.

Members appreciated different aspects of the novel. The beginning was superb with lots of the detail of living in a Stalin-era apartment and the scenes at the Writers’ Club, the psychiatric hospital and theatre. The interweaving of Pontius Pilate within the two/three juxtaposed stories was mysteriously fascinating, well written and convincing.

Others liked the satanic party in the second part. though one thought there was too much witchery, tomcat, devil’s sabbath etc. Woland and his entourage were strong characters.

The religious aspects of the book were noted. The epigraph at the front of the book from Goethe’s  Faust was significant: ‘That Power I serve which wills forever evil yet does forever good’. Two members pointed out that Mick Jagger had been reading M&M when the Rolling Stones had recorded ‘Beggars Banquet’, probably their best record, and the Bulgakov influence was noticeable, particularly on ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.

One of our number reminded us that when it came out it was a real sensation in Russia, opening for younger writers the possibility of a kind of wild, non-Socialist-Realism way of writing.

There were some difficulties with the novel. As ever in Russian novels the names with their patronymics were not easy to differentiate. Many of the allusions were not easy to understand given the remoteness of the time and culture. Despite the Communist context, the culture was clearly very Russian, both Tsarist and now. The point was made though that great satire needed to stand on its own, eg Gulliver’s Travels, and the Master and Margarita passed this test.

The Master, based on Bulgakov, only appeared briefly in the first part of the book and Margarita , based on his third wife, did not appear until Book 2. The book had been revised many times over the years when publication was not  possible and it was perhaps over revised. As ever translations were compared, Michael Glenny being the most in use.

Barry, Sebastian: The Secret Scripture

Seven of us were there on a warm evening, and all had warm feelings about Barry’s novel – feelings shared in emails by some who couldn’t come. The proposer, born in Ireland, spoke of the richness of Irish literature, plays, poetry and fiction. Just for fiction, following older masters such as Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, there were such figures as William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnstone, John McGahern,– and in the next generation John Banville, Colm Toibin and Sebastian Barry.

     Barry was born in Dublin in 1955 and educated in that city, taking a degree at Trinity College. He has been a very successful playwright (though none of us had seen his plays), and a multi-prize-winning novelist (The Secret Scripture won both the Costa and the James Tait Black). His novels are mostly grouped in cycles about two families, the Dunnes and the McNultys. Barry’s latest – and hugely impressive – novel, Days without End, belongs to the McNulty group, as does our novel, though only tangentially, through the tragic marriage of the heroine to a McNulty and her fraught relations with all the family.

     Critics have gone into raptures at the quality of Barry’s writing (‘beautiful prose’, ‘exquisitely written’) and the group went along with this, picking out striking turns of phrase, but also the subtle presentation of moods and feelings. There was some discussion of what seemed like a particularly Irish ability to write powerful and inventive English. Just the gift of the gab, maybe, or the outsider situation of Ireland in relation to dominating neighbour – one member of the group drew a parallel with the richness of Indian writing in English.

    We did wonder if the writing mightn’t be too ‘beautiful’ for the two narrators whose stories make up the novel, respectively a hundred-year-old woman and a self-condemning psychiatrist. It was noted that Roseanne seems chaotic in her life but composed in her writing (her text is supposed to be rapidly concealed under floorboards, quite a feat for such an old person). It could also be argued that the two narrative voices are not distinct enough (though [spoiler] the narrators turn out to be closely related). But on the whole we were happy with this, admiring such touches as the hammers and feathers that come into the two differing accounts of Roseanne’s father’s death.

     Much of the discussion was about these different versions of the past, both personal and political. None of the versions presented in the novel trumps all the rest – everyone is seen as struggling to catch hold of an elusive past. Memory is unreliable, and so by implication is history. ‘Fake news’ reared its ugly head here – which led to talk of Brexit and the odd ways it’s related to the Irish problems which fill this novel. It’s not a history book, but it doesn’t take too much for granted, though most of us didn’t know much about the Irish blueshirts, The story of Roseanne is linked through all sorts of threads with the tragic history of Ireland in the years following the Treaty and Partition – and although at the end there seems to be a sort of reconciliation, a willingness to bury the past maybe, more recent events (the novel was published in 2008) make you wonder how much of this is really dead and buried. It certainly continues to provide rich material for novelists.

     We admired Barry’s generosity to different points of view. It’s remarkable that this male author tries to adopt the voice and point of view of a 100-year-old woman living in an asylum. Roseanne is not one to condemn, nor is Barry. Even the villainous Father Gaunt, representative of the unforgiving Church, is given some human touches – though generally the Church doesn’t come well out of this book. In fact there’s sympathy for almost all the characters, however unpleasant some of their doings may be – the most sympathetic being the victims, Roseanne of course, but also the mysterious Eneas McNulty, the romantic republican John Lavelle, his son Seanin (John Kane), and even the deeply ambiguous figure of Roseanne’s father. One member wondered why we are so much drawn to these figures in fiction who make a mess of their lives –the excessively passive acceptance of her fate by Roseanne and the self-doubt and self-accusation of Dr Grene.

    One point some members were doubtful about was the way in which the two apparently different stories are brought together at the end. Too good to be true? But Barry was praised for avoiding the obvious recognition scene that apparently figures in the film version of the novel (none of us had seen the film). A parallel was made with the coincidences in Dr Zhivago – not exactly true to life but carrying a weight of meaning.

   To sum up – a striking unanimity in favour of the novel, and a desire to read more, to follow up some of the other McNultys – not to mention the Dunnes.

Braithwaite, Kate: The Road to Newgate

The Proposer is a fan of Historical Novels and had previously offered “Rob Roy” by Scott and “The Reditsky March” by Roth .We have also covered “The Red Badge of Courage”, “The Leopard”, “An Officer and a Spy” and “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. Arguably, Scott is the father of the Historical Novel and his influence is extensive .At best it gives the reader a taste for history and what comes through is convincing atmosphere, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions. However, purely as a novel it must satisfy as well. The Proposer knows the author and this adds interest for him and those who know her family, but it is also a good novel, accurate and where there are adjustments to dates to add to the drama, she is honest in declaring what she has changed. Original material has been used extensively and this adds to the shock of, for example, the performances of the two judges, Contemporary Trump and Brexit hysteria can be looked at through the experience of Titus Oates and his supporters and their success in largely conquering London. There is also the willingness of people in Britain to see great evil in Catholicism .

The Group enjoyed the book. We looked at one quote which displays fine tempo and use of language; “This is only a straw man, thank God .But I cannot drag my eyes from it all the same .He-it-wears tight black breeches and a many buttoned waistcoat. It sports a grubby neckerchief and a long dingy coat that has seen better days. They have given it woollen stockings -warn grubby and patched. Worst of all the wig and hat. Its wig hangs limply and is matted with some tacky grime .The hat looks as it has been kicked across the cobbles before being crammed upon its head. Probably because it has.”

The horror for Anne is palpable. However use of language was inconsistent and casual references in setting a scene were sometimes trite .The story is of the Popish Plot .There is no sub theme. In Barnaby Rudge , Dickens deals with the Gordon Riots a century later. There are lots of other layers .But this is not Dickens and it is less than half the length . The scenes were well constructed, in particular the visit to Mathew Medbourne in Newgate. Did the four voices work as a perspective on each chapter ? Husband and wife, fine, but could a different character not have given the drama greater perspective, e.g. the sister or one of the Oates team ?

In a Historical Novel ,should the main character be real or fictional ? It was suggested that the main character should be the creation of the Author. But who is the main character? Oates is arguably the object and Nat is the subject .

Bythell, Shaun: The Diary of a Bookseller

Our evening commenced with one of our members, an emeritus professor, recounting his stressful day when he had lost his four-year-old grandchild whilst collecting his seven-year-old sibling from school. Fortunately, the “lollipop lady” had found him but our professor had been quite traumatised. Severely rebuked by his wife, he wished to talk. So we listened sympathetically and after a respectable time moved on to the evening’s main activity.

The proposer had chosen this book to give us some light summer reading. It had been recommended by a friend, as an amusing, short and easy holiday read.

He didn’t know too much about the author, as he hadn’t found too much about him “on line”.  However the book tells us that he had been brought up in Wigtown, the son of a farmer, had been sent way to public school. (Interestingly, four of our last five authors have strong Scottish connections.) Bythell remembered the bookshop opening in the 1980’s when he was 18 and thinking it wouldn’t survive a year. After attending Trinity College and leaving without his intended degree in law, he bummed about for a while, returning to Wigtown in 2001, aged 31, with no definite plans. He happened to visit the shop looking for a copy of Three Fevers. He confessed to the owner that he was struggling to find a job he enjoyed. The owner, who was keen to retire, persuaded Shaun to purchase it for £150,000. He regrets not reading George Orwell’s Bookshop Memories, which dispels the myth that selling second hand books is not the idyll many people think. Orwell’s comments “many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop.”

Wigtown, during the author’s childhood, had been a thriving county town with imposing County Buildings and a population of under a thousand folk, despite being isolated in the rural peninsula of the Machars, in southwest Scotland. A creamery and a whisky distillery had sustained the economy. With their closure around 1990, the economy of the town suffered greatly. However, in recent years, Wigtown had reinvented itself, with the establishment of a community of bookshops, small businesses, the reopening of the distillery and a successful book festival. It is now known as Scotland’s official Booktown. The Bookshop, the subject of the diaries, had grown to be the largest second hand bookshop in Scotland with 100,000 books spread over a mile of shelving. A few of the group had visited Wigtown, the book festival and the writer’s premises. One, having read the book, was keen to visit.

Those who worked in the shop commented that customer interactions produced ample material for a book. He started jotting down incidents as they happened and so his aide memoire became a diary.

The author provides an insight into the trials and tribulations of the second hand bookselling business. From his idiosyncratic Jehovah’s Witness assistant, Nicky, to a huge cast of eccentric customers, his buying trips to old houses and his insight into the workings of Amazon, the book is full of interest and amusement.

We all enjoyed his facetious, sarcastic and almost downright rude descriptions of staff and customers. The book, although in diary format, was easy to dip in and out of. It didn’t have a continuous narrative, like Arthur Gould Lee’s diary “No Parachute: A Fighter Pilot in World War I” we had recently read.

The author’s rudeness worked both ways with him giving as much as he received. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. Some of our group felt that his discourtesy compared favourably with the late proprietor of a renowned hostelry in the south of Edinburgh. Others observed that he seemed less offensive about identifiable Wigtown locals than he was to anonymous visitors. Perhaps he didn’t wish to offend too many residents.

He ranked his customers accordingly.

  • The dream customer is the collector who buys £200 worth of illustrated poetry books.
  • A good customer is someone who buys even a single book without attempting to haggle the price down.
  • A bad customer doesn’t buy anything.
  • And a really bad customer gets their laptop out and shamelessly checks the bookshop’s prices against those listed on Amazon.
  • Then there are the customers who aren’t really customers – those waiting for the chemist up the road to fill their prescription, or for the garage to finish their car’s MOT.

The book is packed with amusing anecdotes, fascinating characters and insights into the second hand book business. The proposer’s friend who runs a second-hand furniture and book business in Kingussie knows many of the regular customers and they are real!

His Jehovah’s Witness assistant, Nicky, with a penchant for wearing home-stitched tabards or a black ski-suit, arriving late, stealing food from skips, sloppily eating her breakfast whilst driving her car, misfiling books and creating a mess in the shop, came in for a lot of stick. Despite this, he was totally reliant on her so that he could go off fishing, swimming and buying books. She was also of “value beyond measure” with her amusing remarks. When a customer asked if they had a “rest room” she replied “there’s a comfy seat by the fire if you need a rest”.

Some of the regular characters are Bum Bag Dave who carries at least two bum bags and various beeping electronic devices. Smelly Kelly who reeks of Brut 33 and relentlessly woos Nicky, Sandy, a pagan and the most tattooed man in Scotland who makes walking sticks for sale in the shop, and Mr Deacon, who doesn’t wear his well cut clothes well. “It appears as though someone has loaded his clothes into a cannon and fired them at him, and however they have landed upon him they have stuck”. Mrs Philips starts her phone calls with “ I am ninety three years old and blind, you know.” And of course we have the cats, his own black cat, “Captain” and a stray cat which was an unwelcome visitor and subsequently “had had his balls chopped off” by the Cats Protection League, much to his owners displeasure.

We enjoyed his brutally honest job reference he wrote for a former employee, Sara, following her discourteous request. This inevitably led the group to discuss the value of written references. References seem to be written differently depending on their country of origin, some being pretty bland whilst others are pretty frank. Telephone discussions seem more truthful.

One member questioned his annoyance at customers haggling. But “he’s in the haggling business”. Others were amazed by the amount of travelling he did.

One of our email contributors had thoroughly enjoyed the book and its different format. The portrayal of all the weird and wonderful characters he is surrounded by, both staff and customers, was most amusing and kept the book ticking along. The constant fight with online giants, particularly Amazon, gave the book bite and a bit of anger and it was good to see him kicking back. Witness “The best thing that could happen to Kindle”. Interestingly, of the six members attending this evening, only three had read a hard copy of the book. Two had read it on Kindle and one had listened to it on Audible. No one had shot their Kindle!

One member had considered opening a second hand bookshop but hadn’t taken it any further. He had also bought a book at a local Church of Scotland jumble sale “The Story of O” which he later discovered was all about sexual bondage. He was intrigued about the reading material of the congregation but felt his purchase had been excellent value at 10p! Others were less enthusiastic about running a second hand bookshop. Another found that some books could give off an unpleasant odour that he didn’t fancy. And yet another argued that he preferred books for their reading content and not their presentation or value. He didn’t see the point of having a first edition or a signed copy.

There was discussion of the author’s concern about his shop’s rating on social media. How accurate was it? One member had been a regular reviewer on TripAdvisor but had become sceptical of its value and had stopped contributing. He however felt that household equipment was now much more reliable thanks to customer feedback and consumer pressure. Another was concerned about the dominance of Amazon and had stopped using them, preferring to support local businesses. Another felt that time was our most valuable resource and Amazon allowed him speedy searching and purchasing.

Discussion moved onto the success of book festivals, the tourist invasion of Edinburgh, the proposal to have a tourist tax and even the shocking suggestion that Scottish football might move from Hampden to Murrayfield.

As our discussions drew to a close, our emeritus professor, still reeling from his earlier trauma, mentioned that on the journey home from the state primary school, the seven year old saw a sign outside a large educational building saying “Private School”. What does this mean? The trauma of the day was too much for our professor “Things will become clearer when you get older…”

Time to depart after thanking the host for providing some delicious home made brownie cakes.

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.

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.

Barker, Pat: Regeneration

Oh we do like to be the seaside, at least a select few of us gathered by the beach at Portobello as perhaps “prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness” had led to the absence of many of our number. (Maybe they were just on holiday? Ed.) An absent member had sent his comments, and regretted having not read it sooner on the grounds that it might be too sentimental. His opinion was very positive. Meanwhile, the survivors prepared to go ‘over the top’ as WW1 beckoned, again.

The proposer introduced ‘Regeneration’ with a short biography of Pat Barker, significantly mentioning her Yorkshire, working class upbringing by her grandparents, how she used to stick her fingers in her grandfathers bayonet wound, and of her later liaison and marriage to David Barker, a zoologist and neurologist. From such experience was the ‘Regeneration’ trilogy formed. Some of us had read all three novels, some only the first book. Rather than introduce spoilers we concentrated on the first book, although it was suggested that the subsequent novels would re-order emphasis on the major and minor themes in the first book. (Indeed, this proved to be the case as your humble scribe subsequently read parts 2 and 3 which clarified many of the themes in part 1. However, this is not recorded.)

Rivers, Yealland, Sassoon, Owen and Graves are real – the patients are fictitious but based on real cases from a book written subsequently by Rivers. (One of us had circulated an interesting article about Rivers work in the period.) It appears that the novelist has made exemplary use of this and several other historical sources, e.g. in that Sassoon really did amend ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. However, she has invented the persona of Rivers, through his reactions to events, his coming round in part to Sassoon’s ideas and possible repressed homosexuality. He does say at some point “the war must be fought to a finish, for the sake of the succeeding generations”. Indeed the book is quite subtle in that there is no overt pro- or anti-war case.

In the context of the book, Rivers is quite at odds in his theories of breakdown and conflict of shell-shock arising from combat and prolonged exposure.  Some of the arguments that pass through his head sound convincing, while others seem suspect. Believing that “prolonged strain, immobility and helplessness” were more likely to cause men to break down than “the sudden shocks or bizarre horrors” that his patients themselves used to explain their condition, he muses that this must also explain the prevalence of “hysterical disorders” in women in peacetime. 

Billy Prior, on the other hand, is thought to be socially and sexually ambiguous, an officer yet an outsider because of his background.  We discussed whether his perception of the officer class was viable. He assumed a certain snobbery and smugness in their attitude. However, he still made firm relationships, with Rivers and with Owen for example.

The proposer then noted that Barker had said “there is a lot to be said for writing about history, because you can sometimes deal with contemporary dilemmas”.  Although it has been said that she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of WW1, the implication was that this was about universal rather than WW1-specific truths. Could we avoid a discussion of Serbian politics from 1900? (See ‘The Sleepwalkers’). Time would tell, but it is accurate to record that conversations would often diverge from the text, especially when branching outwards from Sassoon’s declaration that opens the book, “not protesting against the conduct of the war but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men at being sacrificed”. The majority of our group made the point that Sassoon was young and naive, and such a declaration was foolish and would have no effect on such ‘conduct’. A minority view suggested that perhaps naivety brings clarity – out of the mouths of babes and sucklings etc. Does age bring wisdom or atrophy? Is there degeneration rather than ‘regeneration of the grey cells’? Well, if Wiki is to be believed the average age of commanding officers fell from 50 to 28 as the war progressed, and men of over 35 were barred from commanding battalions. However, this blog is getting off the point, echoing the discussion! Pass the port, Nigel.

So this novel is not just about WW1, but also about the need and justification for war, the effects on the combatants, consideration of societal change, of the emancipation of women, the breaking down of class barriers, of changing attitudes to heterosexuality and homosexuality, and of the attitude of the state. The title emanates from the experiment done on River’s friend Head in earlier times, when he deliberately severed a nerve in Head’s hand with the purpose of charting its gradual regeneration. From this we can compare and contrast the treatments to the mental trauma given by Rivers and Yealland, and how Rivers has to even question his own humane approach. He is torn between guilt in treatment and the stated aim to rehabilitate and send the men back to the front, and possible beneficial results (extreme in Yealland’s case).

In the wider context we discussed the possible effect of WW1, of war in general, as a necessary regenerating force on society. Within the book, the changing role and attitudes of the girls working in the munitions factories presage the huge changes that come after the war. There were changes too in sexual behaviour; heterosexual behaviour became more liberal, some crude forms of abortion were attempted, as in the description of the use of the coat hanger, and homosexuality was further repressed because of the concern about its effects on troop comradely spirit and morale with so many men in close proximity. Sassoon talks of how his friend was treated for soliciting, and how he subsequently had to modify his own behaviour to appear to be more normal or ‘cured’.

Barker mixes blunt and gritty working class language with poetic idioms. Perhaps the War Poets too – or at least the anti-war poets whom schools have adopted as the canon, managed something similar in combining the imagery of horror with the language of poetry. Your scribe’s favourite WC quote? – “eeh, hope a man never tries to shove anything up her flue. Be cruelty to moths”

We were all rather underwhelmed by the description of River’s childhood, and especially the introduction of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. Given the traumatic effect of the war on the soldiers’ speech, including mutism and stammering, and indeed Rivers own propensity to stammer it was assumed that this was making the link between his early childhood, the experience, and the subsequent sympathetic approach to such speech problems, in marked contrast to the electrodes of Yealland. There are also issues of parenthood, in particular the way that Sassoon looks on Rivers as a father figure who is much missed when he leaves Craiglockhart, as well as the role of Dodgson as a possible surrogate father.  However, one suggested this was possibly a case of research uncovering a celebrity that had got in the way. We also discussed the changing attitude to psychiatric treatment, of how a cure could better be affected by admitting and talking through a problem, rather than never talking about it, forgetting it.

What of the other central device, of bringing out the horrors of war not by direct descriptions, as was so effective in Birdsong (Faulks) that we had read earlier in the year, but by indirect description through the subsequent trauma. Most, but not all, found the book equally harrowing. On the other hand, the description of Yealland’s electroshock provided quite a lot of harrow for at least one reader, who recalled Laurence Olivier’s treatment of Dustin Hoffman in ‘Marathon Man’. (Eh? What’s the connection? Ed.)

So why does Sassoon return to fight?  Why does Prior talk of the shame of not going back? There are selfless reasons, notably the need to be loyal to your friends and comrades and for an officer at least, to be able to use experience gained to look after his men. These were motivating factors for Sassoon, which were nevertheless consistent with his declaration, or so he felt. The nature of masculinity, to be a man my son, is a recurring theme in the book and not just in the attitude to homosexuality. This certainly has changed, but not entirely, in the succeeding century.

So is war a regenerating force on a damaged or somehow deficient society? What are the beneficial effects of WW1? Even with a quorum having 40% historians, this was a tricky one to answer. Did the decision to support Belgium and France justify the killing of so many soldiers and civilians? Would Europe be a very different place in 2015 if no action had been taken, at least in this form? Was the sacrifice of allied troops necessary or in vain? If necessary and not in vain for the UK combatants, what of the sacrifice of German troops? Other than military and political changes, WW1 certainly accelerated societal change, especially with respect to class, women’s rights and education, as well as modifying sexual mores, but was it necessary? Sassoon’s point was that the war was being prolonged beyond its original purpose. To what extent would the common man be aware of the greater political picture? Others suggested that the war changed psychiatry, art and literature. Of course, one should not forget the extraordinary meeting and interplay between Sassoon, Graves and Owen, exemplified by the existence of the manuscript for ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ which has Sassoon’s annotations and suggestions. Did the war, or art as expressed by the war poets, change political thinking? What did Dylan have to say on the subject[i]? One of us noted that the French insisted afterwards that at least one ministerial appointment should be a soldier or ex-soldier. On these and other questions, the author leaves you to make up your own mind. However, it was proposed that both politicians and the media can still influence and exploit human base instincts, particularly tribal instincts, even in these days of mass communication and the internet. Other groups can also do this, of course, and there are many contemporary examples.

On one thing we all agreed; this was an excellent book. We all enjoyed it immensely and for those who had not done so, the next two books were on the ‘to do’ list.

And so to bed … suffering from WW1 literary trauma and with a need to be regenerated. Dr. Who has regenerated 12 times without addressing such deep concerns. Exterminate, exterminate….. where have I heard that before?

[i] The First World War, boys,
It came and it went
The reason for fighting
I never did get
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead
When God’s on your side.

Barbusse, Henri: Hell [l’enfer] or The Inferno

Henri-BarbusseThe son of a French father and an English mother, Barbusse was born in France in 1873. “Hell”was published in 1908. However, he continued in relative obscurity until, having served in the 1st World War, he wrote “Under Fire” in 1916. This convincing and dramatic account came as a shocking revelation to many. It resulted in a retrospective interest in Barbusse’s earlier novel, which brought it to the attention of the intelligentsia.

Barbusse then turned to Russia for further inspiration, and went there in January 1918 where he married, later returning to France. The main motive was his belief in the Bolshevik cause, although Esperanto was also of real interest. His belief in communism appears to have been total and uncritical. He seems to have had no problem dedicating a book to Trotsky, then denouncing him as a traitor when he fell from grace. Communism affected all his subsequent work. He died in France in 1935.

The proposer first saw a copy of the book in the house of his landlady when he was an undergraduate. He then bought it from a local bookshop, and found it a hauntingly strange book with echoes of Camus’ “The Outsider”. Colin Wilson’s book of the same name starts by discussing how Barbusse’s “Hell” displays the archetypal outsider. The Existentialists may have looked back to him as an inspiration or at least a fellow traveller. The proposer had reread it and was now aware of limitations.

It emerged during the meeting that some of us had the original O’Brien translation and others that by Robert Baldrick. The former is unexpectedly about a hundred pages shorter. This abridgement was presumably partly to protect sensitive minds and partly because some passages – such as 10 gruesome pages on medical matters – were revolting. However, we were surprised that Amazon and Kindle should be setting before us without acknowledgement a novel that differs greatly from that intended by the author.

So the comments of the group were invited. Many liked the concept of the voyeur and what were a series of tales with moral and philosophic overtones. The readers were taken up by the narrative, but began to rebel or lose interest during the verbal and emotional struggle between Amy and the poet. One member noted that Amy’s “why did you not tell me that straight away?” would have been a good question to put to Barbusse.

However, the book contains many startling and, for 1908, unique, thoughts. He observes but tries not to judge. He sees the sort of details that make for fine literature. But as a young writer he cannot resist piling in the philosophy. The balance was wrong. Had the stories been of more substance they could have carried the philosophizing more convincingly. “Death is worse than suffering,  “Humanity is the desire for novelty founded upon the fear of death”, “for lovers are enemies rather than friends”.

Is the narrator Barbusse? Or was the character of the poet a reflection of the author? Or were both characters versions of Barbusse? Certainly he does not seem to be particularly interested by the characters he is creating. The events of the novel may take the form life observed, but the book is hugely introspective. The narrator considered he had entered the “kingdom of truth”. The novel starts with the narrator seeming reasonably happy and able to cope with life. At the end of a month at his peephole he seems diminished, not enriched. He is also bitter.

Barbusse introduces late on a character Villiers – a successful novelist with no insights, no new ideas, but a retinue of admirers. Sour grapes! The dying Russian émigré expressed the view that the pen is greater than music. We pondered this. Artists work for a living but some are self-indulgent. The true artist is looking for meaning and must be able to communicate with the rest of us. But did Barbusse communicate with us in this book?

We appreciated some of the poet’s propositions. Happiness can be born of misery. We must accept that with light there has to be shade. Tears are not words. Why should Amy have to explain why she is crying? The attempt to convey some aspects of the meaning of life was a noble objective.

However, the proposer was about 20 years old when he first read the book. The author was therefore communicating with someone relatively close in age. Since then the proposer has got older but not Barbusse! One of the group had been sufficiently interested to read “Le Feu” (Under Fire). He thought this was much more convincing, and a very fine piece of writing.

It is interesting to see Barbusse opposing nationalism and the concept of the nation state in “Hell”. Then showing great courage and fierce patriotism when his nation state is invaded. Then he is seduced by the Russian Revolution, which dominates the rest of his life. To a young and passionate man this may seem normal, but he was middle aged and war weary when he adopted the Russian Revolution.

As a book, and looked at a century after it was written, it does ramble too much. The author is too declamatory, with so much about God, death, paradise etc. Arguably this is a book written when not much was happening. We have a discussion between the two doctors about the horrors of war. But the author meant the Franco-Prussian War. It is with that in mind that the old doctor says “Let us hope that some day we shall emerge from this endless epoch of massacre and misery”.

While no war is good for front line soldiers, Barbusse six years later was to volunteer for a totally different and infinitely worse experience. The genesis of the book must have been in La Belle Epoque. Possibly the young Barbusse, acting the “flâneur”, was happy to ponder the infinite because he had nothing better to do. Then perhaps the project became disturbing. He failed to communicate successfully to many of us in the Monthly Book Group. Or was it our failure to see that the book was more than self-obsession and platitude?

Why the title “Hell”? Possibly because the narrator became addicted to looking through the hole in the wall. He found that life is raw and pointless and it wears you out.

You may wonder who we are and from whence we post these reviews. To lift the veil a little, when “Things Fall Apart” was discussed it was (as befits a Nigerian book) accompanied by yams. On the occasion of “Hell” it was…..Chinese spirits. A glass each, and only when the proposer was satisfied that the book had been adequately debated. Very welcome of course, though absinthe might have been more appropriate. However, the visitor who brought the bottle was Chinese, not French.

Banks, Iain: The Bridge

bridge2Iain Banks considered this to be his best novel. He said ‘Definitely the intellectual of the family, it’s the one that went away to University and got a first’. But it is not the easiest one to read. It mostly deals with the thoughts and dreams of Alex, victim of a car crash who is comatose for most of the book. The crash itself is described in the first two pages. One of our members skipped this bit, thinking it was the preface. Dear reader, don’t make the same mistake. But whether one misses this or not, it takes a while – perhaps 70 pages – before the penny drops and structure and plot dawn on the reader.

The bridge is a fictionalized and exaggerated version of the Forth Rail Bridge, the huge cantilever construction in red-painted steel, built in 1890, connecting Edinburgh with Fife. The bridge in the novel is much bigger, vast and multilayered, very wide, apparently a world to itself with its own totalitarian government. The bridge is a powerful metaphor for society or possibly for the author’s psyche. Where does the bridge start and end? No-one knows; perhaps it doesn’t end on dry land at all.  Later, when the protagonist travels for days along it, he passes through different climatic zones, so we may conclude that the bridge is at least hundreds of km long.

In real life the protagonist is a young business man from Glasgow called Alex. He likes drink, drugs and fast cars. When still a young student in Edinburgh he falls in love with one Andrea Cramond, an advocate’s daughter. But she goes to live in France and enters into another relationship. He hits the drink and crashes his souped-up Jaguar. When in a coma he lives on the bridge as the amnesiac John Orr, periodically meeting his psychiatrist Dr Joyce. Sometimes another character called The Barbarian pops up; one who rants and raves in broad Scots dialect, often incoherently – something like a Scottish Caliban. The key to understanding the book is that Alex, John Orr and The Barbarian are one and the same, each representing a different facet of one man’s psyche. To make matters more complicated, the Barbarian has an enigmatic being on his shoulder called ‘The Familiar’. Not, we thought, the famous chip on the shoulder that Scots are supposed to have, but a representation of, well, what exactly? There was no consensus. One of us thought it was a phallus, but perhaps it was a mentor, a guardian angel, a parrot, or the id. Or even a representation of a controlling force, someone suggested the government in Westminster.

John’s adventures on the bridge are bizarre. At first, he lives a comfortable life in which he is provided for. He undergoes treatment for his amnesia by a psychiatrist and dream analyst called Dr Joyce, and to please the good doctor he invents dreams. Opinions were divided about whether there was supposed to be a real life Dr Joyce who was treating him during intermissions from the coma, or whether it is all a dream during the coma (we digressed: can comatose people dream? Can comatose people make up dreams during dreams? Can comatose people be considered amnesiac, since there are completely unconscious?). The invented dreams are so vividly recalled and detailed that Joyce suspects they are made up and tells John that he wants to change the treatment to hypnotherapy. When John refuses he is banished to a lower level of the bridge, where privileges and personal clothing are perfunctorily withdrawn. However, the beautiful Abberlaine Arrol rescues him; she is none other than the bridge’s version of his real life lover Andrea; she provides clothes and an apartment; they make love. During the act of love he fantasizes about girders, women’s underwear and other engineering structures and concludes ‘I feel like I have just fucked the bridge’.  Subtle.

Life on the bridge has strange twists and turns. One day, the bridge is buzzed by aircraft that strangely leave messages in the sky, in braille (should it be Morse code?); and a few days later barrage balloons appear, apparently to protect the bridge against further attack. Like many parts of the book, this appears to have no particular relevance to the plot, unless to give weight to the idea that governments frequently exaggerate external threats for political reasons.  In fact, the real-life Forth Bridge was similarly attacked at the start of World War II; something Banks would have known about because his father was a naval officer and worked at the Rosyth naval dockyard, the real target of the WWII bombers.

He stows away on a train, which travels far along the bridge to a war zone. Plenty of blood and gore occurs, but there are humorous passages too. The author’s imagination runs wildest in this area.

Finally, he comes out of his coma, and I won’t spoil the ending by telling you what happens. Perhaps the ending is a bit trite. One member found this last page had been torn from his second hand bookshop copy. Perhaps its owner thought the ending not worthy of the book.

What did we think of it all? It is a work of vivid imagination and rich description, plumbing the psychological depths of alienation. It was his third book (published in 1986). Later, he was to move into science fiction, and we see the start of that sci-fi interest here (he clearly had much fun writing about the invented dreams, the balloons, the flying knife, the war). The real life scenes, based in Edinburgh and Fife may be by contrast rather flat; his imagination comes into play when he deals with adventures on the bridge. The book is said by most reviewers to be a love story, but its power is not really in romantic matters (although the two sex scenes are some of the most interesting you’ll ever read). The love story takes second place to the adventures on the bridge; but the dreams are riveting; the characters in the consulting room are reminiscent of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, the 1985 book by neurologist Oliver Sacks. The situation that John Orr encounters on the bridge reminds one of Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle. The psychological parts are both Freudian and Jungian, and at one point the author makes reference to RD Laing, author of works on the existential analysis of personal alienation, and the classic 1960 book on schizophrenia The Divided Self.

The division of the book into geological sections plus metaphormosis, metamorpheus and metamorphosis is not very helpful, possibly pretentious. What are we to make of them? Alex begins as a student of geology – the geological periods used as section headings are Triassic (250 to 200 million years ago) and Eocene (56 to 34 million years ago). Possibly something can be read into this. The Triassic was a time of transition after a particularly nasty mass extinction. The Eocene saw the dawn of a new fauna with modern mammals and the rise of grasses; but really, what’s the point? Of course, Morpheus was the Greek god of dreams, so therefore a bit more relevant.

Is the work to any extent autobiographical? His father was a naval military man and his mother was a professional ice skater. What impressions did they make on him?  His early life was spent in North Queensferry, in the shadow of the Forth Road Bridge. Viewed from close quarters, we all agree that the bridge seems massive, oppressive, and the giant girders are unforgettable; even from a distance the raw engineering structure is awesome, iconic, likely to leave a deep impression on practically any young lad. The author was a young man when Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, otherwise known as Faslane, became home of the Trident nuclear submarines (the Peace Camp was established in 1982): this may have helped to form his left-leaning politics, and sparked an interest in the alienated state of mind and the defence of the state, both themes in the book. After writing the book his life seems to mirror that of the fictional Alex. He collected fast cars, he had a car crash, he had an interrupted personal life. His characters like to rant about the politics of the day just as he did for much of his life (he was an active supporter of Scottish Independence, hater of everything to do with Margaret Thatcher and he campaigned with others to have Prime Minister Tony Blair impeached following the 2003 invasion of Iraq). I’m sure these things will interest his biographers (he died of cancer in 2013).

His place as a major literary figure in the English speaking world is assured. Perhaps he will be best remembered for his first novel, Wasp Factory or for his science fiction. But The Bridge will challenge, amuse, and intrigue readers for years to come.

Boo, Katherine: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

The book was “Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” by Katherine Boo (2012). The proposer had recently become a trustee of a charity operating in India. This book had been recommended as a good introduction to the realities of Indian life.

 Katherine Boo, who had recently appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival, was a distinguished American journalist. She had worked for the Washington Post from 1993 to 2003, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service by exposing neglect and abuse in homes for the mentally retarded, and a MacArthur Fellowship. She had joined the staff of the New Yorker in 2003, winning the National Magazine Award in 2004. One of her themes was the contrast between extreme wealth and extreme poverty in American cities.

 Following her marriage to an Indian husband, she had turned her attention to India, and specifically to the Annawadi slum in Mumbai next to the airport. She tracked the fortunes of a number of the slum residents for a period of over three years. Although her ability to interact directly with most of the slum residents was limited by language, she was very tenacious, and had gone to great efforts to get things right by employing Indian translators and assistants. She had used freedom of information to obtain access to over 3,000 public records. Her book had won the National Book Award in the non-fiction category.

 The book was described as “narrative non-fiction”, but it read like a novel. The proposer found it fast-paced, witty, grisly, and compelling.  He had found it impossible to put down. It was a revelation as it illuminated the scale of poverty, of bureaucratic nightmare, and multi-layered corruption. Extreme poverty is obvious in India, but this showed how people are kept in that state and willing to accept their lot. Yet Boo’s journalistic style, and her ability to conjure up situations perfectly with one well-chosen phrase, made it a quick read.

 Everyone found the book extremely readable, even including one who dreaded what calamity was next when picking it up again. Boo was undeniably effective in delivering a crisp and striking narrative, although some found the “journalistic” prose style a little irritating. But even these readers admitted she had a fine turn of witty phrase. She started with gentle irony, for example:

 “Annawadi sat two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road, a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late

  “Now the hut… had a high-status, if non-functioning, refrigerator.

 This became a more mordant wit as the book progressed:

 “That job had been to clean public toilets and falsify the time sheets of his benefactor and other sanitation workers…

 “Then a doctor entered with the results…Abdul was seventeen years old if he paid two thousand rupees, and twenty years old if he did not.

 But humour and wit were not qualities often associated with this type of book. Nor was her welcome lack of sentimentality. Only in her insistence that children told the truth, while adults lied, did she perhaps lapse into romanticizing.

 The format of the book – “narrative non-fiction” – was unusual. Most of us had assumed it was a novel, based on research. It therefore came as a considerable surprise to read in the afterword that it was based on real people whose names had not been changed. This required some substantial revision of the reader’s perspective.

 This shock at the end certainly gave the book and its issues more impact. But it also raised concern. Why had the writer not used the usual convention of saying that the people were real but the names changed? There might be a good reason for this, but we were not clear what it was. Was it that the web of corruption was so extensive that one or two examples of graft amongst slum-dwellers would not be pursued? That nobody in the slum would read the book – but could you be sure? We worried that heavy-handed retribution might fall on the heads of some of the people whose lives had been dissected.

 And what about the feelings of individuals? How might Axa feel about her alleged scams being revealed by someone she had trusted? Or her sex life being broadcast world-wide? Or to work out that much of the information might have come from her English-speaking daughter? We could not answer these questions without knowing the author’s defence, but we did hope that the author had not become another who exploited the slum-dwellers for their own ends.

 Most of our discussion, however, focussed on the issues raised by the book, and we benefited from having some extensive knowledge of India within our group. Extreme poverty and hunger were poignantly revealed as the slum-dwellers fought to gather bits and pieces of everyday waste to sell to the recyclers for a rupee or two to keep them fed for another day. And the ghastly environment of the shanty-town with its lake of sewage – but cheek by jowl with the airport and its glittering luxury hotels – was unflinchingly recorded. However, powerful as this was, most of us were well aware, from visits, television or reading, that there was still appalling poverty in India on a giant scale.

 What came as a more of a shock for most of us was the extraordinary scale of corruption permeating all levels of society. This was most brutally exposed in the saga of Abdul and his incarceration and torture for a crime he did not commit, with the constant refrain of someone offering to solve the problem if only his impoverished parents could offer them a big enough bribe. Every fine-sounding Indian government initiative to help the poor was subverted by local politicians for their own financial gain. The anti-poverty business was a good one to be in because of the sums of money that could be creamed off. In one of her many bons mots, Boo yokes “politics and corruption” together as one of three possible routes out of poverty (and the one most likely to work).

 Occasionally the representatives of western governments and charities flit across the background, depicted as universally naïve and easily gulled into hearing what they want to hear. And, ludicrously, a western-inspired animal rights organisation intervenes in the slum to insist on the prosecution of an owner of horses. But the horses are better fed than the slum-dwellers, who consider the horses the most lovingly tended creatures in the slum. Meanwhile India had said it was now a rich country and did not need any aid from the West.

 Equally shocking was the despair. The level of suicide – from self-immolation, rat poison or hanging – was harrowing. She quotes an “ode to low expectations”, a particularly sad Marathi song: “What you don’t want is always going to be with you/What you want is never going to be with you…”

 She notes that “for every two people in Annawadi inching up, there was one in a catastrophic plunge.

 And in a particularly hard-hitting and radical conclusion she talks about the lack of mutual support and the narrowing of moral imagination in the slum. “Hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional…. The poor took one another down, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.

 However………did we accept that her bleak and angry portrayal of slum-life was accurate, and her hard-hitting conclusions fair? Here we were in difficulty in making a judgement. Based on the facts she presented, her conclusions seemed solid to most of us. But we were in the author’s hands in terms of what she chose to show us of the slum-world. Certainly a recently created and large urban slum, with the population constantly changing, and with different religions and different backgrounds, might be less mutually supporting than a rural village or even a South African township. And extreme poverty might challenge most people’s feeling for their fellow human-beings.

 But some wondered if Boo had in certain areas overstated her case. Were the slum-dwellers quite as mutually unsupportive as she concluded? Even on the evidence of the book there was not a lot of inter-slum theft or violence. Most of the witnesses in the Fatima case told the truth. And, as she herself acknowledged, there was less religious discrimination within the slum than might have been expected.

 And the economy of the slum did function at a certain level, and did support the wider economy of Mumbai. The alternative of giving up and returning to the poverty of the countryside seemed, for most residents, to be even less attractive.

 And there was some evidence of Indian government initiatives making progress. For example, the initiative to give the Dahlits priority in university entrance must have had some success to judge from the protests made by other caste groups.

 And was the legal system quite as bad as Boo implied? “The Indian criminal system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.” But the fast track system, which she ridiculed mercilessly, had at least reached the right verdict. And many of the faults she depicted – the length of time to reach a verdict, the lack of understanding of what is said in dialect, maltreatment of suspects by the police – could be found in older legal systems much closer to home. And although various intermediaries in search of bribes asserted that lawyers or judges might be bribed, she presented no evidence of any such corruption.

 So what hope for the future? One of us with much background in India had put to an Indian think-tank expert the view that corruption was India’s number one problem. The expert agreed, but, depressingly, said he could envisage no circumstances in which it might be tackled. One of the problems was that governments were generally coalitions between a major party (of which there were two), and smaller parties with only a regional or sectional rather than a national agenda. It was common to denounce corruption, but that was the corruption of your political opponents rather than systemic corruption in India.

 But was our concern – and Boo’s concern – about corruption just another example of people in the west ignorantly trying to impose our value judgments on a foreign country? Well, that was always a danger, but we remembered the analysis in the “The Undercover Economist” by Tim Harford  (discussed 30/1/08) of how a country like Cameroon failed in economic growth compared to China.  It was not because of lack of entrepreneurial spirit, but because of corruption.

 Perhaps we could only console ourselves by taking the longer view. It had taken Britain a couple of centuries to come to terms with the growth of urban slums associated with our agrarian and industrial revolutions. It was 1942 before the Beveridge Report proposed the developed welfare state along the lines we now know. As for corruption, it was 1853 before the Northcote Trevelyan report recommended that merit rather than “patronage, preferment or purchase” should be the basis for recruitment and promotion in the Civil Service.  We still had plenty of sink estates where life could be very unpleasant. In many respects India was now undergoing its own agrarian and industrial revolutions, and it would be naïve to expect them to be able solve the consequent problems overnight.