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.

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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.