Frankopan, Peter: The Silk Roads

The proposer had read this book when it came out in 2015 and had won much praise and awards.  He considered it one of the best world histories ever written. There are many of these but they are mostly ‘one damn thing after another’ to quote AJP Taylor’s view of history. This one was much superior. It is a popular, accessible work but based on up-to-date academic research.

Peter Frankopan is a Croat by background. He is Professor of Global History at Oxford and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research. He has written a book on the First Crusade and has translated the diary of Anna Commenus.  He has worked on the history of the Mediterranean, Russia, Persia, Central Asia and Christian/Islam relations.

The major theme of the book as evidenced by the title is the importance of trade as a driver of history. War and religion have often been emphasized by historians.  Frankopan shows that trade and economic factors are often the most important drivers even when the justification is often religion or war. For example Frankopan emphasizes the importance of economic issues during the Crusades, including continued Christian /Islamic trading, and the important economic motives of Italian cities including the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Venetians.

His section on the Mongols was an excellent revision of the traditional view of the warlike Mongols emphasising how good they were as traders and administrators.

The book demonstrated that places on the Silk Roads were producers of goods as well dealers in trade.

That economics is a prime driver of history is not simple Marxism. It was a major theme of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers and writers such as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson.

One of our number unable to be present had provided an excellent summary and analysis of the chapter on the C14th plague which we know as the Black Death. This is included as an annex to this note. In this context it is worth mentioning also Frankopan’s account of the devastating effects on the Roman/Byzantine Empire of the plague in the 540s when Justinian was making good progress to restore the whole Roman Empire. The role of climate change was recognised as a factor. The world was likely due another pandemic.

The book had another theme, namely that the British and Europeans have been too Eurocentric in their understanding of history.  The legacy of the study of Greek and Roman culture was a major cause. A recent survey showed that 2/3rds of historians in the UK researched only European history and many only British. This represented a decline from earlier times explained partly by the decline in study of languages.

As Frankopan shows, the coastal countries of Western Europe only became important after the discovery of America and the sea route to India ‘the greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind’ to quote Adam Smith, though perhaps he can also be accused of over Eurocentrism.

This mattered because the prevalent historical narrative influences present opinion. The extent of Anglo- centrism and Anglo-exceptionalism can be see most recently in the Brexit vote though the Brexiteers might not express it in those terms. An important message of the book was that the age of European and US dominance was ending and power returning to the countries of the Silk Roads. Global history needed to be taught, not just European.

There was general agreement that the book was a brilliant synthesis of material that filled in many gaps in the knowledge of members, even including those who had studied history. It was well written but covered so much material that it required steady careful reading. The statistics were impressive in scope and detail, e.g. on GDP in India compared to the West in C17th and oil production statistics in C20th.

Changes in goods sought after was well covered, from luxuries such as gold, silver and silk to oil. The quest for control of goods, eg oil in the last 150 years was well illustrated as a basis of conflict between Russia and Britain both in World War I and later. Future conflicts would likely continue to centre on natural resources, including energy and water, particularly as such resources were running out.

It was a remarkable analysis and synthesis of up-to-date academic research. Those members who had knowledge of various aspects of the history could find nothing with which to find fault. For example, although it was highly critical of the impact of European states, and later the USA, on other countries this was no longer a contentious but mainstream view. Man’s inhumanity to man was a constant theme throughout the historic period covered whichever group was in the ascendant.

The book was an important corrective to the prevailing Westerncentric history with which members had been taught. It was vital to understand the importance of the East over the centuries as Western dominance was giving way again to Eastern.

There were some criticisms of the book.

The maps were not very good given the wide-ranging subject area.

Initially the author stuck closely to his title but at times the Silk roads link became a little tenuous though he returned to the area in more recent times.

The role of women was insufficiently recognised. One of our members explained that business had traditionally been the province of Mongol women while the men were away fighting and he instanced a recent negotiation with a Mongolian business, of which he was aware, in which all the leading executives were female.

There was no acknowledgement of previous historians who had attempted a similar approach, e.g. Frederick Braudel’s ‘ Civilisation and Capitalism’, albeit with a narrower geographic and temporal focus.

Overall these were minor criticisms of what was an extremely impressive work.


What an eye-opener! Written in beguilingly easy prose, this was endlessly interesting, despite the potentially weighty and academic nature of his subject.

I have learnt lots from it, particularly of course the importance of the East over the centuries. I was particularly struck by:

  • the material on European slavery,
  • the insights into the reality of the Crusades, which I understand is Frankopan’s original academic specialism,
  • the account of the development  of the Muslim Empire,
  • and the history of the Italian City States.

I guess this is popularising of solidly based academic studies, rather than original academic work, but there is nothing wrong with that.

I was intrigued by how he manages to hold my attention on subjects that would normally have me nodding after a few minutes. To study his writing techniques I looked more closely at a representative section, that on the Plague.

It starts with a well- turned surprise: “The most  important effect that the Mongol conquests had on the transformation of Europe, however,….[was] an outbreak of plague… The Mongols had not destroyed the world, but it seemed quite possible that the Black Death would.”

Then there is scientific analysis of how it spreads: “fleas vomiting bacilli into the bloodstream before feeding”.

Then there is the effect of climate change on flea numbers.

There follows a gruesome section about a Mongol army dying of plague in “thousands and thousands every day,” according to a commentator, but before withdrawing catapulting the corpses into the besieged city.

The trading highways now became lethal highways for transmitting the Black Death.

So many died in England that the Pope granted a plenary indulgence for confession of sins.

A contemporary source reckons scarcely a tenth of the population survived.

It reaches Mecca despite the Prophet promising plague would never reach the holy cities of Islam.

Another quote comes from a source, about dogs tearing at the corpses piled up against the mosques.

Taxpayers in one region of Egypt fell from 6,000 to 116.

Boccaccio claims 100,000 lost their lives in Florence.

There was a sense of impending apocalypse – raining frogs, snakes and lizards – giant hailstones killing people by the dozen.

Avoid sex and every fleshly lust with women urged a Swedish priest. Women must wear less revealing clothes said an English priest, as they were wearing short garments that “failed to conceal their arses or their private parts”.

Jews were considered to be the cause in Germany and vicious pogroms carried out.

An estimate suggests around 25 million dead out of a 75 million population.

Scientific work on other plagues suggests the key determinant is not the density of human population but the density of the rat population.

But – another surprise for the reader – the plague turned out to be the catalyst for profound social and economic change. The transformation provided an important pillar in the rise of the West. the shortage of labour empowered the peasantry against the propertied classes. Demand for luxury goods soared with wider spread of wealth and younger demographic, and European textile trade takes off.

Research on skeletal remains in graveyards shows that a rise in wealth led to better diet and health. The post- plague life expectancy was much higher.

Women got the chance to become wage earners, and marry later – check out the quote from advice to women by female Dutch poet. There was a developing work ethic in Northern Europe to counteract geographical position.

Hence, in this appendix, are quoted the main elements of this relatively short section  simply to demonstrate the tremendous range and skill of Frankopan. He blends scientific and economic analysis with striking contemporary quotations from literary, religious and other sources, all within a strong, compelling and very well informed narrative. Finally, he is always happy to spice things up with a liberal sprinkling of sex and violence!

Ferrante, Elena: My Beautiful Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

………and so we went on………and on…….. 

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

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


Faulks, Sebastian: Birdsong

The programme of events commemorating the centenary of World War 1 has triggered interest and heightened awareness of what is often referred to as “the forgotten war”, and we all wish to extend our appreciation of such momentous events. “Birdsong” (1993) is, of course, a work of fiction, but it is the product of extensive, detailed and original research. Faulks immersed himself in the time and the events that characterise it. In so doing he has been able to bring insights that seem authentic to a story line that compares and contrasts the vagaries of human nature when confronted with horror. Above all it gives you a sense of what it must have felt like to fight in the trenches.

It follows that this was an ideal choice for our book group.

The proposer of the book provided a brief introduction, outlining the author’s background. Born in Berkshire on 20th April 1953, Faulks has said that he had a very happy childhood. His mother introduced him and his elder brother to books, theatre and music at an early age. He was educated at Elstree School near Reading; Wellington College, Berkshire; and Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he read English. He graduated in 1974, and was elected an Honorary Fellow in 2007.

He decided that he wanted to be a writer while still at school, and after graduating he eked out a living by teaching at a private school. Then he joined the staff of the Daily Telegraph, firstly as a junior reporter and later as a feature writer for the Sunday Telegraph. He wrote books in his spare time and later reviewed books for the Sunday Times and The Spectator. In 1984 his first book titled “A Trick of Light” was published. In 1986 he joined the Independent as Literary Editor and he stayed with the Independent, becoming deputy editor of the Sunday paper. He left in 1991 and subsequently wrote columns for the Guardian and Evening Standard, before the success of “Birdsong” enabled him to focus his skills on writing books.

He has published 15 novels. The best known is the trilogy set in France: “The Girl at the Lion D’Or”, “Birdsong” and “Charlotte Gray”. “Engelby” was published in 2007 to mixed reviews. It represented a departure for Faulks in terms of the near-contemporary setting and in the decision to use a first person narrator. In 2008 he was commissioned to write a new James Bond novel by Ian Fleming’s estate to celebrate the centenary of Fleming’s death. “Devil May Care” became an immediate best seller.

He has been the recipient of many literary awards. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and received a CBE for services to literature in 2002. He married in 1989 and has three children.

The proposer explained that, as part of the WW1 commemorations, he had been involved in research into members of his golf club who had died in the conflict, and that this had provoked his interest in the book. He had previously read Engleby and had listened to Faulks talking about Engleby at the Edinburgh Book Festival. However, he preferred Birdsong.

Some of our group had read Birdsong some time ago and had re-read the book in order to refresh their memory. They all found added benefit in the second reading, uncovering depth in the characters and their contemplations, and wider themes in the book.

There were differing views of the “time shifts” otherwise described as “jump cuts”. Some thought it worked brilliantly, drawing out the contrast between untroubled pre-war life, the wretchedness of war itself and the transition to post war reality, and embodying his wider themes about time and the generations.  Others thought the time shifts “a bit clunky” and “irritating”, particularly the shift to the 1970’s.

There was a general view that the first part of the book that deals with Stephen’s life in Amiens, staying with the Azaire family and having a passionate affair with his host’s wife Isabelle, was a bit too long. One person was tempted to stop reading at this stage; however, all were sufficiently encouraged by the description of the steamy sex to carry on reading.

The jump from peacetime Amiens to the Western Front in 1916 was a surprise and a shock to all, with the stark contrast between the love affair in the peaceful countryside of northern France and the horrors of the Somme. This narrative technique worked well throughout the book, and was greatly appreciated by all.

It was mentioned that Faulks deliberately imitated cinematic narrative devices, “moving from unbearable close ups to a view on a long lens and a very wide shot”. This thread permeates all parts of the novel, and was particularly effective when deployed in linking time, building characters and in dealing with themes such as life and death.

Death is an ever-present theme. The scale and arbitrariness of death, and the impact on individuals and their families and comrades are topics that are especially well portrayed. The impression is given of fleeting contact with individuals, insights into their lives followed by descriptions of their deaths, sometimes casual and sometimes in graphic detail. It was suggested that the death of comrades in some way helped to secure a closer bond between those remaining and to unite them in a common cause.

The death of Michael Weir narrates the existence of chance, bad luck and timing as factors leading to death and to the resultant feelings of guilt felt by those that failed to intervene sooner. Weir is portrayed as a good man and the manner of his death was clearly intended to anger and horrify. This was cited by one of our group as a good example of the arbitrariness of death.

The group also liked the way that the vivid description of the death of Jack Firebrace was linked to the death of his eight year old son, whose passing some two years earlier had stripped Jack of his feeling of invincibility and his reason for living. We felt that deep emotional feelings, and their influence on the struggle for survival, were especially well explored.

The group admired Faulks’ descriptive powers in relation to the scale and nature of death.

bodies were starting to pile and clog the progress”; “explosives can reduce men to particles so small that only the wind carried them – men simply go missing”.

Stephen’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, on visiting a cemetery near Bapaume in the Somme, felt that “on every surface of every column as far as her eye could see there were names teeming, reeling, over surfaces of yards, of hundreds of yards, over furlongs of stone”.

One of our company particularly liked Stephen speaking to Gray regarding the attack on Beaumont Hammel  “I looked in your eyes and there was perfect blankness”, and following the attack as darkness fell the movement of the wounded was described as “It was like a resurrection in a cemetery 12 miles long”.

The group discussed the death rates of officers and men in both WW1 and WW2 and considered the reasons for the differences. While this conversation was interesting, the complexity of the topic threatened to divert us from considering the novel and it was parked for the time being.

It was suggested that at the time of writing “Birdsong” there was relatively little interest in WW1 and perhaps this silence related to the shock or trauma suffered by those who fought and survived. The reluctance on the part of veterans to share their experiences could be attributed to an overwhelming desire to forget or to conceal the trauma for reasons of self-preservation. Those at home might also not have wanted to hear about these experiences. We were reminded of Weir’s efforts to tell his father the truth about the front which were met with complete, almost hostile indifference.

Most of the group agreed that the strongest and most memorable sections in the book for them were those concerning the 1st day of the Somme offensive and those describing the underground warfare. The seduction of Isabelle in Amiens was also admired, but the reasons for the end of the affair remained a bit of a mystery.

There were mixed views on the sections dealing with the 1970’s. Some considered them a bit contrived, particularly the coded diaries, while others thought them well structured and entirely appropriate given their purpose to suggest that time heals, that hope arises out of despair and that life goes on.

It was pointed out that ironically the book’s title “Birdsong” is meant to represent the indifference of the natural world to the behaviour of humans. One felt that, Faulks, as an English graduate, was sometimes too self-conscious and contrived in his use of imagery to reinforce his themes, an example being his overly repetitive use of the imagery of birds from the title onwards. On the other hand, this might be Faulks’ way of re-enforcing the idea that life goes on in some shape or form despite the horrors of human actions.

Everyone admired Faulks’ skilful characterisation throughout the novel. Particular mention was made of the complex character of Stephen Wraysford, and the portraits of Azaire, Gray and Jack Firebrace. There was a view that the male characters were stronger than the female. Some found the character of Isabelle unconvincing. It was suggested that this might relate to the mystery associated with her behaviour. Various theories were put forward for the ending of her affair with Stephen, including one suggestion that she had decided that Stephen was not good father material, but none of these gained the confidence of the group and we were left to speculate. It was also suggested that the subject of the novel naturally places greater emphasis on the male characters, and that this was likely to result in these characters being more fully developed.

The group was surprised to learn that Faulks had written the book in only 6 months. It was his fourth novel and by far the most successful. He described the book’s success as the “locomotion” of his career. The book has sold more than 2 million copies in the UK and 3 million worldwide. Initially Faulks had difficulty finding a publisher in the USA, but it was eventually published by Random House and has done well. Perhaps surprisingly sales in Germany have been good, while sales in France have been poor. Faulks has commented that the French were surprised to hear that any other nationalities were involved in WW1!

It was the unanimous view of the group that “Birdsong” is a great modern novel, and we look forward to reading more of Sebastian Faulks’ work.

Fallada, Hans: Alone in Berlin (Every Man Dies Alone)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe proposer of the book described how he had come across it randomly in a bookshop, and had liked the quality of the paper and the font size (qualities to which those of us who had read the book on a Kindle were oblivious). He had a long-standing interest in the history of the Third Reich, and so possessed a solid intellectual pretext for purchasing this desirable physical object.

A biographical run-through of Hans Fallada’s life (real name: Rudolf Ditzen) revealed a tormented tale of traumas, including a childhood accident, a self-inflicted gunshot wound, alcoholism, morphine addiction, an unhappy marriage, trouble with the Nazi authorities, and spells in prison and mental hospitals. In spite of this, he was quite a prolific writer, and no fewer than eleven of his works have been translated into English.  “Alone in Berlin” became a best-seller in English only in 2009.  A new film version is in pre-production at the time of writing, featuring Emma Thompson.

Hans Fallada reportedly wrote the first draft of the novel in twenty-four days in late 1946, and died shortly before its publication. It was based on the true story of a couple who distributed anti-Nazi postcards in wartime Berlin.  We commented upon the similarities with our previous month’s book, George Orwell’s “1984”, written just over a year later, which also portrayed the relationship of a rebellious couple living under a repressive regime.  Although both books were enjoyed and highly praised by the group, the view was expressed that “1984” was the book with the more interesting ideas, and “Alone in Berlin” was the book with the most convincing characterisation.

The proposer admired the quality of the translation, although a few oddities were noted (such as the use of the Scottish ‘youse’ to indicate a less educated manner of speech) and there was speculation on the reasons for frequent shifts between past tense and historic present tense, which may have originated with Fallada.

We returned to characterisation, and commented on the large number of brutal and unpleasant individuals to be found in the book. One reader was reminded of the paintings of George Grosz, and commented on the ‘nasty, brutish and short’ vision of life that predominated in the book.  Others drew attention to redemptive characters whose role grew stronger in the latter part of the story – the retired judge from downstairs in the Quangels’ building; the conductor with whom Quangel shares a cell; the prison pastor; the previous postmistress and partner of Enno Kluge, who re-educates the delinquent son of Borkhausen.  These characters provided some counterbalance to the sadism and criminality that was otherwise pervasive.

There was agreement in our group that the book provided a strong sense of ‘living through’ the circumstances of wartime Berlin, and confronted us with the uncomfortable question of ‘what would you do?’  The dilemma of individuals whose innate decency and morality is compromised by fear and suspicion probably reflects Fallada’s own difficulties as an artist who chose to remain in Germany throughout the Nazi hegemony – a choice castigated by Thomas Mann.  In this respect the Gestapo inspector Escherich was found particularly interesting.  Initially he is brutal and unscrupulous, but Quangel’s defiance, combined with his own sufferings at the hands of his vicious superior Prall, brings him face to face with his own failings and leaves him no option but to kill himself.

Although one reader found that parts of the novel – notably parts dealing with Enno Kluge and his parasitic attempts to live off the prosperous owner of a pet shop – were rather over-extended, there was general agreement that the story moved at a good pace. The dual narrative of the Quangels’ postcard dropping and the Gestapo’s attempts to track them down created suspense and tension, and the later parts of the book, in which action was replaced by the static claustrophobia and despair of imprisonment, were also thoroughly engrossing.

Our discussion ranged briefly over many other topics – Biblical echoes in Quangel’s suffering, medical doubts about the description of his execution, and the relationship of the story to the true events on which it was based. The proposer recommended another book, Roger Moorhouse’s “Berlin at War” as reading for those who wanted to know more of the general context of the novel.  He commented that only a minority of the population of Berlin ever voted for the Nazi party, and that they were particularly subject therefore to suspicion and surveillance.

This brought us – as with our discussion of “1984” – to consideration of contemporary examples of growing surveillance by the state, such as face recognition technology at airports and the issue of chip-bearing identity tags for this year’s Ryder Cup sporting event.  The proposer modestly informed the group that he had made his first hole in one at golf recently, and we then drifted to golfing anecdotes and even a brief flirtation with the subject of football, so it was clearly time to clear away the glasses and issue forth beside the Forth, into the salty night air of Portobello.

The Good Soldier: Ford, Ford Madox

Ford_Madox_FordThe Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford was published in 1915, and the story is set just before World War 1.

The narrator, John Dowell is an American from Philadelphia married to Florence from Connecticut. They are very friendly with an English couple, Edward Ashburnham (the ‘good soldier’ of the title) and his wife Leonora. Most of the action is set in continental Europe, on the French coast or the spa resort, Nauheim in Germany, where Edward and Florence are seeking treatment, ostensibly for their heart ailments. The narrator describes the characters as ‘all quite good people’ – Edward especially so – but as the story progresses it becomes clear that all is not what it seems: the good characters unravel rapidly and their dark sides are revealed.

Edward is a philanderer whilst Florence is scheming, manipulative and unfaithful; neither suffer the heart ailments that they lead others to believe – they have constructed elaborate fake heart-trouble in order to pursue adulterous affairs in Nauheim. Leonora struggles to control her husband’s womanising and financial carelessness. She ultimately succeeds, but ends up marrying a dullard. Most importantly, the narrator himself is unreliable, telling us about his bad memory (although some details are recounted in vivid detail).  The story he tells is chronologically confused, full of inconsistencies and confuses the reader. At the end of the book we were left thinking that he might not merely be a poor story-teller with a bad memory but something worse, a murderer who has been obfuscating the truth and deliberately misleading us.

The book’s title does not describe the content of the book. The author’s preferred title was The Saddest Story – a tale of passion, echoing the famous first sentence ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard’, but the publisher thought a book with a sad title, published in wartime years (1915) would not be saleable. Ford was asked for another title, to which he replied, probably sarcastically,  “Why not The Good Soldier…’ and was horrified when this silly title was actually used (we learn this from the author’s 1927 letter to Stella Ford, who was really Stella Bowen and not his wife).  The book didn’t sell very well, perhaps because readers found its content quite different from what they had expected and didn’t recommend it to friends.

We struggled with the book. Most of our discussion was between members who had read the book two or three times and in one case also twice viewed the DVD (Granada TV, 1981). The author’s writing style is clever and some thought elegant, but he conveys a blurred and uncertain vision of events, much as the impressionist painters were doing at that time on canvas.

The proposer of the book prefaced his introductory remarks by telling us about a modern book called The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes, in which a distinction is made between books that are ’readerly’ and those that are ‘writerly’.  The chief distinction is that in a ‘writerly’ text the reader is expected to do some of the work, even retracing the steps taken by the author, whereas in a ‘readerly’ text, a fairly straightforward narrative style makes everything clear.  The proposer suggested that The Good Soldier is firmly in the ‘writerly’ category.  Some of the other books read by the group have ‘writerly’ qualities: for example in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, the reader is not always told who is speaking, but must work that out from the content and context of the spoken words. 

We talked about John Dowell’s character a good deal.  In fact he can be said to be the only character in the book, as everyone else is presented from his point of view, and their words are only the words he reports to us – sometimes from scenarios at which he was not himself present.  He is an unreliable and inconsistent narrator. He presents himself as a naive type, a daft laddie, and frequently apologises for his bumbling style, but there are at least some grounds for suspecting that all this is a ruse to obfuscate a dark deed that he has perpetrated – murdering his wife Florence and making it seem like a suicide.  

John Dowell’s attitude to Edward Ashburnham, the ‘good soldier’ of the title, is deeply ambivalent.  At various points he describes him with contempt, and at others with admiration and even envy.  He even says that he ‘loved’ him.  ‘He was the cleanest sort of chap; an excellent magistrate, a first rate soldier, one of the best landlords…in Hampshire…to the poor and to hopeless drunkards…he was like a painstaking guardian.’  He is a ‘good sportsman’ and risked his life to save others at sea.  He was also the inventor of a new army stirrup! 

But Edward obviously has a high libido, and conducts a series of affairs with other women while apparently abstaining from sexual relations with his own wife.  On the final page of the book the narrator tells of Edward’s final demise: we are led to believe he has slit his throat or his wrists with a penknife, although, as with the death of Florence (Dowell’s unfaithful wife), we are left feeling that John Dowell himself could have done it.  After all, Edward has cuckolded him for years, and Dowell is in love with Nancy Rufford, who is besotted with Edward, and has also – inconsistently as ever – confessed to coveting Edward’s wife Leonora.

Like his narrator, the author himself was a somewhat inconsistent character whose emotional life was complicated, as discussed by Julian Barnes in The Guardian, 7 June 2008.  Ford Madox Ford was born in Surrey in 1873 as Ford Hermann Hueffer but German-sounding names were unpopular at the time of the Great War. Rather belatedly, in 1919 he changed his name to Ford Madox Ford (after being in the British army with his German name, 1915-1917). His real wife was Elsie Martindale but although he took other lovers she refused divorce. He lived first with Violet Hunt, a novelist whom he called Violet Hueffer and then with Stella Bowen, an Australian painter, whom he called Stella Ford. There was also the writer Jean Rhys in Paris. 

So in some respects the author might have served as his own model for both the womanizer Edward Ashburnham and the shifty and confusing John Dowell.  Perhaps all fictional characters embody some elements of their creators. Biographers think there may have been an original Edward Ashburnham – and Ford himself claims that both the man and the story were drawn from life – but he hasn’t been identified so far.

As one grapples with the plot, there are many passages of great humour, often satirical of social manners, and of attitudes towards, among other things, the Catholic Church, Scotsmen, Northerners, and Americans. The way the characters express themselves is often funny too – for example Edward’s reported worry that using one’s brain too much may diminish performance on the polo field.  The book also has, in passing, much to say about class – the contrasts and imbalances between the ‘county folk’ like the Ashburnhams and their servants, and Dowell’s lack of compunction in beating up a long-standing and loyal negro retainer. 

Dowell’s generalisations about women are also humorously handled, and are perhaps infused with the historical context of the suffragette movement that was at its height in 1913 as Ford Madox Ford was writing the book:

‘For although women, as I see them, have little or no feeling towards a country or a career – although they may be entirely lacking in any kind of communal solidarity – they have an immense and automatically working instinct that attaches them to the interest of womanhood’.

The author considered this to be his best work. He thought it was a ‘serious analysis of the polygamous desires that underlie all men’. Some of us thought it was something in the nature of a technical experiment: his attempt to be clever, or at least clever enough to see whether the narrator could hide the truth by pretending to be a poor story-teller, as distinct from more obviously unreliable narrators in fiction, such as a clown, madman or naive person.  The confused timeline was also a technical experiment, and Ford’s overall intention was a form of ‘impressionism’, in some ways akin to the vision of the impressionist painters. 

Although the work was not popular at the time it was published, it has stayed in print and is nowadays often in the lists of ‘most important books to read’. Ford imagined his book could be required reading for university students in 150 years time.  It hasn’t quite made it yet, but there is still a half-century to go!

Ford, Richard: Canada

canadapicHaving been promised that a bottle of Lagavulin 16 would be on the table, your sharp-as-a-tack correspondent dragged himself away from Robbie’s, and the sunshine on Leith. Soon I was making a rare appearance at the Monthly Book Group, meeting in misty Morningside.

I was just relaxing into the first slug of the amber nectar when the host said “Canada?” “No” I replied, “never with a malt…” and then the frosty stares made me grab my pen…

Introducing “Canada” (2012) the proposer said that Richard Ford was an American novelist and short story writer. His best-known works were the novel The Sportswriter and its sequels Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, and the short story collection Rock Springs. He was associated with the ‘Dirty Realism’ movement, which includes Raymond Carver (see discussion 26/11/08). He was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1944, and changed from the study of law to that of creative writing. Like David Lodge, he had combined University posts with his writing career. He had won many prizes, notably the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day.

Ford has described his sense of language as “a source of pleasure in itself—all of its corporeal qualities, its syncopations, moods, sounds, the way things look on the page“.

For example, when asked why this novel was called ‘Canada’ he said ‘“Canada” – the word – possessed for me (and still does) what I think of as a plush suppleness. I like the three softened “a” sounds …  sandwiched among those muted, staccato’d consonants. I like its pleasing, dactylic gallop on my tongue. I like its rather stalwart, civic assertiveness to the foreigner’s eye’.

[Run that one by me again? Dactylic gallop??!! Was he serious, or was he throwing dirt in the critic’s eye? The only answer was surreptitiously to award myself another generous measure of Islay’s finest. Now that’s what I call plush suppleness….]

So why did the proposer choose it? Well ….. he went to Waterstone’s to buy ‘The Secret Race’, and it was a “buy one get a second half price” offer. He had read Ford’s ‘Sportswriter’ and thought it so-so, but saw ‘Canada’ and thought maybe he deserved a second chance.

And then the opening lines had him hooked: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then the murders, which happened later”.

“Canada” much impressed the Group. The book was unusual in a number of ways. The most obvious was that the author kept telling you what was about to happen before he described the event, as above, thus removing, at least superficially, suspense. Yet surprisingly this technique did not reduce the reader’s interest in what followed. If anything it enhanced it, as we wanted to know the detail of what happened. And the detail of feeling and description was Ford’s forte. He had the ability to conjure up the fabric of a scene so convincingly that you felt you were there. He created the very texture and rhythm of human interaction, the way that people thought as they dealt with each other, the way they spoke, the quirky little images of a scene that embed themselves in the memory.

Other writers – such as George Eliot or Henry James – like to analyse human interaction in similar detail, but they could be quite hard work to read without attention wandering. However, Ford was not like that at all. You always wanted to read more, to find out more. He was very accessible, and if the book was relatively long it could quite accurately be described as a page-turner.

To achieve this was literary craftsmanship of a highest order, and reflected a long apprenticeship. Part of the effect was due to his feeling for language and rhythm. He was very adept in not wasting words, and in using short sentences, paragraphs and chapters if needed to hold the reader’s attention. He did not bombard the reader with descriptive passages, but illuminated his work with the occasional striking image.

The structure of the book was unusual. It was divided into three un-named parts, all narrated in the first person by Dell. The first was set in the mid-to-late 1950s in Great Falls, Montana. It dealt with the build-up to a bank robbery by Dell’s parents – his plausible, self-confident and unsuccessful father and his introverted, literary mother. The second described how Dell was spirited over the border to a pioneer town in rural Canada. His new life, as an odd-job man for a mysterious American fellow-exile, soon led to his unwitting involvement as an accomplice in a ruthless double murder. Soon he was again spirited away, this time to a different part of Canada. The short third part, set in present times, sketched in the intervening years in which Dell had become a lecturer in English literature at a Canadian college. After a fair amount of philosophising about what Dell has learnt from his experiences, and about how he survived them, it dealt with Dell’s visit to his dying twin sister in Minneapolis.

Ford’s characterization was very strong. Dell, the narrator and centre of the book, was characteristic of the child of a military family always on the move – very self-reliant and with no friends other than his twin sister. From the outset he was an outsider, a loner, an observer looking through the glass into life and not actively engaged. Dell was attracted as a child to chess and bees – both zones of order. Dell was very accepting and did not blame his parents for what happened. Nor was he scared. He did not let things affect him much, did not allow himself to go under. Sh*t happened, and at end he emerged. Despite the shocks of the robbery and the murders, it was remarkable what a very orthodox and ordered life Dell had lived.

Dell’s sister Berner, to whom he was very close, was very different – rebellious, rushing into things, chaotic. Three times married, she could only live  “on the margins of conventional life”. Berner was unequivocally against her parents at time of robbery, but took to calling herself by her father’s name – Bev – once he was dead. This could be seen as an attempt to reconcile herself to her past, and to her father. However, we knew little about her life after the robbery, as the twins split up aged fifteen.

Dell’s parents were so well drawn you felt you knew that you would recognize them if you saw them in a shop, or walking down the street. We could identify with the problems faced by demobbed members of the Forces such as his father. We also recognized the man who thought he could get away with every scam. His mother had made two cataclysmic mistakes. She had married an unsuitable man when pregnant, instead of putting the twins up for adoption. She had joined in the robbery when she was already planning to leave her husband. In both cases she had weakly caved in. It was intriguing how the parents  had rationalized the robbery into something less than a crime, and amusing how they bungled its execution.

The figure of Reminger seemed a little less plausible, with something of a Gatsby imitation about him. However, Reminger’s character and motivation gained plausibility when he committed the murders. The half-caste Charley Quarters was a very striking creation, but again not wholly plausible, particularly when he was used as the vehicle to recount Reminger’s past.

Ford’s sense of place was very strong. Fifties USA was convincingly evoked, and Canada was brilliantly realized. This was pioneer Canada – lawless life on the margins, carnal and brutal, disfigured by decay and detritus as ghost villages rotted away. It was as different from the middle-class Montana that Dell knew, and the tourist Canada that we knew, as can be imagined.  It was remarkable how Dell remained positive despite living in this desolate borderland.

Crossing the border from Montana into Canada had a symbolic resonance. It took Dell away from his childhood into his manhood, and America became a foreign country much as childhood does. Yet there were some parallels between the two. On each occasion a father figure detonated change. In Montana it was Dell’s real father. In Canada it was Reminger, another chess-player, who asked Dell to play the role of his son in the confrontation that led to murder. Oddly, both fathers were bombers – his father in the airforce during the war, and Reminger in his activist period.

We could not resist discussing relations between Canada and the USA. These had often been tense, as Americans saw Canada as British North America and unfinished business. The Americans attacked Canada during the1812 war, and continued to make plans to invade Canada until well into the twentieth century.

So what were the main themes of “Canada”?

[Alas the group was not finished, but the Lagavulin was. What a great invention the screw top is, allowing you to sneak into your glass a few fingers of red from your secretly stashed bottle…]

The proposer empathized with the book’s sense that the accidental, the random, was dominant in life, and that there was no such thing as fate. This was the “sh*t happens” school of philosophy. It emerged very clearly from the events in Parts 1 and 2, such as the carcase deal gone wrong, the decision to rob the bank, Dell and Aunt Mildred fleeing the authorities etc. The lives of Dell and Berner would have been very different if it had not been for these events. The book could be seen as illuminating the error of the human impulse first to try to control our ‘fate’, and then retrospectively to try to make sense of our life, and give it some importance.

As the narrator put it on the last page: “I’ve often thought that where I live here, now – in the screwy way of things – was meant to be. But I simply don’t believe in these ideas. I believe in what you see being most of what there is, as I’ve taught my students, and that life is passed along to us empty.” However, the narrator was not entirely consistent, as when he said movingly of his father when he turned to crime: “I’ve thought that a long-suppressed potential in him had suddenly worked itself into visibility on his face. He was becoming who he was and who he was always supposed to be. He’d simply had to wear down the other layers to find out who he was.” But then artists did not have to be consistent.

Related to this, Ford seemed to believe that good and evil are not opposing forces but rather a matter of accident. “It’s best to see our life as and the activities that ended it, as two sides of one thing that have to be held in the mind simultaneously…. the side that was normal and the side that was disastrous” and  “how close evil is to the normal goings-on that have nothing to do with evil.” This might be a debatable position, but the novel certainly brought out powerfully the sense that committing a crime was an easy thing to do, that it was easy to fall through the ice.

Part 3 was the only part to attract some adverse comment. One member indeed felt that the book would have been better without it. Parts 1 and 2 were written in the tone and language of a 15 year old telling the story, not the language of someone reflecting in his sixties. A much older man could never have remembered all the detail with which Dell was writing. Perhaps Part 3 had been an afterthought? There was a hint or two in the acknowledgements that it had proved difficult to finish the book.

Another felt that the narrator was becoming too autobiographical in tone in Part 3. Ford’s childhood had been disrupted by his father’s heart attack, and he had spent much time thereafter with his grandfather, a hotel owner and retired prize-fighter. Had the novelist achieved sufficient distance from his creation?

Another felt that all the home-spun philosophizing in Part 3 was excessive. The author had forgotten the principle of “show not tell”. And it was ill judged to attempt to do his own literary criticism, in the clumsy guise of describing how his literature students reacted to his life story. But just as this reader was becoming irked, the author switched back to story-telling mode as he told the story of Dell crossing the border to meet his dying sister. And immediately the reader was hooked again, as Ford effortlessly conjured up the meeting, with all the little nuances of dialogue that reveal feelings, and all the little details of the scene that snag in the memory. And, for him, this got much closer to felt life than did Ford the philosopher. It brought back what an exceptional writer Ford was.

One member pointed out that Dell’s later life was certainly consistent with what had gone before. He had married an accountant, and had no children. You could say he had taken an “intellectual diazepam” to the strife of life. He had become a teacher, an observer and analyzer of life.

And Part 3 was also used to explore our urge to make sense of what has happened in our lives, to post-rationalize events, to think we have been in control. This urge might be self-deceiving, but was also very strong: “normal life was what I was trying to preserve for myself. Through all these memorable events … – it is all of a piece, like a musical score with movements, or a puzzle, wherein I am seeking to restore and maintain my life in a whole and acceptable state, regardless of the frontiers I’ve crossed. I know it’s only me that makes those connections. But to try not to make them is to commit yourself to the waves that toss you and dash you against the rocks of despair…..

The group then started debating how realistic it was that Dell would have sought so little contact with his twin in later life, or that his father would have made no effort to contact his children after coming out of prison. And should Reminger not have killed Dell too as the witness? Hold on, these were not real people and you had to give the author some artistic leeway…..

Basta! Yours truly put the top on the pen, pushed the now mysteriously empty bottle of red under the table, and lurched out into the murky November evening. Up ahead I could see yellow lights still shining in the windows of Bennets. Yes! I upped my pace, to a dactylic gallop….

Flaubert, Gustave: Madame Bovary

The proposer began our discussion with an account of Flaubert’s background, with particular regard to matters bearing on the novel, which was first published in serial form in 1856.  The book had taken him five years to write, and was set in a part of Normandy that was familiar to him.  The action occurs in the period 1827-46.  It is one of the best-known nineteenth century French novels and counts many eminent writers among its admirers, including Henry James (who wrote “Madame Bovary has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost alone; it holds itself with such a supreme unapproachable assurance as both excites and defies judgment”) and, more recently, Mario Vargas Llosa.  The eminent critic James Wood  remarked that “novelists should thank Flaubert as poets should thank Spring” because “he established for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible”.

The group acknowledged that Flaubert seemed to be revolutionary in his attention to detail and his deployment of a style of narration that anticipated the Joycean “stream of consciousness”.  But in spite of this capacity for getting inside his characters’ heads, the group felt that he was contemptuous of their bourgeois attitudes and essentially pessimistic and misanthropic.  We had all struggled to find sympathy with either Charles or Emma Bovary, and wondered if Flaubert himself had any sympathy for them, despite his famous remark “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”.  We wondered if this lack of sympathy resulted from him being a self-confessed reformed romantic, whereas she never fully understands the falseness of such a world view.

One reader remarked that he had missed any humour in the novel, although the proposer commented that in his case he had found humour that he had missed when he first read the book at the age of sixteen.  He cited the satire on the slow speech mannerisms of rural folk, and Madame Bovary’s visit to the curate.  The figure of the apothecary Homais had comic elements, but it was remarked by the proposer that he felt the focus on Madame Bovary herself tended to squeeze the life out of the other characters.

We turned to discussion of the book’s themes.  We couldn’t come up with any novels of an earlier date that portrayed an adulterous marriage in such detail. Was the novel ground-breaking in this respect as well as in its realist style of writing?  We couldn’t be sure, but we thought so.  There was some discussion of its contemporary reception as immoral, and comparison with later frank treatments of sexuality that got into trouble with self-appointed moral authorities, such as Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.  However, ‘Madame Bovary’ was in fact anything but an apology for adultery.  It contains the observation that adultery ends up in the same banality as an unsuccessful marriage, and punishes the adulterous protagonist with a slow and painful death.

We discussed the quality of the various translations we had read.  One reader had been put off while reading one otherwise good translation by a number of modern Americanisms which he felt disrupted the nineteenth century European ambience of the story.  The proposer pointed out the similarities in the life of one of the book’s best-known translators – Eleanor Marx-Aveling, the daughter of Karl Marx – with the life of Emma Bovary herself, notably her suicide by swallowing poison.  The usefulness or otherwise of notes and indexing was considered, and it was felt that they drew attention to many contemporary allusions that we would otherwise miss.  For one member of our group, the detailed picture of mid-nineteenth century rural life that the book portrayed was its chief pleasure.

A few structural oddities in the book were brought up.  For example an unidentified “we” begins the narration but subsequently disappears in favour of a generalised omniscient narrative voice, albeit one close to the inner thoughts and feelings of Emma Bovary in particular.  Another oddity identified by one reader was the failure of Madame Bovary’s affectionate father to show any further interest in his daughter once she had married.  For him, this was not credible, but another member of the group pointed out the insularity of life at the time, and the difficulty of making journeys in rural France in those days.

Finally, in spite of its undeniable historical importance and influence on other writers, did ‘Madame Bovary’ stand up as worth reading for a contemporary readership?  The response was a rather muted ‘yes’ from the group.  Certainly for this reader, the experience of a first reading of a classic text that had long been on his “must read one day” list was one of indifference to the fate of the characters, and a sense of having somehow missed the point.  Although others in the group had enjoyed the book more, even the proposer declined to champion the work as a masterpiece.