Roth, Joseph: Radetzky March

The meeting was held in the residents’ lounge of Burt’s Hotel in Melrose where seven of the members were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the MBG. After an excellent lunch in a wine shop and a walk along the Tweed (for the majority, two arrived later by bike from Edinburgh) members settled down at 5.00 pm to a two hour pre-dinner session on the book. The proximity of the bar with good local Border brewery beers on tap assisted the discussion of a book with a strong alcohol presence.

The proposer opened by saying that the MBG had already considered German novels from the Twentieth Century by Franz Kafka and Gunter Grass and he wished to introduce a novel by another writer in German, Joseph Roth. The proposer was a keen student of the pre 1914 Habsburg Empire and had discovered Roth’s work as a result. Although less well known than Kafka, Grass and Thomas Mann, he considered Roth to be in that class of writer, a judgement shared by other more eminent critics.

For example, the Best German Novels of the Twentieth Century, is a list of books compiled in 1999 in which 99 prominent German authors literary critics, and scholars of German ranked the most significant German-language novels of the twentieth century.  The group brought together 33 experts from each of the three categories. Each was allowed to name three books as having been the most important of the century (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Best_German_Novels_of_the_Twentieth_Century). Ranked in order, these were

  1. Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities
  2. Franz Kafka: The Trial
  3. Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain
  4. Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz
  5. Günter Grass: The Tin Drum
  6. Uwe Johnson:  From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl
  7. Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks
  8. Joseph Roth: Radetzky March
  9. Franz Kafka: The Castle
  10. Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus

The proposer further summarised some of the principal milestones in Roth’s life (1894-1939) which can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Roth.   He emphasised the influence of Jewish culture, WW1 and the fall of the Hapsburg Empire, and the rise of the third Reich on his life and writing.  He explained that Roth also considered his relationship to Catholicism very important and may even have converted. Michael Hofmann states that Roth “was said to have had two funerals, one Jewish, one Catholic.” In his last years, he moved from hotel to hotel, drinking heavily. His novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1939) chronicles the attempts made by an alcoholic vagrant to regain his dignity and honour a debt.

As is often the case, members discussed first what translation they had read. Two had been read: one by Michael Hoffman, Roth’s main English translator, and the other by Joachim Neugroschel who had translated the Penguin Classic version. Readers of each version were enthusiastic about their translations and a comparison of some passages revealed reassuring similarities. The proposer, however, did indicate a preference for Hoffman’s use of ‘ Habsburg’ with ’b’ rather than Neugroschel’s ‘p’. It was also noted that Hoffman had translated the name for the local schnapps as 90 rather than 180 proof which Neugroschel had used.

Comparisons were made between the translations of various passages that had impressed readers’ e.g.  the return of Carl Joseph’s love letters in Chapter 4;  the physical description of Franz Joseph at the beginning of Chapter 15; the fourth sentence of the book ‘Fate had elected him for a special deed. But he then made sure that later times lost all memory of him.’

The general response to the book was enthusiastic. It was written, translated and flowed very well. There were rich, poetic scenes both of the natural and human world. It was an elegiac, poignant novel. Comparisons with Chekhov, Hardy and Joyce were made.

There were some superb set scenes suffused by Roth’s sense of the ridiculous: Solferino; the meeting between Carl Joseph and Sergeant Slama, the husband of his mistress; the sex scenes; the gambling, duels and drinking of army life; Carl Joseph’s attempt to live as a peasant; the party during which the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is revealed; the non-heroic death of Carl Joseph.

It was a male dominated novel with women in subordinate roles and there was dispute about how well the women were portrayed.

The use of the pictures of the hero of Solferino and the Emperor Franz Joseph was well done. The similarities between the two were well brought out. The proposer said he had recently been in a restaurant in Cracow which had a picture of Franz Joseph on the wall though Cracow had left the Habsburg Empire a century ago.

There was some discussion of Roth’s treatment of Jews. Roth was a Jew at a time of growing persecution but in his writing he portrayed Jews as whatever he perceived, warts and all. Some saw the book as portraying an archaic world where duels involving honour over gambling debts or love affairs occurred. The role of the army as a unifying force within the Empire was noted. One of those present said his brother-in-law had been a member of a duelling club at a German university and had the scars to prove it! The proposer volunteered that at university he had been run through some four inches during a fencing bout.

The book was a wonderful evocation of its world. Roth was not recreating a historical account of the past, as Tolstoy did in War and Peace, but writing as one who lived it. He was obsessed with the events of his own time.

The book had a sense of the helplessness of the individual participants and the empire struggling against an inexorable fate. All the Trottas were incapable of action and were unable to form proper relationships.   Random chance had brought them to prominence and they had not adapted well to their new noble status. They were not alone in this; all the characters in the novel were locked into their roles, apart from perhaps the Polish Count Chojnicki.

The juxtaposition of borders and opposites, e.g. monarchy/revolution was perfectly expressed in the frontier between the two empires of Franz Joseph and the Tsar in Ukraine. Roth was a pessimist. He said his characters were not ‘intended to exemplify a political point of view- at most they demonstrate the old and eternal truth that the individual is always defeated in the end.’ Roth saw the old pre 1914 world as obsolete but the new post 1914 world was worse in many ways. He came to see the values in the old world as superior to the new.

The meeting concluded in general agreement that the book had been an excellent choice for the tenth anniversary and in a mellow mood adjourned to dinner and the bar.

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Rees, Matt: A Name in Blood

There is an assumption that those attending Monthly Book Group meetings have read the book. Sometimes members find little more than unintended humour in it,caravaggio-sacrifice-isaac but almost always there is something. Often the proposer shows that there is more than the member realized. Sometimes another member provides enlightenment. Commonly the doubts of the first 50 pages are dispelled or put into perspective. No such reservations were associated with “A Name in Blood” by Matt Rees (2012). There was a sense that folk had enjoyed the read. They were relaxed rather than enquiring or confrontational.

The proposer introduced the author as having made a name for himself by writing crime novels set in Palestine. Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammet had influenced him. “A Name in Blood” was, however, not chosen by the proposer because of these earlier works, but rather as a whim in a bookshop, and why not?

To write the book Rees learnt to paint, studied the artist who inspired the book, visited galleries throughout the world and was taught sword fencing. What he then produced was a novel about power, love, duplicity and patronage. His use of language was effective and sometimes shone.

Thus the artist, Michelangelo Merisi (called Caravaggio after his home town) first sees the female he would come to love:

The soles of her bare feet were turned upward as she leaned forward to brush. They were soiled in such striations of black brown and grey that he could taste the dirt on his tongue”.

To add to the significance of this vivid sentence, Caravaggio saw her when he was visiting a Cardinal in Rome and she was his menial employee.

The proposer particularly liked the challenging conversations between the artist and his patrons. These were superficially the idle creation of the author. However, nothing can obscure the contrast between the sacred subjects he was commissioned to paint and, the actual works, which for the papal aristocracy of the late Renaissance were almost heretical. Often he used prostitutes as models for sacred subjects, and did little to disguise their earthy appearance, or indeed their identity. Caravaggio was revealed in his works to be brave to the point of folly, but saved by his sincerity and his genius. Rees was thus on sure ground when he explored Caravaggio’s art through invented conversations between a sophisticated religious elite and a rebellious artist.

We had descriptions of Rome in this period:  the beauty, the sin, the grace, the vulgarity and the cruelty. The proposer enjoyed all this and everyone agreed.

We were then invited to comment. What was the title about? Was this literally to do with the signature on a painting?  Or possibly, it was thought, to reflect the gradual change from the innocence of youth to the braggadoccio of the adolescent to the imminent prospect of death, which dominates the later chapters of the novel. As to the life of Caravaggio, the group discussed his paintings, noted that he fell out of fashion for a long period, and only re-emerged in the 20th century as a true great.

What of the detective in Mr Rees? DNA tests suggest Caravaggio was buried in Porto Ercole, so was he in fact on the return journey to Rome? Why did the Knights of Malta cooperate if Rees was to blame one of their number – Roero – for executing a great artist in return for the release of the rather doubtful Fabrizio? Why was the death not investigated by one of the artist’s important friends? This prompted one of our members to raise doubts about historical novels. Is your problem whether simply to read the novel and judge it as such or check it against historical record? “It is not just my problem, it is the problem” was the reply. The group discussed this and with reference to Walter Scott and his successors as exponents of this genre. The conclusion was that we make our own choice. Did this book ring true? Yes. Let each of us decide if there is a need to know more.

The early work of the artist was contrasted with the later. The sexual preferences of the artist may have been important to some at the time, but not to all. Derek Jarman’s film from 1986 was referred to, but he had an agenda. Caravaggio’s early work had a homoerotic quality, but his later work was religious, with messages not of a sexual nature.

What, belatedly, of the characters? The main relationship is between Caravaggio and Lena. He is presented with the classic “behave and live with me, or go off and die”. The way he goes off and dies could have been taken from an Italian opera. We have the wager on the outcome of the tennis match, the numerous scenes where he is urged to pay the debt, the elegant development of the feud until a duel with Ranuncio becomes not foolish but necessary. Having been engulfed in this he does not see Lena to try to explain. He flees. This sets up the remainder of his life.

And details? Do we appreciate his work less than those four centuries ago? Yes. However, the proposer was of Italian extraction. Did he understand the work better than we did? Possibly, but we all have to understand the Bible and Greek and Roman myths to understand so much of European culture.

The proposer drew our attention to a place name in the book whose shared surname will lead some to rename his house as such in future. We noted that the camera obscura was used to help portrait painting. We also read about the make up of a tennis ball of the period, which was self indulgent, as was the detail in the duel scene. One member thought that the lack of semi colons made the prose too staccato. Did the lead in the paint make Caravaggio “hyper”? Possibly.

It was hard to focus on the novel itself, as opposed to the art, history, religion etc, and if we digressed from Matt Rees the novelist, who cares! We enjoyed ourselves.

Rushdie, Salman: The Moors Last Sigh

The proposer indicated that Salman Rushdie was no stranger. He was born in 1947 and this prompted him to write Midnights Children .The proposer had  a copy of this book autographed and  dedicated to him as a member of the 1947 club .The proposer had told Rushdie he had been  conceived in Calcutta during the Raj even though  born late and in Edinburgh .

Rushdie’s father was a rich lawyer /business man who changed his name to Rushdie after the great Muslim philosopher of medieval Spain. He was a Bombay wallah and after early education he sent Salman to Rugby School and thence to Kings Cambridge  to read History .Then Rushdie joined an advertising agency dreaming up “That will do nicely”   for American Express , “Naughty but nice”    for cream cakes and “Irresistible” for Aero chocolate .In the evenings he wrote a first book [a failure ] and then in 1981 Midnights Children which won the Booker Prize and the later Best of Bookers. This won lots of Awards and opened the way for many other talented Indian Authors, eg Vikran Seths A Suitable Boy .

After Shame a book set in Pakistan he went on to Satanic Verses .At some time it was always going to provoke Muslim ire but he doubtless did not expect the Fatwah.

Then in hiding he wrote The Moors Last Sigh .This was an important matter for us to recognise in our discussion .The proposer  met him when he appeared in 1995 in London and Edinburgh to launch the book .Security is a familiar fact now but 17 years ago it was interesting to give one’s details in advance ,be searched on arrival and then see that 10% of the audience was looking at the rest of the audience not at Rushdie .He looked in the flesh less ugly than  expected .The goggle eyes are probably made more obvious by TV studios .Also he was charming .

The proposer had not read Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s recently published book about his life in hiding after the Fatwah .There was no index so he could not see in the book shop what Rushdie  had to say about The Moor. Finally in 1995 the proposer went with his wife to India for the first time and later in the year to Granada. The Red Forts in Delhi and Agra are not too different from the Alhambra .Also they saw the spice markets and warehouses in Cochin and the Synagogue with its blue tiles .It follows that this is more than just a literary  choice for the proposer.

 The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel about modern India. Its hero is Moraes Zogoiby of Bombay, nicknamed by his mother “the Moor.” But the famous sigh to which the title refers was breathed five centuries ago, in 1492, when Muhammad XI, last sultan of Andalusia, bade farewell to his kingdom, bringing to an end Arab-Islamic dominance in Iberia. From Sultan Muhammad a line of descent, partly historical, partly fabulous, leads to Moraes, the narrator, who in 1992 will return from the East to “discover” Andalusia. In a dynastic prelude occupying the first third of the novel, Moraes’s genealogy is traced back as far as his great-grandparents, the da Gamas. Francisco da Gama is a wealthy spice exporter based in Cochin in what is now Kerala State. A progressive and a nationalist, he soon disappears from the action (Rushdie gives short shrift to characters whose usefulness has ended), but his wife Epifania, faithful to “England, God, philistinism, the old ways,” survives to trouble succeeding generations and to utter the curse that will blight the life of the unborn Moraes.

Their son Camoens, after flirting with Communism, becomes a Nehru man, dreaming of an independent, unitary India which will be “above religion because secular, above class

because socialist, above caste because enlightened.” He dies in 1939, though not before he has had a premonition of the violent, conflict-riven India that will in fact emerge.

Camoens’s daughter Aurora falls in love with a humble Jewish clerk, Abraham Zogoiby. Neither Jewish nor Christian authorities will solemnize their marriage, so their son Moraes is raised “neither as Catholic nor as Jew,…a jewholic-anonymous.” Abandoning the declining Jewish community of Cochin, Abraham transfers the family business to Bombay and settles in a fashionable suburb, where he branches out into more lucrative activities: supplying girls to the city’s brothels, smuggling heroin, speculating in property, trafficking in arms and eventually in nuclear weapons.

 Aurora is a  complex character and , in many ways the emotional centre of the book. A painter of genius but a distracted mother, she suffers intermittent remorse for not loving her children enough, but prefers finally to see them through the lens of her art. Thus Moraes is worked into a series of her paintings of “Mooristan,” a place where (in Aurora’s free and easy Indian English) “worlds collide, flow in and out of one another, and washofy away…. One universe, one dimension, one country, one dream, bumpo’ing into another, or being under, or on top of. Call it Palimpstine.” In these paintings, with increasing desperation, she tries to paint old, tolerant Moorish Spain over India, overlaying, or palimpsesting, the ugly reality of the present with “a romantic myth of the plural, hybrid nation.”

Aurora’s paintings give a clear hint of what Rushdie is up to in this, his own “Palimpstine” project: not overpainting India in the sense of blotting it out with a fantasy alternative, but laying an alternative, promised-land text over it.

But The Moor’s Last Sigh is not an optimistic book, and the paintings of Aurora’s high period become darker and darker. Into them she pours not only her unexpressed maternal love but also “her larger, prophetic, even Cassandran fears for the nation.” Her last painting, which gives the book its title, shows her son “lost in limbo like a wandering shade: a portrait of a soul in Hell.”

Moraes is born under the curse of two witch-grandmothers, so it is no surprise that he has a clublike right hand and a metabolism that dooms him to live “double-quick,” growing—and aging—twice as fast as ordinary mortals.  The comparison was made with Oscar in The Tin Drum, previously discussed by the Group.

Venturing into the world, he is caught in the toils of the beautiful but evil rival artist Uma Sarasvati. A pawn in the war between this demon mistress and his mother, Moraes first finds himself expelled from his parental home and then in jail, accused of Uma’s murder. Released, he joins the Bombay underworld as a strikebreaker and enforcer in the pay of one Raman Fielding, boss of a Hindu paramilitary group.

Moraes’s grandfather Camoens had faith in Nehru but not in Gandhi. In the village India to which Gandhi appealed, he saw forces brewing that spelled trouble for India’s minorities: “In the city we are for secular India but the village is for Ram… In the end I am afraid the villagers will march on the cities and people like us will have to lock our doors and there will come a Battering Ram.” His prophecy begins to fulfil itself in Moraes’s lifetime when the doors of the Babri mosque at Ayodhy are battered down by crowds of fanatical Hindus.

Camoens is prescient but ineffectual. Aurora, an activist as well as an artist, is the only da Gama with the strength to confront the dark forces at work in India. When the annual festival procession of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, a show of “Hindu-fundamentalist triumphalism,” passes by their house, she dances in view of the celebrants, dancing against the god, though, alas, her dance is read by them as part of the spectacle (Hinduism notoriously absorbs its rivals). Every year she dances on the hillside; dancing at the age of sixty-three, she slips and falls to her death.

Raman Fielding, rising star of the Hindu movement, is a thinly disguised caricature of Bal Thackeray, the Bombay leader of the Shiv Shena Party, which Rushdie elsewhere calls “the most overtly Hindu-fundamentalist grouping ever to achieve office anywhere in India.” Closely linked with Bombay’s criminal underworld, Fielding is “against unions,…against working women, in favour of sati, against poverty and in favour of wealth,…against ‘immigrants’ to the city,…against the corruption of the Congress [Party] and for ‘direct action,’ by which he meant paramilitary activity in support of his political aims.” He looks forward to a theocracy in which “one particular variant of Hinduism would rule.”

The underworld struggle between Fielding and Moraes’s father culminates in the murder of Fielding and the destruction of half of Bombay. Sick of this new “barbarism,” Moraes retires to Andalusia, there to confront another monster or evil, Vasco Miranda. Miranda is a Goan painter who has made a fortune selling kitsch to Westerners. Obsessively jealous of Aurora, he has stolen her Moor paintings; to reclaim them, Moraes finds his way into Miranda’s Daliesque fortress. Here Miranda imprisons him and lets him live only as long as (shades of Scheherazade) he writes the story of his life. Rushdie of course at the time of writing the book was in hiding, a form of captivity, to avoid the same fate as Scheherazade.

Locked up with Moraes is a beautiful Japanese picture restorer named Aoi who perishes; Moraes, with Miranda’s blood on his hands, escapes. It is 1993, he is thirty-six years old, but his inner clock says he is seventy-two and ready to die.

The final chapters of the book, and the opening chapter, to which they loop back, are packed (or palimpsested) with historical allusions. Moraes is not only Muhammad XI (Abu-Abd-Allah, or Boabdil, in the Spanish corruption of his name): he sees himself as Dante in “an infernal maze” of tourists, drifting yuppie zombies, and also as Martin Luther, looking for doors on which to nail the pages of his life story, as well as Jesus on the Mount of Olives, waiting for his persecutors to arrive. It is hard to avoid the impression that all the left-over analogues of the Moor fable from Rushdie’s notebooks have been poured into these chapters, which are as a result frantic and overwritten  while elementary rules of fiction, like not introducing new characters in the last pages, are ignored: Aoi is the case in point.

 As if unsure that the import of the Boabdil/Moraes parallel has come across, Rushdie glosses it as follows: Granada, in particular the Alhambra, is a “monument to a lost possibility,” a “testament…to that most profound of our needs,…for putting an end to frontiers, for the dropping of boundaries of the self.”  The palimpsesting of Moraes over Boabdil supports a less trite, more provocative thesis: that the Arab penetration of Iberia, like the later Iberian penetration of India, led to a creative mingling of peoples and cultures; that the victory of Christian intolerance in Spain was a tragic turn in history; and that Hindu intolerance in India bodes as ill for the world as did the sixteenth-century Inquisition in Spain.

Rushdie pursues palimpsesting with considerable vigour in The Moor’s Last Sigh, as a novelistic, historiographical, and autobiographical device. Thus Granada, Boabdil’s lost capital, is also Bombay, “inexhaustible Bombay of excess,” the sighed-for home of Moraes as well as of the author over whose person he is written. Both are cities from which a regenerative cross-fertilization of cultures might have taken place, but for ethnic and religious intolerance.

Like Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983), and The Satanic Verses (1989), The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel with large ambitions composed on a large scale. In its architecture, however, the Group found it disappointing. Aside from the dynastic prelude set in Cochin, and the last fifty pages set in Spain, the body of the book belongs to Moraes’s life in Bombay. But instead of the interwoven development of character, theme, and action characteristic of the middle section of what might be called the classic novel, the middle section of Rushdie’s novel makes only fitful and episodic progress. New actors are introduced with enough inventiveness and wealth of detail to justify major roles; yet all too often their contribution to the action turns out to be slight, and they slipped (or were slipped) out of the picture almost whimsically. It was also argued by some in the Group that those without a good knowledge of the history of the period both in Bombay and wider India would struggle with the narrative.

To complaints of this kind—which have been voiced with regard to the earlier books as well—defenders of Rushdie have responded by arguing that he works, and should therefore be read, within two narrative traditions: of the Western novel (with its subgenre, the anti-novel à la Tristram Shandy), and of Eastern story-cycles like the Panchatantra, with their chainlike linking of self-contained, shorter narratives. To such critics, Rushdie is a multicultural writer not merely in the weak sense of having roots in more than one culture but in the strong sense of using one literary tradition to renew another.

It is not easy to counter this defence in its general form, particularly from the position of an outsider to India. But to take a single instance from The Moor’s Last Sigh: the episode in which Moraes’s father, Abraham Zogoiby, in a fit of enthusiasm for the modern, impersonal, “management” style in business, adopts a young go-getter named Adam over Moraes as his son and heir. For some fifteen pages Adam occupies centre stage. Then he is dropped from the book. The Group found the episode unsatisfying; further, we would hazard a guess that the reason why Adam disappears is not that Rushdie is following traditional Indian models but that he is only half-heartedly committed to satirizing the business-school ethos; he abandons this particular narrative strand because it is leading nowhere.

Others disagreed, enjoying the stories of Adam and other personages who blazed briefly across the pages of The Moor’s Last Sigh and then expired. 

Such characters as Vasco Miranda or Uma Sarasvati or even Abraham Zogoiby himself provide a comparable problem. In their extravagant villainy they seem to come straight out of Hollywood or Bollywood. 

In fact Rushdie is far from being a programmatic postmodernist. For instance, he is disinclined to treat the historical record as just one story among many. We see this in his treatment of the two histories out of which Moraes’s story grows: of the Moors in Spain, and of the Jews in India. In the case of the Moors, and of Muhammad/Boabdil in particular, Rushdie does not deviate from the historical record, which is probably most familiar to Westerners from Washington Irving’s nostalgic sketches in The Alhambra. As for the Jewish communities in India, their origins are ancient and will probably never be known with certainty. However, they preserved certain legends of origin, and to these legends Rushdie adheres without embroidering, save for one superadded fiction: that the Zogoibys descend from Sultan Muhammad (called by his subjects El-zogoybi, the Unfortunate) via a Jewish mistress who sailed for India pregnant with his child. This story is specifically (through not unequivocally) singled out as an invention by Moraes in his function as narrator.

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The overall reaction to the book was positive. It brought out the complexity and diversity of Indian society and history. It was a rich, extensive, humorous and complex story that was very enjoyable to read. There were reservations  ( see above) expressed by some of our number. The virtuosity and exuberance were entertaining and admirable but sometimes descended into showing off, stylistic confusion and incoherence.  Against this it was also pointed out that those writing in English but brought up outside England were able to call upon a wider range and background in their works, eg Kipling and Paul Scott in earlier times and Rushdie, Seth, Zadie Smith and others .

 Fielding is Bal Thakeray the founder of Shiv Sena see ayodhia  riots  and theBombay riots

QUOTES

“give up such delusive  Esperance you rotter “

Sarah “ a large full bodied  girl waiting like an undiscovered  continent, for Abrahams vessel to sail into her harbour”

Laurel and Hardon

Roth, Philip: Sabbath’s Theatre

Roth, Philip: “Sabbath’s Theatre”.  Discussed 26/7/12.

 “Then turn me inside out over your cock. Like somebody peels off a glove”. The puppet master speaks. Is this literature of the highest order, or pornography that aims to shock rather than entertain and inform? That was the main question that faced a full house of book readers of similar age who wondered where it had all gone wrong. Perhaps it had gone right?

The host and proposer suggested Philip Roth was surely not to everyone’s taste, but was very highly regarded in the USA. This was confirmed by the proportion of favourable reviews, both professional and amateur, on the e-verse. Some thought him shallow, some offensive, but most admired his quality of writing. One who did not admire his work was Carmen Calli, a feminist who resigned when Roth won the Booker International prize in 2011. Claire Bloom, his former wife had described him as a “self-involved, all-controlling misogynist”.  Not one for the ladies perhaps? Was he a man who writes for men and one who portrays his female characters as less than human? Was Nikki less than human in Sabbath’s Theater? Did the characters come alive? What about Drenka? Nikki was no-one till she came alive as an actress and as Mickey’s muse.

Overall, we did not subscribe to Calli’s idea of a woman, but maybe many women are less than Calli’s idea of a woman, irrespective of their portrayal by Philip Roth. If ever a book group needed a mixture of the sexes in discussing a book this was the time. One member noted that his wife had commented ‘Are you reading that’? Had she read it, we wondered? Did she know it by experience or reputation?

As with many books, the proposer felt that it really should be read again; he had read much more into it second time round.  Another found the outrageous sex scenes very funny. He liked the Dickensian comments on life, and the tirades against the several targets. He suggested that Roth was skilled in portraying loss, death and bereavement. The book was clearly humorous. There were brilliantly funny scenes throughout, for example the wonderful rummaging about in Deborah’s drawers, in among the panties looking for the Polaroids when Norman or Rosa the maid came in.

Again, like other books, there was a feeling that this book could be judiciously edited (like these comments … Ed.), and as such could be a greater work. There was an element of overdrive in the book, producing purple passages of prose and then away, free in one bound. Such brilliant passages ranged from sex to death to manipulation of people as puppets. They were very effective descriptions, with some of the most erotic writing in the canon. Some made comparisons to Chaucer. In those days people were much more liberal; it was much easier to write about sex.

Hold on, not everyone agrees! An alternative view was that Sabbath was a self-aggrandising s**t. Roth was, as usual, working in his own character. Another echoed that he did not enjoy the book. As he considered himself a bit puritanical, he felt exposed to the book, rather than enjoying it. Another wondered if the language was that used in a homosexual group. He compared his experience of the language in the book to meeting such a group. He also suggested that favourable criticism was jumping on the bandwagon. A discussion ensued. Was the explicit sex a shield against criticism because criticism of the writer or book would be taken as prudery? Another wondered if criticism would be construed as anti-Semitic. Was this used in the USA as a protection; was it more difficult to prosecute Jewish writers?

We turned to the main themes of the book in our view, sex and death. In the frequent visits to Drenka’s grave by a variety of suitors as well as Sabbath, these themes were explicitly linked. “Birth, and copulation, and death. That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks.” (This taken from T.S. Eliot, not the book!) Other strong themes included addiction, alcohol and drug dependency. Was this more to do with obsession rather than addiction? Another suggested that, really, this was more to do with completely amoral and selfish behaviour. However, the theme of the book in suggesting that so many characters enjoyed such behaviour was subversive. Perhaps the theme of the book was the regret of lost sex, and the need for death as desire fades, as there was no sense of purpose.

Was this just porn? Certainly the telephone sex passage was written to arouse. It was also very funny and a successful literary device. In the trial scene, Roth satirised himself as the judge dismisses the ‘art’ defence out of court. This was an extremely well written scene, funny and sharp, and sad as the brave girl who defended pornography as art was bullied by the lawyer. Roth rehearsed his own literary defence for posterity, as he drew the parallel between the puppet master and real life.. There were ~45 references to Rabelais, Miller, Lawrence, etc. justifying Mickey’s life and art, and by extension Roth’s.

So this book was considered close to the bone of sexual perversion. Which other books had similar notoriety? One of us had bought “The Story of O” at the Church Jumble Sale, so that was obviously well endorsed. Another contemporary example that came to mind was the film ‘Shame’, with Michael Fassbinder as a similarly obsessed male. None of our book group was under 17, so we could all read the book and see the film. This book also explored taboos, e.g. people p***ing on each other and drinking the product. Roth addressed the issues of old people having sex. As Mickey says, you can only be young once, but you can be immature forever.

Could Mickey establish a long lasting relationship with women? His later inability through arthritis to manipulate puppets was linked to his loss of control of the female characters. The book further explored other elements of old age and loss of function.

What of Matthew, the policeman, Drenka’s son, a force for good, a noble character or the village idiot? The last passage is ironic. Matthew calls him a “filthy sick son of a bitch” maybe echoing the feminist, and some of the group’s, view on Roth. Mickey could not f**ing die, he could not leave, everything he hated was here. Do you know the addictive feeling?

Someone suggested to the proposer that a book cannot be considered good if it has to be read twice. Wow, that is some generalisation! By extension, this book should have been edited and given structure. Slightly differently, the English Literature graduate suggested a good book was enjoyed at the first read, and yet more was achieved in each reading. This was not an easy book. Can we have an easy book? Can we have a short book? Please?

Turning again to Roth’s motives, why was it written? One suggested it was just written for literary position? Was it about excess? Was it a joke on the public to see what the public would take? Could he get away with it? The general view did not support this argument.

Next, there was a pernickety diversion; perhaps so much talk about sex was becoming difficult. Can a Mitchell B25 really fly at 4848 miles per hour? Aha, so we spotted the Ferrari in Ben Hur – gotcha! (Actually, there was no Ferrari, just tyre marks… Ed.)

As the discussion concluded, a detractor suggested that Roth’s problem was to write from a very limited perspective. For example, Graham Greene would travel, meet people, absorb the atmosphere and hence write new material. Perhaps Roth would benefit from ‘getting out more’?

So the overall conclusion was a lack of a conclusion. Taking a straw poll, two or three thought the book definite rubbish; two or three were very impressed with the prose, the humour, the tilting at taboos; and the others sat on the fence. There was a uniform distribution of opinion. You will just have to read it yourself.

Rush, Christopher: Sex, Lies and Shakespeare

Well, they told me sex was being discussed in Morningside. It was so implausible that your intrepid international correspondent dropped the tequila bottle and jetted back to Scotland for the Monthly Book Group.

Just in time to hear the proposer say that the author had been recommended to him on the golf course. And indeed he already knew the author, who had briefly taught his son English, and had found him very lively, likeable and intelligent. The subject matter of the book  – coming of age in a Scottish fishing village – also linked well with the Group’s recent discussion of “The Silver Darlings”, and its forthcoming discussion of “A Dance Called America”.

Christopher Rush was born in St Monans in Fife in 1944. After primary schooling in St Monans, he went to Waid Academy in Anstruther, and this volume of his autobiography dealt with his experiences there. (Jocky Wilson, the darts player, who had just died, had also gone to Waid a few years later). Rush had read English at Aberdeen, and had excelled. He was offered a research fellowship at Cambridge, but had chosen to go into school teaching instead, and had spent his career teaching English literature in Edinburgh. He was the author of over a dozen books, comprising poetry, novels, short stories, biography and an autobiographical trilogy of which this was one volume. The film “Venus Peter” was based on one of his books.

His first wife, an author and biologist, had died in 1993. Distraught, he had travelled, following Stevenson’s “Travels with a Donkey” route through the Cevennes. He was now remarried – to a Russian lecturer in English literature and stylistics.

The proposer had enjoyed reading the book, and could identify with the sort of adolescent sexual experiences described (other than, alas, the climactic scene with Kirsty Miller). The use of poetry and songs helped keep the book alive. One interesting comment on the book was that he wrote better when praising people than when complaining about them. But the book rang true in showing how much one’s school experience was dependent on the individual teacher, who could have such a large inspirational or negative effect.

So what was the reaction of the Group? Well, some gazed fondly on the rosy cheeks of youth Rush conjured up; some found a pustule or two marring the youth’s complexion; and nobody seemed to agree on quite what the youth looked like.

One, for example, thought many of the experiences were magnificently vivid. For example the description of Honeybunch, the statuesque vagrant who was stripped and washed, was a breath of fresh air in the first section. Otherwise he did not much care to be reminded of sweaty 11 year olds jostling to go to the school toilets. For him, the second part of the book, once Rush had had his epiphany about Shakespeare, worked better. For another, however, the evocation of the long lost days as a young schoolboy was the most engaging part of the book.

What about the “Sex”, then? Most recognised only too clearly the adolescent fumblings of their youth, and the intense importance that minor triumphs had for them, although some had been glad to put these memories behind them. Rush certainly evoked such moments very effectively. But was there not something slightly uncomfortable about them being recreated with such relish by a man in his mid-sixties? Would the book have worked better without the epilogue bringing the much older persona of the author before us? Or had his editor merely stipulated that sex was what was needed to sell books – the Monthly Book Group had certainly been keen to read the book on the strength of the title alone.

“Lies” then? Well, perhaps in an effort to justify the catchy title (derived of course from the film “Sex, Lies and Videotape”) Rush makes a few comments about the “lies” of his early spinster teachers – such as that if you worked hard at school you would have a better life (so that’s a lie??).

But we did wonder if the lies extended more covertly to Rush being an unreliable narrator, consciously or unconsciously, at some points. Was that why so many of the girls seemed to vanish into thin air? Was the appalling Croxford – arch manipulator, sexual explorer and general villain – quite as extreme as that? Was he really a son of the manse and a leader of choirboys? Well, some of us at least had known  a Croxford at school….

Did Rush’s voyeurism really pull out the plum of the best looking female teacher in the nude? Hmm… voyeurism at that age was not unusual, and his frightened departure had the ring of some element of truth in the tale…And Honeybunch was a plausible character, but the scene with her in the wood less so….

And above all did he comprehensively nail Kirsty in the summer fields in the splendidly evoked (“pornographic”? No! – “explicit”) scene at the end. Definitely not, because we were all too jealous…

As for Shakespeare, we liked the remarkable story of Rush’s epiphany when watching Olivier’s Richard III on a little black and white television. The tale of his consequent obsession with Shakespeare, and transformation from dunce to dux, was compelling. The sonnets had thus been drawn to the attention of one of our number, and, in our own mini-epiphany, he would now explore them.

We could have done with hearing more about Rush’s insights into Shakespeare, but the best on offer was to read his book “Will”, which might soon become a film. Similarly, it would have been interesting to hear more about St Monans’ life and about his parents, but for that we would need to consult the other volumes of his autobiography.

There was no doubt Rush could write in simple, effective prose, as in the moving story of death at sea, or as in this description of Kirsty:

there she was, just coming in…stuck between her sober parents like a gorgeous book between two Bibles. She filled the whitewashed whispering silence of the old stones with a loud shout of colour. The Old Kirk was a Spartan Presbyterian barn. And there she stood – in a poppy-red blouse with a large wide-brimmed hat and shoes to match. Her skirt and jacket were like morning milk…”

However, for some he often over-elaborated his prose. “Why use one word when fifteen will do?” asked one unruly pupil.

Another member confessed to not enjoying the book at all – he found it irritating and self-indulgent. It was perhaps the most erudite prose he had ever read. Often a literary allusion enhanced an image, but he felt Rush was more inclined to drown an image. In describing his early experiences the speech might be child-like, but was accompanied by prose with showy literary quotations, which he could not resist putting in. It seemed a quite inappropriate style to adopt when writing about a teenager. The author was self-conscious all the time. The book just did not ring true, occupying a territory half-way between autobiography and poetry.

On the other hand, another suggested, there was a much better balance between style and subject matter once Rush was writing abut his Shakespearean period.

Another aspect that some disliked was the sense of self-importance, or at least self-absorption, of someone who had done nothing very remarkable, but felt it appropriate to write a trilogy of autobiographies. This sense of self-importance was revealed unwittingly in the Epilogue. To get agreement to refer to her in the book, he phones up Judy (she of the erotic private organ recital) who remembers nothing about the treasured event. “Did she know that I’d become a writer? No, why should she care? Did she care? Scarcely. Would she like me to send her some of my books? Not really.….”

However, to his credit, Rush has the honesty to record this exchange and to admit: “For a time I felt crushed, humiliated, bewildered – and a right silly old fool”. He goes on to reflect, like Julian Barnes recently, on the distortions and selectiveness of memory, of how “we protect ourselves from the cold by harbouring illusions, a polite philosophical word for lies…

Where there was more consensus was that Rush brought to life a rich and engaging gallery of characters. For at least one member that was the main strength of the book. All their foibles and eccentricities – such as those of the remarkable Dr Ogg – were brought out delightfully. Most were approached with a warm Shakespearean empathy, but Rush’s empathy did not extend to the spinster teachers of his early years in Waid Academy, such as the dread Fanny Fergusson. He did not attempt to consider what experiences might have led her to be as she was – for him, she was still the complete villain as seen through the eyes of childhood. But perhaps we were all like that in relation to teachers we disliked.

So how was it that – post-epiphany – Rush now had the best teachers in the world? As recorded Alistair Mackie and Alistair Leslie seemed between them to have offered a higher standard of English Literature teaching than any of us had encountered at school. Was this a new breed of enthusiastic young male teachers replacing the dessicated spinsters, as Rush suggests, and as one of our number had also experienced in a rural school? Or was it that an enthusiastic student finds much more to commend in his teachers than a switched–off student? Or, suggested one from the profession, that teachers become more inspired and inspiring with the fifth and sixth years as the students become capable of offering some intellectual challenge?

Hmmm…..too difficult, at least for your jet-lagged correspondent, who had reached the end of his vino rosso rotgutto. Just a little pause to peer at the empty glass and the ever-attentive host was at my elbow opening a fine bottle of Glenesk Pinot Noir…

Don’t ask me about the rest of the discussion, I was dreaming……….. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” I was whispering to Kirsty Miller in a field of butttercups….

Remarque, Erich Maria: All Quiet on the Western Front, Owen, Wilfred: Dulce et Decorum est, and Begbie, Harold: Fall In

On a hot summer’s night in southern Edinburgh (so hot that one member arrived with white wine in a cooler) the proposer introduced  “All Quiet On The Western Front”  by Erich Maria Remarque. He said that, given the current debate about Britain’s involvement in the Afghan War, it seemed appropriate to revisit a book about “the war to end all wars” which had made a great impact on him. On his second reading of the book he still found it engaging and moving.

Remarque was conscripted in late 1916 at the age of 18. After training he was posted to the Arras front on 12 June 1917. On 31 July 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele he was wounded by shrapnel in the leg, arm and neck, and was repatriated to an army hospital in Germany. He had only returned to training when the war ended. This – probably the most famous of all World War One novels – was therefore based on only just over seven weeks of experience in the front line.

The novel was first published in November and December 1928 in a German newspaper Vossische Zeitung and in book form in January 1929. He wrote a sequel, “The Road Back” (1931), which one of our number reported was also good but not  quite as powerful. Both were among the books banned and burned in Nazi Germany.

“All Quiet On The Western Front” sold 2.5 million copies in twenty-five languages in its first eighteen months in print. Indeed one of our number was sporting an American First Edition complete with cuttings of contemporary reviews, which, surprisingly, referred to unnecessary censorship in the American edition on “moral” grounds. In 1930, the book was adapted as an Oscar-winning film of the same name.

Surprisingly, although one or two members of the group had an interest in military matters, no-one in the group other than the proposer had read the book before. Without exception, they were extremely positive about the book. “Absolutely marvellous”. “Great pace – I couldn’t put it down”. “Have read nothing approaching this, other than possibly Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ ”. “Beautifully constructed, so that his anti-war messages are put over without interrupting the narrative flow and without preaching”. “Engaging variety of humour”. “Totally compelling”.

Looking at in more detail, one reader was struck by the way Remarque could venture into quite poetic uses of language – for example on the subject of earth – without any sense of inappropriateness, despite the generally grim subject matter.

Another was struck by the ability of his characters to joke in the direst of situations, such as the description of roasting pork in a ruined house despite the fact that the smoke from the fire was attracting increasingly heavy artillery fire. The very first episode – about double rations for the troops – was laced with irony as the cause was that half the company had been killed.

His writing was particularly powerful – short and too the point. He could bring a scene to life or create a character with just a couple of brush-strokes, just a telling detail or two. Remarque’s descriptive ability could be measured by seeing how much more gripping his work was than the now widely-published recollections of former World War One soldiers describing similar events. Two particularly powerful scenes were that of the hero’s isolation on returning home on leave and that of his surreal experiences trapped in a shell crater.

The scenes set in hospital – with the ghastly range of injuries, the frequency of death, and the sense of the hospital’s limited resources being overwhelmed by demand – were perhaps the most potent of the many anti-war elements of the book.

The novel, which exposed us to the elemental in the trenches, made one reflect that our generation had been a very sheltered one. It was terrible that a teacher – presumably with no experience of war – could persuade a class of schoolchildren to volunteer.

It was intriguing that 1929 saw the publication of this classic in Germany and in the same year two other World War One classics: “Goodbye to All That” by Robert Graves and “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway. This coincidence might reflect a desire by publishers to publish anti-war books. However, the great majority of German war literature in the twenties and thirties was nationalistic and pro-war, and some of it glorified death for one’s country in almost mystical terms. The Hemingway book included a lot of material other than the War, but Hemingway’s ability to conjure up moving descriptions with simple short sentences and a few lucid details was similar to that of Remarque’s.

One notable difference was that Graves and Hemingway were writing from an individual perspective, whereas Remarque’s hero characteristically wrote about “we” rather than “I”. The “we” often refers primarily to his group of school friends, but more widely it can be taken to echo the idea of a lost generation set out in his preface:

This book is intended to neither as an accusation nor as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war – even those of it who survived the shelling.

This striking theme was developed as he observes that older soldiers had jobs and families to return to, while the next generation had escaped military service. It was his generation that was left in limbo. The theme was deepened further in the painful scenes where he returns home and is unable to connect properly with his family and neighbours.

(Perhaps, ventured your scribe, Remarque’s emphasis on “we” also reflected the remarkable German capacity for organisation, which would shortly be demonstrated against England in the next round of the World Cup? This was swiftly silenced by a few anti-racist glares from those unaware that your correspondent could rival an octopus for powers of prediction).

One note of reservation was about the very brief ending, in which we discover from a new narrator that the original narrator Paul Bäumer was killed right at the end of the War. For some this was rather perfunctory and had little dramatic impact. Perhaps the real function of the ending was to underscore that Remarque was writing a novel and reserved the right to produce further novels about other World War One characters. The ending was, however, tied in to the title – in German “Im Westen nichts Neues”, with the English paraphrase “All Quiet on the Western Front” introduced by the first translator A.W. Wheen and entering the language. The title also reflected the gulf between the experience of the participants at the front and the understanding of civilians at home.

Remarque was very observant about the detail of warfare, such as how soldiers could spot the different types of artillery shell from the sound of its flight (artillery being the major cause of death in the First World War, as in most wars). He noted how the Germans had started to use entrenching tools as weapons in preference to bayonets, and how fragments of frozen ground thrown up by shells could cause as many injuries as shrapnel.

Remarque’s lack of nationalism was one of the most attractive features of the book, and must have contributed to its international success. He for one did not subscribe to the “myth of total evil” (see our discussion of Jonathan Haidt last month). Perhaps that was why he had dropped the “Remark” spelling of his name and reverted to that of his French ancestors. However, he did reproduce the widely held German view that they had not really been defeated on the Western Front in 1918. He argued that they were the better soldiers and had lost only because they lacked food and replacement artillery, and had been overwhelmed by greater numbers.

Every war sowed the seeds of the next war, and the view that the Germans had not in reality been defeated, combined with the severity of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, had combined to provide fertile ground for the development of the Second World War.

Finally we briefly considered two World War One poems. One was Owen’s iconic “Dulce et Decorum Est”. The proposer noted that it followed on from the description of a gas attack in the Remarque book. He found Owen’s work very powerful. It built up a vivid picture in your head with its simple but imaginative language and compelling rhythms.

It was remarkable that such a hideous war should have produced so much memorable poetry, and we could not think of a war before or since that had seen such a flowering of poetry. (It was pointed out, however, that revisionist historians felt that the poignancy of the poetry had contributed to misconceptions about the competence and integrity of the British military effort).

In this poem Owen set out to shock, and he succeeded:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

  Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

  Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud…”

Shock also came from the incongruously erotic undertones of :

Gas!  GAS!  Quick, boys! —  An ecstasy of fumbling…”

Some of the power came from onomatopoeia, as in the hard work getting through the consonantal mud of

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

 Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge..”

but with alliteration pulling the reader on. The language’s energy also came from the use of a high proportion of nouns and verbs rather than adjectives, as in the use of gerunds in:

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 In all my dreams before my helpless sight

 He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 If in some smothering dreams…”.

It was pointed out that there is a permanent exhibition to the War Poets at Craiglockhart that anyone can visit, and before long we were off on to a debate about shell-shock.

A brave soldier set off over the top armed only with the argument that we all suffered from a degree of shell-shock, simply from living long enough to be disillusioned by our inability to change things. He was mercilessly gunned down by a machine-gun nest spitting out bullets such as “unable to cope with everyday life!”, “post-traumatic stress!”, and “nonsense!” and left bleeding in no-man’s land.

Harold Begbie’s “Fall-In” (1914) was very different to Owen’s poem: aimed, like a white feather, at shaming young men into volunteering.

“What will you lack, sonny, what will you lack,

When the girls line up the street

Shouting their love to the lads to come back

From the foe they rushed to beat?…

But what will you lack when your mate goes by

With a girl who cuts you dead?”

Remarque would have hated this manipulative piece as much as his hero hates the schoolmaster who had persuaded his class to volunteer.

In printing this poem from the internet one member had inadvertently also printed a series of posts from schoolchildren who had been given the poem as a set text, along the lines of:

“I’m doing this poem for my interim assesment and I really like it but I don’t get some of the meaning behind the words. Can anyone help”

“I’m doing the yr 10 coursework, we’re doing this poem as one of our pro-war choices i like it, altho i hate the idea of war i really like this jingoistic  poem”; and

“I have to do this poem for coursework for english , and i need to give a summary about what it is about , would anyone like to help”

All of which suggested that exposing the young to war literature might not have quite the impact we fondly hope for.

Inculcating post-war generations of British schoolchildren with First World War poetry did not stop a British Prime Minster from that generation leading Britain into five wars.

And Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” – which we were unanimous in hailing as a brilliantly powerful anti-war novel, probably the best of all – had not been enough to stem the pressures building up in Germany that would lead to the outbreak of the Second World War ten years later.

Relin, David Oliver and Mortenson, Greg: Three Cups of Tea

Introducing the book, the proposer said he had been attracted to it because of a family involvement with a charity helping to house and educate Dalits in India. He had hoped there might be parallels – but in fact the book had described a very different approach to charitable activity.

He had not found it an easy read, possibly because his reading of it had been spread out over a month. Some sections were captivating and flew by, whereas others seemed a bit boring. And he suspected that Mortenson himself had not written any of the book, instead handing over to Relin a mass of papers and detritus from his visits, organising visits for Relin, and having discussions with him. It was intriguing that Mortenson had had to plead with the publisher to drop the portentous sub-title (One Man’s Mission to fight Terrorism and Build Nations… One School at a Time) for the paperback version.

The book sparked off interesting questions about the societies in which Mortenson worked and their cultures. That must be why it was a big-seller in the US, and indeed of interest to the US military – an eye-opener to what was going on in these countries. He had lifted the lid on a demonised culture, given reasons why the different groups (the Pakistanis, the Shia, the Taliban etc) were all different, and why they needed to be managed in careful and different ways. But some of this information, and the language and concepts it revealed, was difficult to absorb without stopping to reflect, and this interrupted the flow of the book.

What struck him most about the book was the remarkable character of Greg Mortenson. Shining through the story were Mortenson’s amazing interpersonal skills. He had shown an ability to build relationships, and inspire trust and respect, amongst people of very different cultures to his own. One of the factors that helped was his very evident sincerity.

His involvement in building schools in remote areas of Pakistan had not come about through premeditation or intellectual analysis (though it had maybe been pre-ordained by the example of his parents’ activities in Africa and the thought patterns they had given him). He simply bumbled in, but then showed remarkable opportunism in the way he had seized chances to improve the lot of the rural poor – particularly of uneducated girls – in Pakistan. The intuitive way he had identified helpers in Pakistan from the least likely backgrounds was uncanny.

And he displayed an absolute intensity and thoroughness. This tenacity – and bravery – came out first in his attempt on K2, and then in selling everything he had to raise the funds for the first school. He then pursued his objectives in the face of an unfamiliar culture, a harsh terrain, fatwas from mullahs, the outbreak of wars and even kidnapping.

Overall it was a very thought-provoking book, which gave important insights into the working of different cultures, and raised big issues about the direction of travel for the future.

He had gleaned from an interview posted on the CAI website that Mortenson was now withdrawing from his hands-on role in Pakistan and Afghanistan to a more managerial role in which he would spend more time in America. Perhaps this was inevitable given the volume of funds and support that must now be available following the immense success of the book. But the proposer feared for the future, given that the whole operation had seemed to depend so critically on Mortenson’s hands-on work in Pakistan. It must be doubtful that the operation would be successful without him operating on the ground, and doubtful – from what we had read of his personality – that a managerial role would play to his strengths.

Another reader, however, had found the book an easy and gripping read. He was struck by the similarity between Mortenson and Tim Moore – the author of last month’s book “French Revolutions” about the Tour de France. Both were obsessive – or at least goal-oriented – at the expense of other aspects of life including family. But Mortenson was by far the more attractive person, taking on an almost heroic character, even if the book hinted that in some respects he was an infuriating man.

One aspect of the writing that troubled him was that the writer – presumably Relin, who must be in practice the ghost-writer – put in concrete descriptions in novelist style of the detail surrounding events that could not possibly have been remembered. This was effective at one level, but at another manipulative and thus disconcerting.

Another member had found the book hugely enjoyable, and indeed inspiring. However, he was less enthused by the quality of the writing, which he had initially found quite disappointing. It could be mawkish, awkward and even amateurish – such as the clumsy opening sentence:

“In Pakistan’s Karakoram, bristling across an area barely one hundred miles wide, more than sixty of the world’s tallest mountains lord their severe alpine beauty over a witnessless high altitude wilderness.”

As he read the whole book, however, he was able to ignore such examples and came to appreciate the overall achievement, in particular where the integrity of the story and the message was sustained in a way that retained the interest of the reader. The writing, perhaps befitting Mortenson’s character, might be clumsy at times but was always gentle in tone, plodding along with the story, sewing sentences and characters together with rough stitches rather than fine handicraft. It was a job “done well enough”, much as how Dr Greg would no doubt approach the building of a CAI school.

The book attempted to portray Mortenson as the hero at the centre of a developing adventure or thriller. This “our brave hero” style was only partly convincing. But it had a charming quality, in keeping with the guileless character of Mortenson, which had won him over and swept him along with the adventure romp style.

Major, sometimes disturbing, events in Mortenson’s life were presented in a matter of fact way with little further emotive insight. One example was the description of Mortenson being bullied by other children after arrival in the USA, which was passed over in barely ten lines. The simplicity of narrative tone throughout allowed the reader space to draw his own conclusions and provided a grounded, if two dimensional, perspective.

There was much to admire about Mortenson, his character and achievements, which spoke for themselves. This was tainted a little by the unnecessary portraits of his ex-girlfriend Marina and their relationship. Why did Mortenson or Relin feel the need to fell the hatchet on a former love publicly? These awkward passages had the character of an adolescent’s poison pen revenge. At the end of the book there was also the sense of a developing ego, where Mortenson wants to build more and more schools, in ever more dangerous places. It was reminiscent of John Simpson the BBC reporter, with an uncanny knack of reaching the most inaccessible and dangerous places and telling everyone about it.

However, these were perhaps the observations of a cynic. The real truth lay in the thousands of child and adult lives who had been helped by Mortenson and touched by his organization. The book not only expressed a powerful message of peace, humanity and tolerance, but also convincingly demonstrated the benefits in action. He could not think of another book that was able to demonstrate so neatly the relationship between the small-scale and the geopolitical.

Another member had also been irritated by the style, but had then focussed on the content, which was very interesting and raised many issues. The book was important in drawing the attention of an American – and a British – audience to the complexities of the different tribes and cultures in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It also brought out the unpreparedness of the US for handling the post 9/11 world. The US Government had gone to war in Iraq lacking Arab experts. And American feminist groups had arrived in Afghanistan to muddy the waters after the fall of the Taliban with no understanding whatsoever of the Afghan culture.

The question of what was happening to Mortenson’s schools now – at a time when the US Government was conducting military strikes inside Pakistan – concerned another reader. It seemed to him that the heroic efforts of Mortenson would alas prove insignificant when set against the immense damage to the reputation of the West caused by his Government’s recklessness. While events and luck had moved in favour of Mortenson early on, events now seemed to be moving against him.

It was difficult to find information from the CAI website (how unfortunate that acronym was!) to update that in the book. An interview suggested that there were now over 70 schools in operation, but he had heard rumours from Pakistani contacts that the schools were being destroyed by a fundamentalist backlash against anything connected to the West. And the schools were competing against over 3,000 madrassas.

While the style of the book might not be perfect, much of it was absolutely riveting – such as the series of desperate adventures when Mortenson tries to travel north from Kabul.

Another member found the book inspiring, and had been humbled to learn things about Pakistan – for example the Saudi and Kuwaiti money flooding in to build extremist madrassas – that he felt he should already have known. He also wondered about analogies with Scottish reactions to the setting up of Islamic schools in Scotland. And he regretted the absence of a Book Group member who had spent five years trying to set up a school in a Muslim country.

The book raised big issues about the scope for the individual trying to put the wrongs of the world to rights. How much could the individual achieve? And was it right at all to intervene in the problems of another culture?

And on the question of style – where he shared the reservations already expressed – he drew attention in particular to the breathless Mills and Boon treatment of the evening when Mortenson met his wife e.g.“Together the two began the kind of conversation that flows seamlessly, unstoppably, each fork begetting another branch of common interest, a conversation that continues until this day…”

He also noted the intriguing links to the plot of “Charlie Wilson’s War” – and wondered – without taking a view – if it might have worked better to try to influence the Pakistan government from the top to set up schools rather than do it bottom up?

On the other hand a success of the book was that it portrayed Mortenson at the outset as very naïve– but gaining respect from everyone, while by the end he has become political and is operating at the top. The dilemma he faced was the difficulty of both mingling with the people at the top in an effort to influence them, and still having time for his efforts on the ground.

One member noted that Mortenson had spoken at the Edinburgh Book Festival that August, and had come over as charismatic, inspirational – and humble. This did not square with the sense of a growing ego that the book conveyed – perhaps this was primarily the fault of the ghost –writer.

He did not care either for the simplistic style, but did feel that the ghost-writer had succeeded in finding a format that would appeal to an American audience. It was perhaps fair to say that Americans had more taste for sentimentality, clear-cut divisions between good and evil characters, and feel-good optimism than a British audience. And the device of presenting the material in a series of parallel stories – the mountaineering story, the quest for money, the love story, the scheming of the wicked Changazi etc – sucked the reader in. A straightforward hagiography would have been much more boring. And the evidence that the book had worked for an American audience was only too clear, with it being top of the New York Times paperback non-fiction charts for nearly two years, and still at the top at present.

The story fell into two halves. The first was the optimistic, feel-good story of how the schools came to be set up. The second half was more difficult, as it showed the difficulties that arose in the post 9/11 period, and Mortenson’s growing disenchantment with the policies of the American and British governments as he saw the gap between the rhetoric and the reality on the ground.

This was an unusual phenomenon – a book as a political act, which was having a real impact on how citizens in the US and Britain understood what was happening. And it was also a book as a fund-raiser for charity, and again being enormously successful in that respect. No doubt for Mortenson these criteria – the political impact and the funds raised – were the only criteria against which he would wish to measure the success of the book.

Another reader had found the book hard-going, but still a great read, with its insights into different characters and the execution of a great project. The book was both encouraging – in showing how one heroic person could get schools built through charisma and courage – and discouraging, as it revealed how he could never compete with the Saudi-funded madrassas. This raised the question of whether it would ever be possible to introduce Western-style schools into Pakistan on any scale.

This innocent query ignited our Monthly Book Group mullahs.

Wait a minute – wasn’t the whole point that these were not Western-style schools?

Well, they wouldn’t have Islamic studies as their core subject. Students from that part of the world could arrive in Scottish universities having studied almost nothing other than Islamic studies. And the title of the book – particularly in its original form – was suspect

But the beauty of Mortenson’s approach was that he ensured that the ownership of the school – its location, shape and format – rested with the local villagers! The schools all had the support of the local villagers.

Yes, but he did impose some rules and concepts that might be alien to the local culture. And it wasn’t a good idea to name his first school after a Western climber, rather than a Pakistani. No doubt if you offered to set up an engineering apprentice training school in the Western Isles that worked on Sundays it might have the support of the apprentices and their parents, but their hammering would still cause offence in the wider community because of its attitude to the Sabbath…

That’s not an exact analogy! And Mortenson was scrupulous – and insightful as ever – in demonstrating his respect for Islam. Indeed it had helped him escape his kidnappers…

It would be easier for an American to introduce schools for girls in India, which was a multi-ethnic secular state, than in Pakistan, which was a nation defined by its Muslim religion. It was truly remarkable that Mortenson had achieved so much in such difficult circumstances…

Well you should have seen my father–in-law in the Western Isles having to cover his hammer in cloth before being able to use it on a Sunday…

Perhaps a better analogy would be with an American setting up schools in Scotland in the 1920’s to teach girls to aspire to doing men’s jobs. The more enlightened men might support it, but the majority would have seen it as undermining their culture. It was always dangerous for an outsider to interfere in someone else’s culture, even where by our standards you were completely right…

How can you possibly deny women the right to be educated!!!…

And so on. And on, muttered our mullahs. Indeed it required a second cup of tea before your scribe could refocus on the discussion, which by now had moved onto the future.

Which looked bleak. One with many connections in the sub-continent (for example he knew the Indian commander in the Kargil battle, and his father had served in Waziristan) found his contacts gloomy about the future for Pakistan as a viable nation. One of the problems was that politicians there represented the interests of their home power base, rather than a political ideology. Perhaps a separate Pashtun state, which might be a Taliban state, embracing the north-west frontier regions of Pakistan and eastern and southern Afghanistan would emerge.

(Perhaps it would all have been different if Britain had handled Partition differently – which some argued was the biggest mistake made by Britain in the Imperial era. And perhaps if Jinnah had been allowed to become Prime Minister of a united India, and Nehru had not attached more importance to becoming Prime Minister himself than to retaining a united India…).

Andropov had once said that the Afghans were “too primitive for socialism”. However that may be, they were arguably not ready for multi-party democracy.

Mortenson was described as a “social entrepreneur” by Bill Clinton in a quote on the CAI website, which was apt. But the history of most entrepreneurs was that they could not handle the transition from a small organisation in which their writ was law to a bigger organisation. Either they were forced out of the organisation, or they dragged it down by their inability to delegate. Was the fate that awaited Dr Greg, while his schools were swept aside by the rising tide of fundamentalist madrassas?

Bleak indeed….

However, there might still be a role for his schools, because they focussed on girls, while the madrassas only took boys. And there was lots of scope in his idea of educational scholarships for girls to participate in higher education.

And perhaps Mortenson’s greatest educational achievement might turn out not to be his schools, but through his book educating the citizens of America and Britain about the complexities and subtleties of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Muslim culture.

And it was not long ago that America was greatly admired in Pakistan. A new President (the 2008 election was five days away as we met) might mean more sensitive foreign polices from the US (and, by extension, the UK).

And not all entrepreneurs failed to manage the transition in their organisation to a greater scale.

And not all naïve optimists failed in their efforts to change the world. (Only cynics failed consistently, because they never tried). Some had great impact, and Mortenson was one.

A good point at which to lay down the pen, and turn one’s attention to a third cup of tea…