In the cage: Elizabeth Bowen, First Stories

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), First Stories

My Everyman hardback copy of Anglo-Irish author Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories (2019) runs to 860 pages of fairly small print. This post will therefore focus on the first section – a collection of 14 stories first published as Encounters in 1923, when she was only 24 years old.

The usual approach to consideration of a collection of stories like this is to identify common threads or themes. But each of these stories is a finely crafted entity in its own right. If there are such themes, they’re probably to do with people using plenty of find-sounding language but failing to communicate – or to articulate what they really mean (if they even know themselves). There’s very little action or plot in the stories; instead we see people gossiping, assessing each other (often not very favourably), scoring points, deflecting, struggling with social expectations.

The first story, ‘Breakfast’, published when Bowen was only 21, is a good example. A man steels himself to join the breakfast group in the house where he’s a paying guest. ‘Behold, I die daily’, are his unspoken thoughts as he descends from his room to join the unsympathetic group already eating. His landlady, the owner of the house, passive-aggressively chides him for being late to the meal, then proceeds to accuse him of profligacy in losing collar-studs – his excuse for his lateness.

The story sets the tone for most of what follows. There’s wit and psychological perception in the portrayal of these sparring characters. Bowen’s modernist approach means there’s a lot of free indirect thought, disconnected or inconclusive musings and dreams, epiphanies and obliquely observed scenes which reveal depths and complexities in the characters that the reader has to work at figuring out. It’s worth the effort. Atmosphere prevails over exposition.

Bowen was born to a wealthy Protestant Irish family. Her mother’s ancestors included a Viscount Powerscourt (a fine estate in Co. Wicklow; I attended a wedding there with Mrs TD some years ago when a relative of hers had his reception in the big house – now an upmarket hotel. Her father as a lad had climbed the rockface behind the waterfall in the grounds).

The author spent her childhood summers at her father’s family home, Bowen Court in Co. Cork, but she lived mostly in England, moving there with her mother permanently in 1907 when her father had a mental breakdown. When her mother died in 1912, when Elizabeth was only 13, she went to live with great-aunts in England. This peripatetic early start to life, and the traumatic events she experienced, seem to have influenced her writing. Another aspect of these stories includes characters who are dislocated, disengaged, unfulfilled. Maybe as a person who was perceived by many in Ireland as not a true Irishwoman, and by the English as a colonial, she felt inclined to write about outsiders, people estranged from those around her.

She conveys the passion and anger felt by a small girl when her mother isn’t home to lavish praise on her for the essay her teacher had read out to her class at school. Her immature instinct is to lash out when the mother finally appears.

There are wives who feel they live in an ‘intolerable cage’, like the woman in ‘The Evil that Men Do -‘. She receives a florid love-letter from a man she’d met at a poetry reading, and with whom she’d shared a bus-ride afterwards. This leaves her in a romantic flutter; she feels she’s lived her life ‘on the defensive’. She doesn’t like her solicitor husband any more, she concludes. He doesn’t even glance at the poetry books she leaves lying around. When she sat gazing at the fire for hours, or out of the window, he never asked her what she was thinking about (T.S. Eliot used a similar trope about the same time). He often left her alone with the children and servants for days on end (the characters in these stories usually have servants and grand houses). She bemoans this solitude, but also embraces it: ‘of course solitude was her only escape and solace.’ She adds this self-consciously poetic thought to the postscript of the letter she’s writing to her effusive admirer.

The story’s conclusion provides an example of Bowen’s capacity for sly humour: the unsentimental, neglectful husband buys his wife a pretty gift, and she’s instantly won over. Her romantic fantasies vanish, and she’ll never know that for fateful reasons her correspondent will never read her letter.

This is not the only story in which a married woman (or one with a selfish, possessive brother) has a third, shadowy man in the background. In ‘The Shadowy Third’ this third person is the late wife of a man whose second wife, as in Rebecca, is uncomfortably aware of this ghostly, possibly better-loved predecessor.

Loneliness is also apparent in the schoolmistress’s life in ‘Daffodils’. She tries to engage with a trio of her girl pupils, inviting them as they pass her house to take tea with her. But she puts them off by berating them for their lack of perception of life or fully ‘seen’ things, symbolised by those Wordsworthian flowers that she’d just bought. ‘Nothing ever comes new to them…or impresses them…Their sentimentality embarrasses me.’ It’s no surprise when they up and leave, grateful to escape this sad woman; they for their part cattily agree the teacher ‘has never lived.’

It’s difficult to convey the range and variety of these exquisite stories. I’ve possibly over-emphasised the connections between them, and their poignancy; there are also many differences, and each story is a vignette in its own right. I particularly liked ‘All Saints’, a story about an eccentric, ‘theatrical’, rather vampish middle-aged woman who leaves a vicar ‘nonplussed’ when she asks if she can donate a stained-glass window to his church: ‘I think coloured windows are so beautiful. They make me feel so religious and good.’ She wants it to be an All Saints window, but her idea of what constitutes a saint is highly unconventional and definitely not Christian. No wonder the vicar is shocked and wrong-footed.

Two novels by Elizabeth Bowen that I’ve posted about left me less than impressed, although I thoroughly enjoyed pre-blog readings of The Heat of the Day (1929) and The Last September (1948). Those two are:

Friends and Relations (1931) HERE

Eva Trout (1968) HERE

More on choughs

I’ve posted several times in the past about those handsome, red-footed, red-beaked corvids: choughs. They were once widespread in the British Isles, but are now particularly associated with Cornwall, where they started to breed and flourish again early this century.

I came across recently a sequence of online newspaper articles that surprised me: images of choughs are to be seen in a convent in Salamanca, Spain, in the region of Castile and León.

The Real Convento de Santa Clara there, founded in 1238, now an art museum, has a remarkable range of over 150 medieval heraldic paintings, concealed for centuries by an 18C false ceiling. Among these are devices or representing choughs (unfortunately I can’t post an image for copyright reasons).

Spanish researchers recently concluded that they are the emblem of St Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury (and lord chancellor) murdered at the encouragement of Henry II in 1170 because of a conflict over royal and clerical power. Repenting of this act, Henry instructed his descendants to venerate Thomas, who was canonised as a martyr saint in 1173.

So how did this troublesome priest become associated with choughs? According to one set of legends, after his violent murder by sword-wielding knights, a crow hopped (or flew?) into the cathedral and stepped and dipped its beak on the bloody corpse – it became a chough.

Among Henry’s descendants was his granddaughter, Queen Berenguela I of Castile (1180-1246, usually called Berengaria by the English), daughter of Alfonso VIII and Eleanor Plantagenet – who was herself the daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, promoter of the Angevin empire (named after English realms in Anjou and elsewhere).

She represented the history of Plantagenet and Angevin monarchs encrypted in this sequence of painted heraldic devices and other images on the wooden ceiling: the choughs appear next to a golden castle, emblem of the kingdom of Castile.

Spanish researchers have concluded that Berengaria came to Salamanca at the end of her life to tell her royal family’s story through this ceiling iconography and re-establish her position as Queen of León, Lady of Salamanca, and mother of saintly Ferdinand III, reconquerer of Córdoba and Seville. She unified the kingdoms of León and Castile through her marriage to Alfonso IX.

The researchers recalled that the coat of arms of the city of Canterbury, devised many years after Thomas’s martyrdom, depicts three red-beaked choughs beneath the golden lion of the Plantagenets. So the Cornish chough had become synonymous with the cult of St Thomas, and by extension with this early medieval royal dynasty, and its links with Spanish royalty. The shields on the ceiling of this Salamanca convent appear to predate the taking up of this distinctive bird by the Becket family, and the city of Canterbury, by centuries.

Two English brothers, who seem to have known Thomas and fled England after his martyrdom, founded a church dedicated in his name very near to the Salamaca convent a few years later. The cult of St Thomas became one of the most powerful not just in England, as Geoffrey Chaucer demonstrated in the 14C, but across Europe.

By the way, Berengaria’s aunt, who had the same name (but with the sobriquet ‘of Navarre’), was shipwrecked on the island of Cyprus on her way to join her royal fiancé, Richard I (the Lionheart king of England), who had embarked on the Third Crusade in the Holy Land. She was held hostage by the Byzantine ruler of Cyprus until rescued by her gallant husband, who went on to conquer the whole island and add it to his empire.

I’ve occasionally mentioned in earlier posts my childhood year in Cyprus. We lived near a village called Berengaria, after the English queen who rarely met her crusading husband, and didn’t visit England until after his death. When she did, she was said to have been present at the translation of St Thomas’s relics in 1220.

After some more online digging I found that choughs feature in a number of other coats of arms. Among them are those of two famous English Thomases, who perhaps a little presumptuously adopted the Canterbury martyr’s emblem as a kind of homage.

Wolsey coat of arms

Attribution: SemperAdiuvans, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530) was a cardinal and statesman, and an early influence on the reign of Henry VIII, for whom he rose to the rank of lord chancellor and chief adviser. This was also the coat of arms of Christ Church, Oxford (established originally by Wolsey as Cardinal College, then developed and renamed by Henry VIII). That’s Wolsey’s cardinal’s hat (galero) at the top.

The four blue leopard faces (yes, they are stylised leopards) and shield were used by the Dukes of Suffolk (Wolsey was born in Ipswich in that county). The two Cornish choughs indicate that he was a patron of Thomas Becket.

Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), so brilliantly depicted in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, was an adviser to his early mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, and a lawyer and MP for Taunton. He skilfully avoided falling out of favour after the downfall of Wolsey, and for six years served as eminence grise and chief minister to Henry, until the volatile king had him executed for treason. This was his coat of arms from 1532-37, with two choughs central; it became more elaborate after his son’s marriage in 1537 to (queen) Jane Seymour’s sister, Elizabeth:

Thomas Cromwell coat of arms 1532-37

Attribution: Ammelida, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

I noted in my post of 27.8.16 that, according to legend, King Arthur didn’t really die; he was transformed into a chough, whose red beak and feet symbolise his bloody and violent end. This is why it’s still considered unlucky to kill a chough.

It pleases me that these splendid, iconic birds have generated such a rich and varied set of associations and stories.

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time, 1-3

Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time (Arrow, 2000)

 I took this one-volume paperback edition of the first three novels in Anthony Powell’s acclaimed 12-novel sequence with me on our Christmas-NY visit in Spain. The three titles are:

A Question of Upbringing (1951)

A Buyer’s Market (1952)

The Acceptance World (1955)

There’s a huge cast of characters, but the central group consists of a few young men who met at their prestigious boarding school (said to be based on Eton, where Powell was a pupil). We then follow their progress into the privileged world associated with their class and background: Oxford University, then what follows for men of this social class.

Some of them become associated with successful businessmen, and they either thrive or flounder in this environment, depending on their prowess in the dance orchestrated by time (the title of this novel sequence comes from a symbolic painting by Poussin): sometimes they rise then fall. As the narrator puts it on p.2, they can be ‘unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.’

The narrator and central figure is Nicholas Jenkins, who becomes a novelist while working for a publisher of art books. As a consequence, the worlds of aesthetes and artists, writers and various bohemians come into not always harmonious contact with the politicians, high-powered entrepreneurs and fashionable socialites who populate the narrative.

I might have abandoned this book if this hadn’t been the only one I took with me on my travels. I found the fruity prose style and languorous narrative pace irksome at first. The characters were largely unappealing, sometimes cruel and heartless. But gradually I became attuned to the narrator’s presentation of this not very attractive scenario. The bland acceptance by these brash young men in the 1920s and 30s is placed against the turbulent political events of the time, such as the hunger marches of impoverished workers, and the first stirrings of fascism.

The shameless elitism, amorality and cloying sense of privilege in most of the characters, I began to appreciate, is portrayed with an element of subtle irony. There’s no overt criticism of their manners or behaviour, but the perspective of Nicholas, who views them all with a novelist’s appraising eye, ensures that they’re seen for what they are – though his judgements aren’t always reliable.

Like his former classmates, he has problems with his love life. The women that Powell has them become involved with are less successfully realised, but perhaps that’s part of Powell’s plan. They’re viewed through the eyes of the men who desire or seduce them. That’s possibly another aspect of the flawed world view that they fail to discern in themselves – Nicholas included – although he comes closest to assessing with any kind of perspicuity how useless he is in the sexual dance.

So I shall persevere and try volume 4. It could go either way for me.

Claire Keegan, So Late in the Day

Claire Keegan, So Late in the Day. Faber, 2023

 Earlier this year I posted on Irish author Claire Keegan’s recent novella, Small Things Like These, describing it as ‘intense and profoundly moving’. I’d say the same for So Late in the Day, but in a different way (link HERE). The earlier book is set in the 80s when the Magdalene laundries were still posing as refuges for young women who were classed as sinful or undesirable by their families, but which were far more sinister and dangerous places run by nuns with retribution and exploitation as their prime objective, rather than the charity and loving kindness that was their ostensible mission. This new publication is a short story – less than 50 pages long – and is set in the present, and deals with the end of a relationship.

I approached this with a bit of scepticism, thinking that Faber were taking advantage of the buzz that’s grown around Keegan’s work over the last few years by publishing in hardback something so slight and brief. My suspicions dissipated rapidly.

Very little happens. Cathal finishes work and takes the bus home to spend the weekend alone. As the lonely hours pass, we are given access to his thoughts and preoccupations. It becomes apparent that this was to be his wedding weekend, but his fiancée, Sabine, has called it off ‘so late in the day’. We gradually learn why.

The brilliance of Keegan’s fiction is that so much is shown in very economical, beautifully written prose, with no extraneous explanation or analysis. She trusts her reader to tune in to the subtle implications of what Cathal thinks – or, quite often, pushes away from his thoughts, as he finds it too much like hard work to establish why Sabine behaved as she did, or found his behaviour unacceptable.

He emerges as an emotionally frigid, ungenerous young man. Through a sequence of past events that are sketched out through free indirect thought and oblique, dispassionately narrated scenes, we see how Cathal’s lack of emotional acuity, his tendency to meanness (in the sense of tight-fistedness as well as behaviourally), gradually wore down Sabine’s capacity to turn a blind eye to his shortcomings.

This bland summary doesn’t do justice to the superb poise and restraint with which Keegan pieces together this portrait of a man adrift. He has a vague sense that something is amiss in his character, but finds it easier to fall back on misogynistic, macho attitudes and evasions. To attempt to analyse and explore why this apparently loving relationship was wrecked would require a kind of emotional courage, insight and honesty that Cathal lacks.

Strangely, because perhaps of a few slyly positioned hints about his upbringing, I felt a small twinge of sympathy for him. As a man myself, I guiltily recognised some of those stereotypically dismissive masculine tendencies in myself and many of the men I know.

I’ve found it very hard to say much about this story without giving too much away. It depends almost entirely on its quiet accretion of small details that come together to form an immensely powerful profile of a human being who’s almost lost sight of his humanity. Here’s one example of Keegan’s method; this is Cathal reflecting on an event where his demeanour caused friction between the lovers:

That was part of the trouble: the fact that she would not listen, and wanted to do a good half of things her own way.

It’s no surprise when soon after she moves in with him, Sabine tells him what a female colleague of his had told her over a bottle of Chablis:

A good half of [Irish] men your age just want us to shut up and give you what you want, that you’re spoilt and turn contemptible when things don’t go your way.

When Sabine adds some of the shockingly vile words such men use about women, he dismisses them, saying:

‘Ah, that’s just the way we talk here…It’s just an Irish thing and means nothing half the time.’

That’s the second time the use of ‘half’ reveals all.

In the same post earlier this year where I wrote about Keegan’s Small Things, I also commented on Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait. I’d say that Keegan’s 47 pages represent a more sustaining, artistically successful account of the human condition than O’Farrell’s 438 sprawling pages.

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl (Fig Tree, 2018)

Mrs TD heard this non-fiction book being discussed enthusiastically on the BBC Radio 4 programme A Good Read. Our excellent Cornwall Libraries provided this hardback copy within days of my reserving it.

We recently travelled through the Netherlands, which brought back memories of visiting Amsterdam over the years: the Anne Frank House, the Jewish Museum and quarter. I thought I knew a fair bit about the murderous treatment of Jewish people under the German occupation, and the ways some Dutch residents risked their lives to harbour some of them in their own homes. This book changed this perception.

Bart van Es was born in the Netherlands and is a professor of English literature at Oxford University. The Cut Out Girl is his account of tracing the role played by his Dutch grandparents (and many others) in hiding a young Jewish girl during WWII. She’s only eight years old when her parents make the agonising decision to send her to live with a family of strangers before they are sent to the death camps. Van Es tracks her down – she’s now a woman in her eighties, living in Amsterdam – and gets to know and interview her during several visits to her home.

At first Lien (short for Hesseline) is a little reluctant to divulge the emotional side of her story to her ‘nephew’ (as he’s pleased to be called when she introduces him to a visitor: after all, she isn’t a blood relative, even though she came to call the van Es adults – Bart’s grandparents who sheltered — her as mother and father). He uses his academic research skills to fill out the details in the basic narrative she gives him.

Much of this factual part is reasonably familiar and predictable to those of us brought up on stories like Anne Frank’s. After staying in Dordrecht (which we visited on our recent trip) with the van Es family, Lien was moved several times as her hiding places were compromised. She had to stay for weeks and months on end confined to the house, often in a secret concealed room, not even able to look out of a window for fear of being discovered or betrayed. No school, no friends.

Not surprisingly, deprived of almost all contact with other people, she became anxious, emotionally volatile and vulnerable. And now we come to the part of the book that I hadn’t expected, and this is its most powerful and shocking element. Some of those who risked everything to shelter her did not treat her kindly. In one house she was made to fill the role of a housemaid, and shown little or no affection. She experienced even worse treatment in other houses.

We hear about Lien’s life after the war, until the time the author got to know her and elicit her story. She was clearly psychologically damaged by the terrible times she’d lived through. All of her family were murdered by the Nazis. It was only in the previous few years, just before Bart van Es tracked her down, that she’d managed to achieve some kind of peace.

The other key feature of Lien’s sad life was that she had become estranged from the van Es ‘parents’ who had harboured her – hence one sense of the ambiguous title of the book. Lien was ‘cut out’ from her foster family, as well as from her own. The reason for this rift is only revealed towards the end of the book, and it’s another indication of how much more complicated the situation was in the relations between the persecuted Jewish population in wartime Holland and the rest of the Dutch people – and it’s a poignant indication of how deeply flawed we human beings are – even when we seem to be acting nobly.

This is a deeply moving, often disturbing account of what happened in Holland during the war. I hadn’t realised that the Dutch Jewish population suffered so terribly: their wartime death rate of 80% was more than double that in any other western country, including France, Belgium, Italy, or even Austria and Germany. Of 18,000 Jews who lived in Lien’s home town of the Hague in 1940, only 2,000 survived. I shared van Es’s response to these facts: ‘For me, brought up on the myth of Dutch resistance, this comes as a shock,’ he writes. There were various demographic and social reasons for this, but it was also a result of the ‘active participation of Dutch citizens – who did the work of informing on neighbours, arrest, imprisonment and deportation.’ The Dutch authorities delivered 107,000 ‘full Jews’ to their German masters. These people were then sent to the death camps in the east.

Another important feature emerges. When he first arrives to interview Lien, he’s aware that a group of youngsters of ‘north African appearance’ are eyeing him with suspicion. He’s aware that his presence, and the nature of what he’s investigating, are not received with as positive a response as that of the white European Dutch. He points out that since the seventies the Netherlands has been a ‘country of immigration’. One fifth of its population were born outside its borders, or are descendants of these immigrants. Integration has been only ‘moderately successful’.

These are sobering insights. Van Es refers to the far-right politician Geert Wilders’ party getting 15% of the vote in local elections at the time of this book’s publication in 2018. Just last month his anti-Islam PVV party, with its extreme policies on immigration, and advocacy of banning the Qu’ran and mosques, became the largest party in the national elections. Wilders looks likely to lead the next Dutch government. This in a country often seen as an exemplar of liberal views and tolerance of diversity.

My own government seems intent on going down a similar route of ‘taking back control’ of its borders (as they mendaciously boasted during the Brexit campaign), as it redoubles its inhumane (and probably illegal) efforts to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, which it disingenuously insists is a safe and reasonable place for desperate people, many of them persecuted and endangered in their home countries, to be dumped so that we don’t have to see them in our towns and villages. I’m in despair at the ways in which democratic institutions are being rejected, and the world seems to be headed towards the kind of environment that enabled the Nazis to perpetrate the horrors of WWII on people like Lien.

A time of violence: Luke Francis Beirne, Blacklion

Luke Francis Beirne, Blacklion. Baraka Books, Montréal, 2023

This edgy thriller by Irish-Canadian author Luke Francis Beirne has some similar elements to his previous novel Foxhunt, also published by Baraka Books. In my post on it just over a year ago I likened it to early le Carré (link HERE). Blacklion in some ways resembles some of Graham Greene’s fiction – in fact, Part 1 of this novel is called ‘The Quiet American’.

The setting is early seventies Ireland. The Troubles are at their height in Ultster. Ray, of South Boston American-Irish stock, has been dispatched by the CIA to infiltrate the IRA in the Republic with a view to re-establishing a lost line of gun-running. The aim is not so much as to support the Republican cause, as to prevent the Soviets from stepping in and further unbalancing the power dynamic in the Cold War.

Ray, as a conspicuous newcomer and outsider, has to win the trust of a deeply suspicious set of people (associated with the previous gun-running operation out of gangland South Boston) and IRA splinter-group volunteers. His loyalty is tested several times, each time in more dangerous and hair-raising ways. More than once his life is threatened, and he has to muffle his moral instincts when other people’s lives are on the line: to step in and prevent bloodshed he would jeopardise his cover.

There’s a sub-genre of thriller to which Blacklion makes a worthy contribution (a recent series of the hit UK tv series ‘Line of Duty’ is an example): the undercover cop/agent who has to compromise his human principles in order to fulfil his mission. This includes becoming involved in a sexual relationship with one of the female activists. The tension mounts when Ray’s initial guilt at deceiving Aoife turns into another kind of unease as he finds himself falling in love with her.

The plot is fairly standard for this kind of set-up, with increasingly nail-biting operations involving assassinations of rivals or suspected ‘rats’, and firefights with the British army that culminate in a dangerous operation in the town of Blacklion, just over the border in Ulster.

There’s less obvious political ideology in this novel than there was in 50s-set Foxhunt. There the conflicting and equally extreme positions of the Soviets and conservative Americans were foregrounded. In Blacklion, Beirne is more interested in what drives politically motivated activists to such extremes of violence, while also exploring the even more complex morality of the undercover agent. The validity of Ray’s actions and mission is never overtly judged; the narrative simply presents what happens and wisely leaves the readers to form their own views.

The fact that he is haunted by flashbacks of his previous illegal covert operation in Laos (during the Vietnam war) simply shows the price Ray pays for doing the job he does. In a way he comes to grudgingly admire the commitment to a cause demonstrated by the people he deceives, and to question his role and the murkier ‘cause’, if it could be called that, on behalf of which he is operating. As Yeats put it, the falcon cannot hear the falconer.

One minor cavil. The prose is terse, unadorned – I suppose it could be called ‘hard-boiled’ in a Hemingway/Chandler way. But I was a little put off by one aspect of this style; there are times when the ‘this happened then this’ approach becomes intrusive. Let me try and explain with a fairly random example.

‘Ray walked around the car and opened the passenger side door. He climbed inside and shut it. Aoife turned the key in the ignition and started the car. The headlights played across the grass before the sand…’

Why not the even more pared-back, ‘They climbed into the car and drove off’…? I don’t mind that minimalist prose style, but moments like this grated a bit with me. But that’s a minor point. I enjoyed this novel a lot. It’s an exciting, compelling read, but also thought-provoking. Morality and character are as much in play as politics or action.

My thanks to Baraka Books for the ARC.

Isabel Allende again

Isabel Allende, Violeta. Bloomsbury, 2023. First published in Spanish 2022. Translated by Frances Riddle.

I just looked back at the last time I posted on this Chilean-American novelist: I wrote briefly about her previous novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, back in March 2020. National lockdown in England had just started, so much of the post was about the effects of this.

My reservations about that novel were similar to those I felt with this one – although it’s a more engaging read. They both suffer from an excess of heavily imposed socio-political commentary. This would arise more naturally if the reader was able to deduce what’s going on without being lectured.

It’s another powerful family saga, once again spanning decades of the lives of a Chilean family. There’s a rather unconvincing narrative device: centenarian Violeta is supposedly telling her life story to her beloved grandson. For me, the narrative would have been less clunky if it was just a conventional account.

Some readers might find one of this novel’s central features – the misogynistic, macho culture of Chile in which domestic abuse of women was rife – hard to stomach. But it’s a brave and unflinching aspect of this woman’s story. She learns to face up to the reality of her philandering partner’s cruel treatment of her, and to find the energy and courage to face him down.

That last novel was set during and after the Spanish Civil War, and told of the flight of defeated Republicans to safe haven in Chile. Violeta tells the story of a family’s turbulent life through Chile’s financial crisis following WW1 and the flu epidemic, and that country’s fluctuating political history as it passes from democracy to military dictatorship then back to a kind of democracy again. Violeta’s family is ruined financially, goes into self-imposed exile in the far south (exile is not surprisingly a key theme for Allende), and her struggles to restore their fortunes. Along the way she learns to open her eyes to the realities of the political, social and economic systems in Chile.

The characters are more rounded and convincing this time, and I found reading their story a pleasant way to pass two long train journeys.

Relic of Jimi Hendrix in Ukraine

Andrey Kurkov, Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv, translated from the Russian by Reuben Woolley; MacLehose Press, 2023. First published in Russian 2012.

A friend of mine lent me his copy of this novel by Andrey Kurkov; it was also on his recommendation that I read the same author’s Grey Bees, which I posted about recently.

Written with the same deadpan dryness of tone, it has an air of magical realism that resembles Bulgakov’s in The Master and Margarita: a central feature is the bizarre way one of the central characters, Taras, makes his living – he drives men suffering from painful kidney stones over bumpy cobbled Lviv streets, which makes the stones drop out. Taras retrieves them and adds them to his collection.

He’s loosely associated with the group of ageing hippies who gather at the start of the novel round the putative grave of the legendary musician Hendrix. Was the ex-KGB man who approaches them and tells them he was instrumental in arranging for one of the great guitarist’s hands to be transported to Ukraine and buried there in Lviv telling the truth? Rather like the cult surrounding saints’ relics, the ‘truth’ is less important than the faith they inspire in believers.

The other main character is Alik, who joins forces with the ex-KGB man to trace the origin of the ‘anomalies’ that are causing the weather to misbehave and the seagulls to become savage – elements of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ seem to be referenced at times. When they find the cause, it’s one of the strangest parts of the plot.

There’s a tender love story involving Taras and a young woman who runs the all-night currency exchange booth where he takes the cash he’s earned from his (usually Polish) passengers. Her allergy to banknotes seems to be a metaphor for ‘dirty money’.

It’s an enjoyable novel, with some interesting insights into life in Ukraine shortly before the Russian annexation of Crimea and some eastern parts of the war-torn country, which was the setting for Grey Bees. Even though Jimi Hendrix is not set in wartime, the presence of the former KGB officer, who tells the hippie group that he used to spy on them as their adoration of the Western rock star was considered dangerously subversive by the Soviet regime, is a sinister reminder of Ukraine’s troubled past, its attempt to break free of Soviet domination, and to align itself with the culture of the West. The central image of Jimi Hendrix’s grave signifies the rebellious, anti-establishment ethos that these ageing Ukrainian hippies always subscribed to. There’s also a foreshadowing of the disastrous invasions that were to come, first in 2014 and then far worse last year.

I read recently that Ukrainian literature written in Russian has been banned from Ukrainian bookshops in protest against Putin’s current cruel military assault. I can understand the reason for this, but it’s a shame that the local people will therefore possibly miss out on Kurkov’s decidedly anti-Soviet satire. He was born in Soviet Russia, and Russian is his first language, but he’s lived in Ukraine much of his life.

Rory Stewart, Politics on the Edge

Rory Stewart, Politics on the Edge: A memoir from within. Jonathan Cape, 2023

Mrs TD and I have been keenly following the hit podcast The Rest is Politics, fronted by Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell, since it started 18 months ago. Campbell is the man who was Tony Blair’s media and comms guru, depicted in a grossly exaggerated way as the foul-mouthed bullying Malcolm Tucker (the name rhymes with a swear word he’s overfond of using) in the BBC political satire ‘The Thick of It’. Stewart is an alumnus of Eton and Balliol, Oxford. He is a former soldier, diplomat, author, academic and Tory MP.

This is Stewart’s account of his colourful career up to the point when he quit the Conservative Party in 2019, having been effectively sacked for opposing the hard-line no-deal Brexit bill that was being passed acrimoniously through Parliament. This was the final development in what he describes as the party’s transformation into a ‘populist party of the right’. This was a scarily predictable shift; his book traces this growing movement across the world, which led in the UK to the disastrous premierships of Johnson, Truss and, a less extremely inept example, Sunak:

On four continents provocative, anarchic, charismatic leaders were gaining, spitting out half-invented facts, presenting themselves as the people in revolt against an unrepresentative elite. The age of populism had begun.

This memoir begins with a brief account of the early part of Stewart’s career. He took leave from his diplomatic post in 2000 to walk across a large part of Asia – walking plays an important part in his life and working practice. It’s his way of meeting the people he serves, and reflects his principled approach (rarely shared by his colleagues) to representing them in his professional posts. For a man with a patrician heritage, he’s always determined to find out what people are really thinking and wanting from him, and then trying to bring about change for the better for them.

He served as a provincial governor in Iraq after the ill-fated 2003 war. His experience as a diplomat during these early years exposed him to what was to become familiar to him in political life: an over-fondness among his colleagues for ‘abstract jargon and optimistic platitudes…Most striking was not the failure, but the failure to acknowledge our failure.’

After a spell running an NGO in Afghanistan and as an academic at Harvard, and disillusioned by his chances of improving people’s lives as a diplomat, he decided to try entering what seemed the source of political power, and applied under David Cameron’s 2009 initiative to encourage a more diverse group of people in parliament to become a Conservative MP.

It’s always seemed to me (and Alastair C often teases him about this on the podcast) that he’s far too liberal in his political views to be a Tory. But his riposte there, and in this memoir, is that he dislikes what he sees as the Labour party’s ‘technocratic fantasies’ and predilection for ‘big government’. He’s an advocate, in general terms, of the military, the monarchy, tradition (whatever that means) and love of one’s country. More specifically, he favours limited government, individual rights, ‘prudence at home and strength abroad’. But he’s the old-fashioned, one nation kind of Tory that’s now pretty much been supplanted by the opportunist, xenophobic ultras of the hard right.

Elected in 2010 as the MP for Penrith and the Border, a rural constituency in the far NW of England, he went on to become first a junior minister, held various other posts of increasing responsibility, and peaked as minister at the department for international development from 2017.

His account of his career as a politician is vivid, highly readable and entertaining, but also deeply depressing. His colleagues were often rude to the point of viciousness; most of them, and all of his bosses, were hardly representative of selfless integrity, decency and honesty.

As a new MP he was dismayed to be told by the chief whip – the parliamentary enforcer for his party – that

We should not regard debates [in parliament] as opportunities for open discussion; we might be called legislators but we were not intended to overly scrutinise legislation; we might become members of independent committees, but we were expected to be loyal to the party; and votes would rarely entail a free exercise of judgement. To vote too often on your conscience was to be a fool, and ensure you were never promoted to become a minister. In short, politics was a ‘team sport’.

When first summoned by his new boss Liz Truss at the department for rural affairs, he was horrified by her loftily dismissive attitude to their area of concern. She was to become typical of politicians being appointed to positions for which they showed little enthusiasm or in which they had no experience. Anyone like Stewart, who had vast knowledge of areas like Afghanistan, would be overlooked for posts that cried out for such expertise, and instead injected into positions for which they were unsuited. This reflects the atrophied and ineffective nature of our parliamentary political system with which he gradually fell out of love.Her cavalier attitude to their roles caused him to question whether

these ministerial roles were anything more than symbolic gifts in exchange for loyalty.

At times his account makes him sound priggish and pious, but he’s disarmingly honest about his shortcomings and self-doubt, his tendency to be ‘over-earnest’ and obsessed with details. He admits committing several gaffes, like the one when he was minister in charge of dealing with floods: after one particularly serious flood had happened, and many houses and streets were inundated, he told the BBC that his department had spent millions on flood defences, but this fifteen-foot rise in river levels was unprecedented: “The flood defences are working”, he asserted, “the problem is that the water came over the top”. This admission of one of his ‘screw-ups’ he concedes was a fine example of ‘political idiocy’.

But he also had some successes, like introducing charges for the plastic carrier bags that used to be given out free in supermarkets and shops; this reduced plastic waste by 85%. When prisons minister he managed to improve the previously appalling conditions. There were other small gains. It was the madness of the divisive Brexit campaign and its aftermath that finally did for him, and he realised that the selfishness of his party’s leaders, their disregard for the public good and habit of prioritising their own careers and grip on power, had become too egregious for him to stomach any longer.

We need more people in parliament and politics in general with his kind of integrity, decency and probity – all qualities that our current PM has bragged about restoring, but shown zero capacity for deploying.

Whatever your politics, I’d recommend this book for its insight into the dysfunctional nature of Britain’s political (and electoral) system.

Ukrainian bees, Finland and Barcelona

My recent run of fiction reading that didn’t entirely satisfy continued this month – with one exception:

Andrey Kurkov, Grey Bees. MacLehose Press, translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk, 2021; first published in Russia, 2018 – this paperback edition provided by my local library. This was recommended to me by a friend; I wanted to add to my knowledge of literature about Ukraine.

Kurkov was born in Leningrad in 1961 but his family moved to Kyiv when he was two. Apart from being a prolific novelist, he has become a noted commentator on events in Ukraine. The novel tells the story of Sergey, a beekeeper who lives in the ‘grey zone’ in the Donbas – the area fought over by the Ukrainian army and the invading Russians (who also annexed Crimea in 2014) and pro-Russian separatist militias after the Euromaidan protest movement in 2013-14. Everyone in his village has fled the war except for his ‘frenemy’, Pashka, with whom he maintains a love-hate relationship. Their existence is frugal: there’s no power or mains services, food is scarce, and they live in constant danger of being shot by snipers or blown to pieces by random artillery fire. They hear the booms of explosions in the distance all the time.

In this dystopian setting a slightly surreal sequence of events unfolds. Sergey crawls across a dangerously exposed field to cover the corpse of a dead soldier. He doesn’t even know on whose side he fought, but can’t bear the thought of him lying unburied. This reveals his innate decency. He’s a low-key, self-deprecating example of sanity and humanity in a world that’s gone mad.

He lives almost entirely for his bees. His wife has left him, taking their daughter with her. He has an affair with a neighbouring village shopkeeper, but is reluctant to commit to another human being. His bees fulfil his emotional needs. They become a sort of symbol of the order – working for the common good of the hive – and normality that people in Ukraine have had taken from them.

Partly to avoid having to settle down and compromise his eremitic life, he heads south to the Crimea to look up an acquaintance he hasn’t seen in years. This expedition only leads to the discovery that things are just as bad, if not worse, in this peninsula on the Black Sea. The local Muslim population is oppressed by their aggressive invaders, and they are understandably suspicious of this outsider.

The novel’s title refers not just to Sergey’s bees in the battle-torn grey zone, but to the hive that he suspects has been tampered with by the Russian secret police when he comes to their attention in the Crimea. He believes this interference has somehow turned these bees grey – a metaphor perhaps for the pernicious, tainting effect of Putin’s invasion on everything Ukrainian with which they come into contact.

It’s a poignant, bittersweet narrative, told in subdued, undramatic prose that fits the unheroic Sergey’s stoical nature and the bizarre solitary life he favours. Sergey’s experience is related, as it were, in shades of grey in a world where most of the colour has been erased. It’s one of the most unusual and affecting novels about war (and, more particularly, the people caught up in it) that I’ve ever read.

I didn’t relish Tove Jansson, The Summer Book, Sort Of Books, 2022, first published in Swedish 1972 (TJ was a Swedish-speaking Finnish author), translated by Thomas Teal. I don’t know why: it’s quite charming in a way, and quirkily philosophical. A six-year-old girl lives on a tiny island in the Finnish archipelago with her family, spending most of her time with her rather grumpy but loving grandmother. In a loosely linked series of short stories, we hear about the girl’s hopes and fears, her tantrums and passions. I’ve read several accounts of this largely autobiographical novel that went into raptures, but I’m afraid I found it rather tedious.

The same goes for Mercè Rodoreda, In Diamond Square, Virago 2014, first published in Catalan 1962. As I’ve got to know Barcelona quite well in recent years since my stepson moved there with his family, I was drawn to this novel, set in that city, by one of the most revered Catalan authors of recent years. I was again disappointed. The first third tells of the marriage of Natalia to a coercively controlling, self-absorbed bully of a husband. When the civil war breaks out in 1936, he goes off to fight, and Natalia is left to struggle to earn enough to feed her young family.

The narrative should be compelling: Natalia learns resilience and finds she isn’t such a pushover after all. But I found this transformation unconvincing, and the mannered prose left me cold. It’s influenced, Rodoreda says in the prologue, by Dante, Kafka, Joyce and Homer – a claim justified by some of the breathless syntax, style and apparently inconsequential detail. I found all this intrusive, though, and Natalia’s simple innocence, reminiscent of Candide’s, didn’t make me want to see her overcome her difficulties.

I’m turning to some non-fiction to try and break this sequence of novels that I haven’t enjoyed as much as I’d have hoped. But I did warm to those harmonious, soothing bees.