Edith Wharton, Madame de Treymes

Edith Wharton, Madame de Treymes. VMC 1984

 Madame de Treymes is in fact the third of three novellas or long short stories in this handsome VMC edition that I found in a second-hand bookshop recently. There’s a strong theme connecting all four stories: a difficult moral choice that a character makes that can – and does – change not only their own life, but those of others they’re connected with.

Wharton Mme de Treymes cover

The cover shows a detail of a typically lovely ‘Portrait’ by James Tissot

In The Touchstone (1900) a hard-up, not very bright young man needs to find cash quickly if he’s to be able to marry the woman he loves. The only asset he has will require him to sully the reputation of a famous woman novelist who once loved him. Can he sell his soul, by publishing this famous woman’s most intimate letters to him, in order to achieve his romantic dream? And if he does, how does he salve his conscience and explain his guilty caddishness to his new, now enriched, wife?

A similar dilemma faces the young woman protagonist of Sanctuary (1903). She’s unthinkingly content with the prospect of marriage to her wealthy fiancé – a man who’s inherited his family wealth after the untimely death of his profligate elder brother. She’s forced to start taking life seriously and to snap out of her trance of unreflecting complacency when he tells her how his brother besmirched the family honour and they covered it (and hushed it) up. Should she break off the engagement – her first instinct – or take on this morally compromised man and ensure that any child of theirs has her more ethically sound guidance? And if that child grows up in the morally flawed image of his father, how should she deal with him?

The title story, Madame de Treymes (1907) has a very Henry James ambience. A wealthy, somewhat innocent American, John Durham, is in Paris and wants to marry the woman he’s long been in love with since they were friends years ago back home, but he’d lost her when she married a (stereotypically decadent) French aristocrat. She’s now almost free again: her errant husband’s affairs became too obvious and she’s obtained a legal separation. It’s apparent that she regrets this degrading episode in her life, and reciprocates her former friend’s feelings.

But there’s a problem: her aristocratic in-laws are dead against divorce; it’s against their religion (they’re Catholic) and, more importantly, their centuries-old class traditions. If she wants to marry her American she’ll have to give up her eight-year-old son to his corrupt father. Their only hope is for Durham to solicit the aid of the only one of her husband’s relatives who’s ever shown sympathy and affection for her: the Mme de Treymes of the story’s title.

She’s very much in the mould of some of HJ’s more nefariously complicated, morally compromised European women aristocrats in abrasive contact with ingenuous Americans. She seems to offer friendship and a way out of the dilemma, but then changes tack and manipulatively poses an even more horrible dilemma for Durham.

Bunner Sisters (published 1916, written 1896) is different from the other three stories in that it deals with the straitened lives of two women who barely scratch out a living in a shabby part of New York, running a tiny shop that sells tawdry items they’ve made themselves. They live in a tiny room behind the shop. Life is passing them by.

Then a chance encounter brings a man into their lives. Ann Eliza, the older, more staid sister, bought a clock from him as a gift for her sister, and he seems as lonely as the two sisters. They establish a kind of friendship. Self-centred Evelina, the younger, more superficially attractive sister, seems to be the object of his growing affection. Things don’t turn out so neatly, though. This man isn’t all that he seems. Self-sacrifice doesn’t necessarily bring the rewards expected.

As in the other stories, heart-breaking moral dilemmas beset these two helpless, inexperienced women, clinging on to their meagre livelihood by their fingernails, desperate for love and hopelessly vulnerable.

There’s a certain formulaic structure to the stories, and some stock situations and characters (self-sacrifice; moral dilemmas), which perhaps my brief outlines above have indicated. Edith Wharton is always a deeply satisfying author, however, and even with less exalted fiction like this there are rich rewards for the reader.

Here’s an example, chosen at random, of the archly satirical narrative voice that’s so adept at skewering hypocrisy and pomposity. In The Touchstone we’re told about the woman novelist who’d loved the protagonist (Glennard), who went on to betray her by publishing her letters to him.

When they met she had just published her first novel, and Glennard, who afterward had an ambitious man’s impatience of distinguished women, was young enough to be dazzled by the semi-publicity it gave her. It was the kind of book that makes elderly ladies lower their voices and call each other “my dear” when they furtively discuss it…

I found the final story, about the two sisters, the most affecting and original, the most deeply felt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Harvey, The Legend of Captain Space

John Harvey, The Legend of Captain Space. Holland House Books, 2021. First published 1990.

 Holland House published John Harvey’s most recent novel, Pax, in 2019 (link to my post on it HERE: the artists Rubens and Van Dyck feature prominently, as well as a fictional modern British artist), and decided not much later to publish his backlist of fiction. He should be better known as a novelist, given the quality and range of his output.

There’s an artistic theme also in his excellent 2014 novel The Subject of a Portrait, which deals with the tangled real-life relationships between the Pre-Raphaelite artist Millais, his mentor the art critic John Ruskin, and Ruskin’s young wife Effie. My post on this, with two guest posts, one by the author and the other by the publisher, Michael Flay, are found HERE.

The publishers kindly sent me the three titles I hadn’t posted on previously. First up was his earliest novel, The Plate Shop (1979), set in an ailing English engineering factory. Coup d’Etat (1985) is set in Greece during the brutal military colonels’ junta. You see what I mean about the variety and range of his subject matter.

John Harvey is not a prolific novelist: five novels over a period of four decades. This was probably because of his other career as an eminent academic at Cambridge University, where he specialised in the relationship between visual arts and literature. This interest is reflected in his four non-fiction studies of colour, clothes and illustration (especially in Victorian literature).

Harvey Legend of Captain Space cover At the heart of The Legend of Captain Space is the portrayal of another troubled married couple. Nick is a handsome long-distance lorry driver who dreams of breaking into the world of motor racing. When his wife Sandy gives birth to a baby boy, Davey, she struggles to bond with him. His father nicknames him Captain Space when the boy is a toddler, and delights in being swung in the air.

This portrayal of the struggles of parenthood is the most interesting aspect of Captain Space. The doting maternal figure is a commonplace in the perception and representation of women in much literature and art; Harvey subverts that image wickedly as Sandy is driven literally to run away from her fractious baby at one point. She’s guiltily jealous of the easy familiarity Nick, a not very attentive father, superficially develops with his difficult son. Her child tends to frighten and appal Sandy.

The marriage not surprisingly hits the rocks. Sandy struggles to find a life for herself without the responsibility of being a mother, and begins to realise that she misses Davey after all. Nick meanwhile bounces slobbishly from casual sexual encounters to drunken pub brawls. Will he be able to fulfil his dream of becoming a racing driver, given his undisciplined nature? Will Sandy learn to love her son?

I have to be honest and admit I didn’t really care that much. I didn’t find these characters very appealing. I daresay that exposes me as a limited reader – but I felt the central characters were too caught up in their sordid, selfish obsessions for much empathy to develop for them.

It’s all handled with Harvey’s customary poise and narrative deftness, but I’m afraid this floundering couple failed to sustain my interest consistently.

But there are plenty of positives. Nick isn’t entirely without humane, softer feelings. When he gets a job on a farm, he’s given the job of driving a combine harvester. When he sees blood on the blades, he gets down to check he finds to his horror that he’s inadvertently ‘scythed a rabbit’. When he continues harvesting the crop,

[he] kept watch. When he saw a patch of brown, he stopped and climbed down. He could walk up close to the animal. It crouched flat, its sides quivered, its feet didn’t move. A shining eye watched him come.

‘There, mate, there. Easy as you go.’ He reached out and touched it, its hair was bristly. He stroked it, amazed.

‘It’s OK, captain.’

The style here is characteristic of the rest of the narrative: sparse, unadorned, yet highly evocative and visual (not surprising for an author so sensitive to the visual arts). This passage is typically painterly; it puts me in mind of Dürer’s famous print of a young hare – an impression I suspect John Harvey intended.

I hesitated before posting this, having responded with less enthusiasm than usual to this writer’s work. It doesn’t inhibit me from recommending you try any of his fiction or non-fiction. It’s all alive with humanity and finely observed insights, characters and relationships, the ways in which people portray those lives and connections – to themselves and to others (and sometimes in artistic representations). He’s one of the most gifted and rewarding modern English novelists. I just couldn’t always get on with poor little Davey, Captain Space, and his dysfunctional parents.

Not so magic mountain: Sebastian Faulks, Snow Country

Sebastian Faulks, Snow Country. Vintage, 2022. First published 2021

I went last month to Cyprus with Mrs TD for my brother’s wedding (he lives there: wanted sunshine after years of dreich Aberdeen). I read Sebastian Faulks’s new novel, Snow Country, on the journey there. I’d probably have given up on it after a hundred pages if I’d started it at home.

I read somewhere that this is part of the author’s ongoing project to write fiction that deals with matters concerning the treatment of people with mental health problems. Unfortunately this plays only a peripheral part in what is in fact a historical romance.

The fractured structure doesn’t help with the dragging pace. Part one is set in Vienna in 1914. Anton is not a psychologist, however, but an aspiring journalist. He falls in love with Delphine, a French governess to a wealthy family’s children. When war breaks out she disappears, leaving him bereft and heartbroken.

Then it’s 1927 and a new set of characters abruptly appears. Part three jumps ahead to 1933, to a mountain-top asylum (hence the novel’s title) for (finally) those people with mental health problems. These various storylines and some of the characters come together. But they do so very slowly, and the asylum setting is pretty inconsequential. The inmates/patients appear only in the background; it’s the proprietors and staff Faulks is interested in. The unsubtle echoes of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain serve little purpose, and come to nothing.

We get a lot of the history of the asylum and the people who founded it; too much, in fact. Faulks’s research is intrusively apparent. The central love stories eventually resolve themselves in ways that could have been deeply moving and satisfying, but somehow they just don’t quite come to life as one would have hoped – it all feels too forced. I felt the author was more interested in the setting and its back story than in these rather insipid characters he’s placed there.

I much preferred the only other Faulks novel I’ve posted on: Paris Echo (link HERE).

England has been sweltering in a heatwave – like most of Europe – this past week. Here in Cornwall it’s usually much cooler, and sea breezes have kept the temperature down. As I write this it’s started raining (with thunder) and it’s more like a normal July summer – but central England is forecast to hit over forty degrees. Hotter than Cyprus!

 

 

EF Benson, Mapp and Lucia

E.F. Benson, Mapp and Lucia. PMC 2004. First published 1935

I need a long preamble for this post.

This year I became a tour guide at Truro Cathedral. To prepare, I had to do a lot of research so that I could come across as well-informed about the building – its history, Gothic revival design, its artefacts, and so on. It was the first newly built cathedral to be completed in England since Salisbury in the thirteenth century; work on it started soon after the diocese of Truro was established in the late 1870s.

Edward White Benson was consecrated its first bishop in 1877 (he went on to become installed as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1883, a position he held until his death in 1896). While a student at Cambridge he became so interested in the spirit world and the supernatural that he co-founded a ghost society there in 1851. Years later this interest had obviously not waned: Henry James in his notebooks (Jan. 12, 1895) recorded the outline sketch (HJ tended to call these données) of a story told him by Benson, by then the Archbishop of Canterbury, at Addington, his archiepiscopal residence, two days earlier, that clearly gave him the germ of an idea for The Turn of the Screw – which was published in Collier’s Weekly in 1898.

The same notebooks also show that he socialised with two of Benson’s more famous sons: one was Arthur Christopher (1862-1925, published as A.C. Benson), who became Master of Magdalen College, Oxford. He wrote the lyrics to the Elgar song ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (1902), much loved by jingoistic fogies of the type who go on to become morally corrupt prime ministers and senior members of the British government (the most egregiously despicable of whom, I’m delighted to say as I draft this, is on his way out). His literary output included essays, memoirs, lit crit, and (influenced perhaps by his father) ghost stories.

EF Benson Mapp and Lucia cover The other was Edward Frederic (E.F.) Benson (1867-1940), whose literary output included memoirs, biographies, short stories (he too dabbled in ghost stories; I’ve read a few of these – they’re not exceptional, in the MR James mode), and novels. The Mapp and Lucia series – six novels and a couple of short stories – are perhaps his best-known works. Adaptations of some of them have been adapted for TV drama in the 1980s and more recently. I didn’t watch them at the time, assuming they were a genre of lightweight, sub-Wodehouse upper-middle-class snobbery-posing-as-comedy. Having read Mapp and Lucia, the fourth in the novel sequence, that opinion has been confirmed.

Coincidentally, E.F. lived for many years in Lamb House, Rye (in Sussex, on the English south coast), where Henry James had lived from 1897 to 1914. His brother Arthur was also a tenant there for a time, and so was the author Rumer Godden.

Benson based Lucia’s holiday town, Tilling, on Rye, and her character was probably based on the wife of the local golf course secretary, with whom HJ was also socially acquainted during his time there: like Lucia she was an accomplished pianist and self-appointed leader of the town’s musical life.

The plot of Mapp and Lucia is pretty frothy, but well enough done, if you like that sort of thing (I can’t say I do: this was a duty read). Recently widowed Emmeline Lucas, who prefers to be known (with characteristic pretension) as Lucia by her friends, needs a change of scene from sleepy Riseholme. Her self-imposed purdah has become tedious, and other women are trying to supplant her as queen bee of village society. It would be unbecoming for her to resort to her usual tactics of subversion and bullying to restore herself to the prominence she assumes she deserves, as she had made such a ‘stunt’ of her role of ostentatiously grieving widow.

So she rents Mallards, a huge Queen Anne house in Tilling (and based on Lamb House, with its fine garden room), from Mrs Mapp. She wants change, ‘to get roused up again and shaken and made to tick.’ That gives an idea of the dialogue; it’s not really very witty, is it? She veers between that kind of thirties vernacular, stilted and affectedly snobbish high culture references – she poses as a connoisseur of literature and art as well as music – and toe-curling baby-talk with her camp neighbour and friend, Georgie.

None of these people works for a living. Lucia travels in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. A rivalry quickly develops between Mrs Mapp, who’d been the Lucia of her town until her nemesis arrived, and her new tenant. Each indulges in all kinds of devious tricks, low cunning and downright nastiness to try to gain the upper hand over the other, and social dominance in this community of eccentrics.

Philip Hensher sums all this up well in his introduction:

E.F. Benson’s rather remarkable achievement is to have written a series of books which hardly contain one single generous or kind action, with a cast of characters with hardly one redeeming quality between them, which are basically stories about revenge, spite and ruthless ambition.

Spot on. I can’t concur with his next statement, however, that all this ‘refined cruelty’ results in ‘an atmosphere of cheerfulness and exuberant amusement.’ All I got from this rather nasty novel is the cruelty and snobbish rivalry. There is a certain period charm, but I admit to finding the egotistical antics of Lucia, with her affectation of culture and sophistication (part of the plot involves her fear of being exposed by an Italian speaker of knowing nothing of the language she pretends to be fluent in), left me cold.

Another plot strand deals with her friend Georgie’s despair when his servant announces she’s to marry Lucia’s chauffeur. Who will cosset and pamper him now? He might even have to make his own tea! Poor man.

May Sinclair, The Tree of Heaven

May Sinclair (1863-1946), The Tree of Heaven. British Library Women Writers, 2020. First published 1917.

 When I checked my archive I was surprised to find it was four years ago that I first posted on a novel of May Sinclair’s : The Life and Death of Harriet Frean (1922; link HERE). It’s not surprising, given the date of publication of The Tree of Heaven (1917), that its central theme is the calamitous loss of young lives in the carnage of WWI.

This is much more than a war novel, however. Much of the first half is given to a detailed, colourful portrayal of the growing lives of the Harrison children in a London suburb. There are three brothers, Michael (a maverick loner), Nicky (wayward, capricious) and young John. Their only sister, Dorothea, is clever and independent, painfully conscious of her mother’s doting preference for her sons. This might partly account for her joining the burgeoning suffragist movement (of which May Sinclair, a proto-feminist, was an active member).

Sinclair shows how these children’s lives develop according to their temperaments and inclinations. One becomes an avant-garde poet, one of an iconoclastic group that sounds very like the Vorticists. Another impulsively marries a bohemian artist, and lives to regret it.

But looming in the background is always the impending war. The image that dominates the first part of the novel is what the narrator calls ‘the vortex’: the whirlpool of social and cultural pressure and conformity against which Michael rebels (so the Vorticist label is strangely appropriate and inappropriate). He refers to it as the ‘herd soul’, and it’s this that impels so many young men to sign up to the military when war breaks out. This impulse of patriotic ardour is repellent to him.

What becomes of them all is predictably sad. There’s some strange mystical stuff involving one character who appears to have visions of her loved ones at the point of their death. The ash tree in the Harrison garden, which gives its name to the novel, also serves a symbolic, mystical purpose, though I’m not quite sure what that is. Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life in Asgard, perhaps.

Once again, as in Harriet Frean, Sinclair is at her best in examining and depicting the lives of spirited, non-conformist people, especially young women, in abrasive contact with a stifling world of convention and (usually male) privilege. But she avoids stereotypes; Dorothea’s feminism is tempered by a distaste for the methods and ideology of the more radical members of its movement. As with so many suffragists, the war caused her to reassess her commitment to the cause, and her own beliefs about fairness and equality.

Frances, the siblings’ mother, eventually wakes up from her trance of maternity and becomes aware of the terrible reality of mortality and mutability.

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone

Kamila Shamsie, A God in Every Stone. Bloomsbury, 2015. First published 2014

This is the third novel by Pakistani-British author Kamila Shamsie that I’ve read (links to posts on the other two at the end): as always she tells a powerful story, creating complex, conflicted characters faced with terrible dilemmas.

Shamsie is interested in the tensions and connections between British colonisers in the Indian subcontinent and those they lorded it over. In this case there’s Viv, an English archaeologist, who travels from Turkey back to England. When WWI breaks out she works as a VAD nurse, then, emotionally shattered, she sails for Peshawar (modern-day Pakistan) to take part in a dig that her Turkish mentor had told her might be the site of a lost ancient treasure.

Quayyum’s family come from that city, but he’d served the British in a Pathan regiment, believing that he was doing the right thing to serve the empire. Badly injured and disillusioned he returns to his home city. Not surprisingly, his path crosses with Viv’s. Further complications ensue when his younger brother Najeeb becomes her willing pupil. She enthuses him with a love of history and archaeology. Quayyum disapproves. Anti-British feeling is growing, and he’s aware that his friends are joining the jihadist freedom fighters.

I’ve found with Shamsie’s other novels that the pace of the first half of the novel is quite ponderous, as characters and plots are carefully established. The final section slowly builds to an almost unbearable state of tension as all the clashes of culture, personality and politics come to a climax.

The style is perhaps a little too florid at times, but there are the usual Shamsie flashes of brilliance. She skilfully evokes the heat, colours and beauty of what the British used to call the northwest frontier, and the volcano of indignation and outrage that erupts in the ‘native’ population (as the British patronisingly calls the indigenous people). Even Viv shows a lack of sensitivity and awareness of her privilege and unconscious arrogance as a white woman, despite her genuine love for the place, and the twelve-year-old Najeeb. She fails to realise how she compromises him and herself in the eyes of his family and the community by taking him under her tutelage.

What’s so effective in Shamsie’s fictional explorations of these cultural tensions is that she avoids crude black-and-white oppositions, good v. bad. Viv, for example, has experienced arrogance and disdain from patriarchal British society, and sees herself as something of a feminist. So it would have been easy to set her up as some sort of emissary, a bridge between the Peshwari community and the politically myopic British imperialists and brutal military.

As I mentioned earlier, Quayyum is far from being a firebrand anti-Brit; he’s genuinely conflicted about his loyalty to empire as a veteran of the Western Front, where he fought alongside British soldiers and others from across the empire. But when he’s wounded and being treated in a hospital back in England, he’s appalled to discover that the military and ruling class won’t allow young women nurses to tend non-white male patients – such is the fear of some kind of contamination. He also discovers that the hospitals for Indian wounded men are effectively prisons, and the patients are lied to about the whereabouts of their wounded comrades. Without preaching, Shamsie succeeds in showing both the casual cruelty but also the capacity for kindness of the imperialist British, and the not always pure-minded mentality of the oppressed people who are finally provoked into rebelling against them.

I used to think that Britain’s colonial past – the world Shamsie describes in this novel – was as low as we could sink in terms of unethical, amoral political arrogance. I was wrong. Our prime minister and his team continue to reveal themselves as lacking in any kind of integrity or decency. Maybe Kamila Shamsie should turn her attention to present day Britain.

Other posts:

Home Fire (brief note) HERE

Burnt Shadows HERE

 

 

Patrick Gale, Mother’s Boy

Patrick Gale, Mother’s Boy. Tinder Press, 2022.

Patrick Gale is a Cornwall-based novelist, and much of his fiction has a Cornish setting or theme. Mother’s Boy, his latest novel, is his spirited account of the life of one of Cornwall’s most famous writers: the poet Charles Causley (1917-2003).

Patrick Gale Mother's Boy cover A friend of mine said he thought it misrepresented some aspects of the life; I don’t know enough of the biography to comment on this. In my ignorance I enjoyed this as a well-wrought narrative. I think it’s ok for a novelist to exercise some imagination in selecting from the ‘facts’ of a life and leavening them with ingredients that suit their artistic purpose (within reason, I suppose, so that’s a bit of a cop-out on my part).

I won’t go into the details of Causley’s life as portrayed by Gale, as this might interfere with your own response. I can say that he lived most of his life in the small market town of Launceston, near the border with Devon. His childhood was quite tough, as the household had a small income. He didn’t fit in with school very well, and was bullied at times. In a small community this was problematic.

After a spell during and shortly after WW2 in the Navy, he trained to teach and returned to his home town to teach in the school he’d attended as a child. In his younger days he wrote plays and fiction, but gradually specialised in poetry. His style and themes show the influence of local folklore, ballads and the oral Celtic-English tradition, making his poetry more accessible than many 20C English poets.

The term ‘mother’s boy’ is usually pejorative, but here it’s largely positive. He had a very close relationship with his mother. His homosexuality was risky in the years when it was still illegal, and this may have contributed to his relatively secluded life.

Patrick Gale writes his story with great sympathy; it’s not a hagiography, for we see aspects of Causley’s life that aren’t entirely flattering. His intimate relationships were initially faltering and not always fulfilling as he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. He clearly found it difficult to commit to a full-on relationship with anyone other than his mother.

Much of the novel deals with his younger, more formative years. Gale creates atmospheric scenes portraying small-town life, and then the claustrophobic world on board naval vessels – which interestingly he likens to that in prison – in ways that provide not just colourful, event-filled narrative, but also show the building of an artist’s mind.

John Harvey, Coup d’Etat

John Harvey, Coup d’Etat (Holland House Books, 2020; first published 1985)

 John Harvey is a renowned Cambridge academic who’s written some fascinating studies on the nature of and relationship between the visual and literary arts (see my list of links to his non-fiction works at the end of this post). He’s also a prize-winning novelist (my list of posts on his novels is also at the end of this post) – not to be confused with the author by the same name of the popular crime fiction series featuring Charlie Resnick.

J Harvey Coup d'Etat Coup d’Etat is set in Greece during the military dictatorship 1967-74 following the ‘Colonels’ coup’. This group of far-right, ultra-nationalist officers seized power and brutally suppressed all opposition, establishing what was euphemistically called a ‘national government’. To consolidate and enforce the junta’s stranglehold on the country the colonels transformed the judiciary into a corrupt system of kangaroo courts: those who dared to question their regime were summarily imprisoned, tortured, executed or exiled.

The central characters of this gripping, epic novel (it’s 600 pages long, but needs to be in order to depict the scale of events and their effects on the Greek people) enable the author to anatomise the functioning of this dictatorship. On the side of democracy is a brave, idealistic lawyer who tries initially to use his expertise to defend opponents of the junta, and then becomes another of its victims. He suffers terribly while in prison, and his wife undergoes her own ordeal trying to cajole the authorities into even revealing where they’ve imprisoned him, let alone to visit him.

Supporters of the regime are not shown simply as ogres and sadists, though many come close – not just the torturers in prison, but those who command them. More nuanced in this aspect of the narrative are those who strive to further their own political careers by sucking up to those higher up; like many in Nazi Germany, they were complicit with the regime while fully aware of its more brutal tendencies. Some are ideologues who have bought into the colonels’ aspirations to create a new Greek empire – with devious plans to reconquer Turkey by staging another coup in Cyprus, which could then be used as a springboard to invasion of their old enemy. Others are simply amoral in their ambition to use the corrupt system to enhance their status and gain more of the trappings of wealth and power they admire in their superiors.

An early reviewer described Coup d’Etat as Tolstoyan, and I don’t find this an exaggeration. Dr Harvey unflinchingly portrays the viciousness and monomania of the military regime, its ruthlessness in imposing its dictatorship in ways which have become horribly familiar over the last century, and which continue to fill news reports today about the war in Ukraine.

But he also shows enormous sympathy for and insight into the hearts and minds of his characters representing both sides in this terrible period of Greek history. Families caught up in the tumult of the times are shown as being often split in terms of their political allegiances and motivation – as all families are (I’m trying to avoid falling into the usual Tolstoy quotation).

Most impressive among the literary achievements of Coup d’Etat is the central trio of the loving couple of the lawyer Vangelis and his devoted wife Chryssa. Here again the author shows a capacity for showing human frailty and weakness even at times of enormous courage and resilience in their struggle against the cruel regime. The character of their English friend Michael, a journalist, enables John Harvey to provide a convincing outsider’s perspective on the turmoil and suffering caused in the lives of these ordinary, decent people by their military oppressors, but also to introduce a complicating, heartbreaking alternative love story into these already precariously situated lives.

In the foreword to this new edition of the novel, first published in 1985 and now reissued by Holland House as part of a full set of his novels (my thanks to the author and his publishers for providing copies of some of those I hadn’t yet read), Dr Harvey explains his own personal interest in telling this harrowing but uplifting story. In 1968 he married Julietta in her home city of Thessaloniki, and they witnessed many of the events depicted in the novel, and were told more about them by those who had been caught up in events during that dreadful time in the world’s oldest democracy.

This explains the gritty authenticity of the novel, but also the heartfelt, passionate engagement with it by the narrator, the sweep and tone of the narrative, and the richness of the characterisation.

My previous posts on John Harvey’s novels:

The Paint Shop (1979) HERE

The Subject of a Portrait (2014) HERE (three posts, including one by the author)

Pax (2019) HERE

Non-fiction/academic:

The Poetics of Sight (2015) HERE

Clothes (2008) HERE

Men in Black (1995); The Story of Black (2013) HERE

 

Great and terrible year: Bulgakov, The White Guard

Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) The White Guard (Alma Classics, 2016)

I bought a half-price bundle of Bulgakov novels from Alma as I’d never read his work before, and thought I’d show some solidarity with war-scarred Ukraine. I started with the surreal-satirical The Master and Margarita (posted about last month HERE).

The White Guard is an early, largely autobiographical novel begun in the early 1920s. It took Bulgakov years to complete, and went through many redactions. A final version in Russian proofread by Bulgakov was published in Paris in 1929 – there was a substantial émigré Russian population there. It wasn’t published in a complete version in Soviet Russia until 1966. Again it’s highly relevant to the terrible situation in Ukraine today.

It’s set in Kyiv in the harsh winter of 1918-19, a ‘great and terrible’ year, as the novel’s opening words describe it, when the city was shelled and besieged by right-wing nationalist forces exploiting the departure of the German troops who’d defended it until their defeat in November in WWI. There’s a scattered, ineffective defence by raw cadets and a few officers – most of whom had deserted. They’re under-equipped, disorganised and overwhelmed by superior opposition forces – similar in many ways to the tragic events that are taking place in Ukraine now.

Everyday life in Ukraine’s capital has become terrifyingly dangerous. Then, as now, its citizens hear the awful sounds of artillery shells bursting ever nearer the centre of the city. Their attackers show no discrimination in their assault: then as now the tactic is to annihilate the fabric of the cities attacked, and to drive out the inhabitants or kill them if they remain. Arbitrary acts of anti-Semitism and cold-blooded murder are frequent.

The plot centres upon the Turbins, a cultured bourgeois White (pro-Tsar, with allegiance to pre-revolutionary Russia) family and their close circle of friends. Alexei, a young military doctor (as Bulgakov was) is wounded in the conflict and narrowly escapes death (possibly after a mystical intervention by the Virgin Mary). His sister Yelena’s husband, an officer in the Ukrainian forces supposedly defending them, has (like most of his peers) deserted his city and his wife.

It’s a stirring, gripping account of ordinary city folk enduring terrible hardship at the hands of a cruel and murderous enemy – the nationalists are about to be succeeded in their onslaught by the Bolsheviks (Reds). This is perhaps why Bulgakov’s stage play based on this novel was said to be Stalin’s favourite, and why the author was not sent to a gulag or executed, rather than just censored: he portrays the invincible, crushing might of the Bolshevik revolution, against which the Chekhovian bourgeois-liberal ignorance and dreaminess of the likes of the Turbin family and their friends are inevitably doomed to be eliminated.

The style has a modernist, fragmented approach (songs, poems, dreams) and tone that reminded me of Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, among others (maybe Dos Passos, too, with its random snippets of newspaper stories and unattributed dialogue). Eisenstein’s montage technique in film also comes to mind – especially in a parade/religious service scene near the end when the nationalist forces are celebrating victory.

Amid all the savagery Bulgakov shows love and hope in this family and their friends. There are some apocalyptic and literary allusions (especially to War and Peace and more generally to the fiction of Dostoevsky), strange symbols and magical/surreal moments, as in The Master and Margarita – see the link above to my post. Some of these contribute to the sense that none of the factions in this terrible war is perfect; the focus on the White Turbin family presents them with all their illusions, prejudices and flaws, while the nationalists and Reds who are about to crush their lives and culture are portrayed more as ruthless ideologues rather than the romanticised saviours that Stalin would normally have preferred in such representations. It’s all, as Stephen Blackpool says with characteristic stoical bafflement in Hard Times, a muddle.

I read it while suffering from a heavy cold, which added to the sense of weirdness in the narrative. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the dreadful news from Ukraine that fills our airwaves daily, then you might prefer to give this novel a miss. On the other hand, it provides vivid historical context to these events, a salutary reminder that Soviet-sympathetic Russia has always had designs on Ukraine’s territory and people, and is convinced that it has an imperialist (if not divine) right to sovereignty over a nation whose separate, independent and autonomous existence it refuses to recognise or respect.

 

Spies and misdemeanours: le Carré, Boyd, Hill, Beirne

Time for a survey of recent reading.

John le Carré Silverview (Viking, 2021) This was passed on to me by Mrs TD: le Carré’s final published novel before his death two years ago. It’s a complicated story involving an ex city trader turned (non-bookish) bookshop owner who gets tangled up with spies, double agents and conspiracies. It’s entertaining as far as this kind of thing goes. The title is the name of the house where a shady former MI5 agent lives, imitating the name of Nietzsche’s house, of all people. I’d always thought the rural county of Suffolk was a peaceful, serene place to live (my parents and sister lived or still live there), but according to this novel it seems pretty much everyone in that part of East Anglia is involved in espionage and skulduggery.

William Boyd Love Is Blind (Penguin, 2019) I read this on the way back from Italy and left it on the plane, so rely on memory for this note. Brodie is a Scots piano tuner with a monster of a tyrannical father (a firebrand vicar-preacher, implausibly). Brodie falls in love with a Russian opera singer who’s also involved with a virtuoso concert pianist and his brutish brother. After hair-raising scrapes in various European cities Brodie finds himself in a remote jungle island assisting a pioneering woman ethnologist. As one does. The plot is even more complex than the le Carré. When Brodie discovers he has TB it gets even more tangled. The characters are a bit flat, but the descriptions of piano tuning are strangely engaging. This competent novel would have benefited from some editorial pruning.

Susan Hill The Comforts of Home (Vintage, 2019) Another handed on by Mrs TD. It’s one of a series, apparently, with the central character called Det. Chief Inspector Simon Serailler. It seems inevitable in this cop-centred genre that he’s a maverick rule-breaker and loner, despite being a serial flirt. The main crime (a murder on a Scottish island) at the heart of the plot is the least interesting part of the novel – it’s the relationships between Serailler, his GP sister and her husband, who’s also his boss, and her sons, that are the most entertaining aspect. There’s also a cold case (another nasty murder) that Serailler is put on to by said boss to ease him back into work after a horrific accident in which he’d lost his arm – an incident presumably from the previous novel in the series. I can’t say I’ll rush to read another one, though it’s all efficiently done, if a bit predictable.

Luke Francis Beirne Foxhunt (Baraka Books, 2022: ARC courtesy of the Canadian publishers). A cold-war thriller rather like early le Carré. In 1949 a Canadian writer called Lowell moves to London to edit a new magazine intended to promote Western literature, values and culture and its artistic freedom compared with the repressive regime of the Soviet Union. When a Canadian colleague is murdered he begins to realise all is not as it seems: the magazine’s backers are as sinister in their way as their enemies. The politically naïve Lowell undergoes a painful education in the amoral games played by these characters who lurk in the shadows. I’m not a huge fan of espionage novels, but this one is skilfully crafted and has an original premise and richly drawn characters. The revelation at one point that the Soviets were experimenting with advanced nuclear weapons is eerily pertinent given recent news about the brutal war/invasion in Ukraine and related developments.

There’s a foxhunt at one point, hence the title, but it’s not one as Trollope would have depicted it.