About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

Edith Wharton, The Spark

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. The Spark (pp. 173-226) (1860s)

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

This third in Edith Wharton’s collection of novellas, Old New York, each of which is largely set in successive decades of the mid-century, 40s-70s, deals centrally with the effects of the Civil War (1861-65) on some of its ageing veterans in the upper echelons of New York society.

My father was an artilleryman in WWII. He endured much of the war as a POW. Not surprisingly he was traumatised by his experience, and rarely spoke about it. I was poignantly reminded of him in Wharton’s portrayal of Hayley Delane in this novella – another ‘shut-up fellow’ who ‘wouldn’t talk about the war.’

The Spark depicts him through the eyes of the young Harvard graduate who narrates three of the four novellas. He’s attracted to Delane by his standing morally aloof from the shallow, ethically bankrupt society of ‘well-to-do and indolent New Yorkers’ in ‘the archaic nineties’, yet being more than content to engage with them in their senseless social activities.

Our narrator is curious to discover what is the ‘hidden spark’ that motivates mild, ‘soft-hearted’ Delane to behave with such undemonstrative moral probity, while turning a blind eye to his wife’s heartless treatment of him, and seeming content to conform to the shallow pleasures of his social world. Furthermore, he seems once to have been a keen reader of poetry, and yet now shows no interest in literary matters. There’s a puzzling dichotomy in the man that he’s determined to get to the bottom of.

Delane’s wife Leila is a trivial, frivolous, flirtatious woman, fifteen years younger than her husband, who is besotted with her. The narrator is intrigued to see how ‘it was she who ruled and he who bent the neck’. She treats him with undisguised contempt in public, while making no attempt to conceal her serial flirtations – or perhaps affairs.

A crisis comes when Delane thrashes Leila’s most recent conquest for mistreating his polo pony. Delane is forced by his hypocritical friends to apologise to his rival; they assume it was a jealous outburst. The narrator is more inclined to believe Delane’s quietly insistent explanation: ‘”It’s the cruelty. I hate the cruelty”’.

Furthermore, having heard the wronged husband talk eloquently and knowledgeably about literature, he can’t believe ‘it was his marriage which had checked Delane’s interest in books.’ His ‘limited stock’ of quotations and allusions indicates his literary interests ceased long before he’d met Leila.

After showing an early interest in reading, especially of poetry, ‘when his mind had been receptive’, it had:

snapped shut on what it possessed, like a replete crustacean never reached by another high tide.’

When he discovers that Delane ‘ran away from school to volunteer’ to fight in the Civil War (hence this story’s billing as ‘the sixties’) and was wounded, he begins to understand what now sparks Delane’s soul into being. He’d ‘stopped living’, in a sense, aged about nineteen, at a date roughly coinciding with the end of the war, when he’d returned ‘to the common-place existence from which he had never since deviated’ – the vacuous, unthinking life he clearly now enjoyed, like the ‘merest fribble’: polo, cards, hunting and social gatherings in which his unfaithful wife could shine:

Those four years had apparently filled to the brim every crevice of his being.

The war had made him different – in a way not seen by most other veterans in his circle who bragged about their war experiences. Although indistinguishable in most ways from the rest of his narrow-minded social set, with their empty libraries and obsession with sensual pleasures, ‘it was only morally that he had gone on growing.’

Hence his calm defence of his unfaithful wife, of the cruelly abused horse, and of unfashionable moral principles and causes, ‘careless of public opinion’ in ‘important matters’ – even at the expense of his own reputation: ‘To Delane, only the movement itself counted’; he wasn’t interested in the social standing of those who supported it, or what society thought of him.

Fresco at Siena of GuidoriccioDaFogliano

The fresco at Siena, attributed to Simone Martini. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1046283

There are parallels here with the depiction in other Wharton fictional works of the roles and shortcomings of parents and children. The narrator of The Spark looks up to Delane with the devotion of a son to his father. This New York banker ‘of excessive weight’, mounted ‘heavily yet mightily’ on his polo pony in a ‘gaudy polo-shirt’, contrasted unbecomingly with the young rival for his wife’s affection, as Leila heartlessly points out. Yet he’s intrigued by some quality in this unusual man, and he senses depths beneath ‘his lazy, torpid’ ways, that would justify his love for the man. He ‘whimsically’ perceives him as an image of the 14C condottiero Guidoriccio da Foliagno, ‘the famous mercenary, riding at a slow powerful pace across the fortressed fresco of the Town Hall of Siena’ on ‘his armoured war-horse.’

Given what he discovers about Delane’s wartime experiences, this apparently incongruous image takes on greater significance. Despite his trauma, which atrophied much of his personal development, Delane has matured morally in ways that most of his peers can never match, and which the loving narrator instinctively perceives.

This develops in interesting ways the theme found in other works of fiction by Wharton, in which parents and surrogate parents vie for the devotion of their children, as in A Son at the Front, published in 1923, around the time of the first appearance of these four novellas in magazine form.

There’s another twist at the end, when we finally learn the identity of the person who was the catalyst for this ‘spark’ in Delane: it was the gentle, humane influence of Walt Whitman, who nursed him when he’d been wounded early in the war, at Bull Run. It’s well known that Wharton greatly admired Whitman’s poetry. The final irony of this strange story is that Delane blithely admits to his young friend that he considers his poetry ‘rubbish’.

Edith Wharton, The Old Maid

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. The Old Maid (pp. 75-172) The 1850s

Running through three of the four novellas comprising Edith Wharton’s Old New York is the fear and presence of disease, in particular tuberculosis; it seems to be a metaphor for a number of things (as well as being an ever-present danger and cultural motif, as so many Romantic poets, Victorian novelists and artists attested in their own lives and work).

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘The Reception’ by James Tissot (also known as ‘L’Ambitieuse’ or ‘Political Woman’, from a series done 1883-85, ‘La Femme à Paris’

In The Old Maid the disease has a central significance: Charlotte Lovell, an impoverished member of one of the ‘prosperous, prudent and yet lavish society’ of New York, falls ill and is feared to be “going like her father” – he’d died at thirty of ‘lung-fever’ – another name for TB or ‘consumption’. She has ominous ‘rounds of brick-rose on her cheek-bones, which almost (preposterous thought!) made her look as if she painted’.

This description early on in the novella is focalised through the narrator, her married cousin Delia Ralston. Delia’s patronising appraisal – that hint of the ‘painted woman’ or courtesan – invokes perhaps the stereotypical Camille/Violetta figure. Charlotte’s sickliness arises from her contaminated character in Delia’s old New Yorker’s eyes.

Robert Koch published in 1882 his microbiological findings on the tubercle bacillus (hence TB) as the contagious cause of tuberculosis. Until then it was believed to be inherited – hence the assumption about the physiological (as well as the metaphorical) etiology of Charlotte’s disease. Susan Sontag points out in Illness as Metaphor (1978) that TB was long thought to produce ‘exacerbated sexual desire’, afflicting ‘the reckless and sensual’ – a disease of passion or, paradoxically, repression.

Having the disease was ‘imagined to be an aphrodisiac, and to confer extraordinary powers of seduction.’ Charlotte could therefore be seen as representing a dangerously sexual woman, ‘consumed’ by passion. Her confession to Delia that she had an illegitimate baby daughter would confirm such a view.

It would also add weight to the interpretation that her disease is a consequence of the suppressed secret of her shame. A melodramatic plot follows (it was made into a stage play in 1935, and filmed in 1939 with Bette Davis in the title role, and Miriam Hopkins as Delia; life imitated art, in that they apparently strove to upstage each other on set with barely concealed mutual jealousy).

The baby’s father is revealed to be the man Delia had rejected as being too ‘reckless’; he was that unthinkable combination as a potential husband: a penniless artist and living in Italy. He’d not consented to ‘give up painting and Rome’. As in all the novellas in this collection, Italy is perceived as only good for taking the Grand Tour (as in False Dawn) and a suitable climate for consumptives to be shipped off to. As Italian-born Treeshy Kent says to her lover in False Dawn:

“My uncle Kent says the European countries are all wicked, even my own poor Italy…”

Delia chose instead the safe, unadventurous Jim Ralston, a stalwart of her ‘safe, friendly, hypocritical New York’, and settled for ‘the insidious lulling of the matter-of-course’, a marriage to a dull man whose forebears ‘had not come to the colonies to die for a creed but to live for a bank-account’. His ancestry is described in one of Edith Wharton’s more acerbic images:

Institutional to the core, they represented the conservative element that holds new societies together as seaplants bind the seashore.

As I suggested in my post on False Dawn, there’s an obsession with breeding in these top New York families that verges on eugenics. This is made clear in the opening pages of The Old Maid, and the description of the Ralston heritage. Marriages with Dutch Vandergraves:

had consolidated those qualities of thrift and handsome living, and the carefully built-up Ralston character was now so congenital that Delia Ralston sometimes asked herself whether, were she to turn her own little boy [after four years of marriage she’s the mother of two children] loose in a wilderness, he would not create a small New York there, and be on all its boards of directors.

The wittiness of this image is darkened by Delia’s uneasy acceptance of the underlying snobbishness and moral atrophy – characteristics of old New Yorkers that are skewered throughout the four novellas.

As for that racial purity: Delia warns off Charlotte’s fiancé, Joe Ralston, her husband’s cousin (there’s that obsession with blood purity again) – not by telling him about Charlotte’s baby, but that she’d recently coughed up blood. She knows what the outcome will be:

The bridegroom who had feared that his bride might bring home contagion from her visits to the poor would not knowingly implant disease in his race…[W]hich one [of the top New York families] had not some grave to care for in a distant cemetery: graves of young relatives “in a decline”, sent abroad to be cured by balmy Italy? The Protestant grave-yards of Rome and Pisa were full of New York names; the vision of that familiar pilgrimage with a dying wife was one to turn the most ardent Ralston cold.

The gender inequality in what were considered acceptable social mores is spelled out starkly when Delia justifies to herself her action in thus ‘sacrificing’ Charlotte as the only honourable thing to do:

Social tolerance was not dealt in the same measure to men and to women, and neither Delia nor Charlotte had ever wondered why: like all the young women of their class they simply bowed to the ineluctable.

One would hope that Delia’s subsequent taking in Charlotte and baby Tina to her household results in a rare case of female solidarity in Wharton’s world; instead their ménage becomes unbearably strained. Delia is fondly called ‘Mamma’ by the growing girl, which makes her biological mother jealous (she calls her ‘aunt Charlotte’); meanwhile Delia is jealous of Charlotte because she’s the biological mother. Charlotte’s acquiescence and abasement in the dowdy title role, sacrificing the possibility of a loving maternal role with her daughter to take on that of a shamed, sterile outcast, and is treated with condescending pity by the other two women, is painfully dramatized by Wharton.

 

 

 

 

Fleas and nightingales: Edith Wharton, False Dawn #NovNov

Edith Wharton (1862-1937), Old New York. Virago Modern Classics, 2006. First published 1924.

  1. False Dawn (pp. 3-74): The ‘Forties.

I was intending a post on all four of the novellas in this collection together, but I decided it was worth devoting a whole post to each one. They deal respectively with the New York of the 1840s, 50s, 60s and 70s. These can serve as my contribution to bloggers posting on Novellas in November #NovNov (no particular host; I learned about it from Bookish Beck)

This is the same complacent, morally bankrupt New York world that Wharton indicted so trenchantly in novels like The Age of Innocence (link to my post HERE). Some of the characters and motifs reappear from that 1920 novel across this collection.

Edith Wharton, Old New York cover

The cover shows a detail from ‘The Reception’ by James Tissot (also known as ‘L’Ambitieuse’ or ‘Political Woman’, from a series done 1883-85, ‘La Femme à Paris’

The plot is simple: a bastion of conservative, wealthy New York, Halston Raycie, sends his son, whom he considers a weakling, on the European ‘Grand Tour’ to make a man of him, but also to buy a collection of artworks that will fill his planned Raycie Gallery. He’s an ignorant philistine, and wants only those universally acknowledged Old Masters that mean nothing to him, but that he has learnt are esteemed as “acceptable taste” and considered worthy as ostenatious domestic ornaments by his equally ignorant, mercenary peers. He’s not interested in the aesthetics of the mission, just the anticipated glory acquired by owning ‘a gallery of Heirlooms’. On this he is ‘dogmatic and explicit.’

No surprises how all this turns out. More interesting is the depiction of this monstrous patriarch and his family. Here’s how we first hear about his own marriage and lineage:

He thought well of most things related to himself by ties of blood or interest. No one had ever been quite sure that he made Mrs Raycie happy, but he was known to have the highest opinion of her.

As for his two daughters, ‘fresher replicas of the lymphatic Mrs Raycie’,

no one would have sworn that they were quite at ease with their genial parent, yet everyone knew how loud he was in their praises.

The son Lewis, however, is a disappointment to the ‘monumental’ father (in physique as well as public image). He’s rather a puny specimen, and like his submissive mother and downtrodden sisters has had most of the stuffing knocked out of him by his bullying father; but he’s determined to defy the bully. His sister Mary Adeline also shows signs of pluck and decency by secretly supplying alms to the destitute and ailing Mrs Edgar Poe, of all people, who lives nearby. The father, of course, despises the decadent author, considering him ‘a blasphemer’.

Raycie snr adheres to the views of the New York élite that Wharton has skewered in her novels set in that city: be ‘prudent and circumspect’, take no risks and behave entirely conventionally (morality is less important than appearances and wealth). Only marry into the most respectable (and wealthy) families, and disparage anything outside of this narrow, self-approving social circle and its cruelly rigid moral code.

So it’s with some trepidation that we read of Lewis’s love for dowdy orphan Treeshy. She’s had the misfortune (in the Raycie view) to be born in Italy – a susipiciously foreign background – and to be less than beautiful. A society wife should adorn and magnify her husband like a trophy (as Mrs Raycie does with her expensive imported clothes and impeccably conventional household décor and customs).

Lewis’s bravado increases the further away from New York he travels. He thinks of his father’s ‘fussy tyranny of his womenkind’. Mrs Raycie is given a pittance of pin-money by her husband out of the fortune she herself had brought to the marriage, and which he’d taken over. This was of course the era when all of a wife’s property became the husband’s after marriage. What little she’s allowed by him is expected to be spent on the fripperies that make her look the part of such a grand husband.

The account of young Lewis’s tour is entertainingly done. Here’s how ‘the East’ is described:

so squalid and splendid, so pestilent and so poetic, so full of knavery and romance and fleas and nightingales.

When he meets John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and other forward-thinking aesthetes in Europe he’s rashly inspired to buy the paintings that the philistine New York-Raycie world will deprecate. Poor Lewis; his rite of passage into manhood is doomed from the start. To his credit, he sticks to his principles, and tries to behave ‘humanely’. So many of such social rebels in Wharton’s fiction, though, end up crushed by that snobbish, inbred social élite, ‘encased in [its] security and monotony’, adorned by its ‘pearls and Rolls and Royces.’

It’s a privileged, snobbish, self-perpetuating society that Wharton shows engaging in a kind of social eugenics – the theme of tainted lineage crops up again and again in Old New York and her other fiction. Like that of impoverished Treeshy, brought up among ‘ignorant foreigners’. It’s a xenophobia that is shown not just towards foreigners, but to anyone deemed socially ‘not one of us’, as Mrs Thatcher so memorably, chillingly put it.

Link to my posts on seven more works of Wharton fiction HERE.

 

 

 

Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Taylor Jenkins Reid, Daisy Jones & The Six. Hutchinson, 2018

A bit of a departure in today’s post.

Mrs TD and I heard this novel recommended on the BBC Radio 4 book programme A Good Read last month (always worth catching the podcast). She read it and urged me to. I hated it – and quite enjoyed it as a guilty pleasure. I’m old enough to remember the seventies era in which it’s set, and secretly quite liked ‘Rumours’ (though I claimed at the time in public to prefer Dylan, Cohen and The Grateful Dead).

Daisy Jones cover

Daisy Jones goes her own way…

I found the last quarter quite moving. It was the most interesting aspect of it that was least interesting: the structure. It’s written as a sort of transcript from a mockumentary about a seventies American rock band, mostly in oral interviews. It veers horribly close to Spinal Tap, without the laughs or irony. Pop and rock music novels generally fail to match the music behind them, or non-fiction accounts, as this Guardian review by Neil Spencer of The Thrill of It All by Joseph O’Connor suggests.

The band is initially The Six; the name is expanded when solo artist Daisy joins them. It seems to be based on a soft-rock outfit like Fleetwood Mac (I believe this genre of music is now known as Yacht Rock). It has the usual rock cliché pairs of rival siblings, struggles for artistic and dynamic control, sexual tensions, and so on. The lead singer and guitarist, Billy, is an autocrat, and makes his bandmates seethe with resentment and frustration as he hogs the limelight and dictates the direction of their career.

It’s got all the usual tropes of such stories of the era: sex, drugs and alcohol addiction, manipulative chancers, mayhem, hedonism and excesses on the road. Their desperation to make hit records and become famous means compromising on their musical values (yes, it’s super pretentious). Inevitably band members fall in and out of love.

Because everything is told in fragments by members of the band, engineers, managers, rock journalists and a few others, the style is highly colloquial and largely monotonous, predictable, and laden with the slang of the era: young women are ‘cool chicks’, as the musicians get rich they buy ‘a pad’ in Laurel Canyon, that kind of thing.

The prose is generally flat and tediously repetitious. Rock stars talking about the ‘rush’ of making a crowd go crazy is interesting mostly for themselves. Hearing it repeated every few pages becomes, like, a drag, man.

The plot development is as predictable as their world tour: the trajectory of such bands has been traced countless times, as in the recent film about Queen. There’s the usual rise from obscure origins to superstardom to disintegration when the band splits.

The lengthy exposition of song lyrics and ‘laying down of tracks’ is laboured and sometimes laughable. Let’s face it, most rock lyrics don’t stand up to much close scrutiny, except for Dylan’s. The lyrics for the band’s breakthrough album ‘Aurora’ (that’s a ringer for ‘Rumours’) – the making of which forms the heart of the novel – are given in full at the end; they’re passable pastiche, but like most lyrics of the time (as Christopher Ricks concedes about Dylan’s), they work best when performed. Seeing them in print exposes their banality.

There are some neat touches, as when a character tells us their version of an event, then the next speaker gives an account that contradicts it completely. An example: Daisy says Billy wrote the song ‘Impossible Woman’ about her. She quotes: “She’s blues dressed up like rock ‘n’ roll/untouchable, she’ll never fold”. (That’s fairly typical of the prosody.)

Then Billy says: ‘I absolutely never told Daisy the song was about her. I wouldn’t have done that because the song wasn’t about her.’

His denial shows his evasion of the truth about his suppressed feelings for her, but that’s about as emotionally deep as the story gets.

In fact most of the band members reveal themselves (unsurprisingly) to be shallow and egotistical – though some of their annoyance with Billy is understandable.

There’s a twist near the end that I hadn’t seen coming, and as I said at the start, the final part of the novel is quite poignant. The love-hate relationship in the triangle involving Daisy, Billy and his faithful, trusting wife Camila is handled pretty well. I also liked the feminist critique of the music industry at that time (probably not much changed, even in the era of #MeToo). Daisy is far more radical and in-your-face than the Stevie Nicks (or Janis Joplin?) types she’s vaguely modelled on.

This aspect is spoilt for me as Daisy is increasingly shown as the stereotypical little-girl-lost, searching-for-love character: the rock chick wildness is all a veneer to cover her, gulp, vulnerability. Not such a feminist after all.

More convincing and rounded is the character of Karen, the band’s keyboard player (Christine McVie? I remember her as a gritty blues singer, Christine Perfect): she deliberately plays down her sexuality, while Daisy flaunts it. I’m not convinced by Daisy’s claims that her skimpy, revealing clothes are a reflection of her feminist confidence. She says of the see-through top she wore for the album cover shoot of their hit album ‘Aurora’:

I dress how I want to dress. I wear what I feel comfortable in. How other people feel about it is not my problem.

Protesting a little too much? Revealing in a different way, she goes on to say that she and Karen disagreed on this. Karen knows the game Daisy plays, and perhaps envies her attitude, while also disapproving of her methods; Karen’s found that relying on her talent as a keyboard player doesn’t get her the recognition she craves. A woman has to compromise her sexuality to do so, and Daisy knows that.

But there’s still that annoying prose and over-familiar storyline.

PS Harriet Gilbert on that radio programme I started with likens Daisy Jones to David Keenan’s 2017 novel This Is Memorial Device, also written in the form of interviews and the like, about a post-punk rock band from a windswept part of Scotland that couldn’t be more different from the sunkissed swimming pools and baked deserts in which Reid’s novel is set. I just looked it up; there’s a link HERE to a Guardian review by Toby Litt. It sounds rather more original and interesting.

Ivy Compton-Burnett, Parents and Children

Ivy Compton-Burnett, Parents and Children. PMC 1970. First published 1941

It’s strange to think of Ivy Compton-Burnett (ICB for short) turning out these exquisitely fashioned country-house-of-the-gentry novels set in the late Victorian or early Edwardian period (families drive to the train station in carriages) in the middle of the twentieth century. They seem a throwback to Trollope’s world, not that of the Battle of Britain.

As always with ICB, most of the text takes the form of long set-piece conversations, most of them in dining or drawing rooms. The speakers reveal through their dialogue the ties and fissures, the tensions, frustrations, oppressions and cruelties lying not far below the surface of the family’s apparent gentility – for ICB is always exposing with unwavering precision the dynamics of families that are more or less dysfunctional.

Ivy Compton-Burnett Parents and Children cover

The painting on the cover of my battered old paperback is from ‘Interior’ by L. Campbell Taylor

Parents and Children is particularly concerned – as the title suggests – with the impact on offspring of their parents’ upbringing, their capacity for showing, sharing or withholding love, their tendency to keep important secrets, or to impose upon their children constraints that develop or deform them emotionally.

The central location is the huge country house inhabited by middle-aged Eleanor Sullivan, her barrister husband Fulbert and their family of nine children (ICB came from a large family herself, and knew how they formed mini alliances and animosities). The house is owned by his elderly parents, Sir Jesse and Lady Regan, which creates another level of tensions.

Eleanor is made to feel keenly that she is not the mistress of the house, while Fulbert is also uncomfortably aware that he is only the heir because of the death of his elder brother. This is conveyed early on in a typically acerbic character appraisal usually provided when a character first appears (when she allows them, ICB’s taciturn narrator makes these portraits stingers):

The two women lived in a formal accord, which had never come to dependence; and while each saw the other as a fellow and an equal, neither would have grieved at the other’s death.

Fulbert strives for recognition and affection from a father whose attitude is distant, high-handed and judgemental – not just towards his only surviving son, but of his grandchildren and their mother and other dependents on the estate.

There are numerous scenes in which these children (ages range from three to brothers in their final year at Cambridge; as ever they are all impossibly precocious and articulate) are seen with their governesses. Neville, the baby of the house, is meant to be charming, I think, with his habit of speaking of himself in the third person. I found there was a little too much of him.

In another of those narrative portraits of newly arrived characters, here’s when the two oldest sons appear; Graham, 21:

He had a deep, jerky voice and a laugh that was without mirth, as was perhaps natural, as he was continually called upon to exercise it at his own expense.

Daniel, 22, constantly snipes spitefully at his languid, maligned brother, who (as younger brothers do in this situation: I know, I am one) bites back with knobs on. Daniel’s antagonism arises from his being more conventional and assiduous in his attitude to filial responsibility (at the novel’s end we learn he gets a first, while Graham scrapes a low third class degree – both seem unsurprised by and content with this outcome). Most telling at this point in the narrative about the parental view of this corrosive sibling rivalry is this insight into their mother’s gaze upon them when they first enter the room to join their parents:

Eleanor surveyed her sons with affection, sympathy and interest, but with singularly little pride.

There’s a dark secret at the heart of the family, and several revelations and reversals emerge unexpectedly. Rather as in a detective mystery, details only make complete sense when the narrative is read a second time; clues and hints then take on a deeper significance.

The novel’s familial theme is clear – though it’s difficult to quote illuminating extracts from ICB’s fiction, because every detail is connected like a thread in a web to what goes before and after it in the narrative. Here’s one passage that’s particularly pertinent.

The family have been more than usually strained by the imminent departure of the father, Fulbert, on a six-month business trip to South America (at the orders of his exigent father). The children have been more than usually unsettled and testy. Their mother, Eleanor, has upbraided them for openly showing their honest, ‘natural selves’, when the released emotions would be better kept ‘disguised’. The ensuing emotional explosion causes her own attitude to be criticised by the older children, who see her as having ignited this ‘inflammable material.’ Luce, the perceptive, intelligent eldest daughter (she’s 24), sighs:

“Dear, dear, the miniature world of a family! All the emotions of mankind seem to find a place in it.”

“It was those emotions that originally gave rise to it,” said Daniel. “No doubt they would still be there.”

It’s the brilliance of the author’s depiction of characters interacting with each other, with disgruntlement, venom and spite barely concealed beneath the veneer of sophistication, that makes an Ivy Compton-Burnett novel such a rewarding read. Look out for moments when the narrator tells us something about a character’s expression or gaze: who they turn their eyes on, in what manner, what response they get.

An example of this shortly before the final crisis: a shocking piece of news has been delivered that’s upset the equilibrium of the whole family, and historic secrets are in danger of being revealed.

“We have our memories,” said [grandfather Sir Jesse].

“Yes, you can add to them a stock of those.” [This is said by his wife, Regan]

[Eleanor enters, and a frisson is felt in the room’s emotional temperature:]

Regan met Sir Jesse’s eyes, but the latter’s face told nothing.

In a similar way, there’s a deeper significance than the narrative reveals on a first reading in the messages conveyed by a photograph of a loved one: what is shown, what concealed or not perceived by those who look at it.

Adult characters are usually less than transparent in what they disclose about themselves and their true feelings; this means the reader has to slow down and consider the implications of every speech. It’s worth making this effort.

It would be easy to dismiss or dislike this technique as being too contrived: people “don’t speak like that in real life”. But the witticisms and epigrams serve multiple purposes. I’ll finish with one example.

Eleanor wonders if the governess Miss Mitford has noticed it’s stopped raining, and the fractious children could be sent with her outside to let off steam more harmlessly:

“She [Miss Mitford] does not notice anything when she is reading,” said Venice [aged 13].

“Does she do nothing but read? I hope she will not teach you to be always poring over books. There are other things in life.” [this is Eleanor, their mother]

“Not in every life,” said Graham…[In the next exchange he’s sarcastic about her rose-tinted view of her children’s happiness, especially considering his complex, timid little brother James – even more put-upon than he is; Eleanor is affronted at the suggestion that James is ‘a pathetic character’]

“Graham dear,” said Luce, in a low tone, “things can only be done by us according to our nature and our understanding. It is useless to expect more. We can none of us give it.”

“That does not take from the pathos. Indeed it is the reason of it.”

“It is partly the ordinary pathos of childhood, Graham.”

“Of childhood in the later stage, when it is worked and confined and exhorted. For its weakness the burden is great.”

“James has his own power of throwing things off,” said Luce.

“Of course all my children are tragic figures,” said Eleanor.

I said it’s hard to quote briefly to convey the richly textured subtlety of ICB’s prose. She’s a master of the suppressed.

There’s a link HERE to other ICB novels I’ve posted on.

 

John Harvey, Pax: painting monarchs into peace

John Harvey, Pax. Holland House Books, England. 2019. 354 pp.

In his last novel, Subject of a Portrait (2014: my post on it is HERE; Mike Flay’s guest post HERE; Harvey’s own guest post HERE; see below for links to related posts), about the love triangle involving art critic John Ruskin, his young wife Effie, and her lover Millais, John Harvey’s interest in artists’ love lives and the paintings arising from them, was manifest. In his new novel, Pax, he takes ekphrasis to a new level of complexity and subtlety.

Harvey Pax hb cover

Front cover of the novel, showing a detail from Rubens’ painting ‘Pax’

Against the backdrop of conflict in the West around 2003, an artist and art teacher, Stephen Bloodsmith (an aptly sanguinary name for an artificer), is creating a suite of etchings portraying the visit to London in 1629 of the renowned Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).

Each scene in this artistic sequence is vividly realised through the narrative evocation of the modern artist’s reimagining of Rubens’ story as a means of creating his own artwork. It sounds over-elaborate, but it works. Bloodsmith’s personal life, manifested symbolically in his artwork, is increasingly informed by Rubens’.

Rubens’ English visit was ostensibly to broaden his market at the court of Charles I, but he had secretly been commissioned by the Spanish court to attempt to broker a peace between these two warring nations. It was the time of the slaughter and misery of the Thirty Years War (1618-48); this is the subject of one of Bloodsmith’s prints. Bloodsmith explains to his dealer the parallels between the horrors of the two historical periods, graphically represented in his print:

…people fight wars for various reasons, but what’s common to wars is that they hurt and damage each other much more than victory in war requires…I wanted it a bit like old engravings, but also a bit like black-and-white news-photos. So it touches modern atrocities.

Pax is therefore, at one level, a gripping wartime/espionage thriller: Rubens is spied on by shadowy, threatening figures, agents for the various factions in the European wars, from the sinister machinations of carmine-robed Cardinal Richelieu for the French, to the black-clad Puritan zealots plotting shortly before the English Civil War – the outcome of which of course was regicide (Charles’s beheading scene is evoked in this novel with chilling force). As always, Harvey has a perceptive eye for colour and clothes.

Secrecy, betrayal, and hypocrisy are also central themes at the level of personal and domestic, intimate emotional life – especially seen in the many adulterous affairs and the mysteries, doubts, evasions and lacerating suspicions arising from them, mirroring the broader, political-historical themes. These are narrated largely through various forms of ekphrasis: a visual representation is interpreted and reimagined in words.

 What’s so interesting and original about Harvey’s inventive use of this literary device is that his 21C protagonist and the narrator don’t just interpret and expatiate upon the significance of artworks created by others: Bloodsmith relives in his imagination and hence in his art (based on his reading of texts about Rubens, filtered through his aesthetic sensibility) the scenes he imagines:

“I’ve soaked myself in the history so much, I feel I’ve got a theatre in my head. It plays the scenes, then I pick the shot.”

The photographic/artistic image is pertinent: he creates his prints or paintings, in acts of imaginative synergy, inspired by his historical detective work and artist’s response to Rubens’ own work. Bloodsmith’s artworks drive the narrative, a ‘story in pictures’, and their recreation in Harvey’s engaging language is a key feature in the novel’s success.

The opening scene at Thameside sets the tone: it ‘recalls an event’ that ‘plays in [Bloodsmith’s] head’ – the meeting at the riverside of Rubens, an English diplomat and the brilliant but eccentric Dutch inventor-engineer, Cornelis Drebbel (1572-1633), who was demonstrating one of his more bizarre and prophetic creations: a wooden submarine, a ‘descending engine’ as he calls it . He optimistically predicts this will be a military device that, used in combination with his version of a limpet mine, will render war obsolete – the dubious argument of the nuclear deterrent.

Later we glimpse another area of his expertise: glass grinding, enabling him to produce telescopes and microscopes. This is surely not an accidental aside; these are means for seeing more clearly what might otherwise be veiled, unclear: visual clarity and significance is crucial in Pax.

The ‘veiled disclosure’ that Bloodsmith recreates and interprets in this first print sets the tone for all those that follow, from Rubens at the Madrid ‘court macabre’ of King Philip, where he was given his secret, perilous ambassadorial mission, to his stay in the London house of a fellow artist, Gerbier, and his various encounters with the wily King Charles. One of the main pleasures for the reader of this intriguing novel is the ways that Harvey intertwines these visual (re)interpretations with his own verbally dextrous narrative in words; as Drebbel cynically says to Rubens, exasperated at the deviousness of court politics, in what could serve as Pax’s motif:

Nation cheats nation as men cheat women, women men.

There are multiple, intertwining ekphrastic and historical narrative threads in this intricately structured novel.

Isabella Brant by Van Dyck

Sir Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599 – 1641), Isabella Brant, 1621, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Open access

There’s the painting of Rubens’ late wife, Isabella Brant, by the man who’d worked as an assistant in his Antwerp studio, Anthony Van Dyck – a portrait gifted to his mentor by the younger artist on his departure for Italy in 1621. It’s usually seen as a token of the mutual esteem of the two men; Rubens begins to read a more insidious message in its iconography. Was his former protégé secretly signalling the illicit sexual relationship he was engaging in with his master’s wife? That suspicion explains Rubens’ outburst as early as p. 6, in that Thameside scene: ‘”Damn Van Dyck! God rot his bones!”’ Harvey/Bloodsmith speculates that Rubens was instrumental in dispatching Van Dyck to Italy to remove him from his household and attempt to end the adulterous affair.

The central painting in the novel, as depicted on the front cover, is Rubens’ ‘Peace and War’, or ‘Minerva protects Pax from Mars’. The evolving symbolism and dynamics of this painting’s creation are carefully delineated in the novel, not as a dry academic exercise, but arising from Rubens’ experiences on his London visit, especially his relationships and various love intrigues, and the unfolding of his clandestine peace mission. It’s his artist’s attempt to ‘paint these monarchs [Charles and Philip] into Peace’ – just as Bloodsmith tries to create his keynote Peace painting for exhibition in Brussels; the print sequence is a ‘pendant’ or ‘portal’ to that projected work, he hopes.

In addition to the global themes noted above – war, treachery, deception and so on – the personal equivalent is multiplied and duplicated several times over: Bloodsmith’s suspicion that his wife is having an affair is replicated in his own affair with his model, Mae, who’d featured in an earlier suite of his prints: ‘the Fire Girl’. This parallels on several levels Rubens’ racking fears about Isabella and Van Dyck, while he too is hypocritically contemplating an affair with his London host Gerbier’s pretty wife, visiting brothels, and falling passionately for an ‘Indian Maid’ at court, a ‘native to a tribe of the Americas’.

These parallels in multiple adultery across the two time periods become perhaps a little too prominent and schematic; for example, like Rubens’ ‘Indian’ beauty, Mae has dark skin, and is married.

Rubens, The Four Continents

The Four Continents by Rubens; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Munich. Public Domain

Another important Rubens painting is deployed to illuminate such parallels: ‘The Four Continents [or Rivers]’ (c. 1610), depicting the four major rivers and known continents of the world personified. It was inspired by the temporary peace (Rubens is consistent in his peace-making, if not his love life) between the Dutch Republic and Spain. A detail appears on the novel’s back cover: the black woman (Mae’s precedent?) symbolising Africa or the Nile gazes pensively (or is she timorous? amused? It’s enigmatic, defying definitive interpretation) out of the picture at us, the arm of her burly white male companion possessively round her waist. Read into that what you will, Bloodsmith…

Harvey Pax back cover

Back cover detail from The Four Continents

Harvey’s sensually pungent, multiple-strand narrative shows how Bloodsmith’s imaginative immersion in the historical Caroline London transforms his 21C lived experience; the characters and events of Rubens’ world merge into, penetrate and inhabit his own, so that he sees and feels their presences as vividly as ‘real life’, and the boundaries between the two worlds dissolve: the various characters take flight together in his mind’s eye. His final print symbolically integrates the multiple elements of this lived and imagined experience, making it new, culminating in ‘The Impossible Feast’ – a vision of ‘lust and war’ transformed into peace. Imagine.

This isn’t all just an extended exercise in modish postmodernism or magical realism: it dramatizes Bloodsmith’s intuition – that his story and Rubens’ ‘would converge’, in a process parallel with the struggle to reconcile ‘contradictions’ in his emotional life and his marriage – the desire for loyalty in his wife, while being incapable of such loyalty himself. Hence his conclusion near the end:

Maybe Rubens knew this, that you can love different people who are the opposite of each other…

This convenient resolution seems to me one of the least convincing aspects of this otherwise intriguing novel: Bloodsmith is let off his hypocritical hook just a little too generously for my liking.

If I’d had more time, I’d have made this post shorter…

Some links to my posts on John Harvey’s non-fiction works:

The Poetics of Sight

Clothes

 Works on the colour black discussed HERE

ARC courtesy of the publisher

 

 

 

 

 

Javier Marías, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me

Javier Marías, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. Penguin Modern Classics, 2012. Translated (brilliantly) from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. First published in Spanish, 1994; in English, 1996

Javier Marías is the novelist I’ve written about more than any other at this blog. I’ve argued in previous posts that he’s one of the most exciting and rewarding writers alive today. This novel is another I’d recommend highly.

Marías Tomorrow in the  Battle Think coverAs in every other novel of his that I’ve read, the plot is simple, and it’s impossible to say much about it without spoilers. Despite the labyrinthine, digressive style, with sentences that spool out over pages, loosely linked by subordinate ‘or else’ clauses, speculations and modalities (‘perhaps…’), there’s a powerful central mystery in the plot that keeps the reader turning the pages, but finding the satisfaction of (dis)closure increasingly deferred, elided or sleighted away into yet another fictive possibility.

It’s this cerebral, philosophical narrative discursiveness that’s what gives Tomorrow in the Battle the distinctive Marías tone. Also present are many of his usual tropes and motifs: old movies and actors; the plot involving a dead spouse, whose demise may or may not be ‘silently longed for’ (from Thus Bad Begins); this in turn leads to plot developments and doublings, involving trust and deception, betrayal and secrecy, surveillance and spying; a female figure named Luisa for the narrator to be infatuated by; the impossibility of truly ‘knowing’ anything; stories and storytelling.

Here’s the protagonist-narrator, Víctor (his name isn’t revealed until late on – a typical act of playful withholding by Marías), anticipating the telling of his extraordinary story of the unexpected death of a woman he was sexually involved with (the plot I withheld earlier) to his friend Ruibérriz – another of those louche and lewd, disreputable sidekick characters he’s so fond of; this indiscreet friend would have ‘proclaimed it [this story] to the four winds’, embroidering and distorting it to suit his whim and ego –

the world depends on its storytellers as it does on those who hear the story and occasionally influence it…

Just as our narrator lulls us into feeling how superior to his crass friend’s is Víctor’s sensibility, we’re told that he does tell that story to Ruibérriz at a racecourse, between races, in tones alternately ‘sinister and jocular’, interrupting his narrative now and then ‘to watch the final straights through our binoculars’, to go to the paddock, to the bar or to the place where they place their bets. This is classic Marías: meditating on abstract concepts, narratology and metaphysics then splicing the moral high seriousness with low humour and self-referential, bawdy wit. Shakespearean, perhaps.

As usual this moment leads to another riff developing on the initial theme:

Nothing is ever told twice in exactly the same way or using exactly the same words, not even if the storyteller is the same each time, even if it’s the same person.

This could be an account of the novelist’s technique in all his fiction. Plots, motifs and characters recur, are reworked. A ladder in a young woman’s tights leads to lascivious thoughts and sexual tension, as in Your Face Tomorrow (YFT); the Old English term ‘ge-bryd-guma’ is contemplated by a man who’s slept with a woman who has other sexual partners (YFT again), and so on. [Btw: the phrase ‘your face tomorrow’ is used several times, even though this novel was published several years before the first volume of that trilogy.]

As with music, a Marías novel’s slowly accreting development and iterations, cadences, echoes, resonances and recurring motifs are what’s consequential (this can be across books, too). People endlessly tell stories, and sooner or later, ‘everything is told’ (YFT again).

Incidents and observations of the moment in the plot lead to larger abstractions and universal considerations (‘we all do this’ is the type of reflection on one such moment). We are thus invited to comply with the attempts of the protagonist to make sense of or interpret the moments experienced, to find some epistemic ‘reality’ or certainty among the endlessly forestalled cues and clues life throws in his way.

The other key theme in Tomorrow in the Battle is another favourite of Marías’: memory and forgetting. He’s been criticised in the past for not castigating the Franco era of Spain’s recent history. I find that criticism strange, for the ‘pact of forgetting’ that Spain indulged as a means of erasing its memory of that shameful period is central to much of what he’s written. It is here, too, especially in the superb final pages, where the truth of what the bereaved spouse was up to while his wife was dying is finally, unbearably revealed (‘everything is forgotten or invalidated’, no matter how compelling the storyteller).

A final thought on the ‘male gaze’ in a Marías narrator’s repertoire. Almost any young woman Víctor encounters is seen and appraised with varying degrees of lechery – like the way he notices the ladder in that young woman’s tights; his imagination leads him higher – and I don’t mean metaphysics this time. That racecourse scene becomes highly farcical as Víctor and his friend flirt half-heartedly with two young women they assume to be on the prowl. They can’t be bothered in the end to consummate their plans: the betting takes precedence. But not before some brazen scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in an early Bond movie.

I quoted Margaret Drabble on this tendency in Marías in an early post on YFT; she’s alarmed by the ‘sexual tension’ that ‘verges on pornography’ in his fiction. I found Víctor’s casual lechery disturbing throughout. There’s a particularly sordid section where he picks up a sex worker in the street, thinking she’s his estranged wife, Celia (another recurring character type). He seems throughout this graphically detailed sexual sequence simultaneously to believe she is and isn’t Celia; either possibility excites him; neither does him much credit.

When he later breaks into her apartment and finds her naked and asleep in bed with her new partner, the creepiness is even more disturbing.

No doubt this is all part of the author’s intention: even his narrators are culpable, flawed and unreliable, in a universe that’s haunted by the ghosts or revenants of our own past history and that of our countrymen (the dead are ‘quite wrong to come back’, he wrote in The Infatuations, another novel of spousal hauntings).

A Marías protagonist’s occupation is always significant; here, Víctor is a ghostwriter, a man of shadows, (linguistic) deceptions and pretence, whose identity is evanescent. The recurring Shakespearean theme (there’s always one of those in a Marías novel: he’s a great admirer – and translator – of English lit) is the nightmares endured by guilty Richard III on the eve of his fateful battle at Bosworth Field, when the ghosts of those he’d murdered return to haunt and threaten him with the words of this novel’s title: ‘think on me’ tomorrow and despair.

 

#1930Club: William Faulkner, Helen Zenna Smith

#1930Club logoKaren at Kaggsysbookishramblings and Simon at Stuckinabook are hosting this week’s #1930 Club: do go and take a look at what they’ve been posting, and join in with comments or thoughts of your own on anything from that year that you’ve read and want to share, here, and/or on their blog sites.

I’m just past p.1000 of Uwe Johnson’s massive Anniversaries, so don’t have plans to start a new book from 1930 while immersed in that, but didn’t want to let this week pass without some sort of contribution, so here we go, with two posts from the archive.

As I Lay Dying Penguin cover

Penguin edition of ‘As I Lay Dying’ used for this review

Faulkner As I Lay Dying cover with Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies

My ex-library hardback edition is rather battered but has an appropriately abstract cover design; Vile Bodies (also been bashed around when in a library, rescued by me from a bin) I read pre-blog, so although it’s another 1930 publication I can’t link to it here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First is William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (link HERE), first posted in 2013. This was Faulkner’s fifth novel, and is a high modernist, fragmented narrative account (fifteen different narrators, each with a distinctive voice and idiolect) of the Bundren family’s difficult quest to carry the body of matriarch Addie to her people’s home cemetery at Jefferson, some 30 miles north of the Bundren farm. Neighbours think this is a crazy scheme, but ‘pa’ Anse insists he’d promised his wife that her dying wish would be fulfilled.

Faulkner himself called it a ‘tour de force’: it’s maybe not a modest claim, but well justified.

Others have posted this week on my second #1930Club HZ Smith Not So Quiet coverchoice from the archive: Helen Zenna Smith’s novel Not So Quiet… My post was from the summer of this year.

It’s her riposte to Remarque’s similarly titled All Quiet On the Western Front, and deliberately foregrounds the experience of a female ambulance driver in the horror and carnage of WWI near the front lines. It’s one of the most compelling, unflinching accounts of that terrible war that I’ve read.

 

Namiki maki-e crane and turtle pen

I was made redundant from my teaching job this summer, and was given a small payoff. I put some of this, plus a generous birthday contribution from Mrs TD, to buy myself a special fountain pen – a Namiki with a maki-e design of a crane and turtle. (Namiki is the high-end brand name of its parent company, the better-known Pilot corporation).

I started my collection of pens a few years ago when the always thoughtful Mrs TD gave me a Mont Blanc for a significant birthday. Since then I’ve acquired about one a year: a green Pelikan, an Onoto special Cambridge University edition (see my homepage banner photo of these two pens), and a few others.

I wouldn’t say I’m a fountain pen geek, but I do love writing with a handsome instrument that glides over the paper leaving a glistening ink trail. I like the heft of a well-made pen in my fingers. It’s inspiring.

I have several beautiful Japanese pens, including a red Nakaya ‘Aka Tamenuri’ (the ‘tame’ element means ‘pool’, and ‘nuri’ refers to the lacquer-layering process: one sees the colour as it were through a pool of water) and a black Platinum ‘Kuro Tamenuri’, both made with the urushi lacquer technique – a process that dates back centuries in Japan. The lacquer is drawn from the sap of the sumac tree. The underlying ebonite base tends to discolour and wear over time, so the craftsmen of Japan applied the ancient art of lacquering to create a more durable, beautiful finish.

Highly skilled artisans painstakingly coat the barrel and cap with layer after layer of lacquer, carefully and repeatedly polishing the clear finish, a process that takes months, creating a rich, deep colour and texture through which a contrasting lighter shade is faintly seen. With use this underlying hue gradually emerges more clearly.

Namiki pen boxThis was my first pen made with the hira maki-e decoration. This involves an intricate design of gold powder and pigment being applied by a skilled artist with a variety of delicate brushes to the deep black urushi undercoat layer of lacquer (while still wet) applied to the body of the pen. This production takes place at the Kokkokai artisan workshop in Hiratsuka, Kanagawa province (midway between Tokyo and Mt Fuji).

The workshop was founded in 1931 around the master craftsman Gonroku Matsuda. It was named from the statement by the co-founder, Ryosuke Namiki: as sumo is Japan’s national sport, maki-e is the nation’s light (‘kokko’ in Japanese). With his fellow founder he travelled to the west in 1925 and began marketing this distinctive type of product; a London Pilot office was set up in 1926, and a contract made with Alfred Dunhill in 1930. The ‘Dunhill-Namiki’ pens were established.

The golden crane on my new pen is depicted with its distinctive red cap, wings Namiki craneoutstretched, as it flies over the turtle below, looking up at it. They make eye contact, showing rapport and unity. They are ancient Japanese symbols of long life and good fortune. There’s an old saying in Japan: As the crane one thousand years, the turtle ten thousand years.

namiki turtleThe water from the turtle’s pond is shown as stylised swirling waves curling around the barrel.

The 14K nib in inscribed with the outline of the sacred Mt Fuji. There’s a lovely short film about the pen-making process at the Namiki website HERE

Namiki water signature

The swirling water design with the artist’s signature underneath

Sebastian Faulks, Paris Echo

Sebastian Faulks, Paris Echo. Vintage paperback,2019. First published in hardback by Hutchinson, 2018

A central theme in this novel is the way the past seeps, as through a ‘semi-permeable membrane’, into the present. The Paris of 2006, where the main action is set, is haunted by the past: in the canonised historical figures and places whose names are commemorated in the names of Métro stations, squares, streets and so on; and more poignantly in the ordinary people who walk those modern streets and squares in the footsteps, as it were, of their antecedents.

Faulks Paris Echo coverThis is most movingly apparent in the audio files accessed from an archive by one of the two central characters (their voices narrate the chapters in a kind of counterpoint). Hannah is an American scholar in her early thirties, researching the part played during the Occupation of WWII by Parisian women. We are given full versions of the transcripts of two of these women, one from the seedier side of the city familiar to the young Édith Piaf, struggling to maintain moral and physical integrity when faced by the sexual importuning of German soldiers with money to burn, and the other from a different world.

The choices they make and shocking, terrible dilemmas they face are sensitively handled by Faulks. One plot twist left me gasping.

I’m less impressed by his choice of the two voices I mentioned. One is of a nineteen-year-old Moroccan lad called Tariq, who’s smuggled himself illegally into the capital of the former colonial ruler of his homeland with the vague aim of finding out something about his half-French mother, who spent her earlier years there. This enables Faulks to indulge in some important, sometimes heavy-handed consideration of France’s often oppressive and brutal colonialist history, and of the plight of immigrants in the 21C city – marginalised and mostly scratching a living, as Tariq ends up doing, in sleazy dead-end jobs like fast-food joints. Two cities, two nations.

At least Tariq’s voice enables Faulks to inject some much needed humour into this dark, disturbing story of historically layered or textured narratives of oppression and hardship, both during the Nazi occupation, and in the modern incarnation of the city. His narcissism, sexual urgency and being constantly hungry are often hilariously apparent; his callow disingenuousness, lack of common sense but basic integrity and decency – with some lapses – also ring true.

Hannah is a less convincing narrator. She’s emotionally scarred and numbed by an ill-advised love affair some years earlier, and Faulks’s providing her with the possibility of romantic redemption is handled, to my mind, rather too conveniently and clunkily.

The author clearly knows Paris intimately, and he brings it sensually to life – especially that dark underbelly noted above that tourists and the fashionable rich rarely see. Tariq serves as a kind of Candide figure, blissfully ignorant of the significance of the names of his beloved metro stations. This causes me to re-examine received notions of such names as Monet or Stalingrad and what they could signify to someone not from a western European culture – and what they say about that culture.

I liked the magical-realist way in which Faulks has figures from the past seem to appear in the flesh in modern Paris. Some embody Tariq’s desperate wish to establish an identity for himself in the living archive of the city, and more pertinently to know and see his late mother in the city, providing him with a personal connection to this alien city which has so far in his young life been only obliquely experienced through its political-historical impact on his homeland.

Others fulfil Hannah’s more academic longing (partly a response also to her emotionally empty life) to animate the past more immediately than historiography allows. The electronic voices she listens to in the archive take on flesh and blood, in a way: this is how history could look, if we had eyes to see, Faulks seems to be saying. Mostly this works.

The puppeteer/beggar on the metro, Victor Hugo, is a more playful example of the ghostly presences that populate this novel as vividly as the supposedly living ones. An epigraph on the first page is a quotation from Hugo’s L’Homme Qui Rit (never heard of it), which gives the book its title. It translates as:

What is history? An echo of the past in the future. A shadow (or reflection) of the future on the past.

There’s a lively interview with Faulks by Sam Leith at the Spectator books podcast from September last year, where I learned that the dedication to ‘Hector’ is to his dog. Why not?!