About Simon Lavery

Author, blogger.

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A time of violence: Luke Francis Beirne, Blacklion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My thanks to Baraka Books for the ARC.

Isabel Allende again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relic of Jimi Hendrix in Ukraine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rory Stewart, Politics on the Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ukrainian bees, Finland and Barcelona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orkney tales and Balzac’s black sheep

It’s been a while since I posted. Work and other things have kind of taken over in recent weeks, and my inspiration to set down my thoughts has been flagging. Events have also restricted my reading time. What I did read didn’t altogether enthuse me:

George Mackay Brown, Christmas Stories (2021)

These short stories were originally published in Scots newspapers at Christmas time. Each one deals with a yuletide theme in the atmospheric setting of the Orkneys. They all contain a message to illustrate the significance of this season in a Christian context. It’s not always clear when in history the stories are set – there’s a timeless feel to them, as in folk tales. I’m afraid my interest flagged after the first few, but the depiction of life in this remote archipelago was refreshing. There’s a strange blend of pagan and Christian traditions. The book was a gift from a friend who clearly loved it – I hate it when someone’s recommendation doesn’t chime with me.

Honoré de Balzac, The Black Sheep.

This ancient Penguin Classics edition (1972) of a novel first published in French as La Rabouilleuse in 1842 was translated by Donald Adamson. I’m not familiar with that French word; online searches came up with the not very helpful translations ‘the roughneck’ or ‘the sweeper’. Maybe the former is more appropriate. I don’t recall any sweeping in the narrative.

I rescued this battered book from the library of a college where I taught when they were having a stock clear-out. Some of the pages were falling out. It was quite a chore to read the very small font.

This difficulty was compounded by the content of the novel. The story is ok – sort of. Two brothers have contrasting characters: Joseph is a gifted artist, virtuous and self-effacing, hard-working and innocent. Philippe is the titular rogue – a ‘scapegrace’, a swaggering, drunken ex-soldier, a gambler, debaucher and thief (he even steals from his own mother). The rambling plot involves Philippe’s devious scheme to regain a family inheritance from a scoundrel as amoral and wicked as he is.

There are too many long digressions on the history of places where the tale is set, the complicated politics of the time, and other rather arcane matters that slow down the narrative. I trudged through to the end, but found it a bit of a slog. The mother’s ridiculous preference for the scoundrel son was annoying – as it was supposed to be, I assume.

Meanwhile I’m part of the way through a novel by a Ukrainian author that’s far more promising.

Now I have to go and see how the workmen are getting on as they replace our defunct gas boiler. I can hear angry-sounding drills and ominous crashes, followed by even more worrying silences.

Autumn has blown in with a vengeance, ending our brief spell of hot weather after a dull, damp summer here in Cornwall.

Squirrels as you’ve probably never thought of them

I was reading a review the other day in the online version of the UK newspaper The Guardian. The book reviewed was about the grey squirrel, and raised the problem of determining what is meant by ‘invasive’ or alien species. Once introduced to the British Isles, are such plants or animals a useful addition to the ecosystem, or a threat? And the grey squirrel is perhaps one of the most common and controversial of such introductions (from the USA – like many of our language features – but that’s another story).

At the end of the piece was a word the meaning of which was obvious, but which I’d not come across before:

SCIURINE

OED online defines it like this:

adj. and noun, Of or relating to squirrels or to the squirrel family; resembling or characteristic of a squirrel; (Zoology) of or relating to the tribe Sciurini… (earliest citation, 1838).

Zoology. A sciurine rodent; a squirrel (1841).

Further down the list of citations is this figurative one I rather liked: His sciurine hoarding of books and papers. [Vita] Sackville-West, Flame in Sunlight.

In a similar vein is this: Acknowledgements… Pam Wheeler, whose uncommonly sciurine memories at the Britten-Pears Library, Bridcut, Faber Pocket Guide to Britten

All the previous ones were zoological and literal. Does this mean that for the most part the word in the modern era has shifted into use in a metaphorical sense – as in ‘squirrelling something away’ – to suggest someone hoarding or hiding something they value in a manner similar to the squirrel’s habit of burying nuts and other foodstuffs for food in the barren months of winter?

The word derives from the Latin Sciurus, squirrel (and its genus), itself derived from the Greek skiouros, from skia, shade, and oura, tail.

A little further digging online revealed that a male squirrel is known as a boar. A group of squirrels – the collective noun, I suppose –  is a scurry, or a drey – which can also refer to a mother squirrel and her young, according to one website (I didn’t record which one). But this term is to my mind better known for signifying the squirrel’s nest.

As I live in Cornwall I decided to look up the Cornish word; it’s gwiwer.

According to the excellent website Jeanne de Montbaston, by the medievalist and scholar Lucy Allen, the slang term in medieval England for what she delicately refers to as ‘male genitalia’ was ‘squirrel’ – because it was ‘delightfully cute and cuddly’ and a ‘furry little pet’…Hm.

She goes on to place all this in the context of one of her central research interests: the cultural understanding of male and female bodies and sexuality.

So there you are. Who’d have thought that the furry little rascals who regularly empty my birdfeeders have such raunchy connotations…

There is something nasty about me. Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies

Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies Faber & Faber (2006; 20051)

This is the best Paul Auster novel I’ve read in a while. He’s on his most engaging form when he tells a gripping story with characters drawn with sympathy and insight, and that’s what he does for the most part (more on that later) in The Brooklyn Follies.

As the title suggests, the setting is his usual multicultural home ground in New York City. He specialises in characters who are damaged in some way, or with a flawed perception of themselves and others, and having to solve problems they are ill-equipped to deal with on their own. The foregrounded voice of our narrator, a retired life insurance salesman called Nathan, provides plenty of evidence of these features. He admits he was a bad husband to his wife (serial affairs – but then she did the same – and little effort to sustain the marriage) and bad father to his daughter Rachel, now grown up and with marital problems of her own.

After commuting daily throughout his working life from the suburbs into his Manhattan office, he’s now divorced, recovering from cancer, and looking to start a new life in Brooklyn, where he’d lived and been happy as a child. He upsets Rachel, who’d suggested he needed a ‘project’ to set him back on course. He bluntly rejected that advice and makes nasty remarks in relating this conversation about the platitudes with which she expresses herself:

Yes, I suppose there is something nasty about me at times.

But he can also be charming and empathetic, and wins her round, eventually. There’s always a hint, though, that he manipulates people with an edge of cynicism. I suppose that was one of his strengths as a life insurance salesman.

The plot is too complicated to summarise here. It centres upon his dropout nephew Tom, also lost in his own way in the metropolis. He’d ended up as a sales clerk in a second-hand bookshop run by a man who turns out to have a dubious and criminal past. He involves Tom, and in turn Nathan, in a convoluted scam that twists and turns in unexpected and unsettling ways that keep the reader invested in the fates of the main characters.

The interest is deepened by the role played by Lucy, Nathan’s nine-year-old niece. She’s smart, and has a winningly literal way of interpreting of words and language, and also the way people around her behave. When she enters the lives of Tom and Nathan, she has the effect, with her fascinating combination of naivete and no-nonsense insight, of causing them to reassess their situations and make things better.

I could see her as a grown woman developing into someone like Flora Post in Cold Comfort Farm. She has a similar resolving impact on the chaotic lives of those she comes into contact with, but without the prissiness.

That similarity also brings out one of the stronger features of this very readable novel: despite the twisting, plot-driven narrative, there’s always a whiff of humour and playfulness in the telling of this story.

On the down side, there are some of the rather more annoying aspects of Paul Auster’s approach to storytelling: the characters tend at times to become caricatures or types. The individuality and humanity so successfully built up and portrayed for the bulk of the time are undermined by these moments.

These traits didn’t ultimately spoil my enjoyment, though, of this stimulating and skilfully crafted, highly entertaining novel. And isn’t that one of the main reasons we read fiction? To be entertained, stimulated, maybe challenged and unsettled a little?

The only two novels posted on here (I read most of Auster’s earlier fiction pre-blog) are:

Mr Vertigo  – link HERE

Invisible – link HERE

 

Éric Dupont, Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution

Éric Dupont, Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution. QC Fiction, 2022. Translated from the French by Peter McCambridge. First published as La Logeuse in 2006 by Marchand de Feuilles

In Rosa’s Very Own Personal Revolution, a lively translation into English by Peter McCambridge and Éric Dupont’s exuberant storytelling combine to produce another highly entertaining and unusual novel.

My post on Songs for the Cold of Heart HERE a few years ago suggested that Dupont is fascinated by the stories we tell each other – among other reasons, to answer the big existential questions we – and his characters – raise. As in that earlier novel, Rosa involves personal quests for larger truths than those found at home.

That all sounds rather serious, but this novel is great fun, and fizzes with idiosyncratic energy. It’s much shorter than Songs… as it deals mostly with the quest of just one character, Rosa (unlike the multiplicity of quest narratives in the earlier novel). There are also, as in Songs…, plenty more stories-within-stories, myths and fables, which usually serve to contribute to Rosa’s evolving enlightenment.

She’s brought up as a fervent Marxist in a small, sleepy village on the Gaspé peninsula in Québec province. Boredom infests the air – literally. Rosa sets out for the big city of Montreal to seek the west wind that would blow the poisoned air away, for the village’s wind has gone. Beneath this Wizard of Oz-type playful surface of the novel, though, is a sterner metaphorical (and at least partly) political element: take the air out of a region’s atmosphere and its people become atrophied (perhaps indifferent to their fate), and that leaves them vulnerable to malign political and other influences.

Along the way Rosa takes up with a group of strippers with whom she becomes great friends. She gets a job as a receptionist at a hotel where she gradually realises the women she befriends there are sex workers.

Among Rosa’s endearing qualities are her naiveté but also her moral/political probity: when one of the women finally explains to her what’s going on in the hotel, Rosa accepts what they do as their own business. She’s not judgemental about what women do with their bodies.

On the other hand, she refuses to keep quiet when her boarding house landlady Jeanne pontificates about the importance of preserving national identity in the province. It’s not that Rosa (or, I suppose, Dupont) is against such ideas; her spirited objection is to the borderline xenophobic attitude behind the over-zealous condemnation of anyone who Jeanne believes to be a threat to the culture and traditions she belongs to.

I think the strange title refers to Rosa’s epiphany towards the end of the novel that the Marxist revolution she’d been brought up to revere is less important than her own personal one. Her epiphany is a kind of non-revolution. She wasn’t cut out to be the saviour of her village; her quest was to find herself. But I may have got that quite wrong…

It’s maybe not the most original of morals, and the satire I found sometimes misfired, but the sheer zest and fun in the narrative compensate for some of what I thought were less successful digressions and non sequiturs that Dupont carried off with more panache in Songs for the Cold of Heart. That’s not to say it’s not worth reading. Dupont writes with such a sense of fun that it’s impossible to resist Rosa’s charm.

QC Fiction continue to expand their catalogue of English translations of Québec fiction in French with novels that maybe vary a little in literary quality, but are always stimulating and original.

My thanks to them for the advance reading copy.