More late spring wanderings

I’ve been thinking about Anita Brookner’s fine but disturbing novel Look At Me, which I finished earlier this week, but need to think about it a little longer before posting on it. I’ve moved on to another novel passed on to me by Mrs TD – post forthcoming on that one, too.

In the meantime, here are some more floral images from some recent walks. Flowers and shrubs are really thriving now, even in this unseasonably chilly, damp and windy May.

PelargoniumThe pelargoniums (or geraniums) in our garden are looking particularly lovely at the moment. This picture was taken just after one of the many showers we’ve had recently.

The etymology of this plant is interesting. ‘Geranium’ derives from the Greek, via Latin, for ‘crane’ (the lanky bird, not the building site machine), while ‘pelargonium’ follows a similar route from the Greek for ‘stork’. This is said, by OED online, to be because the seed pods resemble these birds’ beaks. An early English name for them was ‘cranesbill’. I haven’t checked to see why we use ‘beak’ and ‘bill’ – maybe another time.

Rhododendron My morning walk today took me through the grounds of Epiphany House, which I’ve posted about before HERE. Here the rhododendrons are also looking their finest.

This name is from the Greek for ‘of, relating to, or resembling a rose…rose-coloured, pink, red.’ The second element is from dendro-, Greek for ‘tree’. I recall using the word ‘dendrologist’ in my previous post about Richard Powers’ novel about trees, The Overstory.

The word in English could originally signify ‘oleander’ (from the 16-18C; aka rose bay); the secondary sense we use now dates from 1657. The origin of ‘oleander’ is uncertain; it comes from French via post-classical Latin ‘lorandrum’, an alteration of ‘rhododendron’, possibly by association with ‘olea’ – olive tree, or from ‘lauriendrum’ – possibly from the word for laurel, as the shape of the leaves was similar. OED includes this citation:

1526    Grete Herball cccxxv. sig. Siv/1   Oleandre or olipantrum is an herbe the leues therof is lyke to laurell but they be longer.

Pacific rhododendron I wasn’t sure if this beautiful shrub in the gardens was a rhododendron, so I checked with my plant identifier app: it’s a Pacific rhododendron, aka California rosebay or big leaf rhododendron. The app says it’s a species of azalea (rhododendron), suggesting the two names are commonly interchanged.

I’m not sure if this is right. ‘Azalea’ derives from the Greek ‘azaleos’ – ‘dry’, because of the sandy soil in which it thrives, or else for its dry, brittle wood.

Both shrubs apparently belong to the botanical family Ericaceae.

You’d think the naming of plants would be more straightforward.

I’m just delighted to see them in my neighbourhood while we’re still confined in our movements by pandemic restrictions. They brighten the day, and lift the spirits.

 

Secular hagiography: Richard Powers, The Overstory

Richard Powers, The Overstory. Vintage paperback, 2019 (first published 2018)

Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2018, awarded the Pulitzer Prize 2019.

I didn’t get on with the fragmented structure and (as Lisa Hill described it in a comment), too ‘clever’ style of the subject of my previous post, Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. The Overstory, by Richard Powers, makes McCann’s novel look like Hemingway. It’s overwritten and, at over 600 pages, way too long.

Richard Powers, The Overstory front cover The main problem is that it’s relentlessly evangelical about the amazing lives of trees, and the crazy stupidity of human beings in their systematic destruction of them – to make stuff that’s inconsequential compared to the trees’ magnificence. All this is unconvincingly conveyed through the intertwining stories of eight activists who dedicate themselves to campaigning against humankind’s misguided eradication of the dwindling forests of North America.

It’s a worthy cause, and I learnt a lot about trees’ astonishing capacity to communicate with each other, their super-sensitive root systems whereby there’s no such thing as a solitary tree in a forest: it’s one living entity. Dendrology, environmentalism and the evolution of trees and humans is drummed into the reader on almost every page, to the point where the flimsy plot and increasingly flimsy characterisation are lost in the mix of invective and lecturing.

This is a shame, because Powers – like McCann – can write. There are passages of soaring poetic beauty. It’s just that there are too many of them, and they tend to go on, and on. And they’re repeated constantly.

I won’t linger on the plot. The Overstory is a secular hagiography – like those medieval legendaries which contained dozens of edifying stories of saints’ lives. As in The Golden Legend, there are military saints (Doug is a Vietnam vet) and visionary hermit-ascetics. Each main character is damaged or needy, undergoes an arboreal epiphany/conversion to the cause of saving the trees. Some become martyrs (one of them dies in action; another gets two seventy-year prison sentences at the hands of a judicial system that’s portrayed as being as cruel and bigoted as any pagan Roman emperor sending the Christians to the lions). Others are ‘confessors’: secular saints who are punished or suffer terrible ordeals for their cause (or faith). One central group of activists even become stylites for a year – they live at the top of a giant redwood called Mimas (named after the Greek giant, son of Gaia) in an attempt to save it from the chainsaws.

There have been prominent campaigns like this in the UK, most recently the one in which environmentalists have tried to stop the destruction of ancient forests that stand in the way of train or road construction. This isn’t just an American problem.

The main characters are introduced with richly developed back stories in the opening section, Roots, as a disconnected set of short narratives – and these are the best part of the book. Each protagonist of these stories encounters trees as a crucial learning or development point in their vividly described family histories. They all either plant a tree (or one for each child in the family), or have some sort of life-changing encounter with them.

The second section, Trunk, twines these disparate branches of narrative together. Several characters join forces as eco-warrior activists. Another becomes a psychologist, originally joining these tree-huggers (as the dastardly loggers jeeringly call them) in order to research what makes them such dedicated altruists – and possibly suffering from obsessions or delusions that indicate mental health problems – just as some early saints were thought by their persecutors to have been mad. Gradually he realises he’s guilty of bystander syndrome, and gets dramatically involved.

After a section called Canopy, in which each character’s fate is outlined (most end badly), there’s a final part called Seeds. This is where there’s a small green shoot of hope. A pioneering tree scientist begins a collection of seeds of the world’s most endangered varieties and creates a sort of Noah’s ark for trees (she castigates the original Noah for saving only the animals, not the trees – which she considers more important). She’s convinced the forests are doomed, but there may be a chance of planting replacements some time in the future – when perhaps humanity will have learnt to value trees and recognise their essential role in this planet’s precarious ecology.

There are some other characters, too, but I’d started to lose interest by this point. I can see why this novel was rewarded and praised – its author’s passion is unquestionable, and I feel a bit churlish for being so critical. Maybe it’s another Moby-Dick: adored by many, disliked by more. It shares some of the longueurs and over-detailed intrusive research of Melville’s novel, as well as some of its poetic élan.

Apparently The Overstory is being adapted by Netflix. If the scriptwriters can tap in to its often rousing melodrama, flesh out the sometimes flimsy or stereotyped characterisation and prune most of the unsubtle preaching and relentless earnestness, I can see it making a pretty good film or series.

 

Colum McCann, TransAtlantic

Colum McCann, TransAtlantic. Bloomsbury (2013). 295 pp.

Fragments of narrative from different periods of history with different characters gradually coalesce and cohere into a story about endurance, conflict, love and loss – and lots more in between.

Colum McCann TransAtlantic coverTransAtlantic opens in Newfoundland in 1919. Alcock and Brown make the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic to Ireland. That Canadian-Irish connection is one of the elements that binds the fragments together. A local reporter of Irish descent, Emily Ehrlich, and her photographer daughter Lottie, cover the story. Lottie gives a letter to Brown and asks him to deliver it to the recipient in Ireland. The fate of that letter, what happens to Lottie and others around her, form the basis of the novel.

One of the other elements is the slightly incongruous story of a fund-raising/lecture tour of Ireland made by the former slave Frederick Douglass, who was campaigning to raise support for the abolitionist cause. The people he meets are part of the mosaic of narrative fragments that form the final finished picture of the novel.

We also see Senator George Mitchell as he commutes between his American home and family and the peace negotiations he chairs in Northern Ireland.

These various narratives are told with verve and plenty of local colour. There are weak characters and strong, sad and happy. Just as in real life. Many of them have their lives destroyed by war, terrorist acts and humankind’s general capacity for cruelty.

Somehow for me it didn’t entirely work: the parts are better than the whole. Partly I think the complex structure is over-contrived. Also the prose style has some irritating features. I’ve complained about this kind of thing before, I know, and I should maybe be less picky. But McCann loves making paragraphs and sentences out of tiny fragments, perhaps because he thinks this reflects the novel’s larger structure. Here’s a random example; a middle-aged woman stands and watches Douglass across a crowded room – she hasn’t seen him for years, and recalls the last time, when she was just seventeen and a housemaid:

Standing outside Webb’s house. Bidding him goodbye. The early Dublin light. The shaking of hands. So unusual. The creak of the carriage. Later the butler, Charles, rebuked the staff. How dare you. The smallest moments: they return, dwell, endure.

The prose here is perhaps a reflection of the fragmentary nature of the woman’s fleeting thoughts and memories, those ‘smallest moments’. But almost every page has at least one paragraph in that similar staccato style. Where we’re not privy to a person’s stream of consciousness/thoughts. It’s just the narrative style. Too many minor sentences. Like these.

McCann is also capable of some beautifully lyrical descriptive passages. I’ll end with a couple of examples, to redress the balance of this post. Here a group of people is driving in a car towards Wales:

They pulled up to the edge of a field and watched a falconer ply his art: the bird being trained on the end of a string, the long curl of his flight slowly learning its limits. It hovered a moment, then landed superbly on the falconer’s glove.

I’m not sure I fully grasp the significance of how ‘his’ and ‘its’ combine in that sentence, but that adds somehow to the almost mystical nature of this apparently inconsequential scene. Except the novel started with two aviators’ long ‘curl of flight’ across the ocean, learning their limits and those of their warplane converted into a transatlantic migrant – a raptor trained to land peaceably, superbly, in an Irish bog.

And again, a scene that becomes of central significance – an Irish lough:

The lake was tidal. It seemed to stretch for ever to the east, rising and falling like a breathing thing. A pair of geese went across the sky, their long necks craned. They soared in over the cottage and away.  They looked as if they were pulling the colour out of the sky. The movement of clouds shaped out the wind. The waves came in and applauded against the shore. The languid kelp rose and fell with the swells.

There are some lovely images, rhythms and sounds there – it’s prose poetry. Once more it’s more than just decorative scene-setting. Birds in flight remind us of that transatlantic flight. The image of the waves ‘applauding’ shouldn’t work, but does. Same with the awkward aptness of the clouds’ movement that ‘shaped out the wind’. Why ‘out’? It’s the wrongness of the word that’s right for this aerial event.

Not an entirely successful novel, then, but it has some fine moments and stirring scenes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orchids and bluebells

I’m making slow progress through a long novel: Richard Powers, Overstory. It’s not one to rush. It’s about trees.

Here then are some pictures of yesterday’s walk on the coast of the Roseland peninsula. I’ve posted about this beautiful stretch of the Cornish coast several times before, usually with pictures of blue sky and cobalt sea. Not so yesterday: it was a blustery, grey day. House martins were swooping over the shoreline rocks, like tiny black-and-white terns.

The blossom I posted about last time had finished, and the blackthorn and hawthorn was turning pale green with new young leaves bursting out.

Bluebells view west

The view west towards Portscatho

Halfway through our walk we came upon a series of hillside fields overlooking the sea that were carpeted in bluebells – a lovely sight. My phone camera’s pictures can’t really do justice to the smoky violet-blue haze these flowers create.

Among the flowers and grass were also dozens of tiny purple orchids.

The name comes from the Greek orkhis – ‘testicle’ – because of the shape of the twin tubers in some   Orchidsvarieties. Not a very glamorous etymology for such a handsome plant.

According to my walks app, this particular type of wild orchid is the con artist of the plant world. Its brilliant purple flowers resemble those of other nectar-rich orchids. When insects arrive and push through the pollen to seek out the nectar, they find that there is none.

I’ll end this short post with an exchange I recorded in a notebook a few years ago. I’d been to St Michael’s Mount with Mrs TD and two grandchildren. We’d been looking round the museum exhibits inside the building that tops the island rock. One was a mummified Egyptian cat. I said that it was surprisingly long and thin. ‘That’s because,’ said Mrs TD, ‘cats are all fluff and nonsense.’

View east towards Pendower beach

View east towards Pendower beach

 

Annie Perreault, The Woman in Valencia

Annie Perreault,The Woman in Valencia. QC Fiction, Québec, 2021. 212 pp. Translated from the French by Ann Marie Boulanger.

QC Fiction, the Canadian imprint that specialises in translating French fiction into English, continues to be innovative: every title in their catalogue is stimulating to read.

Annie Perreault Woman in Valencia cover The plot is uncomplicated: Claire Halde is on holiday in Valencia with her husband and two small girls. She’s basking in the summer sun on a hotel fourth-floor pool terrace, watching her family play in the water. A strange woman approaches her, fully dressed, and asks Claire to take her tote bag. There’s a bloodstained recent dressing on her wrist, which is bleeding copiously. Claire is alarmed by the woman’s agitated state, and tries to calm her down. Her offers to call for medical help are dismissed.

Then the woman climbs over the terrace rail and jumps.

For the rest of this taut narrative Claire is haunted by this event. Her life starts to fall apart as her emotional state fragments.

Time passes, and she visits Valencia again. Has a passionate affair. This seems to exorcise her demons.

Intercut with these developments we learn about her daughter, Laure, now an adult, who runs a marathon in Valencia in an attempt to honour her mother and emulate her running feats. We’re given insights to Laure’s thoughts as the kilometres pass. There are also flashbacks to Claire’s youthful backpacking adventures.

For a while I thought this would have been better as a long short story, but as the various strands of narrative assembled themselves I began to appreciate the author’s artistry. Her focus is on the feelings and impulses of her main characters: we get right inside their heads, and the intensity of their emotions is palpable. The central metaphor of the marathon is an apt vehicle for the ordeals of endurance these women undergo.

The translation, as always with QC titles, is excellent: idiomatic and smooth.

My thanks to the publishers for this ARC.

Kate Atkinson and signs of summer

Kate Atkinson, Transcription. Black Swan paperback, Transworld Publishers/Penguin (2019)

This is a typically entertaining Kate Atkinson novel: not too demanding, well put together, and pretty forgettable.

Kate Atkinson Transcription coverThe structure is a little confusing at first, with contrapuntal sections set in completely different decades of the life of the protagonist, Juliet. In the first, set in 1981, she’s an old woman who’s injured in an accident – after years living in Italy and back in London on a visit, she’d looked the wrong way when crossing the road.

Next it’s the fifties, and she’s working in a dull job with uninspiring colleagues at the BBC. Then we go back a decade to the most substantial – and interesting – section: the years she spent as a clerk with the secret service. Her job is what gives the novel its title: she’s given the mundane job (considered all a young woman is good for in those unenlightened days) of transcribing on her typewriter the dialogue that’s been covertly recorded of a group of Nazi sympathisers. The flat next door has been set up by a British agent, who poses as another Nazi, as a supposed safe place in which to hold their meetings and plot against the British war effort.

Juliet is much brighter than her job allows her to be, and is soon recruited by her enigmatic bosses to do some real spying. What follows is a le Carré type espionage thriller, with a bit of unrequited love that’s more like a Barbara Pym plot element.

As I said at the start, it’s all good fun, and ideal for these fraught times when I find it difficult to focus on anything that requires close attention.

Bluebells are still flowering in this hedge next to a farmer’s field of rape

Now for other matters. I went for one of our regular local walks in the country with Mrs TD yesterday. It was yet another glorious sunny day, and nature is thriving. Early-developing trees like sycamore have already grown large leaves, but like their slightly tardier fellows they’re still a lovely shade of pale green, almost transparent when the sun shines through them.

A chestnut nearby has been if full bloom for a couple of weeks now, a wonderful shade of magenta. Blossom on most other flowering trees is just about over, but there’s still enough to keep the bees happy – and me.

Ploughed field 1

I posted pictures of this field last summer when it was full of ripe barley. Swallows and martins hunted for insects overhead then – but not yet this spring

Big news: as we passed a farm where late last summer I saw a group of swallows lining up on a telegraph wire, clearly preparing to migrate, I paused to scan the sky. I still hadn’t seen any first hirundine (what a great word) arrivers this spring – and sure enough, there they were! Two swallows, swooping across the valley, tracing aerial arcs at high speed. This is a sight that always lifts my spirits. I’ve been looking out for them for weeks, but this fine weather is blowing down from the north, and is therefore cold – maybe this has deterred them until now.

Ploughed field 2

The view across to the next field, also freshly ploughed. Not a swallow in sight – but what a view

Spring sunshine and apricity

Hare

Perky hare: explanation below

I have the ability to note an interesting piece of information, forget it, come across the same point at a later date and remember it all over again. I don’t think this is an age thing; I’m sure I’ve done this most of my adult life.

An example earlier this week: I read an article in the Guardian newspaper (link HERE) by Hannah Jane Parkinson extolling the virtues of apricity: ‘It was cold, but the sun had lingered, and there existed that glorious mix of chilly air and clear, bright skies.’ I turned to the OED for a formal definition (slightly abridged below):

obsolete:

 ‘The warmeness of the Sunne in Winter.’ Cockeram 1623.

Etymology: < Latin aprīcāt- participial stem of aprīcāri to bask in the sun, <  aprīcus

rare.

 [Verb form apricate:] 1.  intransitive. To bask in the sun.

1691    J. Ray Let. to Aubrey 22 Oct. in J. Walker Lett. Eminent Persons (1813) II. 159   Cæsar, I think, said that verbum insolens tanquam scopulum fugiendum est. I’ll name you one or two, to apricate, suscepted, vesicate.

 2. transitive. To expose to sunlight. Also transferred.

1839    T. De Quincey Lake Reminiscences in  Tait’s Edinb. Mag. July 461/2   Not sunning, but mooning himself—apricating himself in the occasional moonbeams.

As I wallowed in the novel pleasure of this word, it occurred to me that I’d seen it before. I didn’t remember where or when, but it has the lustre of a half-memory. A search on the Guardian website revealed another article dated February 2019, explaining the same word. That would be when I first read it, inwardly noted it, then promptly forgot it.

Apricating this afternoon in my front garden reminded me that it’s a precarious activity; you could sit in a tee shirt, reading your book, then a blast of breeze hits the back of your neck and you reach for a padded jacket and put the hood up. Then feel too hot when the breeze drops and the sunshine beats back in.

It sounds like it’s related to the word April – the best month for apricity – but it isn’t. One popular theory is that ‘April’ derives from the Latin aperire, ‘to open’, as it’s said to be the month when the earth opens to produce new fruit (according to etymologist W.W. Skeat). But this is folk etymology, says Anatoly Liberman in his entertaining and erudite OUP language blog (link HERE). He’s also sceptical about the other explanation: that it’s from Etruscan Apru (Greek Aphro – “Aphrodite”). Though I rather like to think of April as the month of Venus.

Btw, Liberman has a fascinating trawl through the origins of another apr- word, ‘apricot’, in a follow-up blogpost HERE.

Anyway, apricity is an apt term at this time of year in southwest England: spring is well under way, as my recent posts have illustrated (blossom, buds, opening fruits).

St Austell bay bluebellsOn Friday we went for a walk on the south coast. Bluebells were coming into flower (not very clear in my picture, I’m afraid), and it was a fine day for apricating: the air was chilly, but when we sheltered from the breeze there was a delicious warmth from the spring sun. We regretted not taking a picnic.

Over the weekend we reverted to one of our regular local walks. I’ve posted pictures of these horses before.Horses On this occasion they looked less mournful than usual, but they still have an air of melancholy – like they know something bad is about to happen that we’re unaware of.

The little statue of the perky hare at the top of this post is the nearest I’ve got for years to seeing the real thing. Not as big or scary as that giant rabbit that’s apparently been kidnapped in England this week.

CelandinesI wanted to try and capture in my pictures the effect of that spring sunshine on the scenery; these celandines (I think that’s what they are) and the foliage around them were gleaming in the light as if varnished.

I’ve made several batches of wild garlic pesto this spring, gathered from riverside woodlands nearby.  I’ve also stir-fried it in spring greens – delicious. This patch grows beside the lane we walk along, just before the horses’ field.

Wild garlic

 

 

 

 

 

 

More spring signs #BlossomWatch

A digression from the usual literary stuff again today; a word of the month is forthcoming, along with some more posts on books.

Over the last couple of weeks Mrs TD and I have taken advantage of the relaxation of lockdown restrictions to go further afield for our daily walks. Last week the weather was Portscatho bayfine but cold (that’ll be the word of the month, coming up next) and we took a picnic breakfast (and new coffee flask) to the south coast.

The cloud was just beginning to burn off as we arrived at Portscatho bay. We’d got there early, anticipating a crowd, but we were only the second car there. No doubt the numbers will increase when people from upcountry start to staycation down here in Cornwall.

Blackthorn bushesWe took the coastal path east along the clifftop. The blackthorn was in full bloom. At times it formed a sort of tunnel that we passed through – like a bridal couple heading for the church!

The blackthorn seems to be exceptionally wonderful this spring. Maybe I’ve just not looked closely enough at it in the past. From a Blackthorn blossom closeupdistance it looks nothing special, but looked at close up it’s glorious.

More recently we’ve mostly walked in the country lanes around where we live. It’s strange and a little upsetting to see the same signs of new spring growth that we noticed so vividly this time last year, during the first pandemic lockdown in England.

It’s heartening to see these fresh shoots and buds of new life; but also a little disheartening to find ourselves still in this precarious position over a year on from its inception. I believe these attractive catkins are willow:Catkins

 

Beach breakfast

Breakfast on the beach

Sybille Bedford, Jigsaw

Sybille Bedford, Jigsaw: an unsentimental education. Eland Publishing Ltd, London, 2005. First published 1989.

This is another of those books that doesn’t sit neatly in the category ‘novel’ or ‘(auto)biography’, or even ‘(auto)fiction’. Sybille Bedford’s account (the title page has it as ‘a biographical novel) of her early family life – she was born in Germany in 1911 – until early adulthood in the 1930s is described in her Afterword:

Truth here was an artistic, not a moral requirement – truth to be presented in the terms of the novelist, not the biographer, terms that meant timing, selection, avoiding repetition.

Sybille Bedford Jigsaw coverShe goes on to account for the ‘sisters’ story’ –  of the two women originally from Berlin whose lives form ‘a counterweight, a link between the English and the French action of my jigsaw.’

This novel is then an artefact, assembled fragments to represent a likeness as the author saw it in ‘writing about myself, my feelings, my actions.’ Much as she was tempted to leave out the substantial part played in her early life by her mother (‘Did one have to have a parent?’ she enquires wistfully, playfully in this Afterword), her story inevitably lingers in most of its pages on the significant impact on those feelings and actions by her glamorous, impetuous, intelligent, exasperating mother.

The short first section is poignant and funny, mostly about her early childhood in Germany with her eccentric, solitary father, barely subsisting in the grand but desolate, threadbare castle he’d been left by his wife when she’d had enough of him and took off to pursue love affairs, exotic travels and a more stimulating life:

[My father] could not stand clever women. (My mother had been too beautiful for him to notice that she was one and when he did notice it was too late.)

This German part of his family is called Merz in Bedford’s excellent novel (published 1956) about them, A Legacy (my posts about it HERE). She’s sensitive and perceptive in portraying his character and how she portrayed it to suit her novelist’s purpose there:

Jules in the novel is a man by no means originally devoid of feeling, whose contact with reality is snapped by events at one or two points in his life. He protects himself by limiting his grasp. A man who has lost his nerve…in the context of a particular time and the changes in that time.

Subsequent sections of the novel follow the protagonist after the early death of her father. Her mother marries a handsome Italian much younger than herself, and has little time for the precocious, bookish little girl she hardly knows, so she is tolerated for a sequence of summer breaks in various rented villas in Europe, usually by the sea. Her mother is restless, romantic, feckless. The daughter is educated fitfully, mostly at home or with dubious tutors.

Much of the time she is farmed off with equally bohemian friends in England, living hand-to-mouth, but still spending summers in Italy. The most substantial part of the novel is set in the place where her mother finally settles: Sanary, on the coast of the (then unfashionable) south of France. It’s a quiet place, favoured by itinerant foreign artists and intellectuals, like Aldous Huxley and his wife, and the exotically glamorous couple called here the Desmirails (not their real name). Young Billi (as Sybil was called by those close to her) develops an adolescent crush on Oriane, the glacially beautiful, art deco wife.

The final section is very different in tone. Sybil’s mother develops a drug addiction, and her daughter and young husband struggle to cope with the demands this places on the household.

The novel is uneven in quality; at times I became frustrated with the ingenuous depiction of the sybaritic ways of people one wouldn’t really want to meet: they’re usually broke, but always seem to manage to employ a ‘femme de ménage’, and to eat out and drink in café-bars. I suppose the author is adopting the viewpoint of the inexperienced young woman who didn’t know that the behaviour of her mother and her circle was selfish and neglectful, as well as exciting and unpredictable. It’s a wonder Billi survived.

I have quibbles with the prose style, too. Mostly it’s well written – rather patrician and slightly dated (the novel was longlisted for the Booker the year it was published, when Bedford was 78). But there are defects, especially a feature that Orwell hated, and I found irritating: Bedford’s habit of using unnecessary and intrusive double negatives – there must be a dozen of them, like this one chosen at random: a friend of young Sybil is having an affair with a judge who is said to have ‘a not insubstantial private income.’ That would be a substantial one, then.

Another character spends a part – ‘a not unlively part’ – of his time at a particular artists’ haunt; maybe I’m just fastidious, but what’s wrong with calling it ‘a lively part’?

 

 

 

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata. Vintage Books, 2017. First published 2016

Switzerland remained neutral through both world wars of the 20C. Precariously, given that it bordered the countries engaged in invasive, destructive warfare, and was sought as a haven by refugees fleeing the Nazis’ murderous persecution of the Jewish people in particular from the 1930s on.

Rose Tremain The Gustav Sonata coverRose Tremain excels in making the ‘historical’ part of her fiction come to life – the formidable research behind the narrative is never intrusive. Her protagonist in The Gustav Sonata is introduced in the first part of the novel, set in the years shortly after WWII, as a small, sensitive boy being brought up in a sleepy Swiss town by the mother he adores, but who treats him with cold and bitter disdain. Her husband, a policeman, had lost his job in disgrace after falsifying documents to allow a handful of Jewish refugees to find asylum in his country, soon after Switzerland had closed its borders to them. The official line was that it was full and couldn’t handle any more (an all too familiar claim in many places today); more pragmatically, the Swiss authorities were terrified of provoking the Nazis into punitive tactics, even invasion.

Soon after being sacked, a crisis occurs in his marriage and he becomes estranged from his wife and dies – before his son was old enough to remember his father.

The novel is set in a sort of prose form of a musical sonata in three sections. Part one shows how Gustav aged five befriends Anton at kindergarten – he’s instinctively drawn to another vulnerable child. Anton’s Jewish father had moved to the provinces from his city bank after a breakdown caused by another family crisis.

Anton is a gifted pianist – but suffers from terrible stage fright, and this stops his becoming a concert performer.

Tremain traces the development of these two young boys through to late middle age as they struggle to overcome the trauma they have experienced and the deficiencies in their ability to form lasting relationships.

It’s a beautifully told story, with central characters ill equipped to deal with the times they live through, but Tremain confidently shows, without lapsing into sentimentality, the power of love to prevail over all setbacks.

I enjoyed it a lot.