November reading catch-up

Because of my week in London on a social visit, and a work project this week, there’s been no time for book posts here lately. Here’s a (very) brief round-up of recent reading.

John Banville, The Blue Guitar (first published 2015). This was for me what Mrs TD used to call a damp squid. Although JB – as always – writes extremely well, the content of this novel failed to stir much interest in me. It’s a rather squalid (double) love triangle plot. The protagonist is a verbose kleptomaniac artist, a painter who calls himself a ‘painster’ (he likes this kind of rather annoying wordplay) because he portrays himself as an epicure of suffering. He’s short, fat and ugly, and frankly a bit of a pain himself. He’s self-regarding, duplicitous and judgemental. It’s a curiously lifeless, cerebral novel. Disappointing, because I’d enjoyed other JB novels in the past.

Dave Eggers, The Monk of Mokha (first published 2018). I didn’t know that coffee was first grown in Yemen, discovered and developed into the caffeine-rich drink by the titular medieval monk. He was based in the city of Mokha, anglicised as mocha. Coffee subsequently spread in popularity across the world, as the Yemeni market almost disappeared, supplanted by its imitators. This is the true story of a young Yemeni-American man who tries to restore his country’s pre-eminence as a producer of high-quality coffee. Unfortunately his project takes place as a vicious war breaks out in Yemen. Young Mokhtar learns the coffee trade and travels the country, sourcing the best beans and finding places to process and roast them. His quest to get his prestige product to international markets is a page-turning thriller as he blags his way through hostile militia checkpoints and dodges air-raids. This narrative eventually palled for me as it became a little repetitive. But it’s an entertaining and unusual story.

Rose Tremain, Islands of Mercy (first published 2020). RT is at her best when writing historical fiction like this. It’s set in Bath and London in 1865. A young woman called Jane is known as the Angel of the Baths because of her remarkably restorative powers of ministration to those taking the spa waters under the supervision of her doctor father. She’s forced to choose between bland marriage with the earnest young assistant doctor who isn’t perhaps as decent as he seems, and a passionate affair with a beautiful married woman. The most interesting character is Jane’s bohemian aunt, a London artist who sees Jane’s true spirit and advises her accordingly. There’s a strange, Gothic-inflected Heart of Darkness section in the middle in which this doctor’s botanist brother endures a torrid time in a tropical jungle. The narrative wobbles into melodrama at times, but it’s a spirited and highly enjoyable novel.

William Boyd Trio coverWilliam Boyd, Trio (first published 2020). Another disappointment from an author whose work I’ve found either very good or mediocre. This falls into the latter category. It’s a frenetic, farcical account of three lives (hence the title) involved in making a film that would surely never have been made, let alone in Brighton in 1968. The plot is too contrived to summarise, and the characters are mostly caricatures or types. Only Elfrida, the blocked, once-successful novelist, fuddled by booze, raised much interest. She decides, unwisely, to write a novel about the final day in the life of Virginia Woolf. I read today that Richmond council has been castigated for planning to place a statue of VW by the Thames at Richmond: it’s been suggested that it’s in poor taste to position the statue of her gazing over the river, given the manner of her suicide. But she drowned in a different river in a different county – doesn’t seem too problematic to me.

That’s enough for now.

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.

 

 

Burned by a man: Rose Tremain, ‘The American Lover’

 

The dominant tone in this collection of stories is a mix of sadness, loss and regret, but leavened by a wry humour and warmth of human feeling. Deception or exploitation underpins much of the sadness, as in the title story, in which an impressionable young art student in Paris is seduced by her much older, philandering tutor, who introduces her to unusual sexual practices, gets her pregnant then dumps her, leaving her heartbroken. Although she turns the experience into a successful novel (this literary theme is also recurrent), she’s permanently scarred emotionally and spiritually.Tremain American Lover cover

‘Juliette Gréco’s Black Dress’ tells a similar story of innocent, youthful love in Paris, but told with rueful irony within the frame narrative of gossiping stylists (is that what you call them?) in an unlovely beauty salon. Love, like ‘beauty’, is a commodity needing time and experience to get right, these stories suggest, and it doesn’t come easily or endure without pain.

Literature appears as an influence in ‘The Jester of Astapovo’, which filters the well-known tale of Tolstoy’s attempt in 1910, when dying, to flee from his wife, and spending his last hours in a stationmaster’s house – the eponymous jester, whose neglected and betrayed wife uses the distraction of the great man’s demise to leave her husband ‘because she’s tired of my jokes’, he quips. Jesting is preferable to despair, he tells his older lover.

‘The Housekeeper’ is the Polish woman who has a passionate affair with Daphne du Maurier, is abandoned by her, then devastated when the writer turns her into an ugly monster in Rebecca. She waited with ‘a fainter and fainter heart’ for love to return, but it doesn’t.

This story too is told in a different way in ‘Extra Geography’: two boarding school girls develop a crush on their teacher, but get out of their emotional depth when she responds more passionately than they’d anticipated.

Possibly the saddest is ‘Captive’, in which the proprietor of a boarding kennel for abandoned dogs (that theme again) faces a grim decision when a spell of Arctic weather sets in and his unfriendly neighbours steal his fuel oil. ‘A View of Lake Superior in the Fall’ comes close, with another portrait of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship that results in flight and guilt.

There’s heartache all round in ‘Lucy and Gaston’, a story which skilfully blends a woman’s frailties in 1976 with the accident that killed her pilot husband in WWII, and the tragic revelations that ensued when his body is found decades after his crash in a boggy field in rural Normandy. ‘Smithy’ is a strange story about an old man’s obsession with clearing litter from a country lane, and his critical encounter with an abandoned mattress.

As in her novels, Rose Tremain writes lucid prose and creates well-rounded, living characters for the most part, though the other stories in this collection look to me a little like exercises.

Being abandoned and forsaken is an inescapable part of the human condition in most of these stories, but they’re not grim: there is often hope, and if there’s no hope, there’s experience.

 

Rose Tremain, The American Lover and other stories (Vintage paperback, 2015; first hardback edition, 2014). I don’t know what kind of gum the people at Waterstones (where I bought my copy of this book last year) use to stick on those awful ‘Buy one get one half price’ stickers, but they make the cover look most unsightly.