Novellas in November #NovNov

When I read about the Novellas in November challenge, I knew immediately that this was one challenge that I couldn’t miss out on. As you’ll soon see, I seem to have rather a lot of short novels on my shelves, most of them unread.

I even have a few half-read novellas, if you can believe it. It seems I am capable of giving up before the end of a 150-page novel, which doesn’t show much staying power, now, does it? In my defence, that’s usually because I picked up a novella to put in my bag on a short journey or trip to somewhere I expected to wait for a while, but didn’t have to travel or wait long enough to finish. Once I get home, there’s usually another half-read book on the go that has priority for a book club meeting or because it’s on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, so that makes it more ‘worthy’. So that poor novella gets put to one side and overlooked between all the beefier tomes.

How long is a novella anyway?

The two bloggers running the challenge, Rebecca at Bookish Beck and Cathy at 746books, say that a novella is defined by a word count (17,500 – 39,999 or 7,500 to 16,999 for a novelette according to Wikipedia, but who’s going to count?). They suggest a length of around 150 pages, with an absolute upper limit of 200 pages. That rules out a number of the books I added to my list, but sometimes it just depends on the edition.

Size doesn’t matter, but age does!

Sometimes it’s all down to the white space and the font. Good quality and older editions often have an inordinate amount of that. For instance, I have an old edition of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair that is 237 pages long, but more modern Penguin and Vintage editions are listed on Goodreads with only 192 or even 160 pages. Some of the more ‘utility’ versions published after WWII have tiny writing, crammed on to thin paper with narrow margins. Likewise, some of my classics are printed on extremely thin paper, just like the Bibles and prayer books of my youth. So, in general, the older the book, the thinner the book. So page count isn’t always helpful, but if I can find a different edition on Goodreads below 200 pages, that’s good enough for me.

How many novellas by women writers can you fit on a shelf?

I’m sure I recently read a quote by a feminist writer – Fay Weldon? Virginia Woolf? Margaret Atwood? – that said that women tend to feel they aren’t entitled to take up space and that women are appreciated for being small, so they tend to write short, thin novels, as opposed to men who tend to be boastful of their accomplishments and write thick, macho doorstoppers. It was certainly my immediate thought that I have a number of remarkably thin books written by women, many of them called Penelope for some obscure reason: Penelope Fitzgerald, Penelope Lively, Penelope Mortimer. Penelope Lively’s City of the Mind is just too long, at 220 pages, as is The Photograph at a whopping 236 pages. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to find the source of that idea, but while I was searching, I came across a fascinating article by Mary Beard in which she refers to Penelope as being the first woman in the Western literary canon to be silenced by a man, her son Telemachus. Ironically, all three of those authorial Penelopes are best known or only wrote under their married names. Incidentally, Sally Rooney also wrote a great article about the pitfalls of ‘writing whilst female’.

Do women write more novellas?

I’m not sure if it was this little collection of female writers that I bought at the same time and were initially shelved together that made me think that women might be more inclined to write novellas or shorter novels. If I kept a list of my books on a spreadsheet, I could run some stats, but I don’t, so I will resist the temptation to find out. On my bookshelves, I have the impression that this is the case, put it that way. After all, some male authors are renowned for their succinct style, notably Ernest Hemingway, but also Graham Greene and (I suspect) crime writers like Ian Fleming and Erle Stanley Gardner. Likewise, women crime writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Historical novelists also tip the balance in the opposite direction, notably Philippa Gregory and Jean M. Auel and, latterly, Hilary Mantel, all of whom can give the Game of Thrones series a run for its money, not to mention Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind and A.S. Byatt’s Possession and The Children’s Book.

Conversely, male authors have a tendency to be over-bloated. I haven’t done a scientific study, but authors like Jonathan Franzen, Stephen King, James Joyce and David Mitchell tend not to be brief. And we won’t even mention the ‘serial offenders’ like George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien and Neal Stephenson. I suspect they may be matched by the women who are also prolific series writers such as Patricia Cornwell and, Elizabeth George (whose books are invariably chunky).

On my TBR shelves (if I counted correctly):

  • 47 novellas by men (46 individual authors)
  • 18 novellas by women (17 individual authors)

I’m not going to draw any conclusions from that; it just happens to be what I have at the moment. It is undoubtedly skewed towards male authors by the predominantly male 1001 List and the fact that many of my novellas are Dutch Book Week freebies and the vast majority of those are by men, make of that what you will.

Novellas in Dutch

As I live in the Netherlands and am a Dutch-English translator, I also read in Dutch, though I prefer to read books originally published in English in English, if I can, because the literary merit of a book is often in the language itself. I have to say, I don’t get on well with Dutch literature, but that’s a topic for another day.

Novella’s en boekenweekgeschenken
Dutch novellas TBR

As I said above, I have so many novellas in Dutch because they are given away as free gifts by the Dutch national book marketing association, CPNB (literally Collective Propaganda for Dutch Books; they prefer the word ‘promotion’ in their Wikipedia entry in English). These tend to be written by top authors and, if I look at the ones I own, they are predominantly men. This is partly because I have already read and passed on those written by women that I have come across.

Dutch novellas available in translation – by women

  • De glazen brug by Marga Minco [translated as The glass bridge by S. Knecht]
  • Transit by Hella S. Haasse [translated as En Transit (Fr.) by Anne-Marie de Both-Diez, Di Passagio (It.) by Laura Pignatti]
  • Oeroeg by Hella S. Haasse [translated as The Black Lake by Ina Rilke (Eng.), Le Lac noir (Fr.) by Marie-Noëlle Fontenat, Der schwarze See (Ger.) by Gregor Seferens, L’amico perduto (It.) by Fulvio Ferrari]
  • De ijsdragers by Anna Enquist [translated as The Ice Carriers (Eng.) by Jeanette K. Ringold, Die Eisträger (Ger.) by Hanni Ehlers, Les Porteurs de Glace (Fr.) by Michelin’s Goche].

Dutch novellas available in translation – by men

Oddly, I have only read and passed on one book week novella written by a Dutch man, De pianoman [The Piano Man] by J. Bernlef, which hasn’t been translated. I seem to be somewhat biased! However, I know I have undoubtedly read more, for instance:

  • Het gouden ei by Tim Krabbé [literally The golden egg, translated (twice) The Vanishing (Eng.) by Claire Nicholas White and Sam Garrett, Das goldene Ei and Spurlos (Ger.), Scomparsa (It.), La desaparición (Sp.) by Marta Arguilé Bernal, A Desaparecida (Port.)].

I was thinking that Tim Krabbé’s agent obviously did a good job selling the translation rights, but then found out it was made into a film starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland. This undoubtedly explains the plethora of translations, with none of the translators listed on Goodreads. Tim Krabbé’s book week gift Een tafel vol vlinders is also waiting to be read.

The ones that didn’t fit the bill

I thought this would be a good excuse to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, under 200 pages, but discovered it’s not one novella but several short stories, as is Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Means of Escape (174pp). Not to mention all the novels that looked thin, but had more pages than expected due to thin paper.

Which ones will I read during Novellas in November?

Obviously with such an embarrassment of riches, I will have to prioritise some over others. As my husband said to me, if you read all the short novels now, you won’t get through all those long ones you want to read once you’re losing your marbles. He has a point. That being the case, perhaps I should pick the ones which are on the 1001 List first. There are a surprising number, given they are so short. I suspect this is because novels cost a lot to translate, so when push comes to shove, it’s cheaper to translate a novella and that means that translated works on ‘worthy’ book lists tend to be shorter, not necessarily an author’s best works. Call me cynical, but it’s a definite trend I’ve noticed.

There are a grand total of 17 novels in my possession on the 1001 List. If I could read all of those in November, I would exceed my (admittedly unambitious) goal of reading 12 from the list this year. On the other hand, it could severely limit my chances of reading 12 in subsequent years if I have to read more weighty tomes. Still, I might feel very accomplished. I just started Rituelen [Rituals] by the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom, so I’m already on my way. There are other challenges to be met, however.

Other challenges

I am already signed up to various other challenges on BookCrossing and Goodreads. For instance, every year I attempt a ‘read around the world’ type challenge on BookCrossing, the 666 challenge, which involves reading 6 books from 6 different countries from each of the 6 continents. As usual, I am way behind and struggling with South America and the Pacific regions in particular. So I will try to pick as many international books as I can and not double up on countries. I am also attempting to read some of my books with a number higher than 3 in the title (for the BookCrossing Ultimate Challenge), so as it’s one of my oldest books on the shelf, I’m going to try to fit Maeve Binchy’s Dublin 4 in. And next month’s theme is ‘names in the title’, so I may save My Ántonia, Saving Agnes, Noor’s Story, etc. for then.

Last month, I also took part in the 1956 Club challenge, and lo and behold, I found another novella published in 1956, so that one is a definite read for this month (even though the deadline for the challenge is long gone). In November, there is also an AusReading Month challenge, Margaret Atwood Reading Month (#MARM) hosted by Buried in Print and Consumed by Ink and Nonfiction November.

Novellas on my shelf

  • Key to symbols (for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s):
  • 1001 – 1001 List
  • # – Number over 3 in the title
  • ABC – A name in the title
  • + – From a country I haven’t covered yet in my country challenge
  • % – Half-read
  • NF Non-fiction
  • OZ Australian author
Short novels
Look, more novellas!

TBR Novellas in English

Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart (1958) – Nigeria, 187pp. 1001 +

Martin Amis – Time’s Arrow (1991) – UK, 176pp. 1001 ABC

Isaac Asimov – I, Robot -> Ik, robot (1950) – USA, 154pp. 1001

Saul Bellow – A Theft (1989) – USA, 109pp.

Maeve Binchy – Dublin 4 (1982) – Ireland, 208pp. #

Mahi Binebine – Cannibales -> De kannibalen / Welcome to Paradise (1999) – Morocco, 172pp. +%

Pearl S. Buck – East Wind: West Wind (1931) – China, 156pp. +%

Willa Cather – My Ántonia (1918) – USA, 175pp. 1001 ABC

Rachel Cusk – Saving Agnes (1993) – USA, 218pp. ABC

Margaret Drabble – The Millstone (1965) – UK, 155pp.

Gerald Durrell – The Drunken Forest (1956) – Argentina, Paraguay, 199pp. +%NF

Noor Ebrahim – Noor’s Story (1999) – South Africa, non-fiction, 87pp. +NF

Graham Greene – The End of the Affair (1951) – UK, 237pp. in this edition! 1001

Graham Greene – The Third Man (1950) – The Fallen Idol (1935) – UK, 120pp/37pp. 1001

Kazuo Ishiguro – A Pale View of Hills (1982) – UK/Japan, 183pp. 1001

Jamaica Kincaid – Annie John (1985) – Antigua, 170pp. 1001 ABC +

Hanif Kureishi – Gabriel’s Gift (2001) – UK, 178pp. ABC

Jean Liedloff – The Continuum Concept (1975) – Venezuela, 150pp. NF +

John Marsden – Winter (2000) – Australia, 135pp. OZ

Colleen McCullough – The Ladies of Missalonghi (1987) – Australia, 132pp. OZ

Ian McEwan – On Chesil Beach (2007) – UK, 166pp.

Iris Murdoch – Acastos (1986) – UK, 131pp.

George Orwell – Animal Farm (1945) – UK, 110pp. 1001

Doris Pilkington – Rabbit-proof Fence (2003) – Australia, 157pp. OZ

John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men/Cannery Row (1937/1945) – USA, 97pp./50pp. 1001

Susanna Tamaro – Va’dove ti porta il cuore [De stem van je hart (NL)] (1994) – Italy, 173pp.

Sue Townsend – Rebuilding Coventry (1988) – UK, 205pp.

Evelyn Waugh – The Loved One (1948) – UK, 89pp.

H.G. Wells – The Time Machine (1895) – UK, 91pp. 1001 ABC

Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway (1925) – UK, 165pp. 1001

Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse (1927) – UK, 154pp. 1001

Short books in translation
Novellas translated into Dutch or English

Novellas in Translation

Alessandro Baricco – Seta (1996) [translated from Italian as Silk (Eng.) by Guido Waldman, Soie (Fr.) by Françoise Brun, Seide (Ger.) by Karin Krieger, Zijde (NL) by Manon Smits), Seda (Sp.) by Carlos Gumpert & Xavier González Rovira] – Italy, 120pp. 1001

Gerbrand Bakker – Perenbomen bloeien wit: het verhaal van drie broers (NL) (1999) [Translated as Birnbäume blühen weiss (Ger.) by Andrea Kluitmann; Los perales tienen la flor bianca (Sp.) / Les pereres fan la flor blanca (Catalan/Valencian) by Maria Rosich; ; no English translation] – NL, 143pp.

Heinrich Böll – Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (Ger.) (1974) [Translated as The Lost Honour of Katharine Blum (Eng.) by Leila Vennewitz] – Germany, 116pp. 1001 ABC

Alejo Carpentier – El Acoso (Sp.) (1956) [Translated as The Chase (Eng.) by Alfred Mac Adam] – Cuba, 122pp. +

Arthur C. Clarke – 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) [Translated as 2001 ruimte odyssee (NL) by J.B. de Mare] – USA, 189pp. 1001 #

Sahar Khalifa – Al-Subar (Arabic) (1976) [Translated as De cactus: een Palestijnse roman (NL) by ?; Wild Thorns (Eng.) by Trevor Le Gassick & Elizabeth Warnock Fernea] – Palestine, 181pp. +

André Neuman – Hablar solos (Sp.) [Translated as Talking to Ourselves (Eng.) by Nick Caistor, Marjeta Drobnič & Lorenza García] – Argentina, 148pp. +

Cees Nooteboom – Rituelen (NL) (1980) [Translated as Rituals (Eng.) by Adrienne Dixon] – NL, 175pp. 1001

Ian Rankin – Schuld & Boete (Trans. Crime & Punishment – excerpts from different Rebus novels) – UK, 91pp.

George Sand – Leone Leoni (1997) (in Dutch, translated by Fieke Schoots?) – France, 116pp. ABC

Nawal El Saadawi – Mudhakkirât Tabiba (Arabic) (1958) [Translated as Wat bedoel je dat je de man bent (alt. title Dagboek van een vrouwelijke arts) (NL) by [Translated as ; Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (Eng.)] – Egypt, 87pp. +

Antonio Skármeta – Ardiente paciencia (Sp.) (1985) [Translated as De postbode van Neruda by Tess Zeiler, The Postman (Eng.) by Katherine Silver, filmed as Il postino (It.)] – Chile, 125pp. +%

Pramoedya Ananta Toer – Midah Simanis Bergigi Emas (Indonesian) (1955) [Translated as Midah, het Liefje met de Gouden Tand (NL) by Alfred van der Helm & Angela Rookmaaker] – Indonesia, 139pp.

Short novels
Look, more novellas!

Dutch novellas and book week gift books

Griet op de Beeck – Gezien de feiten (lit. In view of the facts) (2018) [Translated as Sa’t it lân derhinne leit (Western Frisian) by Jetske Bilker] – NL, 94pp.

Adriaan van Dis – In Afrika (1991) (lit. In Africa)- Mozambique, 167pp. +NF

Adriaan van Dis – Palmwijn (lit. Palm wine) (1996) [Translated as Vin de palme (Fr.) by Anne-Marie de Both-Diez – Africa, 93pp. +

Antoon Coolen – De vrouw met de zes slapers (lit. The woman with the six sleepers) (1955) – NL, 222pp. #%

Arnon Grunberg – De heilige Antonio (lit. The holy Antonio) (1998) [Translated as Der Heilige des Unmöglichen (Ger.) by Rainer Kersten] – NL, 95pp. ABC

Maria Jacobs – Vijfenvijftig sokken (1998) [lit. Fifty-five socks, translated by the author as A Safe House: Holland 1940-1945 ] – NL, 109pp. #NF

Arthur Japin – De grote wereld (lit. The wide world) (2006) [Translated as Suur maailm (Estonian)]- NL, 90pp.

Tim Krabbé – Een tafel vol vlinders (lit. A table full of butterflies) (2009) – NL, 89pp.

Jan Kuitenbrouwer – Turbotaal: van socio babble tot yuppie speak (lit. Yuppie language) (1989) – NL, 91pp. NF

Tom Lanoye – Heldere hemel (lit. Clear skies) [Translated as Tombé du ciel (2012) – Belgium, non-fiction, 92pp. NF

Harry Mulisch – Het theatre, de brief en de waarheid (lit. The theatre, the letter and the truth) [Translated as Das Theater, der Brief und die Wahrheit] (2000) – NL, 85pp.

Harry Mulisch – Twee vrouwen [Translated as Two Women (Eng.) by Els Early, Deux Femmes (Fr.) by Philippe Noble, Zwei Frauen (Ger.)] (1975) – NL, 131pp.

Cees Nooteboom – Het volgende verhaal [Translated as The Following Story (Eng.) by Ina Rilke, Die folgende Geschichte (Ger.) by Ina Rilke, L’histoire suivante (Fr.) by Philippe Noble, La historia siguiente (Sp.), A História Seguinte (Port.) by Ana Maria Carvalho, La storia sequente (It.) by Fulvio Ferrari]  (1991) – Portugal, 91pp.

Connie Palmen – De erfenis (lit. The inheritance) (1999) [Translated by Die Erbschaft (Ger.) by Hannie Ehlers] – NL, 96pp.

Piet Grijs – Het grijsboek, of de nagelaten bekentenissen van Raoul Chapkis (lit. The grey book, or the confessions left by Raoul Chapkis) (1970) – NL, 144pp. ABC

Leonhard Huizinga – Twaalf maanden Joost (lit. Twelve months of Joost) (1959) – NL, 154pp. #ABC

Geert Mak – De brug (2007) [Translated as The Bridge: A Journey Between Orient and Occident (Eng.) by Sam Garrett, Die Brücke Von Istanbul (Ger.), Köprü (Turk.) by Gül Özlen, Most (Croatian) by Romana Perečinec] – Turkey, 92pp.

Charles den Tex – Onmacht (lit. Powerlessness) (2010) – NL, 92pp.

Thomas Rosenboom – Spitzen (lit. Point shoes) (2004) [Translated as Tango (Ger.) by Marlene Müller-Haas, Le danseur de tango – NL] – 92pp.

Tomas Ross – De klokkenluider (lit. The bell ringer or The whistleblower) (2003) – NL, 96pp.

Tommy Wieringa – Een mooie jonge vrouw (2014)[Translated as A Beautiful Young Wife (Eng.) by Sam Garrett, Eine schöne junge Frau (Ger.) by Bettina Bach, Une femme jeune et belle (Fr.) by Bertrand Abraham, Una moglie giovane e bella (It.) by Claudia Cozzi & Claudia Di Palermo] – NL, 96pp.

Ivan Wolffers – Gekleurd Nederland (lit.  The Coloured Netherlands) (1999) – NL, 175pp. NF

Joost Zwagerman – Duel [Translated as Duell (Ger.) by Gregor Seferens] (2010) – NL, 95pp.

Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe Blog

Are you new to blogging, and do you want step-by-step guidance on how to publish and grow your blog? Learn more about our new Blogging for Beginners course and get 50% off through December 10th. is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.

1956 Club: Erle Stanley Gardner and Ian Fleming, Bonding over diamonds

Two books published in 1956: Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever and Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Terrified Typist. Both share a theme: diamonds! And diamonds were in the news, too, in more ways than one.

The Case of the Reluctant Reader (not by Erle Stanley Gardner)

Challenged to read books published in 1956 for the 1956 Club by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, I discovered that the prolific Erle Stanley Gardner published three books in 1956:

  • The Case of the Terrified Typist (#49)
  • The Case of the Demure Defendant (#50)
  • The Case of the Gilded Lily (#51)

As luck would have it, my husband has all three (I didn’t say it was good luck!). I’m not keen on them, so I view this as a mixed blessing, but I did want to try reading at least one. I’ve never been very demure nor do I go in much for gilding the lily, but I’m a pretty nifty typist and am old enough to have learnt on the last generation of manual typewriters. Apart from which, the Terrified Typist was the earliest, so that one it is.

However, as far as editions go, the Typist is the newest of the three, reissued in 1984 by Ballantine/Random House. It has a suitably ‘80s cover with neon pink title and a picture with rather a snazzy knife or letter opener, covered with what could be blood, but could just as easily be sealing wax, given the pile of letters lying next to it. The Demure Defendant was issued by Pan/Heinemann in 1964 (unabridged) in a cover with an orange/ochre/rust geometric design on a dull brown background with a photo of a blond who may be looking down with her heavily false eyelash-adorned eyes (they may be too heavy to lift!), but not demure enough to wear any clothes, or none that I can see. The Gilded Lily is a Pocket Book edition from 1968 with a photo of a Twiggy-style blonde with short hair, wearing square tinted glasses and enormous black and white square earrings, peering out from behind her heavily made up eyes over a martini glass with olive. By the way, we know that Perry Mason solves the case because it says so on the front cover! Nothing about the cover makes me want to read it.

Criticising The Case of the Terrified Typist, the reading experience

It was a quiet evening so I sat down to start reading, but I soon noticed that the book wasn’t as dated in language and attitudes to Della Street as I’d expected. I wondered if the book had been edited for the new edition, with attitudes and speaking style updated, perhaps to tie in with the script of the TV show. I didn’t find an answer to that and I’m not inclined to read another of the three from 1956 to compare.


However, I came across a fascinating article from an academic journal with an introduction/summary in French, describing how Erle Stanley Gardner’s French translators slightly adapted the endings and beginnings of the early novels to suit the different French book market where people were not as likely to buy every book of a series. Apparently, as Gardner was not only a lawyer, but had previously worked in marketing, he believed that you needed to hook your readers so they would be compelled to read the next instalment, rather like those irritating ‘next week’s episode’ at the end of television shows or the even more annoying excerpts from the author’s next book at the end of a novel. Erle Stanley Gardner may have a pioneer of this technique, but he did it more subtly, incorporating it into his storyline. He did this by using devices such as Della pulling out a file on the last page, handing it to Perry and telling him about what his next case will be. Then, at the start of the next book, there would be a quick recap of the previous one, reminding the reader where they had left off.


This technique isn’t used in The Case of the Terrified Typist, but the book does begin with a foreword. In this, Gardner goes into a little history that feels irrelevant, then praises a particular legal colleague, in this case “my friend the Honorable (sic.) John Ben Shepperd [who] became the attorney general of the State of Texas.” Whether this was to curry favour with powerful men in real life, I don’t know, or perhaps he was paid to include the endorsement. It certainly has nothing to do with the book itself.

He also waxes lyrical about the generosity and enjoyment of drama (or showing off) common in Texas. It reminds me rather of James Michener’s autobiography, with name-dropping galore, which may be inevitable when you’re talking about popular and influential male authors of the 1950s and ‘60s (and undoubtedly earlier and later). It often feels like women authors haven’t had the same access to the ‘old boy network’, but maybe wome are just more subtle about it. I’m reminded of a story the blogger Judy Dykstra Brown shared fairly recently about being given a badge allowing her and her friend to enter an all-male Legion Club (a club for ex-members of the forces, like the British Legion) in Australia. To be allowed to attend was a special privilege for women that broke club rules. I suppose that was the reason for the country clubs in America. But I digress.

Looking at the next book in the series,  it occurred to me that Gardner used the Forewords as extended dedications. So often, a book is dedicated to a random friend or relation without giving any more details. Gardner’s forewords tell you something about the person he wishes to dedicate it to. It often expands on a particular legal peculiarity, a branch of investigation (forensics, toxicology; presumably  still in their infancy in 1956). And he takes the opportunity to tell some little edifying anecdote about his friend, such as you might use when introducing someone at a party.

Cast of characters

Another feature of this book is the Cast of Characters list (note the word ‘cast’, as Gardner also envisages it as a television script), giving a little potted biography of each, which does seem to give away plot points. For instance:

ANN RIDDLE—her frosty blue eyes observed many goings-on from her vantage point behind a cigar counter, and she seemed eager to report on all she saw—at first….

Hence we already know that she is going to be more than a one-off witness and it also sounds as if she will be pressured to keep quiet.

Words used to describe Della Street

If you aren’t reading the series in any sort of order, I suppose this does help to remind you who’s who of the regular cast. I particularly like the rather tongue-in-cheek description of Della:

DELLA STREET—she was everything a man could want in a confidential secretary—and then some ………….

Ooh la la! In The Case of the Demure Defendant, Della is described as Perry’s ‘amiable amanuensis’. I had just decided it might be interesting to find out how she is described in the Cast of Characters in each of the books we have when I discovered The Case of the Gilded Lily has no cast list. How disappointing!

Della Street has a dry sense of humour, for instance when she suggests Mason’s reputation may have intimidated the typist, “After all, […] you’re not entirely unknown, you know.” (p.4) We’re shown that she’s resourceful and observant and makes a good detective. Della admits she might have felt self-conscious if anyone had come across her searching the bin and the idea of concealing evidence makes her feel apprehensive; she is not as self-assured as she at first appears. She is also overly cautious about maintaining her good reputation and not allowing Gertie the secretary to jump to the wrong conclusion and gossip if she and Mason are locked in the law library together. She is also described as ‘demure’ when making the observation that Mason may be bending the law somewhat. Mind you, the word ‘demure’ seems to be Gardner’s shorthand for any well-behaved woman.

Sexism and demure dames

In a book written by a man in 1956, a certain degree of sexism is to be expected, of course. On the whole, it’s not to awful, but the young detective Paul Drake does describe trying to find a taxi driver who remembers a particular fare to the airport as being “like going to some babe wearing a skirt reaching to her knees, a tight sweater, and asking her if she remembered anybody whistling at her yesterday as she walked down the street.” (p.91)

One of the witnesses, Yvonne Manco, is described as ‘demure’, but when she crosses her legs, two of the male jurors “hitch forward in their chairs for a better look, while the chins of two of the less attractive women on the jury were conspicuously elevated.” (p.96) The objectivication of women is very much in evidence, though it’s not necessarily seen as an edifying characteristic. Victim blaming is lurking just around the corner.

The next female witness, Mae Wallis Jordan, is also described as “quiet, demure”; as I said, we’re amassing quite a collection of demure ladies!

The strange case of Della, Della Street

Incidentally, I’ve noticed a peculiarity of Erle Stanley Gardner’s writing style in that he never says simply Della, he always says Della Street. Why is this? It’s almost like a cutesie Southern affectation, like calling her ‘Miss Della Street’ (you’ll have to imagine the Gone With the Wind twang). Why the emphasis on her surname? Then, in an act of curiosity that could only be reasonably indulged in the age of the internet and an excess of time,  it occurred to me that there might be an actual road called Della Street, so I searched Google Maps and, yes, there’s one in Houston, Texas that may have served as inspiration. Incidentally, there are several around the USA, including one in Hernando, Missouri which I strongly suspect was named in homage to the character because it’s right around the corner from Mason Drive.

Certainly on television, there is definitely chemistry between Della and Perry. However, so far in this book, apart from the innuendo in the cast list, Della seems to be described as a professional and competent woman who contributes a great deal to the work, with no hint of the sexism  that had so annoyed me when I read The Case of the Fan-Dancer’s Horse. The titular typist is also incredibly competent, so Perry’s ‘flighty’ receptionist Gertie bears the brunt of the misogyny. On the other hand, one of Della’s roles is definitely to present female insight into how a woman might behave in a particular situation, which can grate on modern sensibilities.

Is it a crime to be too British?

As Duane Jefferson, the American defendant in the related murder trial, is working for a British company, there is an amusing exchange between him and Mason in which the latter accused him of becoming too British for his own good:

“There are certain mannerisms, Mr Mason, which the trade comes to expect of the representatives of a company such as ours.” [A diamond trading firm.]

“And there are certain mannerisms which an American jury expects to find in an American citizen,” Mason told him.

“If a jury should feel you’d cultivated a British manner, you might have reason to regret your accent and impersonal detachment.” (pp.47-48)

Lobotomies and other period props

One of the as yet unmet characters in The Case of the Terrified Typist has a brother who has been in a mental institution, but is now described as a “sort of a zombie” because he has had a prefrontal lobotomy , which Mason points out have been more or less discontinued by this time. I was very aware of this as I recently watched a couple of episodes of Ratched, which is a TV series written as a prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Prefrontal lobotomies are heavily featured.

Behind the eight ball is a phrase I had never knowingly heard before. Mason uses it when he has no clear evidence. “If we don’t get some line on Mae Jordan and Marline Chaumont, we’re behind the eight ball”, he says. (p.86) It means to be in a difficult position, which is clear from the context, but the phrase surprised me. 

Two of the characters first come into contact with each other after an advert to exchange stereo photos in a photographic magazine. Perhaps Stereolist photos.

Now you’re cooking with gas! How unexpected to come across this phrase in a book published in 1956! I thought it was a British Gas advertising slogan from the 1980s, though I remembered it as ‘Now we’re cooking on gas!’. Apparently not. It was an early natural gas slogan in the USA in the late 1930s or early 1940s and used as sneaky product placement in radio scripts for Bob Hope, Jack Denny and in a Daffy Duck cartoon in 1942. All I can find for British slogans is ‘That’s the beauty of gas.’

Did I enjoy the book?

Unexpectedly, I did! There was enough excitement, red herrings, trickery, verbal dexterity and humour to keep my originally sceptical interest. I feared a deadly dull court case at the end, but that wasn’t as bad as expected, though I probably skimmed the bits where the lawyers are stopping the witnesses from actually saying anything. I was also pleasantly surprised about how modern it all felt, even if they were still using typewriters and carbon copies. In fact, I might even be tempted to read another Erle Stanley Gardner for the 1936 Club. And that was a conclusion I certainly hadn’t expected.


It suddenly occurred to me that Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Terrified Typist revolves around diamond smuggling and that another high-profile book published in 1956 does exactly the same, Ian Fleming’s Bond thriller, Diamonds Are Forever. Were diamonds in the news in 1956 or, more probably, the year before? Well, yes, they were.

Marilyn Monroe memorably sang Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  The diamond-themed heat was building. 

The first artificial diamonds were created at GE in Schenectady New York at the very end of 1954 by researcher H. Tracy Hall, running the machine in secret on December 16th and New Year’s Eve. GE was sceptical, but finally announced the invention on Valentine’s Day 1955.

On Christmas Day 1954, a plane carrying a cargo of diamonds valued at £1 billion crashed at Prestwick Airport, scattering the diamonds.

Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio in January 1954, with prominent photos of her diamond engagement ring in Vogue.

In 28 September 1955, a dramatisation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story, A Diamond as Big as the Ritz was televised by Kraft Theater. The story is about a boy who visits a rich school friend whose mansion is built on top of a gigantic diamond. However, he soon realises that the father is paranoid and likely to kill anyone who visits. I will be attempting to squeeze this into my reading for Novellas in November (#novnov).


I don’t know how to break this to you, but you have just missed your chance to bid for the original final typescript of Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, including his signed revisions. It was on sale at Sotheby’s with a large collection of Fleming and Bond memorabilia In November 202. The typescript is expected to sell for between £80,000 and £120,000. All the lots will first be displayed at Sotheby’s prior to a range of four sales, Bond on Bond Street, celebrating all things Bond, from the first book to 60 years on screen. 

Who can forget the Diamonds Are Forever theme song by John Barry, sung so wonderfully by Shirley Bassey? It’s as timeless as a diamond and perfect for the glamorous Bond film of the same name. I’ve never been a great Bond fan, but last Christmas they were all shown on television and I watched many of the older ones and reluctantly admitted they had a certain je ne sais quoi.

However, I had never actually read any of the books, so once again, the 1956 Club challenged me to read something I would probably never have got round to.

First surprise: Bond going out for ‘dressed crab and a pint of black velvet’ (Stout and sparkling white wine) with the Chief of Staff. I thought he only drank ‘martini, shaken not stirred’.

He mentions an ‘inspectoscope’ used by customs officials. That’s explained here:

Bond is going undercover as a diamond smuggler and his contact is a young woman (surprise, surprise) whose profession is given as ‘single woman’. Surely nobody ever filled that in a passport application? I am dismayed.

Then we visit the London Diamond Club where we are introduced to the idea that Jewish Ripley is instantaneously recognisable as such and may well speak with a strong Jiddish accent. Not very politically correct.

Ian Fleming is very specific with his descriptions of clothes and decor and accessories such as suitcases. I’m sure he was hoping it would be filmed, though the first film wasn’t released until 1962. Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman bought the film rights to all the Bond novels the previous year. In fact the decors and costumes and styling are the main reason for me to watch early Bond films, though some of the dialogue is very funny.

Where’s the humour gone?

That’s one of the things I really miss in the novel. All that witty repartee that makes Bond so appealing, the twinkle in his eye, comes from the film script, not from the book. In fact, I haven’t managed to finish the book yet because I tend to read it when I get into bed at night and before I know it, zzzzzzz.

That isn’t altogether fair of me, but it’s a description of a man’s world of drinking and eating, smoking, horse racing and gambling. It’s dry and long-winded and nowhere near as exciting as the films. Bond and his friend go off into long discussions about gambling odds about which I care not a fig. There was that scene in the steam room for excitement and a tense interview with a crook, but it really isn’t thrilling enough to make me want to push through to the end. I will do it and I may change my mind by then, but at this stage I decided it was time to finish my blog post and move beyond the book and accept that sometimes, just sometimes, the film is better than the book. As far as I know, he doesn’t even say, “The name’s Bond. James Bond.” And if he doesn’t say that, what’s the point?

RIP Sean Connery, (25 August 1930 – 31 October 2020). The best Bond.

The Children’s Village by Mary Buchanan: Pestalozzi then and now

A fascinating insight into the Pestalozzi Children’s Villages in Switzerland and Hastings in England. Set up for children affected by WWII, it offered international education together with mother tongue education and curriculum. An early example of crowdfunding, it was founded on utopian principles, hoping to promote world peace and understanding.

After reading Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword, I realised that the children in the story ended up in the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Switzerland.

Serraillier doesn’t name this international village in Switzerland, but it is obviously the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen, overlooking Lake Constance. This sent me scurrying to my bookcase because I have a book about this very village, bought from my school library around 1975. The Children’s Village: Village of Peace by the sociologist Mary Buchanan was first published in 1951, presumably to raise funds for the British Pestalozzi Children’s Village Trust in Sussex, of which she was the founder and vice president. I note the cover price was 6/6, 6 shillings and sixpence. Of course, I paid much less. I’m sure I bought it because of the lovely dust jacket design. Oddly, the book smells quite strongly of disinfectant, possibly Dettol, in spite of being on my bookshelves for the past 45 years! Or perhaps it’s the ink it was printed with.

There are also some interesting photos of volunteers building the houses and the children who lived there. Two of the photos show artwork done by one of the orphans, starting with a scene of war and destruction, moving on to a peaceful mountain view, just like Bronia in The Silver Sword.

The contrast between a refugee child’s drawings when they first arrived in the village and after they had settled.

A silver sword link

I don’t know if Ian Serraillier knew this when he wrote The Silver Sword, but there is a link between the first Pestalozzi village in Switzerland and silver swords which I wouldn’t have discovered if I hadn’t owned this book because the easily available information about the organisation is very brief, especially in English, and seems to contain very little about the history.

“It is in Trogen that, on the last Sunday in April, in alternate years, there is held the ancient ceremony of the Landesgemeinde, when every male citizen goes to the village square to vote on new laws and to elect his cantonal officers. In the small canton of Appenzell there is no parliament. Citizens with the right to vote – that is to say, all Swiss men of the canton who are of age (the women of Switzerland have no vote*) – wear a small sword on this occasion as a sign they are free men.” (p.13)

What an extraordinary coincidence! Surely Serraillier would have used this fact if he’d known it? As it is, the sword that Jan has held on to throughout their ordeal as a talisman, promising that the Balickis will be reunited with their parents, ends up in their mother’s jewellery box. It seems an ignominious end for something that had been held in such high esteem.

* Women only gained the vote at cantonal level in this region of Switzerland (Appenzell) in 1991, though they could vote in federal elections from 1971. Watch a fascinating short video from the BBC about attitudes to women voting when men voted in a referendum on the subject in 1959, including an interview with Switzerland’s first female President, Ruth Dreifuss.

The Founding of the Pestalozzi Village

The story of the founding of the village is one of early crowdfunding. The idea came from Walter Corti, a Swiss medical researcher who had recovered from TB in a sanatorium near Davos, the same one dubbed the Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Many Swiss people had already taken children affected by the war into private homes for a period of convalescence, helping a total of 20,000 children. In an article, Corti suggested founding an international village for orphans to provide just a fraction of those children a permanent home. Perhaps other countries would follow suit, he thought. It spoke to the Swiss imagination.

Crowdfunding a village

Trogen was one of several places that offered land and the tiny community of 2,000 raised £2,000 (or whatever that was in Swiss Francs) to build a road to the site. The first four houses were paid for by children selling ladybird badges, the emblem of the organisation. These houses were then ‘resold’ for £10,000 each to the Swiss towns of Zurich, Basel and Winterthur plus the major chemical concern Ciba. Other organisations including the cooperative Migros donated a house and there were many small donations, rather like the Blue Peter TV campaigns I remember from my childhood.

The book mentions that all the nurses from a large Zurich hospital went without supper once a week to save up money. Due to currency restrictions, donations from abroad were in kind: oranges from Israel, honey from Australia, coal from Poland. Corti asked Swiss children to ask their municipality to donate a tree, which they then either auctioned or sold as firewood. This raised another 170,000 Swiss francs.

Building a village

Building started in 1946 with the help of 600 volunteers from 17 countries; over 25,000 hours of voluntary labour. The houses were built in Swiss chalet style, designed by Zurich architect Hans Fischli, who even personally supervised the building. They feature lots of wood and had modern facilities including central heating and showers. One half of the house consisted of a living room and a small kitchen for snacks where they could cook their own country’s specialties. The rest of the meals were Swiss-style meals prepared by a central kitchen. The other half of the ground floor contained the bedrooms,  each with two to four children, plus a small sick room and bedrooms for the house parents and teacher’s help. Upstairs there was a classroom and office space, with a workshop and storage in the basement. I suspect the description was so detailed because Mary Buchanan’s book was intended to fund similar homes in Britain.

Home from home

Each house was assigned to a particular nationality, staffed by adults of their own nationality, speaking their own mother tongue, following their own traditions and school curriculum, even with their own parents’ religion. Nevertheless, as a global village, the idea was that children of different nationalities would mingle, to “help them to overcome deep-rooted national prejudices, which are only too often artificially nurtured, and enables them to return to their home countries as true citizens of the world determined to stimulate international goodwill.” The children were involved in naming each house: ‘Thames House’ (British), ‘Stepping Stones’, ‘Pinocchio’ (Italian), ‘Kindersymphonie’ (Austrian), ‘Argonautes’ (Greek) and ‘Les Cigales’ (French).

Photo from Mary Buchanan’s The Children’s Village (Pestalozzi)
The French house mother and children

Changing balance of nationalities

New arrivals and departures had major impacts on life at the village. Children were selected by social work organisations in their home countries. Of the things that influenced morale in the village, perhaps the saddest example is the false hope that other children developed when seven Polish children were reunited with their parents after they had been on holiday to Poland; it turned out they weren’t orphans after all. There were many shifts in the village’s population:

  • 1946 Arrivals: French, then Polish children found by the allies in Merano, Italy, then Poles from Warsaw
  • 1948 Departures: Polish children who had visited Poland for a summer holiday were prevented from returning by their government
  • 1947 Arrivals: Austrians from Vienna, via Winterthur, then Hungarians
  • 1949 Departures: Hungarians recalled to their own country
  • 1947 Arrivals: Germans from Hamburg
  • 1950 Arrivals: 32 British children
  • 1956 Arrivals: Hungarians
  • 1960 Arrivals: Tibetan refugees
Pestalozzi Village, Switzerland
Eating and reading together like one big happy family

Education: combining national and international

The children were all taught their national curriculum in their own language in the morning by the house fathers, all qualified teachers. All nationalities spent the afternoons together, learning whatever suited them from a fascinating and cryptic range of practical and artistic subjects, “music, drawing and painting, dramatics, rhythmics and remedial exercises, handicrafts of all kinds, including leathercraft, metalcraft, weaving, cartonnage, aeroplane- and ship-modelling, gymnastics; sport and excursions and games. German lessons also take place in the afternoons” (p.18), except for the German-speakers, who learnt English instead. There was also a village magazine and other clubs.

Sometimes I was amused by the dated descriptions. For instance Mary Buchanan tries to illustrate how free from institutionalisation the village was because you could see “that familiar homely sight, a clothes-line, with white and coloured garments waving gaily in the breeze, while the crickets chirp in the grass of the meadows where a donkey, one of the many pets, grazes in the shade of a large lime-tree.” (p.21)

International ideals

Children were eventually expected to return to their home countries, hence the home language education and housing, so it was important to keep links with ‘home’. This was done by either sending them to stay with some distant relative or to a holiday camp. I could imagine neither of these solutions was ideal. A relatively short visit to a country is still not enough to feel at home there. The ideals behind the village were very clearly not just to help individual children, but to promote internationalism as a force for peace. They hoped to provide an example that could be replicated elsewhere, perhaps on a wide scale. 

“Is there a country in this world of ours where the inhabitants can truthfully say they have no feeling of prejudice, perhaps even of hatred, against another people, race, religion or class? There is room for supra-national education in every corner of the inhabited world – not only for the select few, but for the great masses, from whom leaders frequently arise. It is even probable that, hand in hand with supra-national armies, trading schemes and governments, supra-national education could eradicate wars from this planet within 100 years by wiping out mistrust, hatred and prejudice which invariably have their roots in ignorance. To some people the idea of international education may seem utopian. But times change. The world is going through a process of integration. If the best in civilisation as we know it is to survive, then it is essential that peoples of different nations and races come to understand one another, and to respect and appreciate their differences. Young children know nothing of national or racial barriers.” (p.38)

Pestalozzi Village in Britain

When the book was written, the British Pestalozzi Village near Hastings was still in its infancy, with a large house housing a small group of needy British children with their house parents and “feeding some forty additional youngsters, Armenian, Hungarian, Latvian, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Ukrainian and Yugoslav boys and girls from displaced persons camps.” Some of these would have been stateless. The intention was to give them vocational training then send them off, probably to Commonwealth countries. I wonder if this is what actually happened.

The modern Pestalozzi

In fact, in both Switzerland and Britain, the focus shifted towards helping children recruited from partner developing countries, originally in Eastern Europe and later in Africa and the Indian subcontinent. In Switzerland, the village still acts as a residential school for disadvantaged children, but also runs short-term residential camps and holidays for needy children from other countries, as well as providing a conference centre for organisations with similar ideals. During the 2015 refugee crisis, they housed a group of unaccompanied child refugees, though nowadays the children have to go to school offsite as the organisation no longer employs teachers. They also rent out accomodation; I discovered a video online of a man who visited the village and the Pestalozzi museum and stayed overnight in one of the houses, presumably in a separate staff accommodation. In Britain, the village has now been sold off to PGL, a provider of ‘school trips, summer camps and adventure holidays’. When this happened, there was an enthusiastic article in the local press about growing up in the British Pestalozzi village.

I certainly wouldn’t have read this if it hadn’t been for the 1956 Club and being triggered by finally reading The Silver Sword. It’s a salutary reminder of the current fate of refugees; few people are willing to take refugee children into their own homes nowadays, unlike in times of war. I understand. I have had the opportunity to host children from Eastern Europe and Africa for a couple of weeks’ holiday or football camp and I’ve never done so; having my own children and French exchange partners visiting was stressful enough for me! In any case, this was certainly a fascinating insight into how an idealistic, utopian idea can be turned into a reality to change the world, at least for a small number of children.

Read more

Call for information about the founders of the Pestalozzi Children’s Village near Hastings.
A short biography of the British founders, particularly Mary Buchanan, author of this book.
Link to photos of Swiss village.

#1956Club – The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

Ian Serraillier’s 1956 children’s adventure book about child refugees travelling from Poland, crossing Germany to find their parents in Switzerland remains as relevant today as ever, though today’s refugees come from different countries.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

This was a book I had on my BookCrossing wishlist, so I was delighted when a Finnish Bookcrosser sent it to me as a so-called RABCK (random act of BookCrossing Kindness) in 2011. 

Somehow I had expected this to be about knights and probably Arthurian. I remembered the name Ian Serraillier from shelving books in the school library and thought I had either read this or another of his books. Now I’m certain I didn’t read this and I’m not sure I read any others of his, unless the hated Beowulf the Warrior was the version of Beowulf we had to study in the first year of secondary school (horrible story!). But this is something quite different.

One of the extraordinary things about this particular book is that only one edition of it is listed on Goodreads, not the Puffin edition I have. There is, however, also a script version for the radio adaptation and it was serialised twice by the BBC in 1957 and 1971. Yet everything I have managed to find about Ian Serraillier says that The Silver Sword is his most popular book and I have found multiple blogs online where this is listed as a favourite childhood book. Looking at his other books, the only one I could imagine having read as a teenager is Beowulf the Warrior which we studied in the first year of secondary school, much to my horror; I’d never read anything where a creature’s arm had been ripped off before. Perhaps that’s why I remember his name. The Silver Sword is definitely more enjoyable, even if the story is grim in other ways.

A WWII refugee tale

This is the story of an epic journey undertaken by three siblings from war-torn Warsaw (Ruth, Edek and Bronia Balicki), accompanied by another boy, Jan, who they take under their wing. The children’s father was deported to work in Germany and after being dragged from her home, the children’s mother has fled to Switzerland, her home country, leaving the children alone. Their house is then bombed flat so they live in the rubble. Jan, a wild, thieving boy, presumably an orphan, becomes attached to them because the children’s father gave him a paper knife as a talisman, begging him to tell the children to head for Switzerland. The book is the story of their adventure, the people they meet along the way and the setbacks and strokes of good luck that befall them.

In spite of everything that happens, I can’t say it’s the most exciting children’s book I’ve ever read, but that may be due to my advanced age. Plenty certainly happens; there are numerous incidents that ought to be full of tension and places where it could all have gone horribly wrong.

Nuanced and humanised cameos

Later on in their journey, the children meet a range of adults: a British officer, an American officer at a military tribunal who is sympathetic to Jan’s antics when stealing food, a German farming couple who give them farming work. All these encounters give the opportunity to present a nuanced picture of the post-war landscape. Farmers exploit refugees for their labour, but provide them with food and sometimes shelter. The allied military forces are helping keep order, organising relief efforts, running refugee camps and helping repatriate displaced people.

People like the children in The Silver Sword don’t fit into the grand scheme of things. They are travelling against the flow to a country that is not their own, following the dream of being reunited with parents who may very well have gone back to Warsaw to look for their children or may not even be alive. And it’s worth pointing out, these children aren’t Jewish, so they are allowed more hope than those whose families have been sent to prison camps or have been in hiding. As such, the Balickis and Jan can more easily be accepted by the German farmers.

The military personnel are also humanised: the British officer writes home to his wife and is missing his baby daughter, Ivan the guard in Warsaw is helpful and compassionate, the farmer and his wife have lost their two sons in the war. Nobody is unscathed by the years of war. They pass convalescing soldiers (presumably German) who wave from their sunny balcony as they pass. Everyone is trying to resume life and return to something resembling normality.


Jan has a great affinity with animals. When the other children first meet him, he is carrying a scrawny chicken which he protects against all suggestions he might be eaten. There are other animal encounters along the way. I suspect it’s one of the reasons so many people have such fond memories of the book. While in the transit camp in Berlin, Jan tracks down a chimpanzee that escaped from Berlin Zoo during the aerial bombardment. This reminded me of something else that I read where someone had seen an unusual bird – a stork or a swan perhaps – in somewhere like the Reichstag just after the war. Annoyingly, I can’t remember which book, but I did save this link to Storks in Berlin Zoo, 1936. If anyone knows which book I read it in, I’d love to know.

A personal connection

One particular incident mirrored an incident in my grandfather’s wartime experience. While in Germany, Edek is stopped on the road by the local mayor, who has the job of sending Polish refugees back to Poland. During the war, Edek had been sent to work as a labourer in Germany and could therefore convincingly speak the language. Jan, on the other hand, cannot and so has to pretend to be deaf. This is very like one of my own grandfather’s wartime tales. He had become detached from his unit in France and had to hide in a cave until forced to rely on the generosity of a local family. In return, he helped around the farm. One day, when he was sawing wood with a big two-handed saw, a German soldier came along and offered to help. My grandfather had to pretend to be deaf-mute so the soldier didn’t realise he wasn’t French. I’m sure it’s a ruse that has come in handy for many people in many similar circumstances.

An unexpected Dutch phrase

Just a little aside: something that surprised me was that Ian Serraillier uses the phrase ‘to make a long nose at someone’, in other words, to thumb your nose. I have never heard this in English, but it is a ‘false friend’ translation of ‘een lange neus maken’ in Dutch. I wonder where he picked up that phrase!

Switzerland at last

Even when the children finally reach their destination, the situation is still nuanced. After reuniting with their parents with the help of the Red Cross ITS (International Tracing System), they all have the good fortune to live in an international village, with the Balicki parents becoming house parents to the Polish house. Yet all is not perfect after the traumas of war and their refugee experience: Jan has to unlearn his thieving ways and remains wild, Edek has to recuperate from TB in a sanatorium – of which there were many in Switzerland due to the pure air – and perhaps most tragically of all, the formerly decisive Ruth loses all her self confidence and clings to her mother for security. Only Bronia, too young to really understand and always protected by her substitute mother Ruth, finds it easy to readjust, though at first she can draw only scenes of destruction and escape.

Serraillier doesn’t name the international village in Switzerland, but it is obviously the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen, overlooking Lake Constance. This sent me scurrying to my bookcase because I have a book about this very village, bought from my school library around 1975. The Children’s Village: Village of Peace by Mary Buchanan. More about that in my next post.

I’m very glad the 1956 Club gave me a good reason to read The Silver Sword, as who knows when I would have got round to it otherwise. I’m not sure if today’s children would find it that exciting because of the way it’s written, but I’m sure a screen adaptation would work very well even today. And sadly, the issues about refugees are just as relevant today as they were back then. It’s still a story worth telling.

#1956Club – The Drunken Forest by Gerald Durrell

Gerald Durrell’s animal collecting trip to Argentina, Tierra del Fuego and Paraguay may not have gone to plan, but his amusing narration and wonderful illustrations by Ralph Thompson saved the day.

Returning to reading Gerald Durrell – any book by him, because I’m not sure which ones I read years ago – is a joyous experience. His stories about both animals of all sorts and the people he meets are invariably amusing.

Cover illustration by Ralph Thompson for Gerald Durrell’s The Drunken Forest
Cover of The Drunken Forest by Gerald Durrell

Perfect illustrations by Ralph Thompson

This is Gerald Durrell’s account of an animal collecting trip to Argentina, travelling on to Tierra del Fuego, then back to Paraguay. Due to bad planning and political disruption, it turned into a chaotic trip that wasn’t entirely successful. As always in in his books, in The Drunken Forest, Durrell gives the animals and birds such character and that is perfectly reflected in the line drawings by Ralph Thompson. Both of them capture the essence of a creature or an incident. Durrell’s obvious enthusiasm spills over into his descriptions. Thompson complements this by sketches that show the animals at their most appealing, with their head at just the right angle: a fawn wrapped in a shirt, a raccoon opening the catches on its cage, a page and a bit of adorable burrowing owl fledglings.

Ralph Thomson: burrowing owls
Illustration by Ralph Thompson of burrowing owls (from The Drunken Forest by Gerald Durrell).

Durrell’s text is so alive because he describes the process of observing and capturing the animals so well. His dialogue is lively and peppered with well-bred expletives, the sort even my non-swearing mother couldn’t object to. Even though his expedition was nowhere near as successful as hoped, the book certainly is.

A pink penguin

My copy is a 1961 Penguin edition with a pink cover that originally cost 2’6 (two shillings and sixpence); it would have taken me three weeks saving up my pocket money to buy that as a child. I’m familiar with orange and green Penguins, so this is rather an anomaly; non-fiction, perhaps? I suspect this is also one of Durrell’s books that I haven’t read before as I bought it in a secondhand bookshop in Eindhoven in 1987 or thereabouts. It was the first time I’d ever lived anywhere with a proper bookshop (i.e. not W.H. Smiths), so I was a regular visitor there, delighted by the choice. In any case, this book is a keeper and I recommend it to everyone. And it’s perfect for reading in 2020 as it’s great medicine; it’s impossible to read this without a smile on your face.

Illustration of the jungle by Ralph Thompson for The Drunken Forest by Gerald Durrell.

#1956Club – Blundering around the bookcase: finding books published in 1956

Searching for books for the #1956Club book challenge, I found various candidates, some more appealing than others. This is what I found on my own shelves.

Whilst reading a book blog I follow, I recently saw a reference to the 1956 Club challenge, which involves reading and reviewing one or more books that were first published in – surprise, surprise – 1956. Did I have any books that fit the bill on Mount TBR, I wondered. How would I find them?

Apart from physically opening up any books that I thought were of the era on my own physical shelves (and discovering I have an inordinate number published in 1986 that I opened up, just in case they were be older than I thought), I also decide to do a little speculative ferreting for likely candidates on Goodreads. Any author that I could think of who wrote in the 1950s seemed like a good bet, including the children’s authors I enjoyed in the 1960s and ‘70s. I also tried to think of the people who would have been on television back then.

Books that might have appeared in 1956

For me personally, one of the most important things that happened was that my parents got married, as did Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco. Rock and roll was taking off, with Elvis’ first appearance, the first Tefal pan was produced, the first nuclear power station opened in Britain, the first interstates in the US, there was the Suez crisis, The King and I was on Broadway. One thing I realised was that the 1950s was an era of exploration, with the first climbing of Everest in 1953 and other mountaineers and explorers also blazing a trail through the world’s more remote corners. Nevertheless, the Everest books, Annapurna and the Kon-Tiki expedition were too early. Elsbeth Huxley’s Flame Trees of Thika was published in 1959, Joy Adamson’s Born Free in 1960. The only book of that ilk I did find was The Drunken Forest by Gerald Durrell, describing a 1954 animal collecting expedition to Argentina and Paraguay. Fortunately for the purposes of the 1956 Club, his book telling the tale wasn’t published until 1956, followed by his most famous book, My Family and Other Animals, set on Corfu. I read that as a child and was captivated, but no longer have a copy. Sadly, I also never seem to put on the television at the right time to watch the dramatization of the Durrell’s chaotic family life. I am entirely willing to read The Drunken Forest this year, however, but probably not within the confines of the 1956 Club timescale.

Children’s books in 1956

Children’s books are another likely suspect for discovering books published in a certain year, especially those authors who publish many books in a series. As such, I suspected Noel Streatfeild might fit the bill and I was right. However, I have neither of the books which she had published in 1956: Dancing Shoes and a book called Judith that I have never come across. Dancing Shoes is part of the so-called ‘Shoes’ series that started with the wonderful Ballet Shoes, a book I still possess. When I looked up Streatfeild’s books on Goodreads, I was surprised that there were so many in this series, because I didn’t know many of them. I remember one of my favourites being Apple Bough, but had not remembered it as being connected in any way, but Goodreads tells me it was also known as Traveling Shoes. The clue is in the spelling: as Ballet Shoes (1936) had been so successful, Streatfeild’s American publishers decided to rebrand the books as the Shoes series, even though the stories were virtually unrelated. Hence another of my childhood books, Party Frock became Party Shoes. In the Frock version, the children decide to arrange a historical pageant for the whole village, simply because the girl staying with them for the summer has been sent a parcel containing a marvellous party dress (cream organdie with a blue sash) and they need to find a reason for her to wear it. I can almost physically feel the beauty of that dress, even though I read it in my very early teens, or earlier, in my ‘longing to be a ballet dancer’ stage.

Prolific authors

Another likely way of finding books published in a particular year is to think of prolific authors; the sort who publish series of books or who seemed to churn out a book every year. One of these was James Michener with 150 distinct works on Goodreads, starting with Tales of the South Pacific in 1947, then publishing new books in 1949, two in 1951, two in 1953, one in 1954 and… his next three in 1957. As already discussed on , another author who used to reliably produce a good novel every year or so was Ian Fleming and, indeed, he wrote Diamonds are Forever, his fourth James Bond novel, in 1956. My husband owns a copy of this, but it remains on my ‘maybe I’ll read it one day’ list.

I then realised that my next best bet was Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. Gardner was horribly prolific. My husband collects his books (as did his father before him) and two entire shelves in our bedroom are taken up with them. I’m rather fond of the TV series starring Raymond Burr, especially the later ones, when his secretary Della Street is finally credited with a brain. Della was played by the phenomenally gravelly-voiced Barbara Hale, who was a movie star in her own right before switching to television roles. 

I believe I once read one Perry Mason mystery, possibly The Case of the Fan Dancer’s Horse, but don’t quote me on that. My husband was so enthusiastic, but I was put off straight away by the ridiculous names and the sexism; Perry always had to explain everything to his secretary Della. No matter that I often need mysteries explained to me at the end, I objected on principle! I had no idea that the first ones had already been written in the 1930s, which obviously makes me look upon the attitudes with slightly more understanding.

Since he was writing for a television series, whilst remaining a practising lawyer, Gardner published several books a year. In 1956 he published:

  • The Case of the Terrified Typist
  • The Case of the Gilded Lily
  • The Case of the Demure Defendent

The majority of his titles are similarly alliterative, which I love, but I much prefer watching the television show to reading the books. Especially the later ones. I might have a peek at one of the Erle Stanley Gardners, just to see whether I dislike it as much as I thought.

Likewise Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, one of my husband’s books. I am not really a Bond fan, though watching those early films is amusing just to see the decor. I’ve never attempted any of the books, though I have read his brother Peter Fleming’s account of travelling on the Silk Route, News from Tartary, which was fascinating (and is available online).

My candidates for the 1956 Book Club

  • Gerald Durrell – The Drunken Forest
  • Elizabeth Goudge – The Rosemary Tree
  • Ian Serraillier – The Silver Sword
  • Ian Fleming – Diamonds Are Forever
  • Gene Zion, Margaret Bloy Graham (ill.) – Harry the Dirty Dog

Obviously I wasn’t able to read all of those within a week, especially as I didn’t even come across the concept until the week had already started. I have skimmed The Drunken Forest and will try to post a review very soon. I have started The Rosemary Tree and will post something about it as soon as I have something to say. I spotted a review on Goodreads of an Elizabeth Goudge fan who mentioned reading a chapter of The Rosemary Tree per night. In theory that is a wonderful idea, but inevitably I will get distracted. As Elizabeth Goudge is one of my mother’s favourite authors, I will try to read it this week, in honour of her birthday week. We shall see. As for the rest, time will tell. They are now earmarked for a skim and brief comments. Watch this space; I hope this will kickstart my return to more active blogging. Thank you for the inspiration, kaggsysbookishramblings, stuckinabook and thank you also to Liz at librofulltime.

Song Quest by Katherine Roberts (1999): book review

A beautiful and imaginative fantasy for older children/teenagers. The blue-haired Singers have special powers for negotiating. Young Rialle needs all her powers to deal with the magical creatures and evil people she meets. Who can she trust?

By no means a perfect fantasy, but worth reading if you don’t expect it to be Lord of the Rings or The Earthsea Trilogy, or even Harry Potter. First in the Echorium Sequence, but the ending is satisfying, leaving you wanting more tales from this universe.

On a remote island, a mysterious order of Singers is trained to become negotiators and peacemakers. They are uniquely suited to this role due to the skills they have honed as Singers, whose five magical Songs can control emotions, punish wrongdoers and even have the seldom-used power of ‘death’. This is a world of Half Creatures, part human, part animal, like the beautiful merlees with their silver hair and the quetzals, birds with flat faces, beaks and beautiful and possibly magical feathers. The names are initially confusing, but there are not too many, so you soon start remembering them.

Inviting comparison with Harry Potter

To start with, I was afraid this was going to be just one more thinly disguised Harry Potter copycat, set as it is in a magical school, though the magic is not in spells and potions. I was worried it was going to degenerate into a school romance with its irritating description of Frenn’s lopsided grin and his possible rival for Rialle’s affections, the hostile and rebellious Kherron.

I needn’t have worried. Soon our heroine Rialle has other things on her mind as she is taken to the mainland as part of a delegation to reprimand the Karchlord whose men have been illegally capturing merlees, breaking a treaty by which they had agreed never to kill Half Creatures. Again, echoes of Harry Potter with the Mud-bloods, but these not part of the human kingdom of wizards. In fact, they are more like the magical creatures that work together on the side of good such as the unicorns and centaurs in the HP Forbidden Forest or even the basilisk. There is a sense that they can communicate with certain exceptional Singers. Of course, Rialle is one of these people. Even though she is still a novice nearing the end of her training, like Harry Potter, she has an innate skill that she needs to learn to tame.

The comparisons with Harry Potter are soon forgotten, however. Katherine Roberts has imagined an unusual superpower for her elite Singers. Who is the Karchlord and why is he so cruel? There are surprises in store! All is not what it seems. What makes it more intriguing is that the trainee Singers are not yet aware of all their powers and the rebel Kherron is separated from Rialle, Frenn and the delegation. This adds an extra tension as we do not know what to expect from him, especially as there is no time to get to know him at the start of the story, except to set him up as a bully and hothead. Likewise, as the story progresses, the two parties find out different information about society in the Karch (the mainland). This means they are not able to trust each other. Are they allies or enemies? Of course, the reader has an overview of everything, but that still leaves room for surprises.

This isn’t a hardcore fantasy novel, so don’t expect Lord of the Rings. However, even though it the book is suitable for older children/teenagers, it does have enough unpleasantness in it to make it unsuitable for sensitive souls, including some rather terrible cruelty to Half Creatures. I would have liked to know more about the merlees and quetzals. They are well described but they can’t communicate clearly, so we don’t really find out what they’re thinking, though they obviously have deep feelings and loyalties. There are also too many places where one of the main characters is drugged or otherwise unable to report on what is happening, keeping them and us in the dark; very convenient! And there were one or two times where Rialle could have saved herself by using her powers and didn’t, hence getting herself into more difficulties.

A beautiful book

The cover of this book is really beautifully illustrated. The Singers dye their hair blue, so the cover shows our heroine’s face with her blue hair curling like a wave with a ship tossed by a giant wave. What at first appears to be a blue tear is a stone held by a half woman half fish merlee (though she should have silver hair, not blue). The black and white illustrations throughout the book are also beautiful, with a different sketch at the start of each chapter, each with a chapter-related medallion in a Celtic knot-style frame. As a bonus there is a map at the front, a medallion naming the five Song types and another page introducing the names and concepts. What I didn’t realise until I’d nearly finished, is that there is also a glossary at the end, but it wasn’t really necessary. Also unnecessary: the sample pages of the following book in the Echorium Sequence.

The Echorium Sequence

There are two more books in this series:

  • The Crystal Mask (2001)
  • Dark Quetzal (2003)

Tessa de Loo: Meisjes van de suikerwerkfabriek (korte verhalen)

Vermakelijke korte verhalen van Tessa de Loo die later de klassieker De tweeling zou schrijven.

Meisjes van de suikerwerkfabriek
stond zo lang bij mij op de plank dat ik dacht dat ik het nooit zou uitlezen. Ik wou het niet wegdoen want stel dat één van mijn kinderen het voor school nodig had? En De tweeling vond ik toch ook zo mooi?Maar mijn boekenplanken zijn overvol en dit zou waarschijnlijk snel uitgelezen kunnen worden tussen het lezen van een dikke pil en het vertalen van een lange tekst door.

Bovendien ontdekte ik dat het tussen 14 en 21 februari 2020 de Week van het Korte Verhaal was, dat normaal gesproken (sinds 5 jaar) gepaard met de uitreiking van de J.M.A. Biesheuvel Prijs gaat. Helaas niet, dit jaar, want het niveau van de inzendingen was onvoldoende, blijkbaar. Jammer, maar ik moet toegeven dat ik korte verhalenbundels lastig vind om uit te lezen. Ik word vaak afgeleid door iets wat langer en waardiger is of lijkt. Net zoals bij dit boek. Ik ben immers in november 2018 begonnen en lees het pas februari 2020 uit. Niet alles vond ik boeiend en ik merk goed dat Tessa de Loo nog vrij jong was toen ze het schreef want het gaat vooral over tienermeisjes en jongere vrouwen. Toch is het de moeite waard en latere thema’s van haar zijn hier ook gebruikt: feminisme, coming of age, een ontsnappingswens.


Zijn vader ziet het al voor hem: zijn leven als manager van een beroemde zanger en gitaarspeler. Toms muzikale toekomst wordt beperkt door het soort muziek (rock ‘n roll is king), de kosten (een viool is duur), zijn slapend zusje en nog meer. “Ik moet een instrument kiezen, dacht Tom, dat klein is en geen geluid maakt.” Uiteindelijk is een beslissing gemaakt.


De titel is van een grappig liedje van Drs P over vrouwen die bij de Jaminfabriek werkten. De tekst was een beetje dubbelzinnig, over ‘uitpakken en inpikken’; bedoelde hij nou de snoepjes of de meisjes? In Tessa de Loos verhaal zijn het de vrouwen die iets gaan uitpakken. Gezeten in het treincoupé waar ze elke dag heen en weer reizen, praten mollige Cora, verleidelijke Trixie, de breiende Lien en het ik-persoon na over wat ze gedaan hebben. We weten nog niet wat.

* ‘Een van u zal mij voor zonsopgang verraden’, zegt Trixie als grapje. Ik vraag me af of het tegenwoordig nog zo vanzelfsprekend is dat lezers zulke bijbelse teksten als zodanig herkennen. Net zoals ik vast toespelingen op Griekse mythes of joodse tradities mis. Bij de Bijbel en Shakespeare gaat het vaak nog goed, maar ik weet zeker dat mijn kinderen andere referentiepunten hebben uit films (m.n. Harry Potter en Pirates of the Caribbean), televisie (Pokémon, Big Bang Theory) en gaming. Die referenties zijn net zo intelligent en sprekend als eeuwenoude spraken, maar missen de link met de geschiedenis, al zijn de nieuwe vaak op de oude gebaseerd. Voor wie het wil weten is er de geweldige site, maar laten we eerlijk zijn, zelfs de meest geleerd onder ons herkent niet alle mythes, legendes en referentiebronnen. En auteurs kunnen naar iets refereren zonder het zelf te weten; sommige dingen zijn zo diepgeworteld in het cultuur. Bovendien brengen lezers altijd hun eigen achtergrond en leeservaringen mee en creëeren dus een eigen leesbeleving en interpretatie van alles wat ze lezen.

Humor: “Het is geen pretje, dacht ik, om je hele leven met mijn vader op te trekken. Ik ben er nu al doodop van.” Een regel die vast goed ontvangen wordt door elke scholier die dit voor de lijst gaat lezen.

Het lot van vrouwen wordt hier verteld aan de hand van de verschillende vrouwen. Zeurende vaders, ontmaagding zonder liefde, het ondankbare verzorging van een echtgenoot, huiselijk geweld en mannelijke jaloezie zonder reden, mannen die in de gaten gehouden moeten worden zodat ze geen kans krijgen vreemd te gaan… In dit verhaal wreken de vrouwen alle vernederingen die ze zelf meegemaakt hebben. Schokkerend.

“ ‘Trek een man een uniform aan,’ zegt Trix, ‘en hij krijgt meteen capsones.’ Uniformen dat zijn, nog steeds, de Duitsers. In kolonnes optrekkend, met stampende laarzen, de hand gestrekt, liederen dreunend, zo marcheren ze nog in archieffilms, de boeken en geheugens van allen die het gezien hebben.” (p.59)

Muzikale thema
Is muziek een link tussen de verhalen? In Muziekles en Meisjes, komt Elvis er in voor.In Meisjes en Rose komt het gedachte in voor dat ouders kinderen, met name meisjes, kunstmatig jong willen houden.In Muziekles danst Tom voor een oude spiegel “die de spiegelbeelden van generaties van Lisa’s familieleden opgeslorpt had”. In Rose ziet het meisje “In het van ouderdom verweerde glas van de gangspiegel zag ik mezelf langssluipen , voorovergebogen, met opeengeklemde lippen.” Misschien is de spiegel ook een thema? Het wordt ook in het voorbijgaan in Paxos gebruikt, maar dat is misschien toeval.

Opgezochte woorden

Ik weinig al zo lang in Nederland dat ik nauwelijks een woordenboek nodig heb. Maar af en toe kom ik nieuwe woorden tegen of wil er een opmerking erover maken, zoals deze:

bressen – breaches (net als ‘once more unto the breach, dear friends’): “Hoe kunnen er in het warme gevoel van lotsverbondenheid, dat door mij heen stroomt, steeds bressen geslagen worden door de beklemmende gedachte, dat mijn medeplichtigheid daarvan de oorzaak van is?” – How can it be that the warm sense of comradeship streaming through me is continually breached by the oppressive thought that I am equally guilty?

krentenweger – gierig mens, iemand die de regels precies toepast

deerniswekkend – pathetisch

schijtluis – scaredy cat

verflenst – verlept (wilted)

tochtlatten = bakkebaarden


Het meisje heeft voor het bezoek iets onvergeeflijks gezegd.“De jurk gunde me niet dat ik groeide; ik verdacht mijn moeder ervan me kunstmatig kind te willen houden.” Het doet me denken aan Alice in Wonderland. Het meisje snapt aan het eind niet hoe de situatie gered is tussen haar ouders en de baas met vrouw. Misschien heeft haar opmerking de ongemakkelijke samenzijn een vrolijke noot gegeven die er anders niet was geweest; blijkbaar heeft Meneer de Gaai een onverwacht gevoel voor humor. Een groot deel van het verhaal gaat over een verloren kat, maar dit blijft los van het verhaal van de baas.


Over een jong meisje dat van alles meemaakt totdat ze zich ‘s nachts verdwaalt bij het spelen van een verkennersspel en in slaap valt midden in de kamp van een groep padvinders. ‘s Ochtends wordt ze gevonden. “Voor iemand met zulke idiote kwastjes aan zijn kniekousen was ik niet bang.” (p.125)


Op het eilandje Paxos bij Korfoe proberen het verveelde stel Richard en Berber aan de andere toeristen te ontsnappen, zij op haar veel te hoge witte schoenen waarvan ze blaren krijgt. Richard is onuitstaanbaar, Berber te onderdanig. Ik verwachtte dat de mooie Griekse vrouw op de boot een Griekse godin zou zijn die wraak zou nemen, maar helaas.

Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones: book review

If there is an afterlife, what will it be like? Will you know you’re dead? Will you be able to see your grieving family and friends? In ‘The Lovely Bones’ a murdered teenager has arrived there but has to work it all out for herself.

I knew that opinion was divided about this book, so was interested to see why. I have come to the conclusion that the people who feel really strongly about it, are those who have strong feelings about an afterlife. The inbetween world inhabited by Susie doesn’t fit into Christianity’s idea of heaven (or any other religion’s for that matter), and the lack of retribution for the murderer is unpalatable to others.

Many people are put off by the idea that the main character has been brutally murdered, particularly as she was a 14-year-old girl. Personally I’ve never really understood why it is worse for a child to be murdered or to die of a disease than an adult; surely every life is equally precious. The people who love the book seem to do so because ultimately the message is one of hope, and the portrayal of an afterlife which is still able to reach out to the people left behind.

As for my reaction to the book, I was rather disappointed. After reading all the hype on the back cover and the several pages of gushing and enthusiastic reviews at the front of the book, I was expecting something better written. I had the feeling that Alice Sebold had written the ending of the book first, perhaps as a short story, as that seemed more polished than the rest. The rest of the book seemed to have been added later when she decided to make a book of it. I may be wrong, but that was the feeling I got.

The Lovely Bones: the film

While I was reading, I also had a sense of deja vu, as I recognised elements of the films ‘Ghost’ and ‘Sixth Sense’, and as these are amongst my favourite films, you would think that I would be looking forward to watching the film of ‘The Lovely Bones’. I think, however, that I will wait until the film is shown on television, as there are many other good films which I would prefer to go the cinema to see.

Peter Jackson on The Lovely Bones

As a side note, I was listening to the radio a couple of weeks ago, and heard Peter Jackson, the director of the movie, talking about ‘The Lovely Bones’. He said that several people had read it during filming of ‘Lord of the Rings’, and had enjoyed discussing how to film it. He said that they had deliberately not depicted the inbetween world as a specifically Biblical heaven, so that it could be open to interpretation. He sounded genuinely surprised when the interviewer commented that Susie was wearing earrings in the shape of crucifixes in the film!

It was also interesting to hear how they had decided not to show that Susie was raped and dismembered, as they were working with a teenage actress, and as parents of teenagers, did not wish to expose her to this. Ironic, given that Alice Sebold’s first book was an autobiography describing how she had overcome the trauma of being raped whilst at university. So I suspect that the film is an ode to computer graphics, and a Disneyfied version of the book, with the messages of hope, love and forgiveness overcoming evil being laid on with a trowel. If I ever see the film, I’ll let you know!

De wetten van Connie Palmen (1001 boek)

Studente filosofie neemt lessen in mansplaining en wordt zelf gek? Hoe een onschuldig catholiek meisje uit de provincie de kunst van het leven bij mannen zoekt in de hoofdstad en het hoge noorden en uiteindelijk leert zelf de touwen in handen te nemen, maar kan het niet aan? Het debut van Connie Palmen is een en al raadsel voor mij, maar geleidelijk aan begin ik een aantal dingen te begrijpen. Hoe dit feministisch is, bijvoorbeeld. En hoe een deel ervan afgeleid is van het middeleeuws verhaal van Moenen en Mariken.


Ik had moeite met dit boek. Tegen het eind zegt de vertelster het zelf, “Het is te veel, te veel thema’s, te veel motieven, te veel meesters, te veel talen, onaffe verhalen, tegenstrijdigheden, van alles te veel.” (p.174)

Zonder ironie (of wel?) laat ze de hoofdpersoon over de boeken van Thomas Mann zeggen:

“Hij wil volgens mij alleen laten zien dat hij veel boeken gelezen heeft en ook nog in staat is zelf iets te doen met al die filosofieën en theorieën.” (p.56) Pretentieus dus. Het geldt ook voor De wetten.

7 mannen, 7 wijsheden?

De vertelster van De wetten is een studente filosofie in de jaren 80, zoekend naar richtlijnen voor het leven. Behalve erover te lezen trekt ze lessen uit de mensen die ze tegenkomt. Toevallig (of niet) zijn het allemaal mannen, alhoewel ze natuurlijk ook een paar vrouwen tegenkomt. Ieder van de zeven mannen in dit verhaal (en nog een paar die tussendoor genoemd worden) staan voor een verschillende levensfilosofie en wijsheid. Er zijn verschillen in leeftijd (er is maar één die jonger is dan onze hoofdpersoon) maar allemaal hebben ze zwaktes, vaak fysische mankementen. Het verhaal van haar relaties met de mannen wordt een sort raamvertelling.

Op zoek naar de wetten van een gelukkig leven

“Toen ik nog maar weinig boeken gelezen had onthield ik met het grootste gemak de wetten voor iedere vorm van goed gedrag, het correcte optreden, de juiste handelswijze. Zonder wetten wist ik me geen raad. De anderen ook niet, dacht ik nog. De moeilijkheden doken op toen ik meer boeken ging lezen en ontdekte dat er over hetzelfde onderwerp meerdere en ook verschillende wetten bestonden. Ronduit tragisch werd het, toen ik in de gaten kreeg dat de anderen weliswaar wetten in hun hoofd hadden, maar zelden of nooit boeken lazen.” (p.25)

De ik-figuur probeert een eigen filosofie op te bouwen maar verliest zichzelf erin. Zoals ze zei, de astroloog “bracht me altijd op nieuwe ideeën, legde verbanden waar ik zelf niet zo gauw op kwam en haalde al zijn beeldmateriaal bij de goden en godinnen, die ik op mijn beurt weer geschikt vond om ze te verbinden met iets waarin ik mij op dat moment verdiepte. Mythen kun je op geen betere manier leren kennen dan door iemand voor wie ze nog een levend onderdeel vormen van de werkelijkheid.
“Zo kregen langzamerhand ook de mensen waar ik voor langere of kortere tijd mee omging het karakter van een personage in de altijd zo eigenaardige verhalen van de astroloog.” (p.32) Ze maakt dus een eigen mythologie, een eigen sterrenhemel.

I. De astroloog

De astroloog wint vrouwen over door hun sterrenbeeld te raden en, vreemd genoeg vinden ze dat genoeg om zijn onaantrekkelijkheid te overbruggen. Dat trucje heeft hij nodig omdat hij afstotelijk is: “Samen met zijn lichaam kwam ook een compacte geur mijn richting uit, de geur van een stoffig, uitgedroogde kadaver.” (p.12) De astroloog kramt een hoop onzin uit. “Als je Hermes in het huis van het geheim hebt staan en dus in het huis waar je jezelf het meest verbergt en eenzaam bent, zou het kunnen zijn dat je ook je ontdekkingen en je kennis niet direct aan mensen kunt overbrengen. Voor de meeste mensen is het twaalfde huis een akelig huis, maar wat voor de een angstaanjagend is kan voor een schrijver onontbeerlijk zijn.” (p.18)

Filosoferen over het schrijven

De vertelster legt het moeilijk uit. “Je zit stil en schrijft, je schrijft alles naar waarheid op, leest de zinnen over en ontdekt tot je grote ontzetting dat de waarheid geschreven staat alsof het een leugen is, erger dan de leugens van alledag en bovendien nog lelijk ook. Daarom schrijven heel veel mensen, maar worden weinig mensen schrijver.” (pp.19-20) Maar, “Als je zonodig schrijver wilt zijn moet je boeken schrijven, daar komt het op neer.” (p.23)

De astroloog had tekens nodig om zijn leven te leiden, de schrijfster maakt zelf iets zinnigs van wat er op haar pad komt. Ze maakt orde in de chaos.

De astroloog is geobsedeerd met Van Gogh, maar het is een antipathie. Hij gaat graag naar de plekken waar Van Gogh heeft gewoond, daarom Arles. Maar waarom niet Nuenen? Van Gogh heeft zelfs een tijdje in Londen en Ramsgate gewoond. Ik wist niet eens dat hij in Ramsgate gewoond heeft en dat verbaast me; ik ben er zelf geboren en ging daar naar de middelbare school en toch heb ik dit nooit eerder gehoord.

II. De epilepticus

“Openbare gebouwen kunnen aan de buitenkant de geschiedenis vasthouden, als ze in gebruik blijven zal de binnenkant de kleur aannemen van het heden. […] In ieder geval weet iedere eeuw zich weer opnieuw listig te nestelen in de plooien van hun kleren, in de choreografie van hun gebaren, in de klankkleuren van hun woorden en in de dramatiek van hun emoties.” (p.38)

III. De filosoof

In dit hoofdstuk volgt de hoofdfiguur colleges bij de charismatische De Waeterlinck, op aanraden van de epilepticus. In het begin vindt ze hem onweerstaanbaar omdat ze op oudere mannen met een bepaalde uitstraling valt, maar als ze echt dichterbij komt (letterlijk), valt hij haar tegen.

“Ik was verslingerd aan Foucault” (p.81) zegt de vertelster, een woordgrapje over de filosoof Foucault en de slinger van Foucault, van de fysicus Léon Foucault.

“De persoonlijkheid was net zo’n grote mythe als de vrijheid van Mijnheer Sartre en omdat er niets was dat ik meer begeerde dan het hebben van een persoonlijkheid, luchtte het mij erg op op eens te denken dat zoiets misschien helemaal niet bestond en ik mij met andere zaken bezig kon gaan houden.” (p.82)

Onbekende woorden:
inhaligheid – hebzucht (Eng. greed, avarice, maar ik denk hier meer in de zin van ‘selfish’, d.w.z. egoïstisch).
fiducie – vertrouwen

Dit hoofdstuk eindigt met citaten, uiteraard in het Duits, van Kierkegaard en Kafka. Hoe pretentieus!

IV. De priester

Op zijn beurt geeft De Waeterlinck de hoofdpersoon een introductie tot de priester Clemens Brandt, wiens filosofische boeken ze graag leest. Hij blijkt een vervallen priester te zijn, tot haar ontsteltenis. Ze heeft zich voorbereid op een echte priester die niet in haar als vrouw geïnteresseerd is, maar niets is minder waar.

Moenen en Mariken, of een moderne Mariken van Nieumeghen

Ik heb een heel interessant artikel over dit deel van het boek gevonden, waarin gesteld wordt dat Marie hier dienstdoet als Mariken in het middeleeuws mirakelspel van Mariken van Nieumeghen, terwijl de ex-priester de rol van de duivel speelt. In het verhaal noemt de duivel (Moenen) haar Emmeken (Em voor de priester) die net zo lelijk is als Moenen en belooft haar alle talen en de zeven vrije kunsten te leren (grammatica, dialectic/logica, retorica, aritmetica, geometria, musica en astronomia. Nu vraag ik me af of de 7 mannen elk een van de kunsten vertegenwoordigd. Blijkbaar wel volgens dit blogartikel van Sven de Vreese. Dit wordt in minder duidelijke woorden ook verteld op de site van dbnl.

Plagiaat of bewondering voor Cees Nooteboom?

De filosoof De Waeterlinck zegt tegen haar dat “Omdat je Brandt als schrijver bewondert dicht je hem een oorspronkelijkheid toe die je zelf niet bezit. Maar ook zijn boeken zijn weer uitwerkingen van wat een andere schrijver heeft laten liggen.” (p.98) Toen ik begon met mijn review van dit boek was het thema van plagiaat alweer actueel na een artikel in The Guardian over plagiaat plus een strip van Tom Gauld.

Het hoeft natuurlijk geen plagiaat te zijn; het kan ook een eerbetoon zijn. En zo kwam ik na het lezen erachter dat Connie Palmen in het Nederlands afgestudeerd is op een scriptie over het boek In Nederland van Cees Nooteboom. Ze heeft dus bijna 100% zeker veel van Nooteboom gelezen tot dan toe. Philip en de anderen van Nooteboom, zijn debutroman (net als De wetten) heeft ook catholieke, filosofische ideeën. Palmen heeft vast veel van hem overgenoment. Ze gebruiken vergelijkbare thema’s, net zoals Marie Deniet de ideeën van haar mannelijke vrienden absobeert. Zou haar ontmoeting met haar idool (in het boek De priesterfilosoof) op een ontmoeting met haar literair idool Cees Nooteboom gebaseerd kunnen zijn? Mw Palmen geniet ervan om haar boeken met dit soort puzzels en halfwaarheden vol te proppen. Ze noemt haar boeken ‘autobiofictie’. Ze worden ook als sleutelroman (roman à clef) beschreven, een romansoort dat makkelijker te bewerkstelligen is in Nederland waar de uitgeversbranche en schrijverswereld kleiner en hechter (ook venijniger misschien) is dan in grotere taalgebieden.

V. De fysicus

Dit hoofdstuk gaat over de vergelijking tussen de haast middeleeuwse astroloog en de modern ideeën van de fysicus over het heelal, terwijl ze zelf alletwee als kinderen haast hetzelfde meemaakten en samen speelden. Volgens deze man gebruiken fysici “toestellen, waarmee ze proeven deden om te bewijzen dat niets meer met volledige zekerheid te bewijzen valt.” (p.133) Dit hoofdstuk is eigenlijk meer een verklaring van hoe de astroloog zo gericht op signalen van buitenaf geworden is. Hier is Marie degene die actief verleidt; begint ze meer op een man te lijken?

VI. De kunstenaar

Alleen als haar scriptie af is noemt iemand (De Waeterlinck) haar naam voluit: Marie Deniet. “Het enige wat ik nog in het vooruitzicht had was de rituele afsluiting van het uitstel zelf.” (p.154)

“Je leeft in een voortdurend uitstel. Je praat over betekenissen, maar je stelt het geven van betekenis steeds uit. (…) Je verzamelt alleen maar mogelijkheden en al die mogelijkheden die nog gerealiseerd moeten worden, maken je onrustig en ongelukkig. Het wordt er steeds meer, steeds meer dingen en boeken. Ze liggen daar maar te wachten op jou en blijven waardeloos, zolang jij ze niet aanraakt.” (p.171)

Marie is echt verliefd op hem en wil hem redden, maar door te direct zijn problemen te verwoorden, jaagt ze hem weg. Je kunt wel te eerlijk zijn. Bovendien, alles wat ze tegen hem zegt geldt ook voor haarzelf. De kunstenaar is in een impasse geraakt met zijn werk; zij wil hem weer inspireren, maar – net als mannen vaak doen – ze komt met allerlei adviezen. Het wordt haar niet in dank afgenomen. ‘Mansplaining’ avant la lettre, maar dan omgekeerd.

VII. De psychiater

De vader van Daniël die de psychiater van Lucas Asbeek (de kunstenaar) is, wordt ook de psychiater van Marie. Het laatste hoofdstuk van het boek is veel te stream-of-consciousness voor mij. Misschien staat er in dat gedeelte de clou tot het gehele boek, maar ik heb het zelf niet kunnen ontdekken. Ik moet verder op internet gaan zoeken naar andere meningen, maar dat kan nooit de bedoeling zijn geweest; De wetten is voor het internettijdperk geschreven.


Hier heb ik een artikel over de processie in Sint Odilienberg gevonden.

Anoniem – het gebruik en ongebruik van namen

De astroloog heeft in het hoofdstuk over hem geen naam. De ik-persoon ook niet. Hierdoor kan ik niet loskomen van het idee dat ‘ik’ Connie Palmen zelf is. Als de astroloog in Frankrijk verblijft, schrijft hij haar aan als Monsieur Lune. Later blijkt hij Miel Van Eysden te heten. Ik weet niet waarom de fysicus Van met een hoofdletter schreef in zijn brief.

Bij de epilepticus weten we dat hij Daniël Daalmeyer heet, DD op de bel. Hij noemt haar Theresa; ik weet niet waarom. Hij is mooi, superintelligent, maar zij vindt hem niet aantrekkelijk omdat hij te jong is.

De filosoof heeft aanvankelijk alles wat haar wel aantrekt. Hij heeft een aantrekkelijke Vlaams tongval en hij heeft ‘de kop’; hij is haar type en ze valt op oudere mannen. Maar als ze letterlijk dichterbij komt, ziet ze fouten in zijn gezicht en gedrag. Ze kent zijn achternaam omdat Daniël hem aanbeval en vindt later zijn voornaam uit: Guido De Waeterlinck. Eerst wil ze een relatie met hem, maar eindigt toch dichterbij de groep oudere aanhangers, met name Lászlo Kovács. Ze leert ook de namen van de anderen: Aäron Mendes da Costa, Katharina Riwalski (rode haren) en de Duitse Ilda Müller. Lászlo distantieert zichzelf van haar door haar aan te spreken als ‘Scervusc kislany’, zoiets als ‘aardig meisje’, en noemt zichzelf ‘de bolond’, ‘oude dwaas’.

Ze wordt aan de priester voorgesteld door De Waeterlinck die als begeleider voor haar scriptie fungeert. Het is een schrijver die ze erg bewondert: Clemens Brandt, maar ze ontdekt net voor de ontmoeting dat hij ook priester is geweest. In zijn briefaanhef ontdekken we dat zij M. Deniet heet en bij hun ontmoeting noemt hij haar Em. Hij refereert aan ‘het stuk van mejuffrouw Em’ omdat zij nooit haar naam voluit geschreven heeft. En later noemt hij haar Emmeke, een verwijzing naar het verhaal van Moenen en Mariken.

“Psychologisch gezien is het een vreemd iets, een naamsverandering. Ik ben gedoopt als Petrus Hendrikus en werd thuis Piet genoemd. Als jezuïet heb ik ten slotte de naam Clemens aangenomen. Ik had zelf voor Gabriël geopteerd, maar die naam was al vergeven.” (p.100) Het is dan vreemd dat hij haar vraagt een andere naam te accepteren. Hij is lelijk en misvormd maar heeft een mooie stem waar ze wel op valt.

De fysicus kent Marie al uit de verhalen van de astroloog, maar alleen als monsieur Lune. Hij heet Hugo Morland met een vrouw Sybille die ook fysicus is; het stel heeft daardoor de bijnaam ‘de Curies’.

De kunstenaar, Lucas Asbeek “Hij heeft het gezicht in de meest volmaakte vorm.” “Een goed kunstwerk is een kunstwerk dat de waarheid raakt en de waarheid kun je nooit op de conto van een persoon zetten, daar hangt geen naamkaartje aan. Volgens Lucas Asbeek zou alle kunst net zo anoniem als de waarheid moeten zijn.” (p.149)

Connie Palmen legt dit advies dus ook naast zich neer omdat ze zo vaak sleutelromans en ‘autobiofictie’ schrijft.

In een artikel uit Vrij Nederland vertelt Connie Palmen veel over haar ideeën over schrijven, inclusief een stuk over De wetten. Deze citaat over literaire genres vond ik erg interessant:

“Wat ze in de literatuur en in de wetenschap een genre noemen, dat is eigenlijk het geslacht van een tekst. Ze schrijven daarmee voor hoe een tekst zich moet gedragen, alsof ze een lot en een lichaam zou hebben en zou moeten gehoorzamen aan onveranderlijke natuurwetten. Dat hoeft ze niet.

Genres kun je veranderen door eens andere teksten te schrijven. En om die mogelijkheid gaat het mij.”

Mijn gevoelens over De wetten

Persoonlijk vond ik De wetten een ingewikkeld boek. Er zitten niet zoveel kronkels in de taal, maar Connie Palmen gaat langdradig vertellen over de verschillende mannen en ik vroeg me steeds af, waar gaat dit over? Ik heb nooit filosofie gestudeerd (niet aan mij besteed) en denk steeds, mis ik hier iets? Speelt elke man de rol van een bepaalde filosofische stroming? Ze heeft een socratische dialoog met de kunstenaar, geloof ik, maar verder kom ik niet.

Het is het soort boek waar ik de neiging heb de reviews van anderen te lezen terwijl ik nog aan het lezen ben, en dat is nooit een goede teken. Zo heb ik iets opgepikt dat het hoofdstuk met de priester, Clemens Brandt, een toespeling is op Mariken van Nijmegen, maar ik ken het verhaal niet goed genoeg om dat er zelf uit te halen. Kortom, het is alsof Connie Palmen aan het opscheppen is over hoeveel ze van Filosofie en Literatuur weet juist om me dom te laten voelen. En ik ‘moest’ het (van mezelf) uitlezen omdat het op de 1001 boekenlijst staat en ik wil begrijpen waarom het daar staat, maar ik denk dat ik er toch niet achtergekomen bent. Misschien is het in de lijst puur en simpel omdat het uit een bepaalde tijd komt, met een vrouwelijke auteur, het is niet al te lang en ook nog (geloof ik) in het Engels beschikbaar.

Misschien kan deze review in het Engels mijn vragen beantwoorden.