Beginnings and Endings in January 2021

January”s theme: beginnings and endings. Two books from the 1001 Books list (Middlemarch by George Eliot and The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis). Light relief: The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy and some long-neglected books (What Happened at Hazelwood, a whodunnit by Michael Innes plus a memoir of grief by Simone de Beauvoir).

In January I ended up reading two books from the 1001 Books list (Middlemarch by George Eliot and The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis), finishing a couple of books which have been on my shelf since I started going to BookCrossing meetings (What Happened at Hazelwood, a whodunnit by Michael Innes and a memoir of grief by Simone de Beauvoir). I finally finished reading Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming and read a lovely story about building a community using the power of libraries and books, The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy, borrowed from my local library before lockdown back in August last year and automatically renewed, given the libraries haven’t been reopened since (until last week, 19 May 2021!).

Every month I tell myself I’m going to write an overview of what I intended to read and what I actually read, but somehow I never do. So I’m going to try to rectify that. If nothing else, it will give me an easy to way to link through to my short reviews on Goodreads and to longer reviews on my blog if I finally get round to writing them. This time round, I’m going to post relatively brief reviews for each book in this blog post. The BookCrossing Ultimate Challenge theme for January was Beginnings and Endings, so I tried to read some books related to that, however tenuous some of the links are; death is a pretty final ending to a relationship and the edge of Europe is another ending. Other books date back to the very beginning of Mount TBR and The Old Devils must be one of the first books I bought as an adult.

What I read in January 2021

What Happened at Hazelwood by Michael Innes

Unfocused distractability with everyone milling about after Christmas made me idly pick this up, then got stuck with it when one of the cats sat on me, so decided to continue reading and I’m glad I did. Mind boggling! This somewhat humorous country house crime novel kept me guessing until the end. It was a cross between Wodehouse, Christie and good old British farce, with people climbing up and down trellises, posing as other characters, dressing up, making hoax phone calls and generally causing confusion and provoking moral outrage.

Once I started reading, I was surprised that the author and book weren’t better known, but it appears that he was more known for his Appleby series of crime novels. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the fact that this story has particularly non-PC aspects. The brothers George and Denzell Simney had been on youthful ‘blackbirding’ raids round the Pacific islands, i.e. they had been involved in small-scale slave-trading, though I’m not entirely sure where this was supposed to have taken place and exactly what it involved. As a result, they were on the run from the Australian authorities, but seemingly more so because one of them had shot at an anthropologist, rather than for the slaving raids themselves. Though this was used as one of the many examples of their appalling behaviour, there isn’t much moral outrage about these exploits. As for the language, not only is there the ‘blackbirding’ itself, but ‘the N word’ is also used. What is more, Mervyn is described as an effete mummy’s boy, Willoughby has aspersions cast upon his manliness because he is an artist and another character has had extensive psychotherapy to cure him of his aversion to marrying his beautiful fiancée Nicolette, a woman every other male character finds totally irresistible. This is definitely not a novel that translates well into 21st century sensibilities. The story, however, does stand the test of time and could be filmed as an entertaining period piece, bar the racism and homophobia.

Oddly enough, I discovered that I had two copies of this obscure whodunnit and, bizarrely, the title is spelled incorrectly on the cover of one of them, even though it is correct inside the book itself! One of them names the country house as Hazlewood on the cover instead of Hazelwood. I have to admit, the more I saw the word, the more I began to doubt my sanity, even though checking that sort of thing is part of my job.

The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

A delightful story of a rather stuffy traditional librarian in rural Ireland who is gradually persuaded to become involved in a campaign which could revitalise the local community and the local area in a grassroots initiative, taking back control from centralised bureaucracy and vested interests. Just the thing for a dull January weekend. First in a series, apparently. I borrowed it from my local library, very happy to find a book in English that wasn’t a thriller or romance.

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

It’s safe to say the film version of Diamonds are Forever is more exciting and the dialogue is far more witty than the book. I started reading this for the 1956 Club and wrote a review back then, but I actually finished reading in the New Year.

Middlemarch by George Eliot (1001 book)

I have mixed feelings about this book. Some of it was extremely difficult or confusing to read, yet other sections I flew through. On the whole I enjoyed it, but it was extremely long, with a few chapters which seemed there only to slow down the plot. There was a stage at which I felt sure that Lydgate would have been perfectly justified in snapping and strangling the spoilt, self-centred Rosamond with her self-destructive obstinacy and underhand ways; it could have easily turned into the explanation of a murder, especially if it had started with a beautiful woman’s body. What possessed her husband to commit the crime…? That wasn’t this book, though.

Alternative title: Will and Willfulness? If Jane Austen hadn’t already laid claim to the title, this book might just as well have been titled Pride and Prejudice. So many of the characters assume something about other people because of their background or gossip. Yet more are too proud to actually express what they feel about somebody; Ladislaw and Dorothea being prime examples. There are also numerous occasions where straight talking would have made things a lot easier, not the least between Lydgate and Rosamond, but also Dorothea and Ladislow. Misunderstandings are rife as people talk in coded terms, disguising offers of loans in ambiguous terms (Farebrother), being too modest or high-principled to declare one’s feelings (Dorothea, Farebrother). Straight talking would also have cleared up Dorothea and Casaubon’s relationship. Without all those ‘delicate feelings’ and pre-empting other people’s feelings, much of the gossip would have been quashed. Pride is considered a sin, so why is everyone so concerned to do things their own way, without help; Ladislaw and Lydgate are both victims of their own pride.

It was extremely frustrating that there was such a large number of people who were overly keen to sacrifice their own happiness to avoid anybody else being inconvenienced. Or to insist that they could only prove their worth by making their own way in the world (Ladislaw and Lydgate). So much pride!

Een zachte dood/Une mort très douce (A gentle death) by Simone de Beauvoir

My first Simone de Beauvoir, read in Dutch, and I’m disappointed. I really know nothing about her or her views and this book is definitely not the book to read to find out more. I also wonder why she wrote it. Was it to shock people by breaking the taboo of speaking about dying unpleasantly in general and cancer in particular? Because I suppose it is a relatively recent thing to talk and write about cancer other than in hushed tones. I’d worry about people affected by cancer reading this now and assuming that’s what it’s like, because treatments have progressed immeasurably and become more bearable since 1979, though not all suffering can be eliminated. Would someone read this and decide they didn’t want any treatment? I have heard of someone who said she wouldn’t want to go through the chemotherapy her mother did, but that was 40 years ago and things have (supposedly) progressed. That’s the danger of reading something so dated.

The thing that stands out above all others is the guilt that both daughters feel about lying to their mother about what was happening to her. Nowadays a patient with cancer is told exactly what is wrong with them and told what the side effects of their treatment will be. It is entirely their own choice if they go through with it. And in this case, the mother had little choice because her suffering was due to a wound failing to heal and bed rest due to a broken hip resulting in horrendous bedsores; her suffering was less to do with the cancer itself. Having said which, she didn’t give permission for that operation. She was tricked, then not told what it was for. A surgeon would probably be struck off for that now!

Perhaps what was most unexpected was the lack of depth to the author’s ideas about death and dying; I’d expected more. I was also disappointed by the style of writing. This may have been the translation, which I can only describe as pedestrian. Having read some reviews with quotations from the English translation, it seems more fluid and literary, which is what I had expected. And I did also occasionally wonder what the original French had been because it felt like a phrase had been translated as individual words which didn’t convey the same meaning. Of course, I have no way of checking this, but it was interesting that on the evening I finished reading this, I happened to watch a BBC Storyville documentary about the fire at the Notre Dame, French interviews, subtitled in English. I noticed they translated ‘soulagé’ as ‘relieved’. This was a word I had reverse looked up earlier to find a possible original of something that had felt ‘off’. Suffice it to say it hadn’t been translated as ‘relieved’, which fitted the context better.

To sum up, a disappointing read that has been taking up room on my shelf for far too long with far too little reason.

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (1001 book)

Having recently finished the nearly 900-page 19th-century smalltown novel of relationships and social commentary, Middlemarch, The Old Devils didn’t seem like such a struggle any more. Another small town, more convoluted relationships. This has been on my bookshelves for about 30 years. I started it once or twice, but didn’t get far. This was its last chance and only because it is on the 1001 list and I have read one other book by Kingsley Amis which I thoroughly enjoyed, many years ago. No, not that one; I’ve never come across Lucky Jim. The one I read was the infinitely shorter alternate history of The Alteration, read so long ago, all I can remember is that it is about a chorister who is about to become a castrato.

From what I’ve picked up in passing, Amis was considered misogynistic, racist and was an alcoholic and serial adulterer, though a great wit and charming with it. If so, he used it all to good advantage in this, one of his later novels. Not so much the humour, though there is some slapstick in descriptions of the problems of becoming old, overweight and inebriated, some of which is lavatorial. Why do so many British male authors feel the need to revert to 13-year-old level? Like Middlemarch, it feels at first like there are many characters, paired off in mostly unfulfilling marriages, but I kept a cheat sheet and they soon became (mostly) distinct from each other.

On the surface, these middle class retirees have nothing much to offer us. Many pages are spent describing how they are wasting the remainder of their lives, the men at the pub, the women meeting up what seems like every day sloshing back the wine at each other’s houses. Every day is another chance to talk about what’s wrong with the modern world, husbands/wives and each other. Life is boring and stagnant. All changes when old friends return from London where Alun has led the life of a celebrity spokesman for Wales and supposed expert on Dylan Thomas’s fictionalised clone, Brydan. Ironically, the media’s current Welsh representative of choice includes Rob Brydon, though this book predates his rise to fame by many decades. Alun and his attractive wife Rhiannon throw a cat among the pigeons because Alun is a serial adulterer who intends to revisit all his previous conquests and wastes no time in doing so. Rhiannon also has a romantic past with at least two of the other men, but her role is to put up with her husband’s exploits; they still seem to have a connection. She puts up with him because he always returns to her; a very long-suffering woman!

Many reviewers complain that Amis doesn’t fully flesh out his female characters. Indeed, I noticed that he tends to tell their stories in dialogue and descriptions, whereas we get to hear the men’s own thoughts and feelings. Nevertheless, the women do play a strong role in this book. Sophie is a shoulder to cry on, the listener of the group and strongly supports her husband Charlie who has nightmares and is scared of the dark. It was another reviewer who mentioned this was probably a result of his alcoholism. Some of these people are terrible people, notably Alun, but also the awful jolly hockeysticks Englishwoman Muriel who verbally tortures husband Peter and drops a bombshell on him on their son’s wedding day, thus ruining the ceremony for him.

In spite of all the ancient history between these couples, Alun’s ability to sweep all the women off their feet just doesn’t ring true. Teenagers and university students in friend groups do tend to exchange partners, but this doesn’t mean the same feelings remain forever, nor do aged libidos miraculously recover once an old flame turns up. Maybe this was the ultimate fantasy for a pre-Viagra generation of men, confronted with the pre-HRT-health-scare generation of women. Nevertheless, I ended up enjoying The Old Devils, however staid their devilry was. The final chapters were poignant, with satisfactory endings for several of the characters and a comeuppance for one that was undoubtedly deserved.

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.

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.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin: book review

James Baldwin’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers in New York, a tale of the dreadful consequences of racism and the impact of imprisonment on the prisoner’s loved ones.

I believe Black Lives Matter and racism should be a thing of the past, so I want to read and review more books written by Black, Asian and other ethnicities. James Baldwin was a Black, gay man, part of the Harlem Renaissance, who wrote this tale of racism and police prejudice and injustice in 1974. Sadly, little seems to have changed.

How do you decide which books to take on holiday? One of my usual strategies is to take as many as possible in case there are any I don’t like; how awful it would be to be stuck in the middle of nowhere without a good book to read. And to give me the greatest number of options, I usually take as many thin books as I can. And that is how a couple of years ago I came to be reading If Beale Street Could Talk by torchlight, in a freezing cold tent, high in the mountains of Switzerland. Further from the overheated setting of the book in New York would not be possible.

Virtue signalling

This is a tale infused with the injustice of racism and poverty in the New York of the 1960s and 1970s, when equality was theoretically possible, but racism kept rearing its ugly head. In this book, James Baldwin uses some of his characters as mouthpieces for angry rants about injustice. Tish is ‘lucky’ to be taken on as a perfume saleswoman in a department store, almost as a favour, so the owners could show they weren’t racist. Nowadays there’s a term for that: virtue signalling. It’s rather interesting that so many of the characters are actually in work, in spite of prejudice, but this period was a boom time. Nevertheless, there’s always an undercurrent of violence, of people hooked on drugs or alcohol.

The main story in this short novel is about Tish and Fonny, childhood sweethearts. Tish is the narrator and mentions that others tease them about being like Romeo and Juliet, thinking that is the ultimate in romance, forgetting the implication that their ultimate fate is tragic. The book starts with a dramatic event: Tish telling Fonny that she is expecting their child, the problem being that he is in prison. At first we don’t know why, but the events leading up to Fonny’s arrest gradually unfold.

“Being in trouble can have a funny effect on the mind. I don’t know if I can explain this. You go through some days and you seem to be hearing people and you seem to be talking to them and you seem to be doing your work, or, at least, your work gets done; but you haven’t seen or heard a soul and if someone had asked you what you have done that day you’d have to think a while before you could answer. But, at the same time, and even on the self-same day – and this is what’s hard to explain – you see people like you never saw them before. They shine as bright as a razor.” (p.12)

Standing up and being counted

Talking about the first time Fonny and Tish make love, after feeling they belonged together since childhood, she says, “We had not seen it coming. Abruptly, it was there: and then we knew that it had always been there, waiting. We had not seen the moment. But the moment had seen us, from a long ways off – sat there, waiting for us – utterly free, the moment, playing cards, hurling thunderbolts, cracking spines, tremendously waiting for us, dawdling home from school, to keep our appointment.” (p.40)

After giving up her job, Tish can always visit Fonny in jail, emphasising the importance of just showing up, of moral support, of being there for somebody:

“It is very strange , and I now begin to learn a very strange thing. My presence, which is of no practical value whatever, which can even be considered, from a practical point of view, as a betrayal, is vastly more important than any practical thing I might be doing. Every day, when he sees my face, he knows, again, that I love him.” (p.113)

The racist policeman, the bluest eye

Describing the policeman, Bell, who has it in for Fonny, Tish comments, “If you look steadily into that unblinking blue, into that pinpoint at the centre of the eye, you discover a bottomless cruelty, a viciousness cold and icy. In that eye, you do not exist if you are lucky. If that eye, from its height, has been forced to notice you, if you do exist in the unbelievably frozen winter which lives behind that eye, you are marked, marked, marked, like a man in a black overcoat, crawling, fleeing, across the snow. The eye resents your presence in the landscape, cluttering up the view, the black overcoat will be still, turning red with blood, and the snow will be red, and the eye resents this, too, blinks once, and causes more snow to fall, covering it all.” (pp.119-120) Black incarceration

This book is still relevant today, not only in light of George Floyd and others who died in the aftermath of his murder, but also with respect to the unjustly high numbers of Black inmates in American prisons and the impact this has on society. I recently watched the documentary 13th on Netflix, highlighting how Black society is disproportionately affected by this and how successive government measures have exacerbated it and convinced the public that it is somehow justified. It isn’t. Baldwin addresses this in If Beale Street Could Talk as we see the terrible effects of Fonny’s imprisonment on the rest of the family. This is not just the story of ‘two star-crossed lovers’. It involves the entire family of both Fonny and Tish as they all try to clear his name, get the charges dropped, discredit the racist policeman and do whatever it takes to raise the money to pay the lawyer. Desperate measures with dire consequences.

This was a great read. I highly recommend it and hope I will soon be able to watch Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk film, released in 2018.

Adapted from my original post in January 2019.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene – thoughts and quotations

Set in Mexico, often considered Graham Greene’s best book, The Power and the Glory is oppressive and beautifully written.

Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory is a feverish tale of fear and abandonment read in the feverish throes of bronchitis and influenza (or, less dramatically, just a cold and cough), alternating between consciousness and oblivion, with the logic of day and night losing all semblance of reality. At least I wasn’t being attacked by beetles.

Unlike the priest in this short novel, who is travelling incognito, denying adamantly that he is a priest because under the Mexican regime of the time, the Catholic Church is banned. As the novel progresses, we realise that he is deeply flawed, trapped in his role of priest, when he could have given in and married, like many other priests. However he isn’t so much brave as unable to escape. In one village that begs him to perform a mass, he repeatedly refuses, denying he is a priest, hence echoing Peter’s denial of Jesus. Harking back to this story, on p.100, “a cock crew”, which rather surprised me because in every version of the Bible I have read it says “the cock crowed three times.”

The setting for the book is both dismal, with abject poverty, an oppressive regime and various scenes set in unlit rooms. The whole feeling is oppressive.

In spite of this, it was a fascinating tale which draws you in. The priest has done enough illegal or immoral things to make us alternately sympathetic and repulsed. The action and the pursuit of the priest by the lieutenant keeps the plot moving along. There are moments of humour, moments of pathos, moments of horror.

At one point the priest is captured, but he has changed since the photo on the wall that the soldiers are using to identify him was taken, but it is not only his appearance that has changed, it is his whole outlook. Back in the past, “Then, in his innocence, he had felt no love for anyone; now in his corruption he had learnt . . .” (p.139)

I hadn’t really expected to enjoy this book and yet I did, mostly because of the language, which was beautiful. I’m not sure why that was my feeling going in. I’ve read and enjoyed two Graham Greene books in the past: ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Brighton Rock’, but with those it was very much the plot that kept me interested rather than the prose. I’ve written out a number of quotations below and commented briefly on some.

Final verdict: I need to read more Graham Greene!

Quotations and imagery

Dedication: To Gervase
Gervase Mathew OP (d.1976) was an English Dominican friar who lived for many years at Blackfriars, Oxford. He was a member of the famous ‘Inklings’, a group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Th’ inclosure narrow’d; the sagacious power
Of hounds and death drew nearer every hour.

A phrase repeated: Ora pro nobis – pray for us

I loved these images of a pile of postcards, of memories and the future:

Home lay like a picture postcard on a pile of other postcards: shuffle the pack and you had Nottingham, a Metroland birthplace, an interlude in Southend. Mr Tench’s father had been a dentist too – his first memory was finding a discarded case in a wastepaper basket – the rough toothless gaping mouth of clay , like something dug up in Dorset – Neanderthal or Pithecanthropus. It had been his favourite toy: they tried to tempt him with Meccano, but fate had struck. There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in. The hot wet river-port and the vultures lay in the wastepaper basket, and he picked them out. We should be thankful we cannot see the horrors and degradations lying around our childhood, in cupboards and bookshelves, everywhere.” (pp.11 – 12)

What a fabulous piece of writing! The image of shuffling through a pile of postcards, then the fossilised remnant from the wastepaper basket and the humour of the parents trying to tempt a child with Meccano. Then the impact of the philosophical line about a door opening, followed by the humour about the damage our childhood can create. Marvellous!

“The glittering worlds lay there in space like a promise – the world was not the universe. Somewhere Christ might not have died. He could not believe that to a watcher there this world could shine with such brilliance: it would roll heavily in space under its fog like a burning and abandoned ship. The whole globe was blanketed with his own sin.” (p.29)

Beautiful, though the concept of being blanketed in sin is not particularly pleasant.

“He remembered Holy Week in the old days when a stuffed Judas was hanged from the belfry and boys made a clatter with tins and rattled as he swung out over the door.” (p.91) This reminds me of a similar practice in the Netherlands during Carnaval when a figure called Woeziks Jupke is burned at midnight on Shrove Tuesday to mark the end of Carnaval and the start of Lent –

An odd stillness dropped over the forest, and welled up in the mist from the ground. The night had been noisy, but now all was quiet. It was like an armistice with the guns silent on either side: you could imagine the whole world listening to what they had never heard before – peace.

A voice said ‘You are the priest, aren’t you?’

‘Yes.’ It was as if they had climbed out of their opposing trenches and met to fraternize among the wires in No Man’s Land. He remembered stories of the European war – how during the last years men had sometimes met on an impulse between the lines. (pp.100-101)

“It was odd – This fury to deface, because, of course, you could never deface enough. If God had been like a toad, you could have rid the globe of toads, but when God was like yourself, it was no good being content with stone figures – you had to kill yourself among the graves.” (p.102)

The poem the priest reads in Coral’s abandoned book is The Brook by Tennyson

Background reading:

  • A lecture given by Marisha Pessl, author of Special Topics in Calamity Physics (as yet unread by me):
  • Contemporaries of each other, the two Catholic writers, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, were divided by one religion. Greene later seemed to see the list of Catholic sins as a challenge, whereas Waugh was a family man and saw the restrictions imposed on him as helpful boundaries, not to be crossed. This is discussed in this Guardian article:
  • An interesting article on the book:
  • The book was filmed as The Fugitive in 1947, starring Henry Fonda as the Priest. A version for US TV and later released to cinemas elsewhere was also made in 1961 starring Laurence Olivier, of all people!