Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Novel in the Viola ~ by Natasha Solomons

When my Kindle announced that I was 97% through this novel, I dreaded the last 3% so much, that I had to go for a little walk to postpone the pleasure.  'The Novel in the Viola' by Natasha Solomon' is such a delightful book, that I hated finishing it.  By the time I had clicked the 'next page button' for the last time, I had already decided that I would give the book to everyone I know this Christmas.  And it will make the perfect gift too, encompassing love lost and love found; an old house and a brooding hero; a secret, and an attic.  What's not to like?

Perhaps it is because so much of this story is inspired by real events; the forced eviction of Jews from Austria prior to World War Two; the separation of families; the uncertainty about those left behind etc., which makes this such a compelling read.  Natasha Solomons' author's note tells us that the story was inspired by her great-aunt Gabi Landau, who fled anti-semitism in Europe to work as a 'mother's help', in England.  Either way, the story of Elise Landau, the novel's narrator, has us captivated from the very start.

Like that other, more famous, yet equally put-upon female narrator, Jane Eyre, Elise has to repress her vivacity and true inner-spirit to fit in.  Where Jane cries out in the gardens at Thornfield Hall, Elsie shouts into the sea, against the injustice she and her family have experienced.  Yet here, it is not mad Bertha who sleeps in the tower of the big house, but Elise herself, alone in the garret, doomed to the monotony of a servants life, where her poor knowledge of the English language ensures her silence in a way that even Jane did not experience.

And the similarities with 'Jane Eyre' do not stop there.  For a start, the tall, brooding owner of the large estate of Tyneford is called Mr Rivers, the very same name as Mr Rochester's rival and Jane's cousin, StJohn.  Both Mr Rivers and Mr Rochester have past loves and are men of the world, in stark contrast to the innocent Elise and Jane.  The houses of both novels play a huge roll in their respective stories, not merely by providing the setting, but by giving for the heroines a safe place in a time of danger, a place where they blossom and which they come to call home.  The houses suffer similar mis-haps and both Mr Rivers and Mr Rochester risk their lives for others, revealing themselves to be true heroes in their different ways.

In 'Jane Eyre', our heroine has moments of telepathic imaginings, where she visualises what is happening many miles away, as when she hears Rochester's voice call to her on the wind.  In 'The Novel in the Viola', Elsie uses her imagination to visualise her parents, her aunts and sister, chat and sing, like they used to do before Hitler made the world go dark.  This ingenious ploy allows the author to peek into different worlds that are beyond the scope of the first person narrator, and without having to always rely on letters to fill in the gaps.

Jane and Elsie are alike in other ways too.  Both take great enjoyment in finding freedom out in the natural world, each confined in their own way, one by the strict social codes of Victorian England, the other by tight controls over alien non-nationals in wartime.  At times, it feels like Elise is living in a different century as she walks through Tyneford House, surrounded by the ancient panelling and portraits, in the dark of the blackout, lit only by soft candlelight.  On the estate too she and Mr Rivers could be characters out of a Hardy novel, working side by side on the land, bringing in the crops by hand, fuel rationing putting pay to any mechanical assistance, sharing a picnic on an obliging soft mossy bank.  It would seem idyllic but for the duelling aeroplanes battling overhead.

Yet, there is something more, however arbitrary, which links 'Jane Eyre' and 'The Novel in the Viola',  and that is their glorious depiction of the English landscape: the sumptuous sunsets; the luminous array of flowers and the glory of dappled light pouring through the trees.  Yet, here is where Solomons departs from Bronte, the former making an art of it, providing the hungry reader with page upon page of sensual description. Sometimes Solomons verges on the edge of poetry, waxing lyrical about the sea and sky, fields and hills.  Reminiscent of the old fisherman covered  in sequin-like fish scales in Elizabeth's poem 'At The Fishhouses' she writes:
'An old man, his hair as white as dandelion feathers, sat on a lobster pot mending a piece of netting with a rusted knife.'
What a wonderful description of his hair, so vulnerable yet magical too.

There is something of the painter here too, each page replete with descriptive similes and metaphors.  Once, when Elise is in fear for her life, she imagines that she is being chased not by a German, but by 'Black dogs with white teeth and wide red jaws. They weren’t dogs but wolves escaped from my old fairy tale book.'  It is no co-incidence that the red, black and white colours described here are also those of the infamous Nazi flag.  Her narrative is so visual, in fact, that I feel as if I have walked through the vast county estate, opening up the seventeen gates as I pass along, have felt the wind cut at my cheeks and have tasted salt from the sea on my lips.

And so this is what I wish for my family and friends this Christmas,when too much food and drink have been taken: a brisk walk in the fresh air of the English countryside close to dark, at a time when life seemed more simple, but in truth, was heartbreakingly complicated; sad but utterly, utterly beautiful.

P.S.  'The Novel in the Viola' is also published as 'The House at Tyneford'  in some territories.

Friday, 26 October 2012

The Dinner ~ by Herman Koch

One might be forgiven for thinking that this book is merely about food and dining out.  While Dutch author, Herman Koch's novel, 'The Dinner', does spend a lot of time considering those arts, the book is primarily about families; what keeps them together and what rips them apart.  The title refers to a seemingly innocuous meal in a restaurant attended by two brothers, Paul and Serge Lohman and their respective wives, Clare and Babette.  However, as the plot unravels, we discover that they are meeting to discuss a problem with their sons.  The teenage cousins have broken the law and bit by bit the true horror of their behaviour is revealed to the reader.  Yet, the really disturbing thing is how the parents react to their sons' behaviour; how they cover up for the boys and defend their actions.

As such, this is a book about deception.  Almost every character, we discover, is not as we expected them to be.  It is most unsettling for the reader, but deeply compelling.  We dread what may be coming, but we cannot help but be enthralled.  After all, the situation is something we can all relate to: family loyalty.

Kock seems to be considering how we can never really know someone, even those with  whom we have the closest bonds.  Even the narrator, Paul, is questionable.  We think we can trust him, but even he is capable of shocking the reader with his opinions and behaviour.  It is unsettling, and is meant to be.  It emphasises the author's fascination with trust and supports his idea that you can never be certain about other people; everyone is capable of deception.

The novel begins with the mundane details involved when going out to dinner.  Paul helps his wife choose what to wear, is careful to order the right food from the menu and not to arrive too early.  Just when we think it was a bad decision to start reading the book, the truth behind the meal comes to light.  It is tantalising.   From there, the plot continues to get more and more involved, until you feel as much a part of the story as the parents who face the extraordinary dilemma before them.
Koch is also contemplating how blood is thicker than water.  This idea is most apparent when we consider the character of adopted boy Beau, whose position in the hierarchy of the family is different from blood relatives.  Although the adopted parents claim to love this African boy every bit as much as their own children, when push comes to shove, in an extreme situation, wouldn't the security of their birth child take precedence over the adopted child?

This is just one of the many questions prompted by this book.  In a way, the novel is actually about society and takes a probing look at the justice system, our morals and social bias.  Vagrants, sufferers of mental illness, paedophiles, cancer patients, politicians, mothers, fathers and sons all come under the microscope of this writer.  Is one life more valuable than another?  Isn't it the duty of a parent to protect their child?  Where should a parents duty lie when to do the right thing means relinquishing one's duty to one's child?  As the author takes the characters through these questions, the reader is forced to put themselves in the shoes of the offenders and their parents and made to consider:  what would I do in such a situation.

There is also the question of genetics and how children inherit so much from their parents.  Koch makes you wonder; if we could predict that our children would be born with a tendency to break the law, would we choose to terminate them in advance?  We are also forced to recognise that the behaviour of children is often directly related to the manner in which they were brought up and the example that their parents showed them.  Here we can see a direct correlation between Paul's violent tendency and his son's.

Time and time again Paul showed his son bad example, how people could be physically threatened  into submission.  As always, the parents are to blame, not only because they neglected to teach their children  right from wrong, but that they were genetically poorly programmed from conception.  This nature-nurture debate is at that heart of sociology and Koch cleverly forces us to consider these huge themes while keeping us on the edge of our seats.

Of course, I got it wrong.  This is not a simple book about a meal in a restaurant, but a book about society and the limits of decent behaviour when faced with the destruction of familial happiness and security.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

A Man Could Stand Up - by Ford Madox Ford (Parade's End Book 3)

This novel, the third in the Parade's End series, begins and ends on Armistice Day.  The rest of the book follows Valentine as she considers whether or not she should become Christopher's mistress, and Tietjens' experience of life at the Front. There, his mind jumps back and forth, dealing with the past and imagining a future with Valentine.  He becomes Officer in Command of a fine regiment of 'pals' and proves himself to be a capable leader of the men.  He worries that he is like Hamlet, unable to make a decision regarding Valentine, but ultimately he takes a stand.

This brings me to the title of the book - 'A Man Could Stand Up' which, as a metaphor for Teitjens' situation,works cleverly on many different levels.  Firstly and foremost it refers to the idea of an Englishman standing on a hill back home, enjoying the view.  Once, Christopher was such a man.  However, in the trenches, the last thing a soldier can possibly do is stand up on a hill; it would mean certain death.  As such, the image becomes a symbol of unattainable dreams, something forbidden.  Christopher longs to climb atop the trench and take in the view, just as he longs for a life with Valentine.  It later reflects the idea of being brave, of taking a stand against those who rob you of your reputation, rightful glory and inheritance.  It seems that all of Christopher's old friends have set out to steal either some or all of these things from him.  Sylvia, McMaster and General Champion, have combined together to undermine Tietjen's position, until he is virtually buried alive under their accusations and fabrications.  Christopher finally says:
 '  "You want to stand up! Take a look round..." He struggled for expression: "Like as if you wanted to breathe deep after bein' in a stoopin' posture for a long time!" .'
He has been maligned and taken advantage of for too long.  It is time for him to put himself first.  Indeed, this realisation comes in a literal blast of realisation when he is blown up in the trench and half buried alive with a fellow soldier.  He tells his hollering comrade that he cannot come to his aid until he has helped himself first.  It is time for him to walk on that hill, like he did that morning with Valentine, to show the world that 'a man could stand up'.

Through the character of Christopher, the author makes numerous observations about war; suggesting that the soldiers do not really wish any serious harm to befall their fellow soldiers, even if they are on the other side.  They do not hate them.  Instead, their hatred is aimed at those back in London who care little for the men at the Front: frustrating their efforts and at times even denying them sufficient food rations. He describes the blind terror experienced by these brave soldiers, as the thick noise surrounds them, making the earth itself shake:
'In the trench you could see nothing and noise rushed like black angels gone mad; solid noise that swept you off your feet... Swept your brain off its feet. Someone else took control of it. You became second-in-command of your own soul.'
 But they do not shirk from their duty but maintain their position because it is what is expected of them.  This is the most impressive thing about the novel; its depiction of life in the trenches, especially because the author lived through it himself.  How can the world forget the terror that these men lived through as millions of men faced each other on the battlefields?  Because of Madox Ford, at least some will remember.

'If you took six million men armed with loaded canes and stockings containing bricks or knives and set them against another six million men similarly armed, at the end of three hours four million on the one side and the entire six million on the other would be dead. So, as far as killing went, it really was a mug's game.'

It is amazing then that Madox Ford manages to add any beauty at all to the book.  Usually, the beauty is associated with Valentine.  Tietjens thinks about how 'she made the sunlight', and decides that he will forgo his position at Groby, his former life and friends, even the fine claret at the club, to take her as his own.  He says that when he remembers her, he recalls her mind.  Her physical body is not the inspiration of his love.  He longs to talk and talk and talk some more with her, as theirs is a meeting of minds and to do that would mean that they must live together.
As with the other books, there are moments of pure romance when this soldier turns his mind to Valentine.  Despite being snubbed by his general and being denied his Victoria Cross, Tietjens maintains his steadfast belief in the goodness of Valentine Wannop.  Even when they are thrown together by the wicked machinations of Edith McMaster or when Mrs Wannop pleads with him to think again about her daughter, he decides to stand up, to step out of the shadow of the old world, out of the hole that is duty and honour and take her by the hand as his chosen partner in life.

'He felt her being united to his by a current. He had always felt that her being was united to his by a current. This then was the day! The war had made a man of him! It had coarsened him and hardened him. There was no other way to look at it. It had made him reach a point at which he would no longer stand unbearable things.'

Finally, I must mention the wonderful visual descriptions in the novel that come rising from the darkness of war in so unexpected a fashion, that the reader is left gasping.  One such idea is when Tietjens notices the movement of swallows amid the chaos of battle:

'So myriads of swallows pursued him, swirling round and round him, their wings touching; for a matter of twenty yards all round and their wings brushing him and the tops of the thistles. And as the blue sky was reflected in the blue of their backs--for their backs were below his eyes--he had felt like a Greek God striding through the sea...'
Christopher is inspired by these brave little birds, who, being disturbed from their nests by the barrage of the big guns, fly to face the Germans, challenging their right to destroy.  Even the birds stand up for themselves, and so Christopher's course of action becomes clear.   He makes his decision:

'Tietjens was never going to live at Groby. No more feudal atmosphere! He was going to live, he figured, in a four-room attic-flat, on the top of one of the Inns of Court. With Valentine Wannop. Because of Valentine Wannop!'
A delightful irony is revealed when Tietjens admits that 'Fortunately, there was the heir... Otherwise he could not have gone with that girl!'.  How wonderful that the pregnancy-lie used by Sylvia to trap him, is what ultimately frees him and allows him to live with his beloved Valentine.  Such symmetry in this collection of novels  makes them all the more satisfying, and at a little less tragic somehow, to know that Teitjens will, in fact, never bring Valentine to Groby.

I will read on.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

No More Parades (Parade's End Book 2) ~ Ford Madox Ford

'When you came in the space was desultory, rectangular, warm after the drip of the winter night, and transfused with a brown-orange dust that was light. It was shaped like the house a child draws. Three groups of brown limbs spotted with brass took dim high-lights from shafts that came from a bucket pierced with holes, filled with incandescent coke, and covered in with a sheet of iron in the shape of a tunnel.'    FORD, FORD MADOX

This is how the second book of the 'Parade's End' teratology begins, and it sets the tone for the entire novel.  This book deals with Teitjen's time as a captain at a supplies depot, close to the Front during World War One.  He has left Valentine and England behind, but Sylvia, on the war-path, follows him to France and stirs up a world of trouble in the process.

However, though one could spend forever discussing the ins and out of their relationships, this blog post will focus on the aspect of the writer's style that took me by surprise: the ability of the human race to find beauty in the most unexpected of places.

It is with a painter's eye that he describes life on the front lines - a tiny speck of light, adds an additional, visual, dimension to the writing and lifts the world of the supply depot off the page.  It is not surprising to learn that Ford Madox was the maternal grandson of acclaimed Victorian painter Ford Madox Brown.   In 'No More Parades', Madox Ford reveals his own gift as a novelist-painter, who, with just one adjective, can illuminate an entire scene for our imaginations.

'Tietjens considered the sleeping army... That country village under the white moon, all of sackcloth sides, celluloid windows, forty men to a hut... That slumbering Arcadia was one of... how many? Thirty-seven thousand five hundred, say for a million and a half of men... But there were probably more than a million and a half in that base... Well, round the slumbering Arcadias were the fringes of virginly glimmering tents...'
 Not only does he create the somewhat heartbreaking yet beautiful image of the 'sleeping army', but he bathes the vision in a mixture of cold reality and magic by placing a 'white moon' overhead and by describing the endless lines of army tents as 'glimmering'.  That one adjective suggests all the vulnerability and transience of life for a soldier at the Front: like the light of a candle flame, the slightest breath is enough to extinguish it.  In naming it as a village, he calls up echoes of middle England, whose sons have all decamped to the battlegrounds of France; an uprooted English village, if not in term of place, then in terms of national identity.  It is an Arcadia, he tells us, a place celebrated as an unspoiled, harmonious wilderness in Greek mythology, hardly apt when describing a landscape close to the Western Front, but that is how Madox Ford chooses to present it.  Perhaps it is the camaraderie of war, the mutual love felt by soldiers in wartime, that inspires him to describe the scene thus, or he is simply using the nocturnal hours of peace as a contrast to the horror of the day's fighting.  Indeed, there are many descriptions of moonlight reflecting silver on mounds of earth; stars, like pinpricks in the black sky, and so on.  Much of the book's action, it is clear, takes place in the dark.

This is in stark contrast to imagery associated with the female characters, Sylvia and Valentine.  Consider how he describes Mrs Tietjens:
'She appeared before him so extraordinarily bright and clear in the brown darkness that he shuddered: very tall, very fair... in a sheath gown of gold tissue, all illuminated, and her mass of hair, like gold tissue too, coiled round and round in plaits over her ears ...'  
She is positively glowing and never so much so when he remembers their last parting, the final parting as the had thought, when she left him in the middle of the night for Paddington Station.  He recalls her far in the distance, standing in a long room, the '...other end of which she had seemed a mere white phosphorescence...' .  She has almost disappeared in his memory, but he only recalls her glowing.

As for Valentine, her association with the fertile, natural world, continues the same from book one.  He says,
' ... He drifted with regret across the plain towards his country street of huts. One of them had a coarse evergreen rose growing over it. He picked a leaf, pressed it to his lips and threw it up into the wind...' That's for Valentine,' he said meditatively. 'Why did I do that?... Or perhaps it's for England...' .'
It is no coincidence that his memories of Valentine and England are intertwined, as he loves both with a deep passion.  Of course, in terms of symbolism, the rose is a long established emblem of England but so too is it associated with love and romance.  As such, it perfectly represents his two great loves.  The flower reminds him of home and home of Valentine.  A similar association occurs when, in a moment of heightened distress and trauma, a soldier, 0-Nine Morgan, dies in his arms.   Madox Ford brilliantly captures how the human mind deals with such moments, by shifting focus and thinking happier thoughts.  Of course, for Tietjens, that means Valentine.  As the sanitary orderlies do the unpleasant job of washing away the dead man's blood from Christopher's boots and under the table and chairs, Tietjen's mind dwells on Valentine:

'Obedient heart! Like the first primrose. Not any primrose. The first primrose. Under a bank with the hounds breaking through the underwood..... That was sentimental. But one might say one special flower. A man could say that. A man's job. She smelt like a primrose when you kissed her. But, damn it, he had never kissed her. So how did he know how she smelt! She was a little tranquil, golden spot.'
Here Valentine is described as smelling like a primrose, a delicate flower, again with a suggestion of 'rose'.  Yet she is associated with the first one of the season, his first true love, pure and delightful; set in a particular English setting, which we can imagine to be the grounds at Groby.  Note too, how she recalls a golden place, a precious home.

The images associated with both of these women are in stark contrast to the masculine, darkness of the soldier's life, as experienced by Tietjens.  It is no wonder that he clings so tightly to Sylvia as they dance at the camp, despite the fact that it is Sylvia and not Valentine.  Who would not be dazzled by such a light in so dark a place?  It strikes me as quite significant that women and the moon should play such a vital role in creating the atmosphere of the text, as so often the moon is perceived as a female entity itself.  Perhaps the author is commenting on the real power of women in the world, as distinct from the political power so desired by Valentine and the suffragettes in 'Some Do Not'.

Regardless of its symbolic meaning, there is certainly much visual beauty in this book.  Of course, the shifting voice of the narrators, and their fragmented internal conversations, reflects perfectly the inner lives of real people; their internal struggles and whisperings, their reasoning and motivations. Madox Ford masters all this.  Yet, for me, what I will remember most about this book, are the devastatingly beautiful moments, blazing, so unexpectedly, out of the darkness and forging precious nuggets of hope for us all.
'There was too much to think about... so that nothing at all stood out to be thought of. The sun was glowing. The valley of the Seine was blue-grey, like a Gobelin tapestry. Over it all hung the shadow of a deceased Welsh soldier. An odd skylark was declaiming over an empty field behind the incinerators' headquarters... An odd lark. For as a rule larks do not sing in December. Larks sing only when courting, or over the nest... 0 Nine Morgan was the other thing, that accounting for the prize-fighter! '