Friday, 27 April 2012

GEORGE PASSANT by CP Snow


This is the second book in CP Snow's STRANGERS AND BROTHERS series, which is made up of eleven novels. I discovered the series in an odd used book store in Joburg which included such wonderful titles as RHODESIA: A HISTORY IN NEEDLEWORK.

I almost wish I'd gone with the Salisbury's Womens Assocation take on Zimbabwean history, than GEORGE PASSANT. The first novel in the series, A TIME OF HOPE, was a brilliantly interesting story of the early life of Lewis Eliot. I thus had great hopes of the second novel, that it would follow him into middle age, and hopefully see him divorce his horrible wife. Bizarrely though the second novel goes back in time and picks up the story of George, one of Lewis' early friends.

George is a free-thinking solicitor, who gathers young people around him, attempting to inspire them to live free of society. Somewhat predictably, this degenerates into sleeping with a selection of nineteen year olds. He is then accused of financial fraud, and Lewis comes to defend him in court. This might have been an exciting trial, if we hadn't already heard all about it in the first book, up to and including the verdict.

Oh dear. My faith in minor authors is shaken.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

TIME OF HOPE by CP Snow

You may recall my depressing conclusion at the end of Trollope's THE PRIME MINISTER that I might in fact have actually completed the western cannon, and that what lay before me was either minor works by great writers or simply minor writers.

In this spirit I bought TIME OF HOPE by the not very eminent CP Snow. Hurray for minor authors! It is brilliant. And the best part is, that it is only the first in an ELEVEN BOOK SERIES. What is even better than one book? Ten books to follow! The Western cannon is still firing!

TIME OF HOPE tells the story of the early life of one Lewis Eliot. His father goes bankrupt at about the time of the First World War, when Lewis is a small child, and the book follows his attempts to make a life for himself.

It's an interesting picture of a truly class bound Britain, because even though Lewis is exceptionally bright, and gets excellent results at school, the fact that he has no "connections" means that university is effectively barred to him. He takes an enormous risk, investing his small inheritance in sitting examinations for the bar, and manages eventually to become a moderately successful barrister - a huge achievement for someone of his background.

Showing that human nature does not change much, Lewis is also struggling with trying to disentangle himself from a girl who is clearly bad news. She says classic mess-with-you things like: "I don't love you, but I trust you," and "You're the only one I feel safe with, but I'm not ready for a relationship," and poor Lewis laps it up. Eventually, like an idiot, he marries her.

I don't know anything about CP Snow, but I am quite sure that this book is heavily autobiographical. What is most touching about it is the sense throughout that everything he writes is something he has painfully lived. It is clearly the book of an older man trying to understand his past as honestly as he can, and that project - of being honest about what you have done - is always an honourable and a difficult one, whether you put it into book format or not.

Thus then, on his obsession with his horrible wife:
Some secret caution born of a kind of vanity made me bar my heart to any who forced their way within. I had only been able to lose caution and vanity, bar and heart, the whole of everything I was, in the torment of loving someone like Sheila, who invaded me not at all and made me crave for a spark of feeling, who was so wrapped up in herself that only the violence and suffering of such a love as mine brought the slightest glow.

Much though of the novel is very funny. Here he is on his aunt, a battleaxe of a woman:
She believed in speaking the truth, particularly when it was unpleasant.

And on the morality of his era:
It had often seemed to me strange that men should be so brazen with their moral indignation. Were they so utterly cut off from their own experience that they could utter these loud, resounding, moral brays and not be forced to look within? What were their own lives like, that they could denounce so enthusiastically? If baboons learned to talk, the first words they spoke would be stiff with moral indignation

One down, ten to go!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

THE SADDEST STORY by Ford Maddox Ford


THE GOOD SOLDIER tells the story of two unhappy marriages. The narrator, an American named John is married to Florence, a heart patient. Except, as it emerges, Florence does not really have a weak heart - she has made it up so as to avoid having sex with her husband. (Obviously, this being an Edwardian novel, it isn't put quite like that) Florence then meets someone she does want to have sex with: Edward Ashburnham, an English soldier, who is unhappily married to a strict Catholic, Leonora.

There is all sorts of misery and melodrama, crowned by Florence killing herself. Edward then falls in love with his ward, the nineteen year old Nancy, who he has bought up since she was thirteen. He manages to restrain himself, which is according to Ford a big achievement. Nancy is sent away to India, and Edward kills himself in despair. I mean, honestly, get a grip. Nancy then learns of his death in a newspaper, and - get this - goes mad.

I don't know if I'm unfeeling, or what, but I just found it all totally ridiculous from beginning to end. The novel's begins: "This is the saddest story I've ever heard," which suggests to me Ford led a fairly sheltered life, and should have spent more time reading the news.

This thought clearly occurred to the publishers too. Hilariously, the novel's original title was THE SADDEST STORY, but once the First World War began the publishers wrote to him to insist the title be changed. After the first million people died at Verdun, a new definition of saddest clearly had to be contemplated.

Friday, 6 April 2012

AMERICAN PASTORAL by Philip Roth


I was fascinated and horrified in about equal measure by Philip Roth's PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT which is, oddly, a bit like my current relationship with KOURTNEY AND KIM TAKE NEW YORK. I thus had high hopes for AMERICAN PASTORAL.

Where Roth's early works, including PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT, were largely comic novels about Jewish American life, AMERICAN PASTORAL is clearly a work by a mature, much celebrated writer, who knows he is a mature much celebrated writer, and feels a need to write a novel as such.

So it starts off with a man named Nathan, clearly a proxy for the author (this is already what I as an experienced reader know to be a DANGER SIGN), who is attending his high school reunion. There is lots of agonising over the passage of time, which I could have gotten into, but then there is also lots of philosophizing about his generation, wich I found almost unbearably irritating. He writes about it as if the experience of Americans are the experiences of everyone. As if he can define an era. It's sort of revoltingly insular. The pages just dripped with self-importance. I couldn't handle it.

Then we go into how the one guy at their high school, nicknamed the Swede, went on to have this perfect life, till his daughter blew up a post office in protest at the Vietnam war. So then it becomes sort of state of the nation novel. Then I gave up on it. Sorry Mr Roth.

THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER by James Hogg

The first appeal of this book is that the author was an eighteenth century shepherd who taught himself to read. It’s not so often that the ...