31 December 2007

Round up of 2007

2007 was a good year for my reading, better than ever before.

I read 87 books, of which:

20 were non fiction
67 were fiction, of which

29 were originally English
20 were from French
8 were from German (6 of them by Zweig)
5 were from Russian
3 were from Spanish
1 was from Hungarian
1 was from Serbo-Croat

Classics newly read - Ulysses, Germinal
Classics reread - Crime and Punishment, Darkness at Noon

Best fiction read

Liquidation by Imre Kertesz
Germinal by Emile Zola
Fantastic Night and other stories by Stefan Zweig
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
The Unknown Masterpiece by Balzac
Homo Faber by Max Frisch
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
Headlong by Michael Frayn

Best non-fiction

Fiasco by Thomas E Ricks
Lawless World by Philippe Sands
Nine Suitcases by Bela Zsolt

Discoveries of the year: Stefan Zweig, Sinclair Lewis

Next year's plans:

Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle
Balzac's major works
Life and Fate
The Man Without Qualities
Classic to reread - Anna Karenina

Anne Fadiman - At Large and At Small

A few years ago, Anne Fadiman produced a small book called Ex Libris, a collection of essays on books and bibliophilia. It was an unexpected success, finding a permanent home on the Waterstone's checkout desk, largely through word of mouth - I probably bought 6 or 7 copies myself. Ex Libris mixed the personal with the objective, with chapters on book collections, treatment of books, special obsessions, and specific topics such as the sonnet.

It's this mix of personal and general that Fadiman calls the 'familiar essay', perfected in the 19th century by William Hazlitt and, her personal obsession, Charles Lamb. Nowadays there are lots of critical essays, and plenty (too many) personal columns, but few that combine the two, where you can feel both educated and connected by the same piece.

In a plain bid, by her publishers no doubt, to repeat the success of Ex Libris Fadiman has collected several of her occasional essays from the last decade, on varied subjects, but all of them of close personal interest to her. Because of this, they're written with a passion and knowledge unlikely in subjects more distant from the writer, merely researched rather than lived. This is engaging, but the extent to which it is depends a lot on whether the reader shares the obsession.

So my indifference to ice cream and coffee meant that those chapters left me unmoved, but I was far more involved with the essays on Lamb and Coleridge. I know little about the former, apart from the psychosis of his sister, and found Fadiman's love for him appealing, but I didn't think Coleridge was my sort. I wasn't aware of his repeated flight, even as an adult, which is some indication of the insecurities that lay under his daunting intellect.

This collection isn't as good as Ex Libris, although it has its moments. The expression of a deep personal moment in the last chapter is a little nakedly manipulative, and doesn't fit with the other essays, and too many are a little overkeen to persuade the author of the validity of the obsession. But Fadiman is a good writer, and humorous, and the book works as a light gift.


23 December 2007

WG Sebald - Austerlitz

I read this a couple of years ago, and wrote elsewhere about it immediately afterwards, when I had the book still fresh in my mind. I thought I should save my thoughts on here.

I think this is probably the best book I've read in the last 10 years. It had an extraordinary effect on me, and was a total joy to read. The fact I read it in 2 sessions, after failing to finish a book in 3 months, is some indication of that.

Not surprisingly, I disagree with many of the comments above. There's so much in this book that many seem to have missed.

It's a book about time and memory. As such its obvious forebear is Proust, who is very consciously referenced more than once in the first ten pages - Austerlitz and the narrator meet in the Salle des pas perdus, an echo of 'temps perdu', and Austerlitz refers to the buffet barmaid as the 'goddess of time past.' But I feel that what Sebald does in this book is the opposite of Proust (the little I've read of the latter) Rather than, as Proust does, almost stopping time by focusing in on an individual moment and analysing it for pages, Sebald moves with pace through time, jumping backwards and forwards, making links that become more apparent as they accumulate.

The particular reason I like the structure of this, an apparent rambling narrative, is that it reflects the way I have conversations, jumping from one theme to another as inspired by a key word or thought. More relevantly, it's how memory works, leading you from one thought to another without apparent direction, the only theme being the path in retrospect through those thoughts, like an Alasdair Cooke letter or an episode of James Burke's "Connections". But, as with bopth those examples, the unifying theme is made apparent at the end.

I disagree that the narrative voice, of Austerlitz, consists of one emotion, or rather that that is a weakness. I was in tears several times while reading this, so powerful was it. It's a book not just about repressed memory, but repressed emotion. Austerlitz has been brought up by austere Calvinists, forgetting his infancy, and then become a dry academic. The narrative voice is appropriate to that, and his search for his history is also a search for feelings long lost - memories of his mother, even his native language that resurfaces in talking to Vera.

Why the double narrator device? I can think of several reasons. Principally because of the usual problem of how the story as told by the narrator came to be written down in the format the reader encounters it. The nature of the narrative is fluid, moving from one theme to another in a way that reflects intense conversation. If Austerlitz had decided to write his memoirs - which adds another problem of character intent - he would have structured them and created order. With the form of a 'narrator' simply retelling Austerlitz's conversation, there's an impression of a lack of structure - although of course it's intricately designed - exacerbated by the lack of any normal literary structural devices - paragraphs, chapters, headings.

Continuing the themes of memory brought up by the book, and linking in to the 'psychogeography' as mentioned by LFF, referencing Ackroyd although I think Sinclair is probably more relevant with the term, which I don't believe applies here. I don't think Sebald is interested in spurious mystical properties attributed to buildings because of the memories of past inhabitants. His concerns are more concrete. The buildings mentioned by Austerlitz all have direct relevance to his story, although when he first mentions them he's not aware of this. There are 4 railway stations discussed at length - Antwerp, Liverpool Street, Prague and Austerlitz. Liverpool Street and Prague are the end and starting points of his journey as a 5 year old. Antwerp is the centre of Austerlitz's obsession with stations and railways, although he isn't conscious of why; and of course Austerlitz represents him, not just in name but more symbolically. In addition, the forts discussed in the first pages are exactly the same design as Theresienstadt. I have a problem with the last, as, while Austerlitz's obsession with station architecture can be explained from repressed memories, he was unaware of his mother's incarceration until he got to Prague. Unless the suppression allowed him to link stories of the evacuation from Prague that he came across in his general reading to his interest in fort architecture, without understanding the significance of the link.

These stations are not just repositories of memories of passengers who have passed through them, as they might appear, which would be a tenuous and lazy metaphor. They contain Austerlitz's own memories. And the Gare d'Austerlitz, naturally, is the central repository, or should be. The metaphor of a library for memory is of course equally lazy, but more directly appropriate, and Sebald extends it in a way that's directly relevant, and provocative. The Bibliotheque Nationale, that's been built upon a site near the Gare d'Austerlitz, is railed against by Austerlitz, not just from an architectural perspective, but for its folly. But the underlying message is clear: The National Library is the representation of modern memory, it's where Austerlitz goes to find his own history. And it's been built upon the location of the warehouse that stored the loot of Parisian Jews, now lost. The symbolisation of that, that modern memory, efficient, shiny, erected to the glorification of a vain President, supersedes the memory of one of the great tragedies of the city, literally buried under its foundations. Similarly his efforts to find documentary evidence of his mother's imprisonment are restricted to an abbreviated Nazi propaganda film - memory is sanitised, edited, repackaged to serve the interests of those in control. Austerlitz's repression is symbolic of the suppression of the collective memory, his blackouts of the selective amnesia of society.

I think this book is hugely significant, and it will grow in stature with time. It's a tragedy that Sebald died only months after it was published, but I suppose that's preferable to him dying before. There's a vast amount in it that I haven't picked up on - the long Marienbad sequence for example, which plainly has significance beyond the river Auschowitz. Given the mention of Alain Resnais a few pages later, I presume it's a reference to his film L'Année dernière à Marienbad, which I'm just about to watch, and I understand is about the unreliability of memory. More significant of course is Resnais's film Nuit et Brouillard, a short documentary of Auschwitz, the unmentioned place that haunts the book, the final destination for the train that took his mother.

16 December 2007

Tom McCarthy - Remainder

I had few expectations of this novel, although it had been recommended. It's a curious novel of some originality, but is in the end unsatisfying.

The narrator has suffered a traumatic accident which, for legal reasons, he can't describe, but which the reader can infer involved something falling from a plane (I assumed human waste) The accident left him in a coma for some time, and when he awakes he's still psychologically affected. He's given £8.5m as a settlement and considers what do do with this new wealth.

After briefly considering and dismissing philanthropy, he decides to use the money to recreate remembered scenes, using actors, exactly replicating a resonant memory, and replaying it incessantly. His almost unlimited resources enables him to demand perfection in his recreations, to buy buildings and refit them to match his memories. He tries to create 'authentic' moments through artifice, and of course the contradiction in that doesn't occur to him.

As his mania increases, his awareness of reality decreases, and he begins to achieve blissful fadeouts akin to epileptic fits. That state appears to be the manifestation of the perfect moment, although of course it's a symptom of the neurological damage he's suffered.

The exercise is an ultimate expression of solipsism - making the world match one's own perceptions, elevating the personal experience above any one else's considerations. It's also a diversion upon the creative process, of the elusive nature of memory, and how hard it is to grasp again that perfect moment in our past. It's also about wanting to control our environment, to eliminate those aspects with which we cannot relate.

There's a precision to McCarthy's writing appropriate to the narrator - his obsessive repetitions are presented as entirely logical and consistent, while they are patently maniacal. Comparisons have been made to Auster, and he does have a similar cold attention to structure and self-aware intelligence.

The ending is a logical consequence of the narrative, but I found it forced, and the illusion that allows the reader to accept all the actors in the recreation doing so without demur for months doesn't accept the transfer of that to the real situation of the denouement. But McCarthy is witty and engaging, as well as undoubtedly smart. His second novel has just been published.


7 December 2007

Stefan Zweig - The Royal Game

This novella, also known as Chess in a new Penguin edition, is typical Zweig - concerned with self-destructive obsession, acutely observed with unmatched attention to emotional nuance - but it isn't, as many of his stories are, about love, but about intellectual obsession.

As usual, Zweig uses a framing narrative device. The tale is told to the narrator by a man on a cruise, a situation he previously employed in Amok. The encounter occurs because the narrator has lured the world chess champion, also on board, into a challenge chess game against a group of passengers, and Dr B, previously unannounced, interjects with an analysis of the position, forcing a draw, to the surprise of all.

there's a call for him to play a challenge against the champion, which he refuses on the basis that he hasn't played a game of chess in over 20 years. This a shock to the observers, and the narrator tries to get an explanation. Dr B tells his story.

He used to be a lawyer in the old Austrian regime, entrusted with the financial affairs of many senior figures, and when the Nazis invaded, he was arrested and expected to be taken to a concentration camp. Instead, because he was a valuable source of information, he was imprisoned in a cell and subjected to interrogation. One day he manages to steal a book from the pocket of a guard's jacket, left hanging near him. The book turns out to be 150 championship chess games. As he's been starved of intellectual activity for months, he devours the book, game by game, teaching himself how to project the games in his head, learning the games by repetition and playing them to himself.

After a while, this stales - he is just remembering past games, barely exercising his mind, so he tries to play against himself. At first he finds this impossible - after all, the skill in chess is to be able to predict the other person's moves, and if you're playing both sides, how can you both anticipate yet not know what your 'opponent' will play? So he learns how to divide his mind between the two parties. He does this so skilfully that he's able to play games at high speed, flipping from one player to the other in his mind, pacing his cell while he plays incessantly.

The internal game-playing becomes a mania, and in the end he collapses from the mental exhaustion, and is taken to a hospital. He recovers, but is warned against playing chess again, as it might bring on another attack. Nevertheless, he agrees to play against the champion, as a matter of curiosity - he has never tested his self-honed skills in a proper game, never mind against a world master. Almost effortlessly, he wins - the mental calculations come quickly to him, as opposed to the rigorously plodding champion.

He is challenged to a second game, and during this he starts to lose his focus. It turns out that, frustrated by the champion's slow play, he's playing other games simultaneously in his mind. This pushes him towards a crisis, just averted by the narrator.

This is a very late Zweig - published the year before his death - and is one of the best of his novellas. The intensity of intellectual obsession leading to madness reminded me of the Aronofsky film Pi, and the scenes in the cell of Darkness at Noon, which I've recently reread. As usual with Zweig, the emotional descriptions are precise, and most of the action internal, and the effect powerful.


5 December 2007

Stefan Zweig - Amok and other stories

Stefan Zweig was obsessed by suicide throughout his life, as these stories prove. Each of them, written from when he was 23 until 30 or so years later, deal with an obsession ended by the death of the protagonist.

All of the stories, as with most of his works, have a secondary narrator. The first is told by a man, discovered by the narrator hiding on a ship from Calcutta to England, who became obsessed with a woman in the Dutch East Indies (presumably Indonesia) who asks him, in his capacity as a doctor, to perform an abortion. He refuses, not out of any scruple, but because his price is to sleep with her. She has a back street operation, which kills her, eventually, while he attends her. After desperately telling his tale, he kills himself.

Amok is the most considered and successful of the stories, in which the near insanity of the protagonist is quite believable. The second story, The Star above the Forest, is the poorest of his that I've read. A waiter falls in love with a Baroness he serves, and kills himself by lying on the track in front of her train. It's a very naive story of a coup de foudre, and the progression of the waiter's passion is unexplained. In his more mature works, Zweig dealt closely with the intellectual rationale for emotional states, but this was written before he'd developed that skill.

The third story, Leporella, is Gothic in subject - an ugly, simple cook is retained by a Baron who has an unpleasant wife, who is perpetually frustrated as he refuses to consummate the marriage. The cook develops an attraction for the Baron, and encourages his affairs when his wife is away. She kills the wife, believing it to be his wish, then kills herself when he dismisses her in horror.

Leporella isn't quite as disturbing as it's intended to be, and the ending is rather pat and predictable. It wasn't published in his lifetime, perhaps Zweig wasn't happy with it.

The last story, Incident on Lake Geneva, is much tighter than the rest, almost Maupassant-like in its concision. A simple Russian soldier finds himself in Switzerland in 1918, stranded after troop movements in World War I, and is bewildered that he can't get home, can't understand the language, and is told that the Tsar has been deposed, which he doesn't understand. He can't comprehend the distance home - he's been forcibly transported by train and ship around the world to Europe - and is in despair that he can't see his family again. He, naturally, kills himself. This story has deeper resonances, though, about the dislocation and upheaval of ordinary people after the events of 1914-18, the inability of people to come to terms with the devastation and huge social changes.

Inevitably, given his obsession, Zweig killed himself, along with his wife, in 1942, presumably in despair at the future of the world at the height of the Axis powers' fortunes.


4 December 2007

Stefan Zweig - Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman

Most of Zweig's stories deal with obsession, and are told by a secondary narrator, that is one relating the tale to the primary narrator, assumed to be the author. This story, one of his finest novellas, is about two forms of obsession, one by a young man who is a compulsive gambler, and one by a middle-aged widow who becomes briefly infatuated with him.

Told with Zweig's usual attention to emotional nuance, it's a study in gambling mania to put alongside Dostoevsky, and includes some outstanding passages, including about 4 pages on the observation of hands to derive character. The precision of his writing is always a delight, but in this story it combines with the description of a brief but destructive passion. There's a contrast between the clarity of the prose and the turmoil of the scenes described, explained by the tale being a confession by an intelligent woman 25 years after the event of an exceptional passion.

Many of Zweig's stories are structured in this way, desperate confessions of past indiscretions by people wanting to unburden themselves to the unnamed narrator, presumed to be Zweig. While this is a simple narrative device, and not very convincing, it lends Zweig himself a personality of someone to be confided in, which adds some credibility to his narrator characters.

This is definitely one of Zweig's best stories, tightly conceived and told, and entirely convincing.


24 November 2007

Charlie Brooker - Dawn of the Dumb

Charlie Brooker is a TV previewer and columnist for the Guardian. He may also be one of the funniest writers in England. His attitude is of misanthropy and bile, and his style is frequently profane, but I found myself laughing out loud on almost every other page of this collection.

The collection alternates his Screen Burn columns for the Guardian Guide, which I read regularly, and his weekly G2 columns, which I don't, and so were new to me. Much of the TV stuff is about trash - Big Brother, I'm a Celebrity, X Factor - which he skewers with a fascinated awe at the idiocy and grossness of the participants. As I don't watch any of these (any more), I ended up skimming many of these articles, although they were still funny even when I didn;t get the references.

He has a great talent for using exactly the right metaphor, often an obscene one. He describes Piers Morgan as 'looking twice as smug as a man who's just learnt to fellate himself', which is pretty apt on many levels. In fact, I could pull quotes at random from the book, it's full of great ones. Even the index is funny. Scanning through, I came across 'motherfuckers' (as you would, to which the reference is 'see psychics'. Under 'cunts' it goes 'see complete and utter cunts.' 'Complete and utter cunts - see psychics.'


22 November 2007

Nick Foulkes - Dancing into Battle

This is subtitled 'A social history of the battle of Waterloo', and as such deals very little with the battle itself, and almost entirely with the social environment of Brussels in 1815. Using first hand sources such as diaries and letters, Foulkes recreates the relationships and explains why so many of England's aristocratic families were living just 25 miles from one of the biggest and most important battles in history.

I had heard about the Duchess of Richmond's ball tangentially - it was a legendary event, held on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, from which many soldiers went into action still in evening dress. It features in Vanity Fair, which I've read, long ago, and Childe Harold, which I haven't. David Miller produced a book on the ball in 2005, well researched down to analysing which crops had been most favoured by invitations.

Foulkes doesn't get so close in his descriptions, he provides more of an overview of the dramatis personae, and of their personalities. Wellington's consideration of his public reputation is shown - while he may have been apprehensive at the coming clash with Napoleon, he displayed an unflappable confidence. Foulkes suggests that Wellington had become aware of his significance to the British - even greater than his tactical or leadership qualities, his very presence gave the British extra belief. After the battle, he credited the win in part to his appearance on the battlefield at critical moments, and he may have been right.

Wellington's political beliefs, as reactionary as they come, underpin this history. He believed that only the aristocracy could be effective soldiers, and disdained professional (ie trained) soldiers, such as the artillery. Riding to hounds was adequate training for battle, and many of the battle descriptions written by the participants are in terms of hunts. Much of the pre-battle assembling in Brussels was in the form of London social occasions - balls and banquets, a whole class transplanted across the Channel.

But why were they there? Largely to take advantage of cheaper rents, and to escape creditors - many of the aristocracy had become involved in gambling around that time - but also to take advantage of peace in Europe for the first time in a decade to have a look abroad. Napoleon's escape from Elba took everyone by surprise - not least Wellington, busy in Vienna negotiating the treaty to divide Europe - and the speed of his advance on Paris more so.

Foulkes is very good on the attitudes of the English to their hosts, and to the displaced French court, using his sources wittily. Particularly memorable is the Duc de Berri not even causing the English soldiers to stop cleaning their kit, never mind be on parade for his review, once they realised he wasn't THE Duke. It is occasionally hard to remember which aristo is which - there are several Carolines - but the observation of their little parochialisms is entertaining.

As the imminence of conflict becomes apparent, Brussels becomes frantic with new forces arriving from Britain, some of the residents leaving, and Prussian and British forces requisitioning properties, in different styles. Foulkes doesn't question the reports of Prussian behaviour being more akin to an occupying army, and attributes the different attitudes of the national armies to the characters and examples of their commanders - Wellington and Blucher.

Foulkes doesn't deal much with the battle itself, instead referring the reader to more focused histories such as a recent one by Andrew Roberts, but does follow the fates of the notable persons the book highlights. The Earl of Uxbridge, possibly the most dashing British soldier of his age, leader of the cavalry, famously lost his leg while in conversation with Wellington, and Foulkes puts his reputation in context - he'd scandalously seduced Wellington's sister-in-law a decade before, and was a very famous figure even before the battle. The place where his leg was amputated became part of the Waterloo tourist trail, his leg even buried in the garden and marked.

The slaughter of the battle itself was horrendous - supposedly it was one of the most intense battles ever, in terms of the numbers of men in such a small area - and many casualties were still lying, alive, on the battlefield a week after being hurt. Most poignant was Wellington's quartermaster, chosen despite his protests because the man to be appointed was in Canada, who arrived from his honeymoon, with his new wife, and was killed in the battle. Of course there were many thousands more deaths, each with a similar story, and Foulkes's focus on the aristocracy feels a bit limited, but that's the significance of the battle - the last in which the upper class of Britain played such an overwhelming part.


17 November 2007

Stefan Fatsis - Word Freak

Fatsis is a Wall Street Journal correspondent, specialising in sport and business. He started writing a quirky article about the world of professional Scrabble, and realised it was a fertile enough topic to expand into a book - but only if he participated himself. So he spent a year endeavouring to get to the standard of the best in the world, and compete in the top division at the national championships in the US.

His start isn't auspicious. He plays some trial games, with top quality players giving him tips, and when one says he could have played 'CONGER' or CRONE' instead of the word he played, he admits he didn't know either word. At this point I considered that his basic vocabulary was so low (especially considering his profession) that no learning of word lists could possibly make up for it.

But he isn't deterred, and learns the 2 and 3 letter words, the essential building blocks of Scrabble. The main tactics of professional Scrabble though are to keep the board tight and build a rack so that a bingo (a word containing all 7 letters on a player's rack) can be played, gaining 50 bonus points. A lot of the book the techniques several top players have for learning the 7 and 8 letter words. It's meant to make them sound endearingly loopy and obsessed, which it does, but it's also rather dull.

The mechanical nature of the rote learning and application does seem to take the genius out of the game, but there is a lot of tactical nous required too. But mostly, it's a game for obsessives, dominated by oddball men rather than women, misfits, some of whom struggle to hold down a job. Fatsis is good at presenting these characters, as you'd expect from a journalist, and he makes friends with many of them, who encourage him in his ambition. It's funny on occasion, a little tragic, and not quite as fascinating as Fatsis believes it to be. But then, he's drawn into the obsession, which requires that he loses some perspective.


13 November 2007

Guy de Maupassant - A Woman's Life

Maupassant is known as a short story writer, but he wrote 6 novels, of which this is possibly his best, by reputation. It's a simple story, of a woman who marries when young, has a difficult marriage to a man who betrays her, and a son who wastes all the family money.

It's a rather depressing story, expertly told. Many of Maupassant's stories have the same cynicism about life, the cruelty of events and of people. This novel is full of his greatest virtues - the attention to emotional nuance, the precision and conciseness of the prose, and the indulgence in lyrical beauty - which mean reading it is a delight, even though the emotions evoked are of pity.

The book depicts a fatalistic attitude. Things happen to Jeanne, the innocent are victims of the ruthless, the avaricious and the careless. There's much of that in Balzac too, but he has active protagonists, whereas Jeanne, the woman of the title, is passive, helplessly accepting life's buffeting. She's a pathetic heroine, but we have sympathy for her because of her simplicity - her naive love for her husband and her son leads to her ruin.

Her life is contrasted with that of her previous maid, Rosalie, who she grew up with, and who was seduced by and made pregnant by Jeanne's husband. Rosalie's toughness and rough honesty is part of Maupassant's characterisation of Norman peasantry, who feature in many of his stories, often as comic butts, but here with respect and affection.

Maupassant's attention to minor characters is notable - Aunt Lison, the old maid, is frequently present, but never noticed, and the small cruelty of Jeanne laughing at the idea that anyone might consider marrying her is very touching. This is typical of his short stories, which occasionally are based around just one example of an exquisite moment.


9 November 2007

Byron Farwell - Burton

Sir Richard Burton was one of the most extraordinary men of his, or any age. As an explorer he discovered Lake Tanganyika, as an adventurer he performed the Haj to Medina and Mecca, in disguise and under great peril of discovery, as a linguist he mastered over 25 languages, and as a translator he produced the definitive edition of the Arabian Nights. Yet he never found the acclaim he felt was his due, and suffered professionally due to his arrogance and stubbornness, spending the last part of his career in the backwater of a consulship in Trieste.

There's lots of research material available for a biographer as Burton was immensely prolific, publishing about 25 volumes of travel journals, most of which weren't well written, and didn't sell particularly well. Farwell uses all this material, and much more, and is quite condescending in the appendix about previous biographers who didn't read everything Burton published (although he admits much of it isn't very readable) He plainly has a lot of affection for his subject, while admitting he was not always a very likeable man, and was rather self-destructive in his arrogance.

Burton is most famous now for his translations of the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra - the former was a huge success, partly no doubt because of the sexual content. Farwell deals with that, but, rather like Burton's wife, who burnt much of his diaries and unpublished works after his death, he is a little prudish about the sexual texts, such as the Kama Sutra and the Perfumed Garden, and doesn't much discuss this aspect of Burton's career. Farwell first published this biography in 1962, and he's plainly an old-fashioned colonialist, recognising the bravery and restlessness of Burton, but not his more esoteric tastes.

Burton was very remarkable in many ways, driven by a need to know, and by an unsappable energy, that meant he was always active, learning languages, writing up his trips, planning more trips. For several years he managed to persuade the Army to fund his travels, being nominally an officer in the Indian service; later he joined the Diplomatic Service, in Brazil and Trieste, but spent more time away from his posts than doing his duties, to the frustration of his employers.

Burton's methods were extraordinary - he developed a system that enabled him to learn languages within 2 months each. He would devote himself to vocabulary learning, carrying word lists with him during the day and devoting several hours each day to studying. He would also immerse himself in the culture in a curious way, setting up a market stall in the town bazaar, dressing up as a local, and talking to those around him. He would be able to improve his accent, and find out as much as possible of local customs. Periodically, he would go to Bombay to take the Army language exams, in Punjabi and Gujerati and Hindi and several others, and inevitably come top.

One would imagine that these methods, the languages and his travels would lead him to a particular affinity with the people he studied, as it has with many travel writers, but this appears not to be the case. Burton was a man of his age, an extreme one certainly, but he contained all the prejudices of the Empire to the extreme. While he could no doubt affect sympathy while in disguise, never more so than on his perilous Haj to Mecca and Medina, dressed as an Afghan, he was in reality very dismissive of most non-English. His interests were wide, but the objective was the accumulation and display of knowledge.

He did both in a haphazard way. Supposedly his travel writing was more or less a transcription from his notebooks, in the order that he considered them, and also full of his prejudices, rants and digressions. He made important journeys, particularly in Africa, but didn't have either the nous or inclination for active self-publicity, and the ruthlessness to see the main chance.

Because of this he lost the opportunity to discover Lake Victoria and the long-sought source of the Nile, which Speke, on a diversion from their joint trip to Lake Tanganyika, found and took the credit for. Burton never recovered from this, and bore a lasting grudge against Speke, refusing for many years to believe that Lake Victoria was as big as claimed, or was the source of the Nile. This enmity was typical of Burton, whose 'career' as an explorer ran out of steam relatively early, and who wasn't suited for routine or chains of management. He deserves to be remembered though, as he is, for his translations, of the Arabian Nights and Camoens.

I picked up my edition, a Penguin reprint from the 1990s, secondhand for £2, and it was intermittently inspiring and fascinating. It led me to visit his grave in Mortlake, a tomb in the shape of a tent, erected by his wife, and also including her coffin. Here it is:


16 October 2007

Irene Nemirovsky - Le Bal

Nemirovsky was a highly popular French novelist in the 1930s, and several films were made from her works - two from Le Bal, one in French and one in German. Her current revival is due to the recent discovery and publication of an unfinished novel, Suite Francaise, which detailed life under the German occupation she was suffering, prior to her arrest and deportation, and death in a camp.

Nemirovsky drew on her personal experiences for her works, and her early life was highly eventful. Her father was an important banker in the Tsar's court, which informed David Golder, and the family had to escape from Russia after the revolution, which is the basis for the second story in this volume, Snow in Autumn.

The first story, Le Bal, was stimulated by Nemirovsky's fractious relationship with her mother, which is hinted at in David Golder too. A young girl, feeling ignored by her social-climbing mother, sabotages a ball to be held at her home by not posting the invitations. As the evening develops, and it becomes evident that no guests are going to arrive, the mother's distress is the daughter's victory.

It's evident that this is a young girl's fantasy, no doubt Nemirovsky's dream as she grew up distant from her mother. It's similar to Maupassant, a clear influence, in its tone and structure, but he would have told the story in 10 pages, whereas she uses 50. I found that a bit too long, but I suppose the wait for the inevitable denouement matched the tension of the girl's anticipation.

The second story, of an aged servant following her masters from revolutionary Russia, is better, a contemplation of devotion and ageing.


3 October 2007

Mike Atherton - Gambling

Mike Atherton's book purports to be an overview of gambling as a social phenomenon, covering the history of it and the current state of gambling in the UK. It's a huge subject, and it's beyond the former England cricket captain, but he seems to have had fun researching it.

Atherton has a degree from Cambridge, but didn't do much with his intellect for a couple of decades while playing cricket professionally. He now commentates and writes columns, at which he's competent, but he's not a writer. His style is sloppy and casual, and his opinions often not well-considered. On one page early on he refers both to 'proles' and 'liberal elite', which made me check that he wasn't a Mail writer (Telegraph actually)

There wasn't a lot in this book I didn't already know - he covers the South Sea Bubble, and John Law's escapades in Paris, which is widening his brief a bit, but surprisingly doesn't mention Casanova, who ran lotteries and became rich from them. His favourite betting scene is plainly the track, and he gets most involved when writing about horseracing and the decline of the online bookie, whereas poker leaves him bewildered and a bit sheepish.

Some of the colour pieces are amusing - Atherton can be as affable on the page as on screen, although also as irritating. As a populist guide to gambling this is fine, but Atherton was aiming for more than that.


30 September 2007

Andrew Meier - Black Earth

Andrew Meier was Moscow correspondent for Time for 5 years until 2001, and this book is collected from his experiences in the former Soviet Union. Each chapter is set in a different location, and with a different theme - organised crime in St Petersburg, oligarch power in Moscow, the gulags of Siberia, the war in Chechnya, and the new oil wealth in Sakhalin.

The book is a mixture of reportage and social history. One early chapter deals with a massacre in Chechnya that Meier himself exposed, going into Grozny at great risk to himself to investigate an army atrocity.

Meier, thanks to the status of his employer, has access to senior figures in Russia, from oligarchs to ex-Politburo members. This gives his account the credibility of highly-placed primary sources, so his comments on the power of the Kremlin, for example, are particularly well-informed.

Many of the chapters have an elegaic feel to them, examining the troubled past (Communism, gulags) and present (Chechnya, oligarchs), and there's little optimism felt. Maybe this is an accurate reflection of the state of Russia today. It's certainly fascinating material, and Meier is a very good writer, able to immerse himself in the culture, and present it in an engaging way.


Benjamin Markovits - Imposture

Markovits's slim volume is the story of Polidori, Byron's doctor, most famous for writing The Vampyre at the same gathering that Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein. It's very tightly written, sensitive to the nuances of Polidori's emotions, and those of Eliza, a woman who mistakes him for Byron, and falls in love with him.

The imposture of the title is manifold. Polidori's story is passed off by his publisher as by Byron, which creates huge sales, but because of that Polidori cannot make a proper claim on the income from it. Polidori doesn't disabuse Eliza of her mistaken identification, although he intends to. The novelty of having a woman pursue him, having been intimidated by witnessing Byron's conquests, makes him hesitate, and allow the self-seduction. Polidori also passes himself off as a doctor - although trained as one, he's plainly not competent. The whole book is imbued with failure - Polidori has been too close to one so great, and measured himself by comparison, he's a poor doctor, lover, gambler, and even his literary success is stolen from him.

A friend who has a specific interest in Byron and his set got fed up with the inaccuracies of the book, but it is a fiction, just as Byron created fictions about himself. Perhaps such books are better for not knowing the facts behind them.


22 September 2007

Richard Overy - Russia's War

I bought this when in St Petersburg as I wanted to know more about the siege of Leningrad, and the most recent edition about that was too expensive. This has only a short chapter on the siege, but it is a fascinating book by a very good historian.

Overy provides a quick background to Russia before the war, notably the rise of Stalin, and the oppression of the 1930s. This establishes the political environment, and the relationship between Stalin and the Soviet people. Overy is good on the psychology of the dictator, notably his belief that he could read Hitler's intentions, which he posits is the reason for Stalin's infamous breakdown upon the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

There's plenty in here I didn't know - I was very sketchy on the Eastern Front, which is why I was so interested in the book - and the biggest revelation was how badly the British, and French, fucked up a potential alliance with Russia in 1939. Invited by Molotov to send delegations to discuss an arrangement similar to WWI to intimidate Hitler from his expansionist ambitions, both countries sent envoys without sufficient authority to negotiate. This lack of commitment, and disrespect, frustrated Molotov, who responded promptly when Ribbentrop offered a non-aggression pact. Ribbentrop himself went to Moscow, the agreement was worked on in a couple of days, and almost immediately both Germany and Russia swept into Poland. Stalin was happy to have bought some time to rearm - he knew that Russia's military was no match for Germany's at that point, and indeed it still wasn't in 1941, when Germany unexpectedly broke the pact and invaded.

Overy is very good on the psychology of Stalin, although his attempts to understand his subject border on sympathy. He certainly represents Stalin's relationship with Churchill from the perspective of the Russian, who trusted Roosevelt far more. The battle descriptions are overviews, by necessity - there's plenty of other literature on Stalingrad, Moscow, Berlin, Kursk and Leningrad, and this is a summary narrative. The link throughout is Stalin, just as in Germany it was Hitler, but Overy doesn't overdo comparisons between the two.

The huge numbers involved on the Eastern Front are hard to appreciate. Overy talks of 500,000 men lost in a battle, or 3 million Germans captured - bear in mind that Britain had only 250,000 deaths in the whole war. The imbalance of the war is explicit - the Allies had relatively little action between 1940 and 1944, while Russia took the main burden. That they were able to do so, despite being technically outclassed for most of that time, was down to the huge manpower at their disposal, the brutal attitude towards the deployment of these men, but also to the tactics of some very able generals, notably Zhukov. The relationship between Zhukov and Stalin is a key one - the general was one of the few people who could contradict the dictator, and he has the same weight in this story as Kutuzov does in War and Peace. Both men saved Moscow, and therefore the country. Zhukov also saved Leningrad, and devised the plan to save Stalingrad. But when Stalin heard that Zhukov was claiming, after the fall of Berlin, to have won the war, he had him demoted - Stalin needed to be seen as the sole saviour of the country, although he was a poor military tactician.

Reading this has also been preparation for reading Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, which I have since started.


20 September 2007

Malcolm Bradbury - To the Hermitage

This was Bradbury's last novel - he died the year it was published, in 2000. It has a double narrative - the narrator, travelling to St Petersburg on a cruise from Stockholm as part of an undefined 'Diderot Project', and the story of Diderot's trip to the same city in 1773 at the request of Catherine the Great, who had bought his library, but let him use it in his lifetime.

I'm quite fond of Diderot, the little I've read of him (mostly Jacques le Fataliste), and Bradbury's enthusiasm for the wittiest of the Enlightenment philosophers was the genesis of the novel. The Diderot Project is a real group that Bradbury was involved with, inspiring the story, and he has a little fun with stock types, the academic satire he's best known for. That element of the story is the weakest, and the pay-off - that each member of the seemingly unconnected group represents one facet of Diderot's versatile career - is predictable.

More interesting is Bradbury's imagining of Diderot's character and interaction with Catherine. Diderot has notions of an ideal society, but as that involves the absence of monarchs, and the devolution of power, they're not well received. The conclusion, that instead of creating a new Russia he's responsible for the new America, emphasises the great influence of an underrated philosopher - less read than Voltaire or Rousseau, but probably more significant, due to the Encyclopedie, which disseminated the Enlightenment ideas and methods of enquiry.

I started To the Hermitage while in St Petersburg, although I didn't get to the parts set there before I left the city. The city was built as an ideal, in the way that few European cities have been, but many in America have. Peter the Great wanted a new Amsterdam, hence the canals cutting through marshy land, and both he and Catherine sponsored learning and culture - Peter founded the Academy of Sciences, and Catherine the Hermitage, which she filled with art partly bought for her by Diderot. Catherine's tribute to Peter, the famous Bronze Horseman, was built by a sculptor recommended by Diderot - his influence pervades the city, but is now forgotten.

The book is pretty funny - not, according to Auberon Waugh, the funniest book ever written, but Bradbury is an experienced comic writer, and his ironies and wordplay are very entertaining. But it's the depth of the book, the suggestion that Diderot is the founder of the modern world, that stays with the reader.


5 September 2007

Nikolai Gogol - Diary of a Madman and other stories/The Squabble

I'm sure I don't fully appreciate Gogol. He comes with such a weighty reputation - Dostoevsky's famous quote about all Russian writers emerging from under Gogol's Overcoat, Nabokov claiming that he was the greatest ever Russian artist - but his stories are deceptively simple.

There are seven stories in these two collections, including The Overcoat, The Nose and The Diary of a Madman, his most famous. They are variously highly amusing, absurd, tragic and poignant. He anticipates, and influenced, other writers who created a distorted world, semi-real, certainly disturbing - Kafka is the easy example.

Gogol distances himself from his narratives in subtle ways - claiming to have heard the story third-hand, or dismissing its veracity at the end, creating illusions of reality and fiction. Yet the stories are told in a very spare, simple style. The Nose, the most absurd story in the collections, could be a dream - a man wakes up to find his nose is missing, discovers it leading its own life as a civil servant, then on another day wakes up to find his nose restored. Yet the person who cut the nose off, a barber, is outside the potential framing of the dream, so we enter into 'reality' with the loss of the nose prior to the victim's waking up and discovery of his loss.

There have been symbolic interpretations of the story, as with The Overcoat - 'nose' for 'penis' is the most obvious, the story as fear of impotence or castration - but such readings are not necessary, nor implicit.

I saw parallels in The Overcoat with Murnau's The Last Laugh, in which a head porter in a top city hotel loses his job, and his military-style uniform, and therefore his status and dignity. Akaky Akakeyevich, the 'hero' of The Overcoat has become a Russian type - a humble clerk who works hard and makes sacrifices in order to be able to afford an essential new overcoat - hardly a luxury in a Russian winter - and, gaining it, is enhanced in status, as the porter loses his when deprived of his coat. Akaky is then mugged for his coat, fails to find it despite appeals to the police and higher authorities. He dies of an illness caused by the cold, and comes back to haunt the city.

Supposedly many readers see Gogol's sympathy for lower social orders as the most significant aspect of the story, and that is a persistent Russian theme - although isn't it in most national literatures? But is Gogol's moral that one shouldn't strive for more than ones own station, to have an external appearance that belies ones status? Is it a salutary reminder that those things we strive so hard to obtain can be lost in a minute, that all life is fragile? It's the simplicity of the story, resonant and haunting, but the openness of the questions that make it so memorable.


3 September 2007

Fyodor Dostoevsky - Crime and Punishment

I started writing this before I went to St Petersburg, just after rereading the novel for the first time in 15 years. Since then I've seen several places where Dostoevsky lived, including his last house, now a museum, and the study where he wrote The Brothers Karamazov, which was particularly moving. I've also seen the supposed locations of the action of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov's flat, the Haymarket and the pawnbroker's flat, and Dostoevsky's grave.

None of that has particularly illuminated my appreciation of C&P, but given that many of the buildings in which Dostoevsky lived and set his stories still stand, it does provide a mental backdrop for the action. And imagining Dostoevsky himself, in relative poverty, feverishly scribbling his story against a deadline, describing Raskolnikov in his own fever, adds to that.

I first read this when I was about 22, a typical age for it, when the intensity of the prose and the complexity of the themes appeal to the post-adolescent mind. I had considered that maybe when I reread it I'd find that I'd outgrown it, or that perhaps it wasn't as good as I'd found then - as with the Idiot.

But I was wrong, it is a magnificent novel, of course. One of the most remarkable aspects is how Dostoevsky stretches time. The novel takes place over a few days, maybe a week, yet this is represented in 550 pages, seemingly entirely of action with very little digression or flashback.

The police procedural element is much less than I remembered it, and the confrontations between the investigator and Raskolnikov less plausible. But such is the heightened atmosphere of most of the novel, the tension at the interviews pervades the rest of the novel, as it does Raskolnokov's mind.

It's Raskolnikov's mind that's at the centre of the book, of course. Why does he commit the crimes? Is he insane? He compares himself to Napoleon, saying more than once that if the emperor, at the beginning of his career, had to murder one worthless old woman in order to achieve the greater good of ruling France and changing the world, he wouldn't hesitate to do it. That one life is insignificant in comparison to the many other lives that will be sacrificed in later wars.

It's not a naive philosophical point, but for most people it's a mind game, a moral dilemma that wouldn't need to be faced, and indeed Raskolnikov needn't put it to the test. He does so not for money - the little that he takes from the pawnbroker's flat he hides, and has no thought as to where she might keep her fortune - but to prove to himself that he is the 'great man' of his own dreams. He transgresses moral taboos, kills for no good reason, and sets himself outside society. From that point his dislocation is reflected in the urgent narrative.

However, Raskolnikov is not amoral, despite his compulsion to be so. He believes that, in order to be 'great', he has to stand 'above' the petty moral concerns of ordinary men, but he has neither the courage nor the strength to do so - he cowers in panic and paranoia after the event, and although his conscience isn't troubled by the killing, he's afraid of the consequences.

His continuing moral sense is manifested by his attitude to his sister, and to Sonya. His idealisation of Sonya, a simple girl forced into prostitution by the destitution of her family, is part of the same romantic attitude as his idolisation of Napoleon, and comes out of his need for emotional, then spiritual comfort. He protects his sister from a bad marriage to a cynical man.


21 August 2007

Sinclair Lewis - Babbitt

I was recommended this a little while ago, and tracked it down secondhand. I'm very glad I did, it's remarkably good, and much funnier than I expected.

It's a satire of American urban life, written in 1922, and feels in many ways very contemporary. George Babbitt is a real estate salesman in a fictional town in middle America in 1920. He's averagely prosperous, has a wife and 3 kids, and a car, and is involved in the community. Everything's going quite nicely for him, and he doesn't question it.

But then Babbitt starts to feel that maybe his life isn't so satisfying, and maybe he's lacking something. As he considers what he might be lacking, he breaks with his routine, and resists the conforming pressures of his social group. He even starts to sympathise with socialist agitators, to the horror of his colleagues at the club. When he refuses to join a nationalistic society made up of businessmen of the town, he finds his career threatened.

Lewis's satire is very adept, drawing with wit a man of limited scope but enough depth to be sympathetic. The ending is surprising, and a little pessimistic - the conclusion is that the forces of conformity will always win, and that conservatism is the prevailing force in the US.

The influence of Lewis is plain. As an early satire on suburban life, it prefigures Updike (was Rabbit deliberately echoing Babbitt?), and the focus on the ordinary man anticipates Arthur Miller. But the value remains not just in his relevance, but in the quality of the writing and the humour.


20 August 2007

Constance L Hays - Pop

This is a short history of Coke, subtitled Truth and Power at the Coca-Cola Company, from its origins in the 1880s as a restorative served in pharmacies, to the glory expansion years of the 80s under Roberto Goizueta, and to the troubled 1990s.

It's a fascinating story of how a simple soft drink came to represent America throughout the world - cunning marketing in World War 2, where Coke bottling plants were set up alongside troop bases, identified Coke alongside the valiant liberators of Europe and Asia.

The legendary Goizueta was an exiled Cuban, who was a school contemporary of Castro, and whose family lost everything in the revolution. He was already working for Coke at the time, and found a substitute job in Florida, progressing through the 70s to become President, then Chairman and Chief Executive. Modern corporate governance rules advise against the combination of both roles, but in the 80s big autocratic personalities were in, and there were few bigger than Goizueta. His stated aim was for Coke to become the liquid of choice by the majority of people in the world - his market place was not just the cola market, or the soft drink market, but all beverages, including water, tea and milk. He used this argument to counter anti-monopoly suits in Europe, some of which were proposed by Pepsi, and many of which curtailed Coke's attempts to control the entire sales chain.

Hays describes well the central relationship between Coke and its bottlers, a legacy of the initial franchising decisions in the 19th century. The bottlers were the local distributors of Coke - they bought Coca Cola syrup at a fixed price, bottled it and sold it to outlets within a geographical franchise. The local Coke bottler became a significant social figure in America, wealthy, well connected, symbolic of enterprise, community, healthy living, and America. But for Coke, they restricted the potential for growth. Many of the contracts were perpetual, so that the relationship between the Coke company and the bottler couldn't be broken, and the price was tied to the price of sugar. This last was broken by Coke switching from sugar as its principal ingredient to high-fructose corn syrup, a change which has had significant health impacts in the Us not touched upon by Hays.

The former problem was solved by buying up bottlers, and allowing some to consolidate, so that there were fewer, bigger, bottlers. This helped Coke's ability to control marketing and pricing, and Coca Cola Enterprises (CCE) was created as the largest bottler. This was the basis for the growth in the 80s, but also of many of the problems faced by Coke in the 90s.

Hays spends half of the book on the period from 1981 to the present, allowing only one half for the history of almost a century before. This is partly because the recent period has been the most dynamic in Coke's history, but also because her undoubted in-depth research focused on interviews with key personnel from this period. She is good on the personalities of Goizueta and his hardworking but inadequate successor, Doug Ivester, but has a shaky grasp of finances. She says that Coke was doing better than Pepsi at one point because the share price was higher, and throughout attaches great significance to share splits, which are just rebases and have little intrinsic worth. These undermine her credibility a little - how can she be asking the most penetrating questions of ex-Coke executives if she doesn't understand these fundamentals?


Honore de Balzac - The Unknown Masterpiece

This short story by Balzac is very famous and influential, and was adapted into a film by Jacques Rivette (La Belle Noiseuse) It concerns an old painter, a fictional mentor to two historical painters, Pourbus and Poussin. He has spent 10 years trying to complete a painting, originally of a mistress, but he hasn't had a suitable model to complete it. Poussin's mistress, of uncommon beauty, is offered as a model on the condition that the other artists can see this painting, perpetually locked away in the painter's study.

The argument over the display of the mistress and the painting is a commentary on the transience of corporeal beauty against the permanence of art, and the possessiveness of each man to their 'mistress' upon the value of art. The final revelation of the painting provides a further twist, and anticipates arguments about art which would be held a century later.

The companion story in this collection, Gambara, is similarly about the nature of creativity, although in this case about a composer and instrument maker. I found this less successful, and the long explanations of an opera composed by the title character tedious and hard to follow.

In both stories Balzac describes the obsessiveness of the creative act, and the delusions that artists express in support of their works. There are also parallels between the first story and Sarrasine, with direct allusions to Pygmalion in both stories - both are about an artist trying to replicate his ideal of beauty, but in Sarrasine he is deceived by the object, and in The Unknown Masterpiece by the replication.


13 August 2007

Emile Zola - Germinal

I approached this book, which has legendary status in France, and in world literature, with no preconceptions and little knowledge of its subject. It's quite refreshing to approach the classics in this way, and it rarely happens with English novels.

The first thing that strikes you is Zola's narrative skill. The first 10 chapters or so are set on one day, when Etienne Lantier arrives in a mining village looking for work, and finds food, accommodation and a job. In those chapters Zola sets up the novel, presenting the physical aspect of the mine, and the history and politics behind it, but always through the narrative, using the characters naturally to develop and expand the scene.

It's a large and complex novel that Zola keeps control of for most of its length. There is a descent into sentimentality towards the end, and implausibility, but for the first half the rigorous realism, and vigorous action, are compelling. It's a very physical book, all about the striving of the men and women underground, and their hunger, and lots of sex. The sex is just a part of the narrative, it's treated in an unsensational way, remarkable for the period, and startling when compared to contemporary English literature, such as Hardy.

The politics in Germinal is directly Marxist - Marx is quoted, and the International is in the background supporting the strike. This may be the reason for its continuing popularity in France, more Socialist than Britain, and perhaps why Zola is less popular in England than he once was. Maybe there's an assumption that, stripped of its dated politics, there's little left of Zola, but that's certainly not true.

Zola's recurring theme of the inheritance of personality traits, which features throughout the Rougon-Macquart cycle, is not very significant in Germinal, although it is mentioned. Etienne is supposedly hotheaded and prone to rages, which isn't an implausible character trait of itself, and the inheritance of it appears unnecessary.

Zola's thorough research is evident throughout, from the details of working down a mine, to that of the life of miners during a strike. There is some implausibility and inconsistency though - a family who were near starvation living upon the earnings of several mining family members manage to survive for several months without any income beyond charity, which runs out soon. Zola doesn't address that issue with the closeness he applied to the first few chapters.

The scenes of the uprising and the strike are hugely energetic and vivid, and show Zola at his best - vigorous action supported by strong characters.As the narrative develops, the tragedies become a little relentless, and the ending is excruciatingly sentimental, and indeed implausible - Zola is unaware that lack of oxygen would have killed the trapped miners before lack of food.

But that's a quibble when set against the huge ambition, and success, of this novel. Zola is often accused of being too political, and lacking humour, but in Germinal his intense attitude has its greatest expression.


31 July 2007

Cyrano de Bergerac - Journey to the Moon

In common with most people, I only know of Cyrano de Bergerac through Rostand's play, dimly aware that he was a real 17th century writer and playwright. Rostand in fact took some elements of Cyrano - his appearance, legendary swordsmanship and fondness of duels, and great wit - and elaborated a romance around it to create a new hero.

It's a little disappointing to find that Cyrano didn't live to old age, but died at the age of 36, leaving a couple of plays, and some heretical works published after his death. Journey to the Moon is the most famous of them, a satire in which the narrator travels to the moon by ingenious means, and discovers a population there that lives in ways contrary to those on earth.

De Bergerac prefigures Swift in imagining travel to a distant land, and discovery of a race of people similar to man, but superior in reasoning, to comment on and satirise his own society. Much of the narrative is taken up with discussion of scientific speculations, which may seem a bit bewildering now, but it must be remembered that the mid 17th century was a time when strict Aristotelian natural philosophy was being countered by empiricism and observation, and attempts to synthesise theories of 'humours' and 'elements' and alchemical beliefs with new discoveries.

De Bergerac shows some familiarity with scientific learning of the time, and his speculations, about the existence of vacuums, or the nature of atoms, are entertaining if wide of the mark.

He's more daring when discussing religion, being openly transgressive by disrespecting prophets in his imagined Garden of Eden, having his narrator profess atheism, and discussing the existence of the soul. As the introduction suggests, he was a true libertine, in terms of free thought as well as free living, and one wonders what else he might have produced had he lived.


Honore de Balzac - Sarrasine

This notable short story is famous as the subject of an essay by Barthes, S/Z, who broke it down into separate units for close analysis. It's a very early Balzac story, and as such is remarkable for its complexity.

A man, attempting to seduce a woman at a ball, tells her the story of Sarrasine, a man who becomes obsessed by a singer, Zambinella, whose beauty and voice enchant him. His obsession grows until he is compelled to declare his love, and is gently rejected. He plots to abduct Zambinella, who is a favourite at the court, and when he does he discovers, as he had been warned, that 'she' is a man, a castrato. The shock of this revelation leads to a catastrophic ending.

Balzac plays with the ambiguity of his story, and with the language, in a way that isn't translatable - 'son' et 'sa' are used where English can only have either 'his' or 'her', for example, while the gender of the possessor isn't revealed in French, but assumed. He refers to legends of androgyny - the beauty of Adonis, the strength of Sappho - and the transgression of the story is evident throughout. It has a feeling of a fantasy, connected through these legends to past stories,but it's rooted through the fact of castrati in present reality. It also plays on the fear of men - that the object of their desire isn't what they want, and of course submerged homosexuality.

The second story in this Hesperus edition is a slightly strange one about a love affair between a man and a panther, which ends tragically.


Honore de Balzac - Eugenie Grandet

This is one of Balzac's earliest novels, and one of his best. It is, as with most of his works, concerned primarily with money and inheritance, and the darker impulses of men which interested him.

Monsieur Grandet is a cooper and winegrower who, by assiduous harbouring of his wealth, and good business dealing, has come to accumulate a fortune. Very few people are aware of this, not even his wife or daughter, the eponymous Eugenie, due to his compulsive secrecy and obsessive scrimping. Only his lawyer and his banker, who compete to provide a match for Eugenie from their families, know about his riches.

Grandet is a fabulously drawn character, a miser, but not a caricature. Balzac observes him close-up, and creates a consistent, although terrifying man, all emotions sacrificed to the obsessive, and pointless, accumulation of wealth, to the exclusion of even his own family. A criticism of Balzac is his cynicism - he finds avaricious, malicious people more interesting, so his novels are dominated by them, and Grandet is an extreme example.

Eugenie is less interesting to begin with, not just because she is good, but because she is a child, simple and without many character traits, so she genuinely has less interest. As she grows more bold, and then hard, her character develops, but still the heart of the book is with her father. Balzac's rhapsodising over Eugenie never convinces, it feels forced and not true to life as he observed it.

Grandet is a sort of counterpoint to Pere Goriot. Both are obsessed and ambitious, but whereas Goriot sacrifices himself for the sake of his daughters, Grandet sacrifices his family for his own sake, to the extent of forcing his daughter to forgo her inheritance from her mother so that he doesn't have to disclose his wealth. He is a monster, but such is Balzac's skill that he isn't implausible.


29 July 2007

Philip Roth - Everyman

Continuing a run of books written by Phils, I tried this latest Roth. I've only read a couple of his before - Portnoy's Complaint, of course, and American Pastoral, and I don't yet have a handle on what makes him so great.

This is a serious work, concerned with mortality - it opens with the funeral of the main character, and most of it details the ailments he's suffered in his life. He's had a major cardiovascular operation every year for 6 years, and on the eve of the last one, from which he won't wake, he recalls his life, and the mistakes he has made.

By the end of his life he has had three marriages, and two estranged sons. His brother, a spectacular overachiever, Goldman partner, with a successful marriage and four children, has always supported him, but in the end his envy, and shame at his own frailty and relative failure leads him to, unjustly reject him.

The main character is not named - he is 'Everyman', not just symbolic of any man, but also of the medieval allegorical play, whose subject is the summoning of the living to death. It's a calling to account of a man for his life, and as such it has a universal resonance. It's also about the frailty of the human body - for a long part of the book, every character is defined by the ailments they've suffered.

There's an unresolved element to the book, of whether Roth intends for the character's ailments to stand for his moral failings, how he has treated his wives and family, or whether it's his own lack of direction and self-respect which have led to both. He considers the contrast between his brother's life and his own to be down to luck, but plainly he made moral and career choices, and these are also general in their symbolism - we all make these choices, we all envy those who make different ones.

In the end I found this unsatisfying. Maybe if I reread it in 20 or 30 years time it will resonate more, but it's very tightly written and with some irony.


25 July 2007

Philip Hensher - The Mulberry Empire

I don't usually read historical fiction, it doesn't appeal so much. I think it might be to do with the perceptible strain of an author trying to lever in as much of his research as possible, which distracts from the narrative, and perhaps the inconsistencies and anachronisms arising when applying 20th/21st century dialogue to historical settings. I'd much rather read a writer from that period, than one from now reimagining the period.

But this book had been recommended by several people, as had Hensher in general, so I gave it a go. It's really pretty good. Early on I felt that Hensher loved his own prose a little too much, and that the narrative dragged, but as it developed his presentation of the central characters was convincing.

It is a story of great relevance to today, set during the British war in Afghanistan of the 1830s, but its immediate pertinence is inadvertent and fortuitous - the book was finished in early 2001, before 9/11 which precipitated the invasion.

The research, largely from memoirs by the real protagonists, is worn lightly, and Hensher is most interested in the motivations of each of the characters. He tells a story of great folly - the English hubris in attempting to usurp the Afghan throne in order to control the region - close-up, and without commentary.

The scenes back in England are lesser, although well-observed, and tend to an unsatisfying lack of resolution, but overall the book has a good sense of atmosphere and purpose. I'll definitely read the other Henshers I have on the back of this.


19 July 2007

Philippe Sands - Lawless World

Philippe Sands is an international lawyer, a QC, and a barrister at Matrix Chambers, where Cherie Booth practises. He is highly respected and renowned for his experience and expertise, having helped to negotiate many international treaties, including Kyoto, and being currently a Professor at UCL. He is thus a very competent and trustworthy guide to the basics of international law, from the Atlantic Charter to Kyoto.

This book, subtitled 'The whistle-blowing account of how Bush and Blair are taking the law into their own hands', analyses the ways in which the Bush administration have subverted international law, in multiple areas, which has led them into a war without legitimacy, and to lose the respect, trust and cooperation of much of the international community, notably excluding Britain.

Sands's style is very clear, he's pitched this to a lay audience, and is very aware that it needs to be led through the issues under discussion, and he does that as you'd expect a law professor might. Despite his obvious underlying frustration with the US administration, this book isn't a polemic, and his own views rarely surface. This is a dissection of where the US have acted in breach of international laws and treaties, and the problems consequent upon those actions, refreshingly free of speculation or hyperbole.

He opens the book with the story of the attempted extradition from England of General Pinochet by a Spanish prosecutor, for offences against Spaniards committed while he was leader of Chile. This is relevant because it was found that Pinochet's state immunity didn't apply for offences with international import, such as torture or genocide. The decision, by the British law lords, had great resonance, particularly in America where ideas of sovereignty of the state outweigh those of international cooperation. There certain political leaders, past and present, were offended by the idea that they could be held to account by a foreign court for crimes committed in the service of the USA. Attention focused on Henry Kissinger, particularly for his known complicity in the Chilean coup of 1973, but events since the Pinochet case have exposed other civilian leaders to this risk.

This leads into America's opposition to the International Criminal Court. While I was aware of that stance, there's a lot in this book I didn't know, such as the USA's withholding of military aid to any country who assists with the ICC. This blackmail has been effective for smaller states, although it hasn't been applied to countries such as Britain, who have backed the ICC vigorously. Sands shows how the USA's opposition is paranoid and inaccurate - there are safeguards to prevent rogue prosecutors from launching speculative actions - and how the ICC has been demonised by deliberate misinformation as it runs counter to a neocon philosophy of American supremacy.

Subsequent chapters, on Kyoto and trade deals, are informed by Sands's involvement in negotiating treaties and acting on behalf of countries in court cases, but he never puts himself at the centre of the discussion, and uses his examples to illuminate the issues. He shows how the US will use international law where it suits them - in trade, most notably, where they recognise the future advantages of being seen to abide by multilateral rules.

But the meat of this book is in the chapters dealing with Iraq. There is a forensic analysis of how the Security Council was bypassed, which was known at the time - I remember railing against it with much the same information that Sands presents here - but which has been much forgotten since. The argument is as follows:

1. The US had decided to invade Iraq to get rid of Saddam. The motivations for this are various, and not immediately relevant.
2. An unprovoked war is an international crime, of aggression, so the pretext they used was that Saddam was an immediate or imminent threat to the US or its allies, due to its ongoing WMD weapons programme.
3. In order to get international sanction for this, the US proceeded through the Security Council, expecting, it seemed, that Hans Blix would discover WMDs and justify their action.
4. SC resolution 1441 bound Iraq to comply with the investigation, and that serious (but, crucially undetermined) consequences would follow non-compliance.
5. Specifically, and I remember this clearly from news reports at the time, SC member countries were assured that 1441 had 'no trigger points' and 'no automaticity' - the words of John Negroponte, the US Ambassador to the UN. Countries voted for the resolution explicitly on this basis, that they would have another discussion as to sanctions or action required if Iraq didn't comply. This is critical.
6. There was an attempt to get a second resolution, for war, which failed, despite frantic efforts.
7. The US and British governments decided that the second resolution wasn't needed after all - so why did they go to such efforts to secure it? - and that 1441 was sufficient - even though the countries who voted for it had been explicit that they weren't agreeing to war. This is so transparent, it's incredible that none of the MPs that voted for war raised the point.
8. Hans Blix's final report before the war was that Iraq was complying with their investigations, and that no WMDs had been found. All the same, Tony Blair decided that Iraq was in material breach of its obligations, despite the fact it wasn't his call - it was up to the Security Council to make that judgement.

In order to back up his decision, Blair relied upon the Attorney General's opinion, which Sands savages, with lawyerly rapier cuts, as being inconsistent with previous opinions, and plainly influenced at the last minute by US pressure. He spends a whole chapter on this, such is its importance - many MPs wouldn't have voted for war had there not been such an opinion, and the Chief of the Defence Staff insisted on it.

There are other chapters on Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the torture policy of the US, which, coincidentally, Bush announced yesterday. He shows how the argument that the President can authorise any means necessary to pursue America's wars, as Commander in Chief, is not only contrary to international treaties that the US is party to, but could also be used to justify genocide. It is contrary to the Geneva Conventions, which Alberto Gonzalez, then the White House Counsel, now, frighteningly, Attorney General, despite his manifest incompetence and lack of independence, dismissed as irrelevant, and the 1984 UN Convention against Torture.

The US, belatedly, is seeing how its lack of concern for these fundamental treaties has affected its reputation, and more importantly legitimacy around the world. Moral credibility is critical when trying to establish relationships and influence in hostile areas, and the US has lost a lot due to bull-headed and near-sighted officials and advisers. It seems that they are recognising the damage this has done, although Bush's announcement yesterday is still the US interpreting the Geneva Conventions for their own convenience, when they are non-negotiable. The test is - would they accept other countries, such as Syria, freely interpreting or ignoring the Geneva Conventions?

This is an excellent book, of great clarity and rigour, which shows just how important it is that the leaders of the world abide by the rules their forbears established.


6 July 2007

Richard Layard - Happiness

Richard Layard is, supposedly, a new economics guru, holding a position that Charles Leadbetter did a decade ago. As Leadbetter was adopted by Tony Blair for his writing on social entrepreneurship, Layard has been taken up by David Cameron (see this speech) for his theory of social happiness. Sound a bit woolly? It sure is.

Layard's ideas, such as they are, develop from Utilitarianism, as defined by Bentham and then John Stuart Mill. This is a philosophy that the greatest good arises from what brings the greatest happiness to most people. An old, well-established theory that Layard claims to update, calling it a 'science of happiness'.

So what makes this a science? Well, essential characteristics of a science are that it is definable, measurable and testable. And Layard tries to satisfy these conditions. He says that we know when people are happy because we can ask them. And we know that their responses are consistent across nations because we ask similar questions and use large samples and get similar responses.

A lot of the beginning of the book is taken up with showing that we can measure happiness, through MRI scans, and there's a lot of references to research, although in a frustratingly vague way. He will refer to four surveys within one paragraph, then assume that the argument has been concluded and move on.

Much of the book is like this, and more of it is just conjecture. There's no economic theory here, just airy optimistic waffle about how societies function better through cooperation rather than rampant self-interest, how taxation is good, and we should give to the third world because it makes us feel better. It's flimsy stuff.

If you're seeking happiness, don't read this book, it won't fulfil.


1 July 2007

Stefan Zweig - Twilight

This small volume has a couple of short stories by Zweig - Twilight and Moonbeam Alley. The second is very short, by Zweig's standards, and a story of obsessive love, sex and money. The first is an imagined recreation of the last days of Madame de Prie, the mistress of the Duke of Bourbon in the 1720s who fell out of favour and was exiled from Versailles. This was the King's response to the collapse of John Law's financial enterprise, which led to widespread unrest as people caught by the burst bubble ended up bankrupt.

Zweig imagines de Prie's despair at her exile, deprived not just of her influence - she had been the most powerful woman in France, and had chosen the King's wife for him - but of any social life. As she still has money, she hosts some balls at her country estate, to bring society to her, as she is not allowed to go to it, but the prospect of another couple of years exile is too much for her, so almost out of pique she kills herself, hoping, in vain, that she would at least attain some immortality through that.

The fact that de Prie is now forgotten is part of Zweig's point - the futility of vanity, striving for fame and influence for its own sake.


Stefan Zweig - Confusion

This is a very deceptive novella. It's a memoir by a retiring privy councillor of his student days, and the influence upon him of one particular tutor. The student, having briefly indulged himself in Berlin instead of studying, is admonished by his father, and drops out to enrol in a provincial university, studying English. There he encounters a tutor of mesmerising charisma, who stimulates him intellectually, and for the first time exposes him to the excitement of study.

The student becomes obsessed with the tutor, and when he finds out that he has never published a planned work on Shakespeare, encourages him to do so by offering to take dictation. Their close collaboration increases the student's admiration, but also complicates it, as he's also attracted to the tutor's young wife.

The student's attraction is clearly platonic - it's made clear that he's attracted to women - but it turns out that that of the tutor for the student is not. The revelation and explanation are handled with a delicacy typical of Zweig, and expressed through the inexperienced eyes of the student.

This story of frustrated homosexual love and repression was published in 1927. Even considering the adventurous environment of 1920s Berlin, homosexuality was a crime in Germany, and remained so until 1968. Zweig's description of the tutor's ordeals - seeking out sex in back streets, marrying a boyish young girl, with whom he can't sustain a physical relationship, suffering taunts and risking blackmail and disbarment - is candid and sympathetic, and perhaps linked to the natural sympathy of a Jewish-German intellectual for other persecuted outsiders.


29 June 2007

Tim Harford - The Undercover Economist

I wonder if there's scope for a pop-economics book on the effect of pop-economics books on the behaviour of the population. There are so many out there at the moment - Freakonomics was the last bestseller - and this one is added to the pile.

Harford is an FT columnist and economics writer of some experience, and this book attempts to explain real-world phenomena in terms of basic economic theories - Ricardo and Adam Smith, for example. It's hard to do this right - identifying the audience is tricky. Should he expect them to have a basic understanding of economics, or assume no knowledge at all? Harford tends towards the latter, which means that much of the book is quite simple, but he manages to illuminate a few things even for people who are used to seeing the world in economic terms.

He starts off with the example of coffee shops, something that people can readily identify with. Why is coffee so expensive, and why are there different prices for different coffees? His explanations are lucid, and appear obvious - coffee is sold at a price that people are willing to pay for it (if they weren't, the price would drop) and the high rents coffee shops pay for prime sites are determined less by the landlord and more by the coffee price - competing retailers bid up the price of rent according to what they can afford to pay.

Harford introduces subtle concepts such as marginal rents, comparative advantage and scarcity value, which he repeats like a mantra. This is more of an economics primer than Freakonomics, which was a little specious in its attempt to illuminate economic oddities by showing examples from the fringes. He tries to show why Cameroon is poor and China is rich, with more success in the latter case than the former, but the last couple of chapters lack structure.

Although I learnt a bit from this book, it was neither as entertaining nor as informative as it might have been - I felt it fell between the two.


28 June 2007

Nicholas Mosley - Time at War

Nicholas Mosley is most famous for being the son of Oswald Mosley. This was true in 1939, and, despite his best efforts, and a distinguished career as a novelist, it remains true now he's 84. He gave up the struggle to get out of his father's shadow when he wrote his biography, having been handed the task by Oswald himself, despite their political opposition and occasional estrangement.

Mosley junior had a brief but distinguished war experience, earning an MC in a skirmish in Italy, and always planned to write an epic novel or memoir about it. Now, 60 years later, he's got round to it with this slim volume.

Too young at 16 to join up at the start of the war, Mosley volunteered upon leaving Eton before he was conscripted, and was trained in a rifle regiment. He was worried that his stammer might preclude him getting a commission - the prospect of an officer being unable to get his words out under fire being a serious consideration - but a string pull saw him through (not his last)

His memoir has been reconstructed from letters he wrote and received at the time, many to his father - debating Nietszche, mostly - and convey not just his physical experience of war, but his spiritual debates at the time, and mostly his desire for knowledge, in that hungry gap between school and university. Occasionally he comes across as a prig, but the old Mosley is well aware of it and punctures his youthful pretentions as a philosopher or literary critic.

Mosley is certainly a good writer, and witty, and in this brief memoir you see the genesis of some of his ideas - his opposition to war, and to fascism, and attitude to religion and sexuality. I've only read one of his novels, his most notable one, which has themes of war and sexuality, and am encouraged to read some of the others I have.


Kiran Desai - The Inheritance of Loss

The Desais, mother and daughter, have much in common - both were educated and have worked in both India and America, both have written novels about the contrast between the two countries, and both have been recognised by the Booker committee, mother nominated three times, daughter winning with this, her second novel. And on the basis of the last two books I've read, the daughter is a superior writer.

This book has much more depth than Fasting, Feasting, more detail and humour, and is more politically engaged. The structure is balanced, alternating between the story of a family unit - grandfather, a retired judge, granddaughter, cook - in North Eastern India in the mid 80s during political unrest, and the cook's son, scrabbling to survive in New York's restaurant kitchens as an illegal worker. The judge recalls his experience in going to England to study, and the effect it had on him, turning him into a not-quite-Indian, not-quite-English member of the Indian Civil Service, with arrogance and affectations, and a fear of women.

Desai is strongest in the emotional detail, of the granddaughter's budding romance, the cook's son's frustration, the judge's distance. Where Anita Desai uses a broad brush, Kiran has a fine one, and pinpoints attitudes and feelings expertly. This is likely to be a bestselling Booker, deservedly, rather than a forgotten one.


25 June 2007

Anita Desai - Fasting, Feasting

This novel had some reasonable acclaim when it was published in 1999, and a Booker shortlist nomination, but I didn't find it very satisfying. Neither as funny nor as moving as claimed, it has mostly plastic characters, and a relentless, downbeat tone of rejection and isolation.

The life of Uma, a plain woman dominated by her parents, tricked out of marriage 3 times and prevented from gaining either education or self-respect, is contrasted with that of Arun, her brother who is given every opportunity, goes to university in America, but finds himself alienated and unhappy. There is some wit, and a little substance to the social comment, but it's pretty light stuff.


22 June 2007

Martin Gardner - Did Adam and Eve have navels?

Martin Gardner is a veteran American science writer - very veteran, as he's 93 this year, and this book was published only 7 years ago. He's notable for popularising mathematics, and also for 'debunking pseudoscience', which is the subtitle of this book. In addition he's published The Annotated Alice, so has a wide range of interests and competence.

This book also has a wide range, being articles written for Skeptical Enquirer, the magazine of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), co-founded by Gardner and the magician and fraud-buster James Randi, among others. Targets include Creationism, Intelligent Design, UFOs, Urine Therapy, Homeopathy and other pseudo-medicines, Freud and numerology. I say 'targets', but Gardner is actually remarkably soft, and makes few strikes.

His style is to list the attributes of each 'pseudoscience', the practitioners, and some history, to use a few quotes and then leave it, as if just presenting the facts on the page condemns them. Occasionally he'll say that a theory is preposterous, but he almost never says why. This is very frustrating, given so many of his subjects are open goals for a knowledgeable scientist who knows about empirical methods. I'd hoped that the book would be more like the excellent Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, but too often it disappointed. Perhaps Gardner was always like this, or perhaps, like Alistair Cooke, he's lost his bite in his dotage. Never mind, there are tips in here towards further reading, such as Stephen Jay Gould, who I've neglected until now (but then, I haven't even read any Dawkins yet)

Bad Science


20 June 2007

Michael Chabon - The Final Solution

Arthur Conan-Doyle is held in genuine respect and affection by 'serious' modern writers, less so for his style, which is limited and functional, than for being the creator (or major developer) of a genre, and for inspiring them to read as young boys. Recently a couple of the stars of modern fiction, Julian Barnes and Michael Chabon, have paid homage to ACD, Barnes by novelising a true incident in his life, and Chabon by writing a new Holmes story.

Neither, wisely, attempts to imitate ACD's style. Barnes's spare, emotionally precise prose is well-suited to portraying Doyle's inner-life and its repressions. Chabon's novella , while initially structured like a Holmes story, is written with an inward gaze that Doyle would not have considered. It's very much a Chabon story.

Sherlock Holmes (never named in the book) is now 89 and living out his long retirement keeping bees down in Sussex. He is called upon to help in a murder in the neighbouring vicarage (so far so cliched), and the disappearance of a parrot - animals are a classic Holmes story essential. With typical insight he dismisses the police's first suspect, and eventually tracks down the murderer, via a misdirection or two.

As a Holmes story, it isn't particularly satisfying. The slight twist at the end is neat and resonant, but doesn't really impact on the story in retrospect as it might. Chabon's strengths, of characterisation, emotional description and insight, work to make this a fun modern novella, but not a Doyle story.The no-nonsense Doyle approach - description and analysis, with a touch of wry humour, then into the action - loved by young boys precisely because of its emotional shallowness, is the style most suited to the genre. Chabon's ventriloquism overreaches when he has one chapter in the mind of the parrot. But I've no doubt though that Chabon's newest novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, will succeed as his previous ones have.


19 June 2007

Peter Carey - Theft: A Love Story

Carey has been acclaimed by a well-read acquaintance as possibly the best author currently writing in English, so I thought it was time I read one of his books. I read half of Illywhacker about 20 years ago, but felt it might be better to try a more recent work.

Theft: A Love Story is in a fashionable modern genre - the lit fic art history mystery. Frayn's Headlong is another example. The genre is useful for modern writers as it enables them to use art as a proxy for literature - the creative act being a major obsession - and also to have characters having intelligent discussions, displaying the author's research. Frayn wore this last too obviously; Carey is more subtle than that, and his descriptions of painting techniques feel less like lectures than Frayn's digressions on Bruegel.

Theft has two narrators - Michael Boone, a forgotten Australian artist, and his brother Hugh, a huge lunk, damaged and socially incapable, but occasionally insightful. These two narrators revolve around each other, Hugh dependent upon Michael, as the action moves from Sydney to Tokyo and then New York. The plot evolves with increasing tension and involvement, as Michael is dragged into an art fraud, and his loyalties are stretched between a woman and his brother.

Carey's strength is characterisation, and more his ability to create character through narrative voice. While I haven't read his previous works, The True History of the Kelly Gang was noted for its supposed authenticity of voice, and that's evident here. Hugh, in particular, has a stumbling grace to his narration, and there's an energy and anger to both men that drives the story forward.