Recently, a discussion by the Usual Suspects of Dorothy L Sayers’s classic crime novel ranged far and wide. The plot is famously convoluted; the characters are numerous and colorful, and the depiction of a small, remote English village is vivid and evocative. And then, of course, there are those bells…
The English art of change ringing is the beating heart of The Nine Tailors. Indeed, Tailor Paul is actually the name of one of the bells rung in the parish church at Fenchurch St. Paul, the village at the center of the mystery. There is a saying, “Nine tailors make a man,” which has been construed in several ways:
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (2009), “nine tailors make a man” refers to the fact that a gentleman must select his clothing from a range of sources. However, numerous historical sources illuminate another meaning related to change ringing: the practice of ringing a death knell, or passing bell. In small villages in England the sickly or ill would be common knowledge to the people who lived within hearing of the church bell. The bell–typically the tenor, or lowest bell–would be rung to mark the death, and people could deduce who had died according to the number of times the bell sounded. Old wood carving
Local variances could be found around Britain, but the universal tolling-bell, or “teller,” to denote a deceased male was rung nine times. In many places six “tells” indicated a woman, and three indicated a child, so “nine tellers mark a man.”
You can see how the bell both “tolled” and “told” the death of someone in the village, and how over the years “teller” became “tailor” and “mark” became “make.”
Another article worth a look is “The Science of Mysteries: For Whom the Bells Toll,” part of a series that has appeared in Scientific American. The article opens with this observation: “A Twitter exchange recently revealed that certain members of the small subset of science writers who were humanities majors, also have a shared taste for classic mysteries.” Please be on the watch for the spoiler warning in this article. Wikipedia also has a detailed entry on change ringing.
Some of us also sought the aid of Wikipedia in order to get the plot of The Nine Tailors firmly fixed in our minds. Well, we had to laugh when comparing notes: we had trouble getting even that relatively lucid summary to resolve itself into something comprehensible! That of course is the point at which you decide either to give up or to enjoy other aspects of the novel. Most of us chose the latter course.
Frank, himself an aspiring author of crime fiction, is always especially interested in how plotting is handled in the books we read. He was deeply impressed with this novel, which, while complex in its structure, always plays fair with the reader. Not previously being a reader of Sayers’s works, he asked us whether all her plots were this “twisty” (good term for it). After a hasty consultation, we replied in the negative, though even the confirmed Wimsey fans among us hadn’t recently read any of the other novels in the series (although Mike, our excellent leader and an ardent fan of Sayers, led us in a discussion of Murder Must Advertise not long ago).
The Wimsey series is strangely bifurcated. Courtesy of Wikipedia, here’s a list of the eleven novels in the series, along with their publication dates. (There are also several short story collections):
- Whose Body? (1923)
- Clouds of Witness (1926)
- Unnatural Death (1927)
- The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
- Strong Poison (1931)
- Five Red Herrings (1931)
- Have His Carcase (1932)
- Murder Must Advertise (1933)
- The Nine Tailors (1934)
- Gaudy Night (1935)
- Busman’s Honeymoon (1937)
Harriet Vane first appears in Strong Poison; subsequently she appears in Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon. Among other things, these books chart the course of her love affair with Lord Peter Wimsey, a course that is anything but smooth. But as the Bard is wont to remind us, that’s typical of true love, and this particular love is, despite various obstacles, strong and true and does win out in the end. In reference to Frank’s question, cited above, I wonder if the Harriet Vane novels are less intensely plotted so that Sayers can concentrate more on the evolution of the relationship.
BBC Television filmed and broadcast five of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels from 1972 to 1975. They are Clouds of Witness, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Five Red Herrings, Murder Must Advertise, and The Nine Tailors. Edward Petherbridge portrayed Wimsey in three out of four of the Harried Vane titles in 1987. (The BBC were apparently not able to secure the rights for Busman’s Honeymoon.) I’ve watched all of the episodes multiple times. I like what Wikipedia says about them:
Both sets of adaptations were critically successful, with both Carmichael and Petherbridge’s respective performances being widely praised, however both portrayals are quite different from one another: Carmichael’s Peter is eccentric, jolly and foppish with occasional glimpses of the inner wistful, romantic soul, whereas Petherbridge’s portrayal was more calm, solemn and had a stiff upper lip, subtly downplaying many of the character’s eccentricities.
From time to time, one encounters speculation that Sayers invented Harriet Vane as a surrogate for herself, so that she could become, in her imagination at least, Lord Peter’s lover. Harriet and Dorothy L. Sayers share some commonalities: both are Oxford graduates – among the earliest women to become so – and both write crime fiction. Unlike her creation, however, Sayers was never brought up on a murder charge!
There were, in fact, other good reasons for Sayers to insert Harriet Vane into the Lord Peter novels:
In creating Harriet Vane, who appears in four of the twelve Lord Peter Wimsey novels, Sayers was able to comment from within about the genre and its shortcomings, detailing Harriet’s relationships with her publisher, agent, fans, the press, and the snobbish literary scene. The personal concerns of the self-sufficient writer are expanded in Gaudy Night into a richly detailed examination of women’s education, career opportunities, and marriage prospects in a society not quite recovered from one war and sliding helplessly into the next.
From “Second Glance: Dorothy Sayers and the Last Golden Age” by Joanna Scutts, in Open Letters Monthly
I’ve frequently quoted the thoughts that Sayers ascribes to Harriet in Gaudy Night as she once again enters the precincts of Shrewsbury, her Oxford University alma mater:
They can’t take this away, at any rate. Whatever I may have done since, this remains. Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University;… a place achieved, inalienable, worthy of reverence.
I like to think of the deep satisfaction Dorothy L Sayers must have been feeling as she typed those words.
One more thing about my revisiting of The Nine Tailors. I was struck this time by the extreme insularity of Fenchurch St Paul. It almost seemed like a village out of time, a sort of Brigadoon. (I’m currently listening to The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny, and it occurs to me that she depicts the Quebecois village of Three Pines in much the same way.)
Wimsey’s devotion to the town, its people and the unfolding of the crime opens unexpected windows onto an English culture flailing to right itself after the lingering disruptions caused by the First World War. A friend warned me I might find the novel “a little dated” when she gave me her copy this summer. It was anything but. This is literary mystery perfect for the dialogue-devotees of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. Sayers’ smart descriptions of peculiar English customs like change-ringing, and of the arcane engineering marvels that for centuries kept her East Anglia from drowning in annual spring floods, sparkle every bit as much as the affectionate portraits she paints of her characters, even those with minor roles.
From “What I’m Reading: The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L Sayers,” by Jon Nagy in Notre Dame Magazine.
Mike provided us with excellent background on Dorothy L Sayers, a brilliant woman whose life had more than its share of pain and difficulty – but, one senses, had its moments of real happiness and satisfaction as well.
If you ever have the opportunity to listen to Ian Carmichael’s reading of The Nine Tailors, you will encounter as bravura an audio performance as I’ve ever experienced. Carmichael gets the accents of the “locals” just right. He seems to be enacting numerous roles all on his own. And the drama at the novel’s climax…well, it’s just terrific.
Our group was generally positive about this novel, although quite a few of us were challenged to follow the threads of the plot. And more than one person commented that there was more than enough material on the bells. Of course Reverend Theodore Venables would undoubtedly disagree – he simply could not get enough on the subject! In the 1993 biography Dorothy L Sayers: Her Life and Soul, Barbara Reynolds observes the following concerning Sayers’s father, the Reverend Henry Sayers, MA:
Six years after his death, his unworldly and self-effacing personality was to be tenderly evoked in The Nine Tailors in the lovable character of the Reverend Theodore Venables, rector of Fenchurch St. Paul.
Sometimes you read a book that redirects your mind. An interest that hovered at the periphery is suddenly at dead center. A previously unknown artist captivates. People and places take up residence in your head, demanding attention which you grant willingly, happily.
All this and more came to me courtesy of Paul Theroux’s deeply felt, wonderfully realized travelogue.
The subtitle”Four Seasons on the Back Roads” is meaningful. Theroux had no interest in visiting places like Charleston and Savannah; rather, he wanted to see what life is like for people in the small towns that dot the landscape of Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
This happened in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, at the beginning of the author’s southern travels:
He was sitting in his car trying to determine the location of the Cornerstone Full Gospel Baptist Church. A woman in the car beside him asked if he was lost. He explained that he was a stranger, to which she replied “Ain’t no strangers here, baby.” Introducing herself as Lucille, she offered to lead him to the church. When she had done so, he thanked her. She responded with two words: “Be blessed.”
That seemed to be the theme in the Deep South: kindness, generosity, a welcome. I had found it often in my traveling life in the wider world, but I found so much more of it here that I kept going, because the good will was like an embrace. Yes, there is a haunted substratum of darkness in Southern life, and though it pulses through many interactions, it takes a long while to perceive it, and even longer to understand.
I sometimes had long days, but encounters like the one with Lucille always lifted my spirits and sent me deeper into the South, to out-of-the-way churches like the Cornerstone Full Gospel, and to places so obscure, such flyspecks on the map, they were described in the rural way as “you gotta be going there to get there.”
On the subject of traveling in America, Theroux quotes this comment by Henry James: “One’s supreme relation…was one’s relation to one’s country.” Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? And did he actually do much traveling in his native land?
At any rate, Theroux continues:
With this in mind, after having seen the rest of the world, I had planned to take one long trip through the South in the autumn, before the presidential election of 2012, and write about it. But when that trip was over I wanted to go back, and I did so, leisurely in the winter, renewing acquaintances. That was not enough. I returned in the spring, and again in the summer, and by then I knew that the South had me, sometimes in a comforting embrace, occasionally in its frenzied and unrelenting grip.
I received two gifts from Deep South for which I’m especially grateful. One is an introduction to the writer Mary Ward Brown. Like me, Theroux had never heard of this author before being introduced to her by an enthusiast. After reading her short stories and her memoir, this was his assessment:
Her writing was direct, unaffected, unsentimental, and powerful for its simplicity and for its revealing the inner life of rural Alabama, the day-to-day, the provincial manners and pretensions, the conflicts racial and economic. No gothic, no dwarfs, no twelve-year-old wives, no idiots, no picturesque monstrosities, nothing that could be described as phantasmagoric.
The story “New Dresses” takes place some years ago and is told from the point of view of Lisa, a Midwesterner. She has married into the Worthy family, a clan with deep roots in the South, and she’s having trouble adjusting. In this scene, Lisa has conveyed her extremely frail but insistent mother-in-law to a department store in town, where everyone seems to know and revere her:
Mrs. Worthy had to be supported to the elevator, where the black woman averted her eyes and worked the controls in silence. Mrs. Worthy leaned on Miss Carrie, who kept one arm around her waist. Lisa stared blindly at advertisements taped to the wall, wondering what vanity or pride could prompt anyone so sick to subject herself, subject them all, to such an ordeal.
From the story “The Barbecue:”
Jeff was named for the southern hero Jefferson Davis. The first time someone told Tom his weekend neighbor was a collateral descendant of the president of the Confederacy, of the same blood and could trace it, Tom had laughed. “You mean they got the papers on him, like a bull?” Laura said there was an original portrait of President Davis’s mother in one of the Arrington parlors. They prized it above everything else in the house, she said.
The J in Tom’s name stood for Jefferson too. He was named for a hero even greater, the architect of American democracy, but he was no kin whatsoever. It was just a name his father had picked out, hoping it would help him amount to something, his mother said. His father had been a two-mule farmer in the poorest county of the state.
This is the kind of fiction writing I have come to cherish: straightforward, unadorned, not striving for effect.
While visiting the home of Mary Ward Brown, a painting by Crawford Gillis was pointed out to Theroux. He had never heard of this artist. Neither had I. While searching for his work online, I came across the site of the Johnson Collection in Spartanburg, South Carolina. What a gem of an art museum!
Two paintings by Crawford Gillis:
Have a look at the site; the place is a veritable treasure trove. I just want to include one other work here. It’s an untitled painting by Carl Christian Brenner. It is so evocative, I get lost in it. (To get the full effect, click to enlarge):
I have many marked pages in my e-book version of Deep South, and the book deserves a great deal more attention that I have time to give it at present. Let me just say that I loved it. Despite the desperate straits of some of the small towns he visited, Paul Theroux made me want to go to the Deep South- to see what he saw and to meet and talk to the people he met.
If you’ve spent any time at this site in the past year, you’ll know that Stranger Than Fiction, the course in the literature of true crime that I had the privilege of teaching last year, pretty much hijacked my nonfiction reading for a while. If you read in the subgenre of historical true crime, the experience is slightly less scary. So here are some recommendations, made on that basis.
Let me get Murder by Candlelight out of the way first. This survey of crime in early nineteenth century England can admittedly be rather unsettling. But Michael Knox Beran’s is such a bracing and refreshing intellect, I can’t help but sing the praises of this book (though approach with caution, please!)
And here are some others: The Destiny of the Republic, in which Candice Millard returns James A. Garfield to his rightful place in the pantheon of great Americans;
Blood Royal by Eric Jager, in which medieval France comes vividly, if frighteningly, to life (The Last Duel by this author is also very enjoyable);
The Mad Sculptor by Harold Schechter. Schechter is also the editor of True Crime: An American Anthology. This is the book I used as my text for the true crime course.
Some of the most marvelous nonfiction I’ve come across recently is in the form of exhibition catalogs. I saw “Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World” just before it closed at the National Gallery in Washington DC:
I saw Gauguin to Picasso: Masterworks from Switzerland at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC several months ago.
(I stood in front of this painting for quite some time, along with a young couple. Finally I said, “Why is this painting so wonderful?” The woman murmured that she did not know, and then they both turned to me with radiant smiles.)
“Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer” never came any closer than Boston, and while I love the Boston area, I wasn’t able to make to to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibits. However, the paintings are so fabulous that I purchased the catalog anyway.
A quick reminder concerning Josh Ruxin’s inspiring chronicle of the work that he, his wife, and many others have been doing in Rwanda before I go on to more current items.
I am now reading two nonfiction titles: The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore and The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. I’ve written recently about The Romanovs, and I hereby reiterate my intention to read the entire book. Eventually.
The Invention of Nature is a biography of Alexander Von Humboldt. I’m about half way through it, and it’s wonderful. Here was a man gifted with a profound intellect and a restless curiosity about the world around him. The story of his explorations of South America, begun in 1799 and lasting for five years, is alone worth the price of admission. He cheerfully endured almost inconceivable hardships in his quest for ever deeper knowledge and understanding of the natural world.
Over thousands of years crops, grains, vegetables and fruits had followed the footpaths of humankind. As humans crossed continents and oceans, they had brought plants with them and thereby had changed the face of the earth. Agriculture linked plants to politics and economy. Wars had been fought over plants, and empires were shaped by tea, sugar and tobacco. Some plants told him as much about humankind as about nature itself, while other plants gave Humboldt an insight into geology as they revealed how continents had shifted. The similarities of their coastal plants, Humboldt wrote, showed an ‘ancient’ connection between Africa and South America as well as illustrating how islands that were previously linked were now separated – an incredible conclusion more than a century before scientists had even begun to discuss continental movements and the theory of shifting tectonic plates. Humboldt ‘read’ plants as others did books – and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movements of civilizations as well as of landmass. No one had ever approached botany in this way.
As you can see, Andrea Wulf’s writing is clear and lucid. Von Humboldt freely mixed his scientific observations with an esthetic response; hence, his writing is often lyrical:
At the foot of the high granite spine that, in the early days of our planet, defied the incursion of the waters during the formation of the Antillean Gulf, there begins a broad, immeasurable plain. Upon leaving behind the valleys of Caracas and the island-rich Lake Tacarigua, 1 which reflects in its surface the trunks of the pisang trees, leaving behind fields resplendent with the delicate light green of Tahitian sugarcane or the solemn shade of cacao plants, one’s gaze toward the South comes to rest upon steppes that, seeming to climb, dwindle into the distant horizon.
Admittedly it was a mistake to tackle both of these books at the same time. But I confess I’m in a fever over the cornucopia of new offerings in nonfiction – I have trouble restraining myself!
Here are two more that I’m going to tackle next:
(Asterisk denotes a potentially good book club choice.)
I thought I would heartily dislike this book, and for the first few pages, I did. The “Swans” were driving me crazy – what a frivolous, irritating, useless bunch of women! And as for their friend Truman Capote – he struck me as repulsive, but that didn’t surprise me.
Had I not been reading Swans for a book club, I would most likely have tossed it aside. But I persisted – I’m very fond of the folks in this particular group – and gradually the novel grabbed me and refused to let go. Swans is actually the depiction of a particular time and place: New York City in its mid-twentieth century heyday, a playground for the rich and famous. Women like Gloria Guinness, Nancy ‘Slim’ Keith, Pamela Churchill, and above all Barbara ‘Babe’ Paley, were ornaments of their class. They appeared at all the right places and wore the latest, most expensive designer fashions. Nothing more was expected or required of them.
But add Truman Capote to their gossipy clique and a combustible element inevitably takes hold – and grows, slowly but surely.
Has any remnant of this society persisted into this century? Have a look at the Evening Hours page in the Style section of the Sunday New York Times, and draw your own conclusions.
Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, 1966
(Since my parents lived part of every year in Manhattan during this time period, Swans gradually took on added meaning for me. Several of the venues mentioned, especially the 21 Club, are places to which my father took us. If memory serves, we were there once at Christmas to witness a special annual event:
I was also reminded of my impulsive visit to Bergdorf’s in midtown Manhattan in April of 2008. I blew in to this impossibly high end establishment on my way to the Museum of Modern Art. My son was to be married in two months, and I need some accessories for the occasion. So I thought I could pick up a few things…This (mis)adventure is chronicled in the post Gotham Diary. )
A sort of early twentieth century take on Fielding’s Tom Jones. Unapologetically bawdy and an absolute delight!
Or, as Oprah Winfrey proclaims, “This book about pleasure is a provocative joy.”
Written in 1925 and amazingly readable. A terrific story of a spoiled young woman’s coming of age.
A great idea for a book club is to read this book and then watch the 2006 movie starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. It’s an excellent film that hews fairly closely to the novel but also makes some interesting changes in the plot line.
I first read The Painted Veil when Selena Hastings’s 2010 biography of Maugham launched me into an most gratifying program of reading the works of this master storyteller. And just now I’m reading a thriller by Philip Kerr in which Maugham himself figures as a character – most gratifying!
A remarkably accomplished work for a first novel, this unabashed but not overly sentimental love story is set in the English countryside, where some of us spend much of our time imagining ourselves to be.
The Corduroy Mansions Trilogy by Alexander McCall Smith:
Corduroy Mansions, The Dog Who Came In from the Cold, and A Conspiracy of Friends
Unfortunately, I started on the second volume rather than the first. But I can tell you for sure that numbers two and three are utterly captivating. I got completely caught up in the characters’ lives; most especially that of Freddie de la Haye, a most engaging (not to mention courageous and resourceful) canine.
Once again, a book club selection that I did not expect to like but did. It’s a love story that’s both modern and timeless, similar in that sense to Major Pettigrew, cited above. Warm-hearted and gracefully written.
The following are titles I’ve reviewed previously in this space. I’ve provided links to the relevant posts:
*Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
I should not have liked this novel. I’m always insisting that I like my stories related in a chronological manner. If it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, etc., it’s good enough for me. No experimental narrative time lines – please!
Well, what can I say. This one of the most non-linear narratives I’ve ever encountered. Somehow Atkinson’s storytelling method adapts itself perfectly to her subject: the political chaos of Western Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, as exemplified in the life – or possible lives – of one woman.
Four deliciously creepy novellas from a master of the genre.
*The Children Act by Ian McEwan
McEwan here depicts a moral dilemma of the most dire nature. The suspense grows naturally from the agonizing situation, one in which all parties, even those in fiercest opposition, are trying to do the right thing.
A tour de force by a writer who turns them out regularly
*Sparta by Roxana Robinson
As a depiction of the trials of a returning soldier, this novel was both convincing and compassionate.
The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis
Among the two or three most brilliantly uncanny historical novels I’ve ever read. Based on an actual incident in which a man long absent from his home in rural France returns to claim his patrimony – and his wife. Made into an equally brilliant film titled The Return of Martin Guerre:
Next up: nonfiction and crime fiction
I did indeed love this book, from its opening at a celebration for a French patriot and war hero right through to the conclusion, where Bruno, having solved a fiendishly intricate mystery, is nonetheless still pining for the ideal wife and mother he seeks to make his life whole and rewarding.
This yearning, which from time to time retreats into the background of his life but never entirely disappears, is one of the traits that makes Bruno Courreges such an endearing character.
In addition to Bruno, the novel’s other characters are vividly depicted, and once again the beauty and fascination of the Perigord region is brought to life for the reader. But most amazing of all are the descriptions of the food and wine. Bruno is a gourmet cook, and his version of “whipping something up” is miles above mine (canned tuna with mayonnaise thrown in and some crackers, with Diet Snapple to wash it down.).
He filled the trout with some crushed garlic and lemon slices. He washed the large mushrooms, put a teaspoon of white wine into the bowl of the mushrooms and then inserted a cabécou [a type of goat cheese] into each one. He prepared a bowl of honey and some crushed walnuts and then opened one of the jars of black-current compôte he’d made when the hedge below his house had been thick with the ripe fruit.
Then the actual meal, at which Bruno’s guests are understandably impressed and grateful:
“I’ve never seen this before,” said the brigadier as J-J cut into the pate and the foie gras and sliced truffles were revealed. They ate in appreciative silence, and as the last of the pate disappeared, Bruno took the mushrooms from atop the grill and slid them beneath the ehated plate and watched until the goat cheese started to bubble. When he judged them done, he took them out, sprinkled crushed walnuts over each one and then drizzled honey on top. Bruno then put the trout onto the grill and served the mushrooms.
Don’t know about you, but I’m ready to hop on a plane and head straight for this culinary paradise!
Oh – and then, there’s the wine. In this scene, Bruno has been invited to a cave, or wine cellar, to deliver his opinion of a new vintage:
He swirled the glass a little to see the healthy crown as the liquid trickled back down the sides of the glass. He swirled it more and then sniffed, cocking his head as he’d been taught to give each nostril a chance to savor the bouquet. He smelled dark fruit, a fresh earthiness like a plowed field after the rain; that would be the merlot…He swirled the glass again and sniffed once more, recognizing the freshness of the cabernet sauvignon. He took a sip, let it settle in his mouth to reach those less-used taste buds at the back of his tongue. He recognized something mineral in the flavor….
I cannot tell a lie: Whenever my husband encounters passages like this especially the part about “the fresh earthiness like a plowed field after the rain,” he invariably lifts his gaze heavenward and proclaims: “They’re making that stuff up!” But these folks do take their wine very seriously.
And they take their fun seriously as well. The (fictional) village of St. Denis, where Bruno does his policing, seems to be by and large a delightful and welcoming place. Its residents, mostly known to one another, socialize frequently and informally. They live surrounded by beautiful countryside and a rich history that goes back to prehistoric times.
Medieval and Renaissance era history are also a vivid presence, as Bruno reflects while driving by the Chateau de Losse.
So where, you may reasonably ask, is the mystery? Oh, it’s there, all right. It begins with a decease that seems to be from natural causes – if drinking yourself to death can be termed ‘natural’ – but might in fact be something else. Original? Not very, but it doesn’t matter. A tangled set of circumstances requires the steady persistence of Bruno and his friends and colleagues to unravel. There is perhaps too much convoluted explanatory material presented near the conclusion. (This is a tendency I’ve noted in quite a few crime novels of late.) But your interest will be held, if not by the investigation itself than by the enchantment of the Perigord region of France. (A word of warning: the local lifestyle includes an unapologetic enthusiasm for hunting and for the eating of meat. In fact, Patriarch includes a gripping subplot that concerns a fiercely uncompromising animal rights activist who thinks nothing of going up against these and other local cultural norms.)
From the author’s Acknowledgments at the end of the book:
The Périgordins are a convivial and welcoming folk, deeply appreciative of their good fortune in living in such a lovely and historic part of the world, and my family and I count ourselves lucky to have been allowed to share it for the past fifteen years.
Of the Perigordins, Walker adds: “They are the real stars of the Bruno tales.”
After Winter, Spring is a film by Judith Lit about the people of this region and their way of life:
“…a chronicle of fathers and sons, megalomaniacs, monsters and saints.” – The Romanovs 1613 – 1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Some weeks ago I became aware of a sweeping new history of the Romanov dynasty by British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore. When I made this discovery, the book had not yet been published here; neither was it available on Kindle. I therefore ordered it from Amazon.co.uk. You understand: e-book or hard copy, I had to have it immediately. (This title comes out here on May 3.)
The text consists of 654 pages, prefaced by a nine page introduction, which should definitely not be skipped. The text is followed by 71 pages of bibliographic citations and footnotes. Then finally, the index.
Every few years I make it a point to delve into the perpetual mystery of Russian history. Russia being a place where, as Scottish writer Neal Ascherson reminds us, “the past is said to be unpredictable,” I figure it’s worth checking from time to time on how things stand. The Family Romanov (2014) was my most recent foray:
The story of the Romanov dynasty is nothing short of astonishing: filled with ruthless jockeying for power, merciless destruction of human obstacles – murder was the least of it. Methods of torture were freely employed that I’d never heard of and hope never to hear of again. I had to skim certain parts.
Upon the death of Michael in 1645, Alexei ascended the throne. He was a religious fanatic, spending many hours in prayer, but compared to some of his successors, he wasn’t half bad as a ruler. When he died in 1676, the almost inevitable struggle for power ensued.
For a time, Alexei’s daughter Sophia ruled as regent until she was hustled off to a convent in 1689. In the 1879 portrait below, Ilya Repin depicts her looking distinctly disgruntled at being shoved aside. Actually she’s lucky nothing worse was done to her. Ditto for the man hanged outside her window, on the right:
The man doing the shoving was Peter the Great. Peter is an amazing character in every way, even for Russia, a country whose history is filled with amazing (and often appalling) actors. (And “actor” is often the right word: people were constantly appearing out of nowhere to declare themselves the rightful heir to the throne of Russia. One of the more remarkable among them, appearing in the following century, was Princess Tarakanova. Her name is shrouded in legend, one of which claims that she died in a flood. In this 1864 painting, Konstantin Flavitsky depicts her as she awaits her fate. Has she attained a sort of ecstatic state? I’m not sure, but it’s a remarkable and strangely haunting work:
There is also a silent film about Princess Tarakanova:
Back to Peter the Great: at six foot eight, a larger than life personage in every way:
The Wikipedia entry on Peter is quite comprehensive. I note, however, that it makes no mention of a sort of profane dining and drinking society first convened by Peter in 1691, when he would have been barely twenty years old. I am reading about it right now. Its full name was the All-Mad, All-Jesting All-Drunken Synod (or Assembly):
Between 80 and 300 guests, including a circus of dwarfs, giants, foreign jesters, Siberian Kalmyks, black Nubians, obese freaks and louche girls started carousing at noon and went on to the following dawn….
A steely capacity for alcohol (which he usually called Ivashka, the Russian version of John Barleycorn) was essential to rise at Peter’s court. Peter was blessed with an iron metabolism for alcohol, rising at dawn to work even after these marathon wassails.
Participation in these coarse and repulsive revels, in other words, was mandatory.
I’m currently on page 84 of this magisterial volume; I have every intention of pressing on.
Simon Sebag Montefiore himself comes from a distinguished lineage, described in Wikipedia as “descended from a line of wealthy Sephardi Jews who were diplomats and bankers all over Europe and who originated from Morocco and Italy.”
This book has lovely endpapers. This may seem of little significance to some, but to me, it is part of what makes hard copy books precious.
So I’ve been rereading Capital Crimes with a view to selecting which stories to single out for discussion. This discussion – with my Usual Suspect cohorts – will not take place until July, but Pauline’s reading in this excellent anthology (and her shared enthusiasm for it) prompted me to do the same, sooner than I’d planned.
Stories by the following have made the cut: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, John Oxenham, Richard Marsh, Ernest Bramah, Thomas Burke, H.C. Bailey, Hugh Walpole, Anthony Berkeley,and Ethel Lina White. I so enjoyed White’s story, entitled “Cheese,” that I sought out a full length novel by her. Originally entitled The Wheel Spins, it’s now sometimes known as The Lady Vanishes, after the Hitchcock film which was based on it.
I loved this book. Iris Carr, the heroine, is plucky in the extreme. As the story unfolds, we share in her bafflement. We experience all that happens through her young eyes, share in her terror and bewilderment, and ultimately applaud her strength and her bravery.
Oh, and the writing was excellent:
As she lay with her eyes almost closed, listening to the ping of the breeze, her serenity returned. A clump of harebells, standing out against the skyline, seemed hardened and magnified to a metallic belfry, while she, herself, was dwarfed and welded into the earth— part of it, like the pebbles and the roots. In imagination she could almost hear the pumping of a giant heart underneath her head.
Click here for a review of The Wheel Spins on the blog Vintage Novels.
I am saddened by the passing of Anita Brookner. Over the years, my reading life has been greatly enriched by her novels. She wrote twenty-four of them; I’ve read some thirteen or fourteen. That sounds like a lot, but they are slender volumes, meticulously crafted. I’ve always admired her writing and her intellect; she possessed a large vocabulary which she deployed with pointillist precision.
As a writer for the Catholic Herald notes of Brookner, “her heroines and occasional heroes were people whom by and large life had passed by: their pleasures were small ones, and the great storms of passion were things that happened to other people.” This makes her characters sound somewhat dreary, but I think it would be more accurate to call most of them introverted, with a propensity for melancholy. At this point, one wants to assert hastily that they had rich inner lives. But if memory serves, that’s not always the case. In truth, memory is not serving me all that well at the moment, as I’ve not read anything by her since Strangers came out in 2009.
To my mind, Anita Brookner had always seemed a quintessentially English novelist. I’ll bet she’s got one of those distinguished British pedigrees that goes back several hundred years, thought I. Well she might – but not in Britain. Her parents were Polish Jews who emigrated in the early years of the 20th century. (I was genuinely surprised to learn this about her.) She was their only child.
Having earned a PhD in art history from London’s famed Courtauld Institute, Brookner went on to teach and write in that field. She wrote her first novel – A Start in Life, published here in 1981 as The Debut – when she was 53.
An interesting sidelight regarding Brookner’s time studying at the Courtauld is that one of her professors was a highly respected art historian who held the post of Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. His name was Anthony Blunt.
Ring a bell? Blunt was one of the Cambridge Spies, the most famous of which is probably Kim Philby. I’ve known for quite some time that Brookner studied art history under Blunt, but there’s a story concerning the two of them and a third individual that I’d never heard until I started looking for material for this post. It’s told by A.N. Wilson in the Daily Mail:
As a distinguished scholar at the Courtauld Institute in London, Britain’s foremost centre of art history studies, Anita Brookner worked with Anthony Blunt, the Keeper of the Queen’s pictures, who was later exposed as a traitor.
When one of their equally distinguished colleagues, Phoebe Pool, had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, Blunt asked Brookner to visit Pool regularly.
She did so happily, unaware Blunt was a Soviet agent, nor that he had used Pool — once an enthusiastic member of the Communist party — as a go-between to take messages to his Russian spymaster.
Every time Anita Brookner came back from the hospital after seeing Pool, Blunt would quiz her. How was Phoebe? Had she blurted out any names? Which names? The questions meant nothing to Brookner. She had no idea that the names Pool might have let slip could have belonged to spies.
It was only when, decades later, Blunt and the more minor figure of Pool were unmasked that she realised she had been a pawn in the Cold War. Brookner’s reactions were entirely typical. Yes, she was very angry, and went on being angry with Blunt to the end of her days.
She felt she had been ‘manipulated’ by him, and realised, going back over their conversations, that he had tried to enlist her as an agent.
Though one of the most intelligent women alive, she confessed that she had been ‘too stupid’ to realise what he was on about.
Wilson adds that despite feeling used and manipulated when the truth about Blunt became publicly known (in 1979), Brookner retained a degree of loyalty to her erstwhile mentor: “She owed her job as an art historian to Blunt, who admired her scholarship and her knowledge of 17th and 18th-century French paintings.”
Although Brookner’s fiction is usually been held in high esteem, there are some who feel that in later years, the scope of her novels became increasingly constricted. As Matt Schudel states in the Washington Post: “By the mid-1990s, some critics had become weary of what some called an attenuated, bloodless quality that seemed to owe too much to earlier styles.”
Attenuated? Bloodless? Not to this reader (nor to many others). Instead, I felt that with each new novel I was given the chance to examine a different facet of a beautiful and enigmatic jewel. The spell was cast every time. I was always grateful.
If you are new to the fiction of Anita Brookner, you should probably start with Hotel Du Lac. This is her Booker Prize winner, a justly cherished novel. I’d like to reread Latecomers; it’s the only Brookner title I’ve read that dealt specifically with Eastern European immigrants living in Britain. And I have yet to read her final fiction: At the Hairdresser’s, available in e-book format only.
Jonathan Yardley, formerly a writer and reviewer for The Washington Post Book World, used to run an occasional column called Second Reading, where he called attention to older titles that might be worth revisiting as well as current authors who might be unjustly neglected. It was a marvelous feature. My favorite of all those columns was ostensibly about Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party, but Yardley ended up writing about five additional authors as well, all women. Anita Brookner was one of them, as well as two other favorites of mine (in addition to Colegate): the Penelope’s, Fitzgerald and Lively. (Yardley’s ‘Second Reading’ pieces are collected in a book of the same name.)
A Thousand Hills to Heaven is just such a book.
Subtitled Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda, it’s the story of Josh and Alissa Ruxin, who arrived in 2005 to assist in the effort to get a shattered country back on its feet. Newly married and filled with dreams and determination, they were also clear-eyed about the challenges they would face.
And face them they did. They hired the right people. Many native Rwandans and also Africans from neighboring countries proved ready and willing to staff the various undertakings comprising the Millennium Village that Josh was so keen to establish.
Josh Ruxin formulated these rules for making a lasting and meaningful difference:
- If people are hungry, they must be fed, first and foremost.
- Demand high standards, especially when they mean improvement in task performance. Wherever institutions already exist that benefit people, those should be upgraded.
- Corruption of any kind, especially in government, is a deal breaker. Meaningful and lasting change cannot happen unless and until complete honesty and transparency are effected.
- Any project that you undertake should be sustainable; i.e. doable even when you have gone.
- The free market can provide powerful incentives for job creation and general improvement of living conditions.
The Ruxins did not arrive in Rwanda with these rules already in place and ready to put into practice. Rather, they are the result of experience and relentless effort. Some were learned the hard way. But all produced gratifying results. People who had endured – or barely escaped from – the horror of the genocide were finding ways to live again. Not only to live, but to live in a meaningful way, and even to prosper.
Josh Ruxin is also a founding member of Health Builders, an organization devoted to making affordable health care available to all through the establishment of high quality regional clinics. The organization establishes the parameters and initially provides the tools for these facilities; the local population is then empowered to build and run the clinics.
Ruxin earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in the history of Science and Medicine at Yale University. He also holds a Masters in Public Health from Columbia and a PhD in History from the University of London. He is currently on the faculty of Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Work on the Millennium Village – helping the farmers revive the devastated soil, assisting with the establishment of the schools and clinics, finding and hiring top flight local help – Josh was a prime movers in each of these endeavors.
Aren’t you wondering what he does with his spare time? And what has Alissa Ruxin been doing?
Only raising three young children and creating and running a restaurant in a place where there is virtually no restaurant culture. With Josh’s help and support, Heaven became a reality. It is now a terrific place to eat and to hold celebrations; it’s also a great job creator.
So A Thousand Hills to Heaven is in a sense two books combined into a single narrative. There’s the story of the Millennium Village and Health Builders, in all its complexity, and it’s the story of Heaven, in all its complexity.
If you’re thinking that this must perforce be a long book, you’d be wrong. Josh Ruxin has packed a tremendous amount of material into just under 300 pages (including several pages of enticing recipes from the chef’s kitchen at Heaven). There is some background on the genocide – just enough to make you appreciate its ghastly reality. While acknowledging the suffering of the Rwandan people in the not-so-distant past, Ruxin is focused like a laser on the country’s present and immediate future. One gets the sense that this is what the Rwandans want, too. At the same time, though, they have instituted a system of adjudication called the Gacaca Court:
The Gacaca courts are a method of transitional justice and are designed to promote communal healing and rebuilding in the wake of the Rwandan Genocide.
From the Wikipedia entry
Rwanda has had a very dark cloud hovering over it; emerging from this devastation takes no small act of courage. That it is possible at all is due in part to people like the Ruxins, and even more so to the Rwandan people themselves, whose perseverance and determination is nothing short of amazing.
In A Thousand Hills to Heaven, one meets some truly fascinating individuals and hears some memorable stories. One of my favorites concerns the restaurant. Here, in Josh’s retelling, is what happened:
At one point, one of our chefs asked for “fresh” goat, and in the midst of service for eighty customers, a live goat was delivered to the kitchen.
The chef let it be known that this was not exactly what he had in mind!
A Thousand Hills to Heaven was suggested for our AAUW discussion group by Barbara, one of our chapter’s members. Since 2006, she’s had the extraordinary good fortune to travel to Rwanda several times as a member of People to People and as part of a delegation of nurses. The following are her observations:
Rwanda is a beautiful, peaceful small country with friendly gracious people. Most people speak English so it is easy to get around. The people are very proud of their government which is very transparent. There are signs all over asking people to report corruption immediately. They are very self sufficient and ask that visitors not to directly give the children anything, including an empty water bottle. They do not want children “begging”. Each time I have gone to “Heaven” restaurant and it is as wonderful as described in the book.
As it happens, I am going to miss the discussion, but I want to emphasize what a great choice this book is for that purpose. (I can barely stop talking about it myself.)
The Ruxins are Jewish. In 2013, many Jewish families celebrated “Thanksgivukkah,” when the dates of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincided. The Ruxins duly celebrated this holiday at Heaven.
There exists in the Jewish religion a concept called “Tikkun Olam,” or literally “world repair.” Jews are urged to go out into the world and do whatever they can to fix what needs fixing, especially as it pertains to people in need of help. Most of us do this through various sponsorship activities and donations to worthy causes. The Ruxins have done it by working to build a Millennium Village, to establish health facilities and schools, and to restore depleted farm land and make it productive once again. Oh, and by opening a beautiful restaurant, thereby adding many jobs, a place for people to gather, and a source of pride for everyone involved.
Talk about a purpose driven life!
Having just moved into a house in a desirable part of London, Carl Martin is one lucky guy. The house, inherited from his recently deceased father to whom he was not especially close, is spacious enough for Carl to be able to let the top floor to a tenant of his choosing. Dermot McKinnon, he decides, will fill the bill nicely.
Carl is fortunate in other ways as well. His first novel, Death’s Door, has just been published and has been well received. And to top it all off, he has Nicola, his openhearted and beautiful girlfriend.
As Dark Corners opens, these various benevolent elements of Carl’s life are nicely in place and he is just setting to work on his next book. There is but one dark cloud on the horizon: money is at the moment tight. But with Death’s Door selling nicely, and rent money coming in, that shouldn’t be a problem for very long.
But a lack of funds, even if temporary, makes some people very uneasy. It can be a powerful motivator. And motivates Carl to do something he should not have done. And the ramifications of this fateful act…well, read the book and they will gradually become known to you.
There is a parallel subplot involving a character named Lizzie Milsom. Lizzie is a cheerful and inventive liar; moreover, she’s a type that I recognized from other Rendell novels of psychological suspense. (See Joan Smith, a far more evil prototype, in A Judgement in Stone.) Perhaps for this reason, I found Lizzie’s presence in the narrative rather less than compelling Her fate was of much less interest to me than Carl’s. She does serve a purpose in his story, though, through a significant coincidence which I wasn’t sure I found entirely convincing.
In sum, I would say that this is not in the first rank of this author’s work, but I still enjoyed it. It was short, tightly wound, and thoroughly engrossing. Most of all, it’s characterized by that mounting sense of dread that generates such powerful suspense in so many of Rendell’s novels.
The title comes from a description that Carl recalls from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: “the duke of dark corners.” The entire phrase is “the old fantastical duke of dark corners.” With its hint of sinister import, it’s exactly apt.
Dark Corners is the final work from the pen of this unique and supremely gifted writer. It saddens me to see her picture on the back cover and beneath it the dates, 1930-2015. Still, I am grateful that she lived and wrote – and that she was as prolific as she was brilliant.
I shall be reading her, and rereading her, for a long time to come.
Sometimes it pays to take a deep breath and attack an unruly pile of papers. I did this the other day, and while the vast majority of items ended up in recycling, a few gems did rise to the surface.
First find: this piece from the Sunday New York Times Magazine dated August 20 2015 on the rise of Europa Editions. Originating in Italy, this publishing enterprise puts out books with a distinctive look and feel; their list features lesser known international authors that are worthy of the attention of discerning readers.
Europa has scored a coup with Elena Ferrante’s wildly popular Neapolitan novels. I’m waiting for my reserve on My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the series. I’m currently number sixteen out of sixty-eight names on the list. I have read, and do recommend, the Jane Gardam titles, Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat (see above). These novels seem to me quintessentially English; moreover,Gardam’s a unique and mercurial prose style had me hooked from the get-go.
Second find: Laura Miller on Don Winslow’s The Cartel. This piece, which appeared in The New Yorker last summer, is in my view the high water mark of the reviewer’s art. It’s incisive, beautifully written, and bolstered by the author’s deep knowledge of crime fiction. (I’ve long enjoyed her writing in Salon.com’s book sections.) And the novel? Well, she makes you want to read it – that is, if you don’t scare too easily. This I have not yet done (either read or scare). I have read Winslow’s Savages, though. ‘Twas a memorable experience! Like James Ellroy, Winslow can be rough and uncompromising; his prose is less mannered than Ellroy’s.
I liked this observation by Laura Miller:
Most crime novelists, especially those reaching for a momentous effect, are obliged to turbocharge their villains. The perpetrator of the locked-room mystery is supernaturally ingenious, the serial killer far more baroquely sadistic than his real-life counterparts, the Mob boss too comprehensively powerful to be believed.
She goes on to say that “Mexico’s criminal cartels have never presented such a problem to Don Winslow, who has written two extensively researched sagas about the war on drugs: “The Power of the Dog,” in 2006, and now “The Cartel” (Knopf).”
Third find: “Easy Writers” by Arthur Krystal, an article featured in a May 2012 issue of The New Yorker. (What can I say – this was a very deep pile, deep and sprawling.) Here we have yet another foray into the (seemingly endless) controversy over whether readers of genre fiction, and in particular of crime fiction, are getting any “literary” nourishment or are merely slumming. Krystal leaps fearlessly into the subject matter with both feet and obviously has great fun doing so. That enjoyment is liberally communicated to the reader. (The article is subtitled “Guilty pleasures without guilt.”)
Here’s how Krystal starts out:
When Matthew Arnold keeled over, in April, 1888, while hurrying to catch the Liverpool tram, Walt Whitman managed to contain his grief. “He will not be missed,” Whitman told a friend. Arnold reaffirmed all that was “rich, hefted, lousy, reeking with delicacy, refinement, elegance, prettiness, propriety, criticism, analysis.” He was, in short, “one of the dudes of literature.” Whitman probably figured that his own gnarly hirsuteness would save him from becoming a dude. He was wrong, and therein lies a lesson for all hardworking scribblers: stick around long enough, develop a cult following, gain the approval of one or two literary dudes (in Whitman’s case: Henry James, Ezra Pound, and F. O. Matthiessen), and you, too, can become respectable.
This insouciant tone prevails throughout the piece and bestows great pleasure on the reader – or, it did on this reader, at any rate.
Here are some of the works and authors that receive mention in “Easy Writers:”