More on John Le Carre and A Legacy of Spies, with echoes of W Somerset Maugham

October 21, 2017 at 6:07 pm (Book review, books)

[Click here for the first post on A Legacy of Spies.]

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A Legacy of Spies opens with Peter Guillam recounting  his early life. In line with his mother’s retelling, his father was

…the wastrel son of a wealthy Anglo-French family from the English midlands, a man of rash appetites, fast-diminishing inheritance and a redeeming love of France.

Thus his French mother, and his blissful early childhood spent on a farmstead in Brittany. His father was frequently absent, but that in no way intruded on little Pierre’s happiness. He assumed this idyll would go on indefinitely. But of course, it did not: “The future meant nothing to me until it struck.” At the age of eight, little Pierre was unceremoniously whisked off to England to live with cousins of his father. He barely knew these people. School was a torment, where his heavily accented English was mocked by the other students. Eight more years passed before he was able to return to Brittany, where things were not as he had left them.

As I was reading this, I was thinking to myself that somehow I’d heard a similar tale before. A warmly recollected childhood in France, followed abruptly by a chilly and friendless life in England….Ah, yes, then I remembered:

William Somerset Maugham was born in Paris in 1874, the youngest of four boys. While his older brothers were away at boarding school in England, young Willie basked in the exclusive adoration of his beautiful mother Edith. But that idyll was shattered when she died of tuberculosis. Maugham was only eight years old.

The loss was devastating. Willie’s father Robert, who served as legal counsel for the British Embassy in Paris, tried to make it up to him but only two years later himself died of cancer. Willie was sent to live in England with his uncle Henry MacDonald Maugham, Vicar of Whitstable in the County of Kent, and his wife Sophie.

Willie knew nothing of England; his halting command of the language was made more problematical by a severe stammer. Making matters worse – much worse – was the fact that the vicar was a cold, self-regarding individual, whose high opinion of himself rested on not much discernible evidence.

I’m quoting from my 2010 review of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings.    Mere coincidence? Possibly. It did make me wonder if by any chance John Le Carre has read Selina Hastings’s book, one of my all time favorite biographies.

Like Le Carre, W. Somerset Maugham worked for a period as an agent for Britain’s intelligence service. His experiences in that capacity later informed a series of short stories published as Ashenden: or the British Agent. (After finishing the Hastings biography, I commenced binge reading everything my Maugham that I could get my hands on. While in thrall to this delightful obsession, I read the Ashenden stories and loved them unconditionally.)

 

Some four years ago, I decided to read John Le Carre’s second novel. A Murder of Quality features George Smiley as a former intelligence agent who’s prevailed upon by an old friend to look into a worrying situation. That friend, Miss Brimley, edits a journal called The Christian Voice. She has received an extremely disturbing missive from Stella Rode, a some time contributor to this enterprise. Mrs Rode, who is married to a teacher at Carne, an exclusive school for boys on England’s South Coast, believes herself to be in some sort of danger. Could Miss Brimley help her? Miss Brimley, in her turn, asks the same question of George Smiley. Having agreed to look into the matter, Smiley travels down to Carne in order to see for himself what is transpiring there. (And thus we enter an enclosed, almost claustrophobic setting in academia, my favorite type of locale for a murder mystery.)

I liked A Murder of Quality enough to select it for discussion by the Usual Suspects the following year. I then read and also enjoyed Call for the Dead, Le Carre’s first published novel, which also features George Smiley.

  

Le Carre’s memoir The Pigeon Tunnel came out last year; Adam Sisman’s biography, the year before that. I’ve read neither at this point, but reading A Legacy of Spies has whetted my interest, especially in the memoir.

John Le Carre by Nadav Kander

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Exfiltration of Tulip, and other matters….

October 20, 2017 at 2:43 pm (Book review, books, Crime)

Exfiltration operation: ‘A clandestine rescue operation designed to bring a defector, refugee, or an operative and his or her family out of harm’s way’
[Language of Espionage, courtesy of The International Spy Museum]

At any rate, here we are, back in familiar Le Carre country. A double agent, code name Tulip, must be extricated from East Berlin and brought to England, where she will (presumably) be safe. The operation is overseen by Peter Guillam, agent of the British Secret Service. Tulip is not the easiest baggage to transport. She’s been forcibly parted from her son Gustav. pines for him constantly, and repeatedly demands to know when she will be reunited with him. A delicate, difficult situation.

It’s a strange, almost hallucinatory experience, being escorted by the Master of espionage fiction back into the Cold that he knows so well. As I read, I could almost feel its icy coils tightening. To say that this novel is atmospheric is to greatly understate the case.

The exfiltration provides the scaffolding upon which the plot is built. Myriad other things are going on at the same time. As is usual with Le Carre, the characters are numerous. They kept fading on and out; I admit that at times, I had trouble keeping track of them. A good number of them are artifacts from previous works. The most noteworthy of these is, of course, George Smiley.

For me, as I suspect for many others of my generation, the image of George Smiley is forever fixed as Alec Guinness, who portrayed the character for BBC-TV in 1979 and again in 1982.

Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley. His was the face I saw throughout my reading of A Legacy of Spies.

The characters in this story indulge in the full panoply of spy behavior: they lie, prevaricate, evade, deceive, and worst of all, betray. Not that they derive any joy from these actions. Rather, they seem depressed, cynical, and thoroughly disillusioned. The question arises: Why would anyone choose to live like this? They don’t even seem to  be especially patriotic, and that may be the biggest puzzle of all.

Every once in a while, the prevailing gloom is relieved by a rare glimpse of goodness, like this:

Some faces, try as  they may, cannot conceal the good heart of  their owners, and Riemeck’s is such a face. He is balding, bespectacled – and sweet. The word is simply not to be denied. Never mind the medic’s studious frown: humanity breathes out of  him.

Sweetness! Imagine…(The combination of understated eloquence and precision that we know from previous books is present here as well.)

It must be stressed that Smiley is not the main character in this novel. Rather, he hovers like a ghost in the background throughout most of the narrative. The first work by Le Carre that I ever read was Smiley’s People, the third and final installment in the ‘Karla Trilogy.’ Not the best place to start, and so it proved. I had never in my life  been so completely flummoxed by a work of fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter). Upon completing the laborious  task of reading this book, all I could think was, “What was that??” It was 1980, and at that time, I had no background in the reading of either espionage fiction or mysteries. Thus my bewilderment may be more easily understood.

I already knew from the reviews I’d read that Alec Leamas and Liz Gold, main characters in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, reappear in this novel. I’ve never read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, although I’ve seen the film several times. It is superb; it could hardly have been otherwise with stars like Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner, directed by Martin Ritt.

I’m not sure what the experience of reading this novel would be like today. (I do know that that the AMC network and the BBC are currently at work on a miniseries version, to be broadcast some time next year.) Alec Leamas is a notable but secondary character in A Legacy of Spies, only emerging as primary near the end of the novel. Liz Gold’s presence is even more fleeting.

And Peter Guillam, whose hard work and diligence facilitated Tulip’s exfiltration? He’s as conflicted a character as you’d expect him to be. One minute he’s on an outrage-fueled quest for justice; the next, he’s desperate to save his own skin and to Hell with everything  and everyone else. It’s this mixture of motives, this interweaving of truth and subterfuge, that is so mesmerizing, exasperating, and unnerving.

What a novel! I dreaded picking it up, then could not put it down. Le Carre, conjuror and artificer,  has done it again.

Photo by Nadav Kander

 

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‘See what a rent the envious Casca made…’ (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)

October 18, 2017 at 7:57 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

To find that his own ill-humour had quenched the gaiety of his guests appeared to afford him considerable gratification.

Thus does Nathaniel Herriard derive smug satisfaction in Envious Casca (1941), Georgette Heyer‘s gleeful send-up of the upper class guests and denizens of Lexham Manor. If he sounds an unpleasant creature, well, that’s more or less on the mark.

The situation is this: Joseph, Nathaniel’s brother, has planned a good old fashioned Christmas celebration  to take place at Lexham Manor. Joseph and his wife Maud also live at the grand establishment, though one does not detect an particular amity between the brothers. In fact, as has already been noted, there’s no particular amity between Nathaniel and anyone else. He’s a solitary curmudgeon, best left to his own devices. But he’s  also heir to Lexham, and thus a wealthy man.

Inevitably , a murder takes place, this muting the gaiety of the  occasion – not that there was much of that in evidence to begin with. (A more mutually ill-suited gathering would be hard to find.) This is a locked room mystery, and a particularly cunning one at that. It’s also a classic country house murder, although perhaps spiked with more venom that is usually present in such scenarios. On the other hand, there’s a most welcome romance that blossoms late in the narrative.

Envious Casca was Ann R.’s choice for the August discussion meeting of the Usual Suspects. Reaction to it was for the most part rather tepid, if not downright negative. I initially had some trouble getting into the novel, but once I did, I really enjoyed it. Heyer’s sparkling wit added greatly to my reading pleasure. There are three other Inspector Hemingway novels; I hope to read another before too long.

Georgette Heyer 1902-1974

 

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Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza: a book discussion

October 14, 2017 at 9:10 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  Before Chris G. put this on the reading list for Usual Suspects, I had not heard of this author. I read Girl in the Ice some two months ago and was pleasantly surprised by the experience. I was initially daunted by the novel’s length, but it was such a compelling read that I fairly raced through it. Bryndza writes great dialog; his characters were interesting, if not always likeable; he had an intriguing, if complex tale to tell, and he told it well – or so I thought, at the time, at any rate.

As last Tuesday evening’s discussion progressed, it became clear that others did not share my enthusiasm. Several gaps and inconsistencies  in the plot (not to mention a disappearing subplot) were pointed out. Procedural matters were deemed to be flawed. Frank N. felt that due to the paucity of clues, Girl in the Ice did not play fair with the reader.

But the most glaring criticism was reserved for the main protagonist, DCI Erika Foster. She was described by several Suspects as “over the top” and as a result, not likable. By the time our discussion took place, I was too far removed from my actual reading of the novel to be able to clearly recall the plot issues that were brought up, but I did retain a vivid memory of the character of Erika Foster.

I concede that Foster could be strident and blunt to a fault. But she was also a person of firm convictions and great integrity. Even though she was warned to go “softly, softly” with the victim’s upper class and influential parents, she would not let this deter her in the search for the truth about the death of Andrea Douglas-Brown. Fairly early on, we learn that Erika Foster’s life had been shattered not that long ago by a shooting that was both personally and professionally devastating. (This material is related as back story; Girl in the Ice is the first book in the series.) To my mind, this accounts at least partly for her difficult, rather unyielding persona – a brusque facade  that conceals pain that’s still sharp and deep. For this reader, it made her seem more real.

Erika Foster put me in mind of Helen Mirren’s  brilliantly realized portrayal of DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect.

Robert Bryndza himself comments on this here:

(This has to be one of one of the most  self-effacing, downright endearing  promotional videos I’ve ever seen!)

When I first saw the title The Girl in the Ice, I immediately thought of The Virgin in the Ice, a Brother Cadfael novel by the late, lamented Ellis Peters.

Ellis Peters, with Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael

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The Usual Suspects are currently making their selections for next year’s discussions. Unlike many book discussion groups which rely on consensus to decide on titles, we have each member choose a title to present to  the group. My choice for next year is A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm, one of my favorite historical novels and first in a series that is, for the most part, both meticulously researched and wonderfully entertaining.   It’s always interesting to see what each of the Suspects selects for the coming year. I feel lucky to be a part of this group, where people can express their views openly in an atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship.
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Before I conclude this post, I have to deliver a shout-out for a terrific mystery that I just finished: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. Horowitz has written six episodes of Midsomer Murders; in addition, he created Foyle’s War and wrote twenty-five episodes for that outstanding program. There’s much more.   If there were an Anthony Horowitz fan club, I’d be in it.

There will be more about Magpie Murders in a later post. 

 

 

 

 

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‘…there is a haunted atmosphere, of evil, of struggling good in the ascendant, of the quiet, busy, Englishness of life.’

October 8, 2017 at 8:07 pm (Anglophilia, Mystery fiction)

  While I was sifting through a cache of old papers, a printout entitled “Agatha Christie: Overview” rose to the surface. It is from an article that I found on a Gale database on the library’s site some seventeen years ago.

I find these observations by J.B. Lethbridge to be intriguing and elegantly expressed:

Christie makes effective use of the reader’s unconscious, often making crucial references to its depths, with lines from great literature or nursery rhymes, about which there hovers in the darkness of half-remembered things the suggestion of the answer to the whole mystery….Then, too, she makes use of proverbs, folklore, local legend, Gypsy warnings and prophecies, old-fashioned and forgotten wisdom from nannies and gardeners.

Christie’s characters are always a trifle  thin, for she is not a fully-fledged novelist, but their psychology is convincing and consistent, and this together with her vivid and characteristic descriptions give them the illusion of more rotundity than they possess….

But it is this apparent thinness of characterisation, story, atmosphere, and setting which makes the books so enduring. They have something of the spare style of a more ancient literature: nothing superfluous, nothing irrelevant, just the very basic necessities of storytelling and character: but nothing missing either. And yet in the interstices there is a haunted atmosphere, of evil, of struggling good in the ascendant, of the quiet, busy, Englishness of life. Perhaps this is why her books are so popular world wide; they recall to the English an idyllic lost country, and to the rest, suggest the charming perfection of the English way….

But perhaps what most sets Christie apart from other detective writers is her homely and secure wisdom; never tendentious, Christie is a little like a favourite nanny telling sometimes macabre fairy tales to her rapt charges, interspersed with the quiet, wise, homely but firm advice and wisdom which only an intelligent and acute observer of the ways of men could accumulate and disperse almost unconsciously: rather like her own Miss Marple in fact.

That passage  about “an idyllic lost country” brought to mind these stanzas from “A Shropshire Lad” by A.E. Housman:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

In the past twelve years, ever since my trip to Yorkshire reawakened my dormant love of England, I’ve seen these verses quoted over and over. In addition, I’ve read two crime novels with the same title, possibly drawn from the same source:

      I recommend both, by the way.

For me, the Miss Marple novels and stories most closely epitomize the qualities that Lethbridge enumerates above. I’m especially fond of The Body in the Library.   For one thing, I love the way the novel opens:

Mrs. Bantry was dreaming. Her sweet peas had just taken a First at the flower show. The vicar, dressed in cassock and surplice, was giving out the prizes in church. His wife wandered past, dressed in a bathing suit, but as is the blessed habit of dreams this fact did not arouse the disapproval of the parish in the way it would assuredly have done in real life…

Christie then comments that “Mrs. Bantry was enjoying her dream a good deal.” Poor Dolly Bantry! Her happy dream world is about to implode. Naturally, her first thought is to call for help from her most reliable and intuitive friend, Miss Jane Marple.

As for the filmed versions, I love Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. (These were made for television and filmed from 1984 to 1992.) Having none of the clownishness of  Margaret Rutherford, she portrays the elderly sleuth as if she were a kind of seer. She’s as the still center of every mystery she encounters, ranging her fragile physique and powerful intellect against a crime that personifies evil. Her goodness and steady belief in justice carry the day.

In The Body in the Library, retired Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Henry Clithering describes her as follows:

“The finest detective God ever made. Natural genius cultivated in suitable soil.”

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple with Raymond Francis as Sir Henry Clithering, 1984

 

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The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards: the gift that keeps on giving

September 29, 2017 at 12:37 am (Mystery fiction)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my review of Death Walks in Eastrepps, I referred to Martin Edwards’s new book as “this splendid if somewhat exasperating compendium.” Why exasperating? Because as I read his short essays on each title, I developed a strong – nearly overmastering! – desire to read the book itself – and sooner, not later. Obviously there was a need to exercise some restraint here. So I decided consider The Story of Classic Crime as a reference work, only dipping into it when I was overpowered by curiosity (which was often) or in desperate need of a work of fiction that would be gratifying rather than annoying (also often – we  all have these dry spells, I think).

As it happens, I’d already read some of the featured works, e.g. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Conan Doyle (I probably have lots of company there), Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie, Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne, The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham, The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton, The Franchise Affair by Joesphine Tey, and two or three others. But there is so much more on offer here!

I began the rather entertaining process of seeing which titles I could download. Here I had better luck than I’d hoped for: not only were quite a few available but they were for the most part quite inexpensive. Thus far, the following are newly resident on my Kindle app:

 

 

 

Death Walks in Eastrepps proved not to be downloadable, but I was able to acquire it through interlibrary loan. As my review clearly indicates, the effort was well worthwhile; furthermore, as with the downloading, this method of obtaining the book was helpful in my effort to cut back on the purchasing of hard copy volumes. (Forsooth, I am drowning in them, at this point.)

There is an impressive plenitude of books mentioned in this survey, other titles  being brought forward in Edwards’s essays in addition to the canonical one hundred. The following is from the review by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:

To my mind, Edwards particularly shines in the prefatory essays to his 24 categories, in which he mentions some of his own favorite books, such as Henry Wade’s “Lonely Magdalen” — about the murder of a nameless prostitute — and Robert Player’s twisty “The Ingenious Mr. Stone,” which “signaled the end of the era” or, most intriguing of all, Cameron McCabe’s “The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor,” described by Julian Symons as “the detective story to end detective stories.” Introducing “Fiction From Fact,” Edwards naturally zeroes in on the true-life Julia Wallace case, which Raymond Chandler dubbed “the nonpareil of all murder mysteries.” Both Dorothy Sayers and P.D. James were comparably fascinated by this beating death in a locked room.

Dirda is deeply and widely read, both in genre fiction and mainstream works. He is also possessed of very definite opinions. (Oh dear – Do I know anyone else like that?) I was amused by the section in his review in which he differed  with Edwards concerning which were the landmark works of Agatha Christie. Edwards cites The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder at the Vicarage, and The ABC Murders; Dirda counters – gently but firmly – with And Then There Were None, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Murder on the Orient Express. I agree with Dirda that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was a game changer and should be high on the list of works that helped define  the genre. But I would also add two works by Christie which are my personal favorites and which I think are outstanding, even brilliant, although they’re rarely cited by Christie aficionados: The Pale Horse and The Labors of Hercules.

Dirda goes on to offer this caveat; namely, that “…Edwards’s history shouldn’t be viewed as a list of the absolutely greatest works of mystery and detection.” For that, he suggests consulting H.R.F. Keating’s “Crime and Mystery: The Hundred  Best Books” and “Classic Crime Fiction: The Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones.”.  Those are both good recommendations, and I have more to add: the CWA (Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain) Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, compiled in 1990; which was responded to in kind by the Mystery Writers America five years later. And very importantly there’s the list put together by the Independent Mystery Booksellers’ Association (IMBA). Those folks read voraciously in the field, as I was again reminded on my visit to Mystery Loves Company in Oxford, Maryland, this summer.

So – Have I managed to read any of the above recently downloaded titles? So far, two. At the Villa Rose was absorbing and elegantly written, though somewhat oddly structured. It was refreshing to be on the continent, for a change – mainly in France but also in Geneva for several brief but crucial intervals. I enjoyed being in the company of French police Inspector Hanaud, whom I couldn’t help but think of as a forerunner of Jules Maigret. In his investigations, the Inspector is frequently accompanied by a ‘Watson:’  the well meaning Julius Ricardo, who is often in the midst of some great revelation that is almost always wide of the mark, as Hanaud is at pains to point out to him.

Interestingly, Edwards informs us that Mason derived the inspiration for this novel from an actual crime. This was the murder of Eugenie Fougere in 1903.

After reading At the Villa Rose, I immediately plunged into Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman. I’d been intrigued by what Martin Edwards had written about it. For now, I will say that this book merits a separate post, and it will get one. I was astonished by how good it was. I was pretty well riveted. Edwards describes it as “polished and distinctive;” it is that, and much more. A witty, urbane narrative told in the first person by a young man who has come up with a rather unique plan for self-actualization.. Israel Rank’s conflicted psychic make-up is partly due to the fact that he is half Jewish. This novel has been accused of being anti-Semitic. I don’t happen to agree with that assessment, but I understand how others might agree with it.

More on this in a later post. Meanwhile, more classics await This Reader. Thanks, Martin Edwards, for this treasure trove of reading pleasures.

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The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam’s magnificent palace of art

September 27, 2017 at 1:26 pm (Art)

After a renovation that was supposed to take five years but instead took ten and went substantially over budget, Amsterdam’s renowned Rijksmuseum finally reopened in 2013.

What a treasure house! Several weeks ago, these and other works were commended to us and expounded upon by lecturer Aneta Georgievska-Shine in “A Day at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,” one of a series of art programs organized by the Smithsonian Associates. Dr. Georgievska-Shine teaches art history at the University of Maryland College Park.

And now: feast your eyes….

Adoration of the Magi by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, c.1480-1485

 

The holy kinship by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (workshop of) c.1495

 

Temptation of St Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch, c.1550-1600

Hieronymus Bosch being extremely strange, as is his wont…

 

Self-portrait by Johan Gregor van der Schardt, c.1573

When  this slide came up on the screen, there was an audible gasp from the audience – you can see why. This is the commentary from the museum’s site:

To make this small bust – it is half life-size – the sculptor had to resort to all kinds of tricks with a mirror. Van der Schardt did not portray himself frontally, but with his head turned sideways, as if to avoid looking at the viewer. The nude upper torso alludes to sculpture from Classical antiquity.


portrait of an African Man by Jan Mostaert, c.1525-1530

 

The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn, c.1650

 

Dolls’ House of Petronella Oortman, anonymous, c.1686-1710

 

The Windmill at Wijk bij Duustede by Jacob van Ruisdael c.1668-1670

 

Still Life with Asparagus by Adrian Coorte, 1697

A favorite veg gets its due!

Still Life with Turkey Pie by Pieter Claesz, 1627

 

Banquet Still Life, Adriaen van Utrecht, 1644

 

Still Life with Books by Jan Lievens, c.1627-1628

 

The Merry Fiddler by Gerrit von Honthorst, 1623

 

Portrait of a Girl Dressed in Blue by Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, 1641

 

Still Life with Cheese by Floris Claesz van Dijk, 1615

 

Portrait of a Couple, Probably Isaac Abrahamsz Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, by Frans Hals, c. 1622

All this – and I’ve barely scratched the surface – all this, mind you, before we get to Vermeer and Rembrandt!

First, Vermeer:

The Little Street, c.1658

 

Woman Reading a Letter, c.1663

 

The Milkmaid, c.1660

Eight years ago, The Milkmaid was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I saw it there, and I will long remember the experience. From time to time, on certain days, members of the museum can get in a half hour before official opening time. I was there at 9:30, as were a number of others. Most of us went straight to the  gallery where  this painting was hung. It occupied a solitary space, well away from anything else.

The Milkmaid’s dimensions are modest: approximately eighteen by sixteen inches. About ten or twelve of us formed a semicircle around it and stared. No one said a word; we were stunned into silence.

Dr. Georgievska-Shine commented on the way in which certain works by Vermeer seem to stop time. That is part of why paintings like this exert an almost unearthly power upon the viewer.

Rembrandt:

Self-portrait, c.1628

 

Man in Oriental Dress, c.1635

 

Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca, known as ‘The Jewish Bride’ c.1665-1669

 

Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul, 1661

 

The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, Known as ‘The Syndics’, 1662

I grew up knowing this painting as ‘Masters of the Cloth Guild.’ I love the way they’re all staring at you as if you’d just unexpectedly entered the room. The gentleman rising from his chair seems about to say, “And what can we help you with, Sir?”

And finally, the magisterial work which one commentator described  as the Rijksmuseum’s answer to the Louvre’s Mona Lisa:

The Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Bannink Cocq. Known as the ‘Night Watch’

The dimensions of the Night Watch are as follows: eleven feet eleven inches by fourteen feet four inches. It reigns, as it did before the renovation, in solitary splendor.

Dr. Georgievska-Shine confessed that when she first began to study art, she didn’t ‘get’ Rembrandt: “Too much brown, too dark!” That view, of course, changed with time. I understood what she was saying, having gone through a similar progression. Rembrandt now seems the most subtle, momst profound of artists, his greatness almost beyond description.

Due to the vagaries of public transportation, we were somewhat late to this program. During the first break, I asked someone if the speaker had begun the proceedings by showing the video of the re-enactment of the Night Watch that was staged in a shopping mall in 2013, to coincide with the reopening of the museum. I was delighted to be answered in the affirmative.

Here is that video. Note the way in which denizens of the seventeenth century march right into the twenty-first without blinking an eye. It’s pure  genius in my eyes, accompanied by the triumphant finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony:

‘Onze helden zijn terug!’ means “Our heroes are back!”

And so they are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny: a book group discussion

September 22, 2017 at 7:10 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Despite the theme of defiled innocence that makes this such a mournful story, the immense  charm of the Gamache series survives in the magical setting and feisty residents of Three Pines, like the cranky old poet Ruth Zardo (“Bile. She’s pure bile”) and Clara Morrow, the dotty artist (“Have you ever seen  a self-portrait where the person didn’t look just a littlw insane?”).

Marilyn Stasio, from her review of The Great Reckoning in The New York Times.

The series is deep and grand and altogether extraordinary.

From Maureen Corrigan’s review in The Washington Post, entitled “There’s a bit of Nancy Drew in Louise Penny’s masterful ‘A Great Reckoning’”

Finally, there’s a video segment that was aired on CBS Sunday Morning in July, on the occasion of the release of The Great Reckoning. In it, Martha Teichner muses, “There should be a name for fans of Louise Penny’s murder mysteries: The L Pack, or the Penny Posse maybe.” She goes on:

To say they come from far and wide in large numbers to attend her book events is no exaggeration. They’ve come all the way to the Canadian town of Knowlton, in the eastern townships of Quebec, where Penny lives, and her books are set.

Indeed, the mass of fans gathered for this particular book signing event is large and impressive.

If you look at her entry on Stop! You’re Killing Me, you’ll see that her books have garnered numerous awards and nominations.

Critics  and reviewers routinely fall all over themselves in the search for superlatives to apply to the novels in this series. And yet….You probably know where this is heading.

Ably led by Mike, Usual Suspects recently discussed A Great Reckoning, and well, our sentiments were decidedly mixed. There was general acknowledgement of Penny’s skill in creating a world and filling it with memorable characters. However, we were not all unduly fond of those same characters. For myself, I find Ruth Zardo, “the old poet” with the foul mouth and the pet duck named Rosa (who goes around making a sound very like ‘cluck cluck’) supremely irritating. It’s hard for me to believe that a person with such a sour disposition and profane vocabulary could also be the author of beautiful verse. (Yes, I know there was Lord Byron and Dylan Thomas – but even so….) Myrna the bookstore owner is pleasant enough, but I wonder why Penny does not invest her with more of a love and knowledge of literature.

Not having read in this series since the first novel, Still Life, Marge was immediately made aware of a great deal of back story that was alluded to but not elaborated upon. A Great Reckoning is the twelfth novel in the series, and I can well imagine feeling quite lost of you haven’t been reading at least some of the more recent series entries.

And then there’s Armand Gamache, recently retired Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec. Marge felt that as  the book’s plot got under way, his virtuousness and uprightness were stressed ad nauseum. Others among us felt that his nearly flawless goodness was at times hard to believe in and tended to make him seem somewhat two dimensional.

It was somewhere around this point in the discussion that Frances weighed in with a lengthy and entirely eloquent plea in favor of Gamache in particular and this novel in general. My notes on her remarks are rather hasty and fragmented – I wish I could have recorded them so as to have a verbatim record of her spirited disquisition, which was both an analysis and a defense. A Great Reckoning, she averred, was in the nature of a hero’s quest, a journey through difficulties and dangers that at last arrives at a place of peace and enlightenment where, importantly, justice is served. The plot’s structure was elegantly wrought, in her judgment. She likened  the nove to a morality play. (At least, I have that phrase scribbled in my notebook!) We begin in confusion and end in clarity.

Up until the occasion of this discussion, Frances had been absent from our gatherings for quite a while.  By the time she had concluded her incisive and insightful remarks, I was reminded of her keen intellect which, combined with a compassionate heart, serves to make her so valuable as both an interlocutor and a  friend.

Even after Frances vibrantly championed A Great Reckoning, there remained dissenters among us. For the most part, we did not agree with her about the novel’s structure. The plot has numerous threads that were a challenge to untangle; moreover, there is a dauntingly large cast of characters. It was hard to keep all of this straight. It was all over the map.

And maps, as it happens, are a key element in this story. A hundred year old map of Three Pines and the surrounding area is found concealed within the walls of the building that now serves as the village bistro. This map has some very curious features and obviously cries out for investigation. This process is the springboard for much of what subsequently unfolds in the novel’s plot.

Meanwhile, several faithful readers have tried their hands at more conventional re-creations of Three Pines, to wit:

Then there is the matter of Louise Penny’s prose style. It is definitely distinctive. For some readers, it is brimful of charm and a kind of eccentric beauty. For others, not so much. In our group, Pauline found it pretentious. I described it as highly idiosyncratic. Marge said that it simply did not work for her.

It’s my feeling that the style of a written work should serve as a vehicle for the story. This does not mean that it can’t possess a lyrical quality, but it does mean that it shouldn’t call it attention to itself at the expense of that story.

I fear that this write-up is coming across as overly negative. Certainly Louise Penny has created a body of work that resonates powerfully for many people. I think we all felt that she seems to be a lovely person, kind and generous. Recently widowed, she has had to fight through the pain to continue her work. Undoubtedly the devotion of her many readers has been a great help in that effort.

Louise Penny

Of the thirteen novels in this series, I’ve red eight. My favorite is without doubt Bury Your Dead. That book made me want to board a flight to Quebec City tout de suite!

This was a terrific discussion. I was reminded once again of what a pleasure it is to be among lovers of our wonderful crime fiction genre who are both great “discussers” and wonderful people.

 

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‘His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world…’ Henry David Thoreau: A Life, by Laura Dassow Walls

September 17, 2017 at 4:08 pm (Book review, books)

  Upon finishing this book several weeks ago, I felt overwhelmed by a mixture of  new knowledge, wonder, and grief. I needed some time to pass before I could write about it.

There is so very much more to Thoreau than Walden, as great as that book is. We have an image of him as a sort of recluse, but nothing could be further from the truth. He was actively engaged in the life of his beloved Concord. His friends were numerous; he was devoted to his family; his interests ranged far and wide. I like Wikipedia’s brisk summation:

Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862) was an American essayist, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, and historian.

Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts, and never lived anywhere else. He was not widely traveled, although he loved to explore nature by boat and on foot. He delighted in the woods of Maine and scaled Mount Kahtadin.  He explored Cape Cod. He went as far afield as Montreal, New York City, and, toward the end of his life, Minnesota. (Ill though he was at the time, he rejoiced in this opportunity “to see the West.”) But always he returned to Concord, relieved and rejoiced to be back in his true home.

The subject of Thoreau’s life requires a biographer who above all has a prose style that is both incisive and gracious. Fortunately, Laura Dassow Walls is just such a writer:

Thoreau is often said to have turned to “Nature,” but what he actually turned to was, more exactly, the “commons”—spaces that, back then, were still open to everyone: woods, fields and hilltops, ponds and blueberry thickets, rivers, meadows, trails up nearby mountains, the long open beaches on the Atlantic shore. Nearly all his writings use landforms and watersheds to explore the commons, expanding our shared natural and intellectual heritage until it touches the Cosmos itself. When Thoreau sailed on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, he traveled the deep stream of time; when he walked the shore of Cape Cod, he dabbled his toes in a wild ocean stretching around the globe; when he stood on the shoulder of Mount Katahdin, he breathed the thin chill air of a planet in stellar space.

Laura Dassow Walls, most probably standing at the edge of Walden Pond

Walls’s account brims with fascinating incidents from Thoreau’s life. (And with sadness as well; life was still a precarious thing in the early nineteenth century.) Thoreau’s tenure in Concord coincided with that of a number of other worthies, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father), and above all, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The friendship of Emerson and Thoreau was rather fraught. They fell out over various issues any number of times, but the basic closeness and mutual respect never wavered.

In addition, Thoreau crossed paths with other notable individuals. During his sojourn in New York City, he was introduced to the young Walt Whitman. He was not quite sure what to make of him:

…a man so coarse and rough yet so gentle and sweet, who loved “to ride up and down Broadway all day,” sitting beside the omnibus driver and declaiming Homer at the top of his lungs.

And yet Thoreau very much liked Leaves of Grass.

And here is a passage that caused me to exclaim in delight. I was deeply grateful for its presence in the narrative, as it occurs as Thoreau and his traveling companion, Horace Mann Jr. are making their way back East, after their sojourn in Minnesota. As they cross Wisconsin, Thoreau’s health becomes increasingly precarious. And yet, at that very moment, a luminous synchronicity occurs:

They passed through Madison on June 27, where the university had just let out for the year, and a twenty-three-year-old John Muir was, that very day, walking north to his home in Portage. Muir, a student of geology, botany, and chemistry, had just finished his first term. Not until he quit school for “the University of the Wilderness” would he hear of Thoreau, who would become one of his heroes; in Muir’s work, Thoreau’s emerging environmental activism would mature into a national politics.

Reading this, I envisioned a map of Wisconsin, with these two paths nearly crossing; two lines not fated to meet, but coming close, an almost meeting that proved to  be deeply meaningful, as  the years passed.

Having been there several times, I can say with confidence that Concord is a town well worth visiting.  Orchard House, home of the Alcott family, Emerson’s house, the Old Manse, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery – all are there to be seen and admired. The house where Thoreau’s family lived while he attended Harvard has become the Concord Colonial Inn. We have twice enjoyed staying at this historic hostelry. (On the occasion of one of those stays, we had the great pleasure of becoming acquainted with Miss Emily Dickinson, distinguished poet.)

If you have the great good fortune to visit Concord, there is, of course, a wealth of related reading material with which to fortify your luggage. One you may not know about, though, is a mystery: God in Concord by Jane Langton.  I recommend a browse in the venerable Concord  Bookshop,   and most importantly, do not omit a visit to the Concord Free Public Library,  which plays such an entertaining role in Jane Langton’s novel.

Orchard House

 

‘Bush,’ home of Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

The Old Manse

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Concord Colonial Inn

 

Concord Free Public library, dedicated in 1873

Henry David Thoreau finally succumbed to the ravages of tuberculosis in 1862. He was 44 years old. This is the closing passage of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s eulogy

The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst his broken task, which none else can finish,—a kind of indignity to so noble a soul, that it should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.

 

Henry David Thoreau in 1854, crayon on paper, by Samuel Worcester Rowse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fast Falls the Night by Julia Keller

September 15, 2017 at 12:31 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Poor Acker’s Gap, West Virginia.

Staggering under a load of misery, its denizens have turned to drugs for solace and a numbing of the pain. But suddenly the number of dying increases exponentially. The heroin has been mixed with a deadly substance called carfentanil.   Prosecutor Bell Elkins, Deputy Sheriff Jake Oakes, and others in both medicine and law enforcement are desperate to track this substance to its source so as to prevent yet more overdoses.

Having lived away from Acker’s Gap for a period of time, Bell Elkins, feeling a strong imperative, has returned home. She’s determined to help in whatever way she can, as her community and others in the state struggle with this nefarious plague:

The highest compliment you could pay to a place and its people, she believed, was to insist on justice. On the rule of law. To say to the dark anarchical currents that were always threatening to overwhelm this area: No. I won’t let that happen.

Bell and Jake are  having to deal with those ‘anarchical currents’ – wonderful phrase, that – in both their professional and personal lives. This, despite dauntless courage and perseverance exhibited by the two of them in the most trying circumstances.

I’ve been hearing good things about this series ever since it debuted with A Killing in the Hills in 2012. This is the first entry I’ve read, and judging by this one, I’d say the praise is entirely justified. Julia Keller’s skill at plotting and character creation are exemplary; in addition, her writing is beautiful.

Julia Keller

With regard to her chosen profession, Bell reflects that “…prosecutors had to believe, at least theoretically, in the possibility of redemption.” Sadly, there’s very little redemption in evidence in this extremely downbeat novel. Things seem always to be going from bad to worse, as characters that you’ve come to care about catch one bad break after another. I would love to talk about this book with other readers, but I’m hesitant to propose it for a book discussion; the mood is so relentlessly somber.

At one point  in the narrative, one of Bell’s staffers, a woman of staunch but restrained religious conviction, asks Bell if she’s familiar with the hymn “Abide With Me.” Bell says she is not. (This response surprised me. I was raised Jewish, in an overwhelmingly Jewish community, and I know that hymn.) The staffer recites some verses for her, thinking they may provide some comfort in a time of great stress.

“Abide With Me” was written by Henry Francis Lyte. a Scottish clergyman. At the time he penned this hymn, Lyte was desperately ill with tuberculosis. He passed away in November of 1847.

 

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