He almost cried out in despair, staring up at the cracked, whitewashed ceiling, a married man of forty-one at the mercy of a broken heart.
The place is Tunisia; the year, 1978. The man with the aching heart is Jean-Marc Daumal, not just a husband but a father as well. As A Foreign Country begins, Jean-Marc is deriving no pleasure from his domestic status. Amelia Weldon, his children’s nanny and the love of his life, has without warning, disappeared.
These events are succinctly narrated in the novel’s first chapter. We then leap ahead in time to the present day. Jean-Marc Daumal himself disappears from the narrative (at least, he seems to). Soon we meet Thomas Kell, a former MI6 officer: former not due to retirement – he’s only in his forties – but due to disgrace.
But as the main action of the novel gets under way, Kell is being brought back in from the cold. (Did LeCarre invent that expression? So evocative, really.) His handler Marquand needs his help. It seems that the new head of MI6 – its first female head, in fact – has gone missing while vacationing in the South of France. Marquand is convinced that Kell has the skills and the know how to find out what’s happened to her. But it’s a mission that will have to be conducted completely off the books. And as is always the case in these situations, Kell must face the dangers alone. Even if he succeeds, there will be scant glory at the end.
With some reluctance, Kell agrees to take on this extremely sensitive task. In short order, he finds himself in France:
Kell had forgotten how much he disliked Nice.The city had none of the character that he associated with France: it felt like a place with no history, a city that had never suffered. The too-clean streets, the incongruous palm trees, the poseurs on the boardwalks, and the girls who weren’t quite pretty: Nice was an antiseptic playground for rich foreigners who didn’t have the imagination to spend their money properly. “The place,” he muttered to himself, remembering the old joke, “where suntans go to die.”
I really do enjoy Cumming’s writing. It’s incisive and insightful and full of the flashes of cynical wit that are so very apt for novels of political and international intrigue.
As with most novels in this genre, the plot of A Foreign Country becomes increasingly complex, but never so much so that it becomes hard to follow. Mainly it was just plain fascinating. I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen next. The genuine article, this: a page turner with both brains and a heart. I never stopped caring about the main characters.
Two quotations appear at the front of A Foreign Country. The first, from which the novel takes its title, is the famous first line from The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley:
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
This is the second:
“There’s just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job…If you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help. Does that suit you?”
“Then I’ll wish you good afternoon.”
This snatch of dialog comes from Ashenden: Or the British Agent by W. Somerset Maugham. ( Although not published until 1928, the stories that comprise this groundbreaking work were, for the most part, written during the First World War. They grew out of Maugham’s own experiences while serving as a secret agent for Britain in wartime.)
The Winter 2013 issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine features a brief review by Larry Gandle of A Foreign Country. He prefaces it with these remarks:
Spy novels…tend to be long drawn out bores reflecting the reality of the inherent dullness of the profession. Spying can be a lonely occupation in which the less striking the figure the better the spy. They should be dull and unassuming like the books written about them.
Gandle then declares himself no fan of the genre – not surprising, given the above comments. But he goes on to say that this particular novel is exceptional:
Charles Cumming has written a compelling spy thriller that moves along swiftly with realistic characters and many exotic locales.There are numerous pitfalls that Kell must traverse if he hopes to successfully accomplish his mission. The fun rests in watching him work.
Gandle concludes by giving A Foreign Country a warm recommendation – praise indeed from one who is generally not enamored with espionage fiction.
At any rate – I agree with him: it was fun watching the resourceful Tom Kell maneuver his way into and out of dire situations. It was more than fun; it was deeply engaging. And in the end, events come full circle in a way that is most satisfying.
A Foreign Country was the recipient of the 2012 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, awarded by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. In addition, the novel was named Scottish Crime Book of the Year at the Bloody Scotland International Crime Festival last September. (I have friends who attended that first ever event. This video really drove home how much I missed by not being there!)
Last night we watched a film entitled The Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene. Greene was one of the greatest thriller writers of the twentieth century. In addition, he wrestled with the most profound questions about the human condition. My favorite among his numerous works is The Quiet American. The Dangerous Edge is narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi and features appearances by John LeCarre, John Mortimer, Shirley Hazzard, and Paul Theroux.
I’ve just begun listening to a Teaching Company course entitled Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History. Quite simply: I am enthralled!
Early in A Foreign Country, Thomas Kell reflects that “A wise man once said that spying is waiting.” That wise man is John LeCarre.
I shot this video footage and the closing photograph in the early hours of this morning. Editing, technical work, and choice of soundtrack for the final product were all carried out by the ever resourceful Ron.
I don’t recall snow ever falling on Passover before today.
I felt in need of some light – or lighter, at any rate – reading. A book that would chase away ‘the old ennui’ and make me smile. That would not make too many heavy demands on my intellect. So where did I turn? Lawrence Block‘s stories about the adventures and misadventures of a hit man are written with tongue firmly in cheek. Keller, the eponymous protagonist, first appeared in short stories. Then the stories were collected in single volumes. Then they lengthened into novels. But, as can readily be seen from Hit Me, these novels retain the episodic quality of the stories. I think this works extremely well. It means the plot, or plots, never get too complicated and thus retain their narrative momentum. They also provide scope for Block’s wonderfully written dialog. In addition, we’re made privy to the thoughts that occupy Keller as he awaits the arrival of an intended victim:
Keller had read somewhere that all of man’s difficulties stemmed from his inability to sit alone in a room. The line stayed with him, and a while ago he’d Googled his way to its source. Someone named Pascal had made the observation, Blaise Pascal, and it turned out he’d said a lot of other interesting things as well, but all but the first one had slipped Keller’s mind. He thought of it now as he forced himself to sit alone in the maid’s room, waiting for Portia Walmsley to come home.
(Like his creator, Keller possesses a lot of what I’d call hidden erudition.)
It’s one of the perverse triumphs of these stories that Keller emerges as an oddly likeable guy. It is odd, one must admit, given the nature of his work. He may be a killer for hire, but he’s beset by many of the same anxieties and insecurities from which we all suffer. And yes, he does suffer occasional pangs of conscience. Also, he yearns for love and the comforts that a family would provide; latterly, he actually does acquire those precious attributes of a rewarding life. But can he hold on to them and still pursue his ruthless, if highly remunerative, profession? Should he look for another line of work altogether? Time will tell….
Whatever his choice of vocation, Keller avidly pursues a passionate vocation. It is the collecting of postage stamps, and you could say that it pursues him rather than the other way around. This is the third Keller book I’ve read – the fifth in the series – and I feel that there is far more stamp lore in this one than in the previous two. Philately is the kind of specialty that can easily afflict the unbeliever with glazed eyes and cognitive shutdown, but Block always stops short of indulging in that degree of detail.
At any rate, it’s a sideline that affords Keller a welcome distraction from the matters at hand – matters that must be dealt with, one way or another. Keller gets these assignments from a woman called Dot. You could say, using spy parlance, that she’s his handler. But Keller is more free than most agents of espionage are to decline a given task. Dot has the connections to shop it elsewhere. In Hit Me, Keller’s proposed “hits’ range from an angry husband’s wife and her lover, the abbot of a monastery (hence the “felonious monk” in the title of this post), and a fourteen-year-old boy. This last precipitates a crisis. Keller has always drawn the line at doing away with children for whatever reason (and the reason in this case is purely venal anyway). He comes up with a better idea.
In this video, Lawrence Block discusses Hit and Run (fourth in the series) and the strangeness of readers’ reactions to Keller.
“Igunak. Fermented walrus gut. Very good for you. Keep you warm.”
Edie gets involved in an investigation that hits very close to home. It has to do with a death that appears to be a suicide but may have been something else. The police are also involved in the person of the local law enforcement officer, Derek Palliser. Derek is young, and a more than competent policeman, but his relationship with Edie produces plenty of static. Eventually she goes haring off on her own in an effort to further the investigation. Derek finds her actions deeply exasperating. (Derek has an obsession with lemmings that several of us found rather odd.)
In White Heat, M.J. McGrath presents us with an extremely crowded canvas, filled as it is with numerous secondary characters. In addition, the plot evolves toward a formidable degree of complexity. I readily admit to being lost in the back stretch, especially during the last third of the novel. On the other hand, McGrath’s descriptions of this forbidding yet fascinating place are intensely lyrical and evocative:
It was one of those beautiful, crystal-clear Arctic evenings where everything seemed picked out in its own spotlight. The sky was an unimpeachable blue and before him stretched a fury of tiny ice peaks, unblemished by leads. In the distance the dome-shaped berg, which had bedded into the surrounding pack for the winter, glowed furiously turquoise.
In contrast, descriptions of the food traditionally consumed by the indigenous population were somewhat off putting. No – let’s be blunt – at times, downright revolting! There’s the fermented walrus gut being praised so enthusiastically by Edie in the quote at the top of this post. In that scene, she is offering this ‘delicacy’ to Andy Taylor, a qalunaat for whom she is acting as a guide on a hunting trip. His reaction:
Taylor took a bite. Slowly his jaw began to move. Pretty soon a rictus of disgust spread across his face. He spat the meat onto his glove.
A profane exclamation is uttered at this point. (Andy later goes missing in a blizzard, on an excursion led by Joe Inukpuk. Andy’s disappearance creates a mystery, followed by a tragedy.)
Two other dishes offered up for the reader’s delectation in this novel are hearty seal- blood soup and “delicate little nuggets of fried blubber.” . We couldn’t help laughing about the way in which, in respect of food, White Heat differs so markedly from, say, the novels of Donna Leon. In those, the reader is positively salivating over the culinary delights so casually whipped up by Paola Brunetti, wife to the most fortunate Commissario. Whereas, quite frankly, the food described in White Heat made my stomach churn! Ah well. Perhaps one must be born to it.
I had a more serious problem with the relationship that the Inuit people have with the animals in their world. That the Inuit live by hunting is a given, but even the sled dogs are regarded more as engine parts than as living beings, never mind companion animals. Reed rightly offered the reminder that these dogs function as machines rather than pets, for their Inuit owners. My response was that even though I acknowledge this fact in my head, my heart cannot accept it. (Edie does have Bonehead, a pet more or less, but she doesn’t seem to expend much affection on him.)
Survival is – must be – a top priority in this community, and the author is generally compassionate toward the hard pressed Inuit. They can be courageous and resourceful, yet these very same people are beset with dysfunctional elements, chief among them being alcohol and drug abuse – problems not known to them prior to their contact with white men.
The Boy in the Snow, the second in the Edie Kiglatuk series, came out here in November of last year. Several in our group had either read it or were planning to do so. I believe that Carol mentioned that McGrath is already at work on the third Edie Kiglatuk novel.
Our discussion was led by Carol. She provided us with fascinating background material. I was especially interested in Melanie McGrath herself. What caused her to become so passionately interested in this remote region of the planet? Born in England, McGrath has traveled widely and lived for a time in places as disparate as Las Vegas and Nicaragua. She’s now back in England, concentrating on her writing.
Up until the publication of White Heat in 2011, McGrath had been writing primarily nonfiction. Carol had especially recommended one of those titles, The Long Exile. Subtitled A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic, this is the story of the forced relocation of seven families, consisting of some three dozen individuals, from Inukjuak, their home on the east coast of the Hudson Bay, to Ellesmere Island some twelve hundred miles north. I started reading this book after I’d finished White Heat. The events described in The Long Exile are so gripping that they overtook the content of the novel in my imagination and more or less blocked it out. (Another person in our group, Pauline, was having a similar experience with the two books.)
The Long Exile begins with the story of Robert Flaherty’s travels in the Barren Lands that so fascinated him, and the landmark film that emerged from his experiences there.
Flaherty was used to wilderness, but no wilderness he had ever experienced matched this….He felt the flinty, lichen-painted sweep of the tundra and the great expanses of sea and ice and sky as a swelling in his chest. The starkness of the place enthralled him. It was as though every step farther north was a footfall on a new discovery. The tundra rolled out, empty and uncompromised, all around him.
Although some of the scenes were deliberately staged, his film Nanook of the North remains an almost iconic work of ethnography. With no road map to guide him, Robert Flaherty virtually invented the genre of documentary film.
And yet, Nanook of the North was not the only legacy Robert Flaherty left behind among the people of the High Arctic….
McGrath’s writing positively soars in The Long Exile. The story of the privation and suffering endured by the Inukjiak people as they struggled to survive their first winter on Ellesmere Island may be the most harrowing nonfiction narrative I’ve ever encountered.
The Inuit were deposited on the Lindstrom Peninsula of Ellesmere Island. There was insufficient snow for the building of snow houses, so the families had to remain in tents. The place was so alien, so devoid of any kind of life, human, animal or plant, that Mary Aqiatusuk, wife of Paddy Aqiasutuk, the group’s senior member and leader, was prompted to inquire of her husband: ‘Are we still in the same world?’
Well, they were, but just barely. And things were about to get worse. Once the sun set over the island on October 15 1953, it would not rise again until four months had passed. And with the all enveloping darkness came the cold, deep and brutal:
The temperature hovered around -30˚C and when November arrived, it plunged even lower. With winds roaring from the Arctic Ocean the windchill could drop the air temperature on the sea ice to -55˚C. Whenever they went outside, their heads pounded, their eyelashes froze together and little ice balls collected around the tear ducts in their eyes. The hairs inside their noses stuck together and pulled apart each time they breathed and their breath came as a shallow pant. The lungs burned, the eardrums ached and the brain struggled to locate the body’s extremities.
December came. The temperature inside the tents rarely rose above -15C. Hunting became impossible. The dogs suffered horribly, along with the humans. They all began to starve.
To satisfy their cravings they began to eat the carcasses of starved wolves or foxes they found lying in the ice. They ate ptarmigan feathers and bladders and heather, they boiled up hareskin boot liners and made broths from old pairs of sealskin kamiks. They chewed seagull bones and dog harnesses. They ate fur and lemming tails.
Much of this was indigestible and made their insides revolt.
There’s more, but you’ll have gotten the idea by now. By some miracle and despite these appalling conditions, the Inuit survived that terrible winter: “Spring arrived on Ellesmere Island.”
Ice crystals spangled the air. Forests of little ice fronds sprang up from the land, icicles hung from the roof of the sod huts and the wind transformed them into little glockenspiels. Ellesmere Island became almost unbearably beautiful.
Nanook of the North has been remastered and reissued by the Criterion Collection. An essay on the Criterion site provides context and background. (While viewing the film, Ron and I were struck by the exceptional beauty of the soundtrack. This is a new score, written expressly for the Criterion release by Timothy Brock, a composer who specializes in restoring the scores of silent films and composing new ones.)
Martha of the North is a 2009 film made by Martha Flaherty, Robert Flaherty’s granddaughter. Click here to watch the trailer. I found two other related films: Nanook Revisited (1990) and Broken Promises: The High Arctic Relocation (1995). Here is an excerpt from Broken Promises:
It appears that the only one of these films that’s readily obtainable is Nanook of the North.
The Nunavut region is now being promoted as a tourist destination. Unfortunately, as Melanie McGrath reports on her blog, the area is currently experiencing an upsurge in crime.
Aside from being a skilled hunter and a natural leader, Paddy Aqiasutuk was a gifted artist. While he and his family were struggling to stay alive through their first winter on Ellesmere, his work was featured in an exhibit of Inuit sculpture in London. Reviewers lavished praise on his carvings. There was a certain irony in all of this, and McGrath, who has a fine ear for such things, describes it thus:
The exhibition proved so successful that galleries in Edinburgh and Paris asked for it on loan and Aqiasutuk’s name became well known in certain art circles. Aqiasutuk knew nothing of this exhibition. No one had thought to tell him it was on. He was stuck at the top of the world, barely surviving.
I’ve not been able to find any images of carving directly attributed to Paddy Aqiasutuk. The image at the top of this post is feature on the Dorset Fine Arts site.
This dual reading experience put me in mind of a book I read some years back: Bloody Falls of the Coppermine by McKay Jenkins. This story of the murder of two Catholic missionary priests in the Canadian High Arctic in 1913 is among the best true crime narratives I have ever read.
White Heat elicited a stimulating discussion among the Usual Suspects. I think we all appreciated the uniqueness of both the setting and the protagonist. But the plot became somewhat labored, and the novel was so filled with the lore of the Inuit that, as Reed commented, it was as though McGrath were writing two different books at the same time. As I indicated earlier, I think McGrath has a better grasp of the material, and surely a more compelling story tell, in The Long Exile. Even so, for the most part I did enjoy White Heat and I might continue with the series at a later time. I thank Carol for her excellent choice – this was a real learning experience, in more ways than one.
Also I want to emphasize one fact: I think Melanie McGrath is a terrific writer.
The the High Arctic Relocation is a very complicated, as well as a very sensitive subject. While I haven’t attempted to examine it in detail here, I hope I’ve pointed you in the direction of further research, iff you’re interested. Certainly The Long Exile is an excellent place to start. The Wikipedia entry is also quite informative.
These still images from Nanook of the North are of “Nanook,” played by Alakariallak, and his wife “Nyla,” probably played by Maggie Nujarluktuk.
Yes I know – Parsifal again. This is the final post touching on the subject of that opera, I promise!
First – let me explain the above title. I’m currently listening to The Turn of the Screw, written in 1898 by Henry James. I listen to it in the car, and since I only drive short distances, I’m getting it in discreet chunks. No matter – I’ve listened to this recording (narrated by Flo Gibson) before, and I’ve read the book at least three times. I’ve seen “The Innocents,” the terrific (in the literal sense of the word) 1961 film version starring Deborah Kerr. I’ve seen a film version (not sure which one) of the opera by Benjamin Britten. All of this has taken place over the course of many years, decades actually.
So, as you can see, I’ve been trying for a long time to get to the bottom of it, to uncover the truth about what really happened at Bly – or at least, to decide once and for all what I believe happened. From time to time, I feel the need to revisit The Turn of the Screw.You could say that this ghost story has haunted me for the better part of my life (and I know I’ve got plenty of company, in that regard).
Every time I revisit this maddening tale, I become aware of some new element. This time, the insistence on propriety and conventional appearance seems almost grating. When, for instance, it is learned that little Flora has gone out on her own, Mrs. Grose immediately exclaims, “Without a hat?” Flora, upon seeing the governess and Mrs Grose, is moved in her own turn to ask where their “things” are. The early emphasis on the sweetness and innocence of the children recalls Victorian sentimentality on the subject. Of course, this serves to heighten the contrast between the governess’s initial impression and her growing suspicions that the innocence of Miles and Flora has been fatally compromised by the forces of evil personified by the ghostly emanations of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint.
Whenever I am once again immersed in The Turn of the Screw, I begin looking for interesting commentary. In an essay called “Edmund Wilson and The Turn of the Screw,” M. Slaughter paraphrases the critic Edmund Wilson as follows: “James’s personal and authorial blind spot was sex, and his inability to confront, perhaps even to understand, sexual feelings, was transformed into the ambiguity of the governess.” That’s a subject for an entire book in and of itself. I will say that the aspects of James’s sexuality discussed by Michael Gorra in his magnificent book Portrait of the Novel were, for me, enlightening but not really surprising. I don’t want to go further into the subject at this point, but I’d like to quote here what Gorra says about a review James wrote of Nana, written in 1880 by Emile Zola. The novel contains a good deal of frank description of the protagonist’s body and sexual practices.
[James] writes of the book’s “foulness,” but says almost nothing about what it actually contains. He doesn’t tell his readers that Nana is about a teenaged actress who drains the purses of her lovers, sleeping her way from success to success in an ever-unsatisfied frenzy; who seems happy only in a lesbian affair, and who late in the novel is startled to find herself pregnant, having so used “her sexual parts . . . for other purposes” that she has forgotten they can still make babies. James writes about none of that. Even as a critic he can’t help but observe the distinction between that which he knows and that which he can admit that he knows.
Having come to Paris in 1875, Henry James was spending a considerable amount of time in the company of the greatest French writers of the day, Zola, Flaubert, and de Maupassant among them. Here’s what Michael Gorra says about the latter: “Guy de Maupassant wrote hundreds of short stories, many of them so frank in their account of sexual life that few young persons in England would have been allowed to read them.” So yes, there must have been a fairly wide gap between what James knew, and what he was able to acknowledge knowing. And as for what he could write about, that gap was much wider. He shared that reserve regarding sex with virtually all American and British writers of the late Victorian era. Even so, his reticence strikes the contemporary reader as extreme. Ironically, this need to approach the subject by the most oblique of routes often adds to the power of his writing rather than diminishing it (at least, it seems so to me).
Recently, my search for online commentary yielded a particularly pleasing result: a blog post, dated July 2011, entitled “‘The Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Innocents.'” The author modestly calls himself The Argumentative Old Git (“…it’s best to be self-deprecating before someone else deprecates you!”). And on the sidebar, what do mine eyes behold under the rubric “Recent Posts” but this: “Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’: some confused thoughts of a layman.” Recent indeed: this was posted this past Sunday March 3, one day after the Parsifal marathon attended by my friends and me.
Turns out that “The Argumentative Old Git” is actually Himadri, an operational research analyst who lives with his family near London. As for the ‘old’ part – he is in his early fifties. (Hah! If only….) Given our similar interests, and the fact that he lives in Britain, I would be pleased to think of Himadri as a kindred spirit (oh my gosh, I just saw the post on Hamlet!), except that he is obviously a much deeper thinker (not to mention better writer) than I am. Ah well – I am very glad to have found this blog. I have a great deal of juicy content to catch up on, and I intend to be a regular reader from now on.
I have just received my CD of Jonas Kaufmann singing verismo arias. I am enjoying it greatly:
Jonas Kaufmann also has a recently released CD featuring the music of Richard Wagner:
Finally, I really got a kick out of the cover design for this CD. I believe that Friedrich’s “Wanderer’ is often thought of as the emblem of the German Romanticism that flourished in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. The era, in other words, of Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven.
I finished listening to The Turn of the Screw earlier today. I had to pull over to the curb and just sit and listen. Surely that last sentence is one of the most shattering in all of fiction.
It took a few minutes before I could continue driving. I was very close to home, you see, but I had to wait for my heart to stop pounding.
This is how Ron Charles of the Washington Post begins his review of A Possible Life:
I’m not sure why Sebastian Faulks calls his new book “a novel” — I might as well call this review “a poem” — but labeling is the only thing he gets wrong here.
I share Charles’s puzzlement (and his approbation). Although there are some common threads running throughout, A Possible Life, to my view, consists of five novellas that don’t have much in common with one another, set as they are in different locales and eras.
The first one concerns Geoffrey Talbot and is set on the eve of the Second World War. Impatient and disillusioned with the military, Geoffrey decides to opt for intelligence work instead. Colossal bad luck lands him, along with a colleague, in a concentration camp. The description of what goes on there is excruciating; I nearly had to set the book aside. But I persevered, because I cared about Geoffrey and because the writing was so good. (This is something you can depend on from Faulks, author of Birdsong and A Week in December.)
In one scene, Geoffrey is attempting to tell his parents what sort of war work he’ll be doing, without telling them too much. This is the kind of luminous prose that keeps me continually returning to the works of this author:
For a moment the three of them, the small family unit, looked at one another and Geoffrey had the sensation of time stopping, as though all his childhood summers were rolled into that moment: the slow days when sun glowed on the brick of the village almshouses with their fiery beds of dahlias and wallflowers tended by old men in cardigans; the bubbling white of the water that ran beneath the bridge by the church in which, flat on the grass, he would dip his hands to cool them, then splash his face; the road when he bicycled past the cottage hospital on his way home from school and saw the patients wheeled onto the grass to lie in the drowsy afternoon with a wireless faintly playing through an open door.
Part Two is entitled “Billy 1859.” Billy’s family consists of himself, his three siblings, and his parents. The family is so impoverished that the decision is made to consign one of one of the children to a workhouse. It falls to Billy’s lot to go there. Again, we get a detailed description of an exceedingly bleak environment (but one that’s not nearly as ghastly as the concentration camp in the preceding novella). Billy’s resourcefulness in the face of daunting odds is deeply impressive and ultimately serves as a guide to the way out of the grinding poverty into which he was born. With it all, he never loses his humanity and his humility; yet at the end, he still struggles to make sense of things:
I don’t think you ever understand your life–not till it’s finished and probably not then either. The more I live the less I seem to understand.
This sentiment is a recurring trope in these stories.
(Oddly, I have a dim memory of my father saying something similar to me. That, and “every person has his pack on his back.”)
The best adjective I can think of to describe this novella is ‘Dickensian.’
Next, we meet Elena, an only child. The year is 2029. The place is Italy, initially a village near Mantua:
Elena Duranti was a wild girl who spent most of her time alone in the woods near her parents’ farm. Her mother said she was shy, but the truth was that she found other children irritating. She knew what they were trying to say even as they began to labor slowly towards it; and when they got there it hardly seemed worth the trouble.
Elena, brilliant and determined, is destined to make her mark as a researcher in neuroscience. But this comes after the solitude of her childhood is suddenly an unexpectedly breached. Roberto, her father, returns home from a business trip to Trieste with a young boy in tow. The boy had been rescued from an orphanage. He has no name, only a number. Roberto decides that he’s to be called Bruno. Dumbfounded by this sudden change in their domestic situation, Elena asks how long Bruno will be with them.
“‘For ever’ said Roberto. ‘We’re adopting him.'”
I was immediately reminded of the fateful arrival Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, but the similarities diverge, as the story progresses.
Elena’s evolving relationship with Bruno is the chief source of fascination in this novella.
One other point of interest – at least, it was of interest to me. Elena is an avowed atheist – a not uncommon conviction in the postmodern world she inhabits. Yet when she suffers a terrible loss, her grief is portrayed in a way that has a strong Biblical resonance:
She went out into the stony field, knelt and lowered her face between her knees. She picked up handfuls of soil and let them trickle from her fingers onto her bowed head. She had been snatched up violently and did not recognize the place where she had been put down. She lifted up her eyes to the hills, as though some help might be there; but all she sensed was how long it would take to realign herself to this new world.
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the LORD,
which made heaven and earth.
The ancients may have sensed consolation coming from afar, but sadly, for Elena those same hills have no comfort to bestow upon her.
“Jeanne 1822” is the fourth novella. It takes place in the Limousin region, in southwestern France. This is how it begins:
Jeanne was said to be the most ignorant person in the Limousin village where she had lived most of her life.
Jeanne works as a domestic in the Lagarde household. Monsieur and Madame Lagarde have two children, Clémence and Marcel. Jeanne’s fate and that of the members of the Lagarde family are virtually inextricable.
At one point, just before she turns twenty, Clémence presents to her family a young man by the name of Étienne Desmarais. This forms the occasion for a diner party, to which the Lagardes also invite their friends Mosieur et Madame Mechenet. At one point, Mme Michenet asks Desmarais if he intends eventually to reside on his family’s estates. To which he replies in the negative, and then adds: “‘The eternal silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me.'”
It seems he is quoting a famous line of text from one France’s most famed philosophers. No one in the party recognizes it, however, and he needs must enlighten them: It is from the works of Blaise Pascal. Desmarais further informs them: “He was referring to the heavens, of course.'”
Knowing virtually nothing of Pascal’s Pensées except for the work’s general fame, I looked it up on Wikipedia. Wikiquote supplied it, and the lines preceding:
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?
The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.
I also found another quote, which I first heard in another context – I can’t remember which – and that has stayed with me: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” The original French reads as follows: ‘Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point.‘ I think I prefer this translation: “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.” This sentiment also is relevant to the story of Jeanne and her sojourn through life with the Lagarde family.
“Jeanne 1822” possesses narrative and descriptive elements which are reminiscent of the evocation of provincial life often encountered in nineteenth century French fiction. (Une Vie by Guy de Maupassant comes to mind.) Of the five novellas that comprise A Possible Life, it is my favorite.
The Wikipedia article on Limousin features this photograph, with the caption ‘Small river in Creuse, Limousin.’ I long to be there, for some reason.
Finally, there is “Anya 1971.” For me, this was the least satisfying of the five. Anya is a young woman with exceptional gifts in the fields of singing and songwriting. Faulks expends considerable effort in describing the qualities that make her music so special. Alas, it didn’t work for me. In fairness it must be said that writing about music is exceptionally difficult; one is trying describe a phenomenon that is almost entirely sensory, by a means that is primarily intellectual. When I attempt to do it on this blog, I am almost always dissatisfied with the results. What can I say about Mahler’s symphonies except that they give me gooseflesh and I think they’re fabulous? Ah well – I can refer you back to the recently mentioned Alex Ross, of the New Yorker. (By “recently mentioned,” I refer to one of my posts on the Met’s new production of Parsifal.)
Anya’s story is told by a young man who is a professional in the music business and is clearly astonished by Anya’s talent and in general very taken with her. I tried to care as much as he did, but I couldn’t. I felt as though Faulks were trying to imbue with profundity a story – not an especially gripping one – involving a group of rather unexceptional individuals.
That said, I mostly loved A Possible Life. In my view, Sebastian Faulks is one of the finest novelists at work today.
[Click here to read the previous Parsifal post.]
Alex Ross in the March 4 2013 New Yorker Magazine:
François Girard’s new staging of Wagner’s “Parsifal,” at the Metropolitan Opera, is nearly as inexplicable as the work itself. The Knights of the Grail, dressed in white shirts and dark pants, seem to be cultists attending a convention in a postapocalyptic desert, with rivers of blood flowing across the stage and unfamiliar planets traversing the sky. It’s bewildering but beautiful, a mystery play for a cryptic religion.
Turns out that Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s exceptionally gifted and deeply knowledgeable music critic, is at work on a book about Richard Wagner’s influence on various other artistic genres. In October of last year, Ross told the New Yorker Festival audience that Wagner – Art in the Shadow of Music will not be out for several years yet. Describing his subject as ”as a limitless forest in which one goes wandering at a certain peril,” he stated that one of his goals will be to “negotiate ‘between hardcore Wagnerians and the normal people.’”
Click here to read the entire article on The Wagner Blog.
Alex Ross’s own blog is called The Rest Is Noise. (The name presumably is a riff on Hamlet’s last words: “The rest is silence.”)
Meanwhile – a question, and a suggestion from this decidedly non hardcore Wagnerian:
Why does Parsifal – the opera, not specifically the character – have to be so resolutely anti- sex and anti- female? I mean, in the sense that Kundry the seductress has to ‘unsexed’ (there’s that MacBeth reference again) before Parsifal (the character) can express tenderness toward her. She seems a Mary Magdalene figure, especially as she engages in the ritual bathing of the feet of the hero. And while we’re on the subject of Christian iconography, it struck me that the Christlike function in the opera is bifurcated, with Amfortas in the role of martyr and Parsifal in that of savior.
Comments from actual Wagnerians would be most welcome at this juncture.
During his interview at the second intermission, François Girard said that one of the goals of his production was to make Parsifal relevant for a contemporary audience. I must respectfully take issue with this rationale. To my way of thinking, great art by definition is eternally relevant. It amazes me, for instance, the number of times in the course of my days that I can pull a Shakespeare quote from my memory and find that it’s exactly apt for a modern situation. Imperious Caesar dead and turned to clay /Might stop a hole to keep the wind away….
Finally, here is Jonas Kaufmann:
The CD Verismo Aias is even now winging its way to me from Amazon (although today’s snowstorm may delay its arrival, alas.) Goodness, were I several decades younger, I might just fall in love….
Having touched on the subject of thrillers in a recent post, I find myself wanting to say more on the subject.
I’ll start by recommending Thrillers: 100 Must Reads (2010). This is the kind of literature reference work that I love. It consists mainly of recommendations from writers of worthy works by other writers. John Connolly and Declan Burke use the same format in the equally excellent Books To Die For (2012).
Where thrillers are concerned, editors David Morrell and Hank Wagner cast a wide net – beginning with Theseus and the Minotaur ( Lee Child’s selection). In his “Welcome to the World of Thrillers,” David Hewson states:
Today, thrillers provide a rich literary feast embracing a wide variety of worlds–the law, espionage, action-adventure, medicine, police and crime, romance, history, politics, high-tech, religion, and many more.
…thriller authors are constantly aware that their readers want them to provide the sudden rush of emotions: the excitement, suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly, with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace.
Hewson concludes this introductory paragraph with a succinct statement of fact: “By definition, if a thriller does not thrill, it is not doing its job.”
There is quite a bit of overlap between these two reference books. Of course, Poe appears in both, as do Conan Doyle and Patricia Highsmith. Thrillers recommends The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838); BDF (Books To Die For) weighs in with Poe’s Dupin stories. Both chose Hound of the Baskervilles by Conan Doyle, and both chose Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. And I recently encountered this latter once again in James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked. As Lasdun struggled to come to terms with a perverse form of torment that threatened to destroy forever his peace of mind, he found that he identified powerfully with the hapless yet well-meaning Guy Haines, the architect / protagonist of Highsmith’s riveting novel. (Among other things, Lasdun’s deeply unnerving tale has served to remind me that sometimes a true story can generate as much, if not more, dread than one that has been fabricated expressly for that purpose.)
The great Wilkie Collins makes the cut twice. In Thrillers, it’s The Woman in White, while BDF features The Moonstone. This last recommendation is made by a favorite writer of mine, Andrew Taylor. I happily anticipate reading his new historical thriller, The Scent of Death.
In Thrillers, we find The Third Man by Graham Greene. I’ve not read the book, but I’ve seen the film many times. If you haven’t, I urge you in the strongest terms to do so. In BDF, Peter James, himself no slouch when it comes to writing great novels of suspense, recommends Greene’s Brighton Rock. Greene called the novels he wrote in this genre “entertainments,” to distinguish them from what he considered his weightier and more self-consciously literary undertakings. (The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory come to mind.) Not long ago, I read something to the effect that the so-called entertainments are holding up better these days than Greene’s more intentionally profound novels. My favorite work by this prodigious, somewhat enigmatic, and in my view brilliant writer is The Quiet American. I was extremely pleased that Pico Iyer recommended this novel, among others, in a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal. (Once again, I recommend the film. Michael Caine was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in 2003 for his superb performance therein.)
Not surprisingly, John LeCarre appears in both reference books, as does Agatha Christie. The Choice in both Thrillers and BDF is The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Once again, I’ve not read the book but the film version starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom and Oskar Werner, is one of my all time favorites. As to Christie: And Then There Were None appears in Thrillers; Murder on the Orient Express is the choice of BDF.
Eric Ambler also appears in both Thrillers: 100 Must Reads and Books To Die For. M.C. Beaton chose The Light of Day for BDF; for Thrillers, Ali Karim chose A Coffin for Dimitrios. When I was in Paris in 1995, A Coffin for Dimitrios was my choice for reading matter. I had no idea at the time that the second half of the novel takes place in the City of Light – right where I was. What a happy confluence! A Coffin for Dimitrios remains one of my favorite novels.
In BDF, John Banville recommends Act of Passion (Lettre à Mon Juge) by Georges Simenon. A more precise translation of the title would be ‘Letter To My Judge,’ and that’s exactly what this novel is: a long, rambling missive full of excuses and self-justification addressed nominally to the narrator’s appointed adjudicator. Only midway through, the tone changes; the narrator starts seriously coming to grips with the enormity of what he has done, as does the reader. Although the narrator takes his time in revealing the exact nature of his transgression, you, the reader, may have already guessed the truth before he gets around to revealing it in his own way. At any rate, what begins as a somewhat plaintive, almost whining attempt at an explanation gradually gains in power as the narrator gains in self-knowledge. Act of Passion a real tour de force.
Also in Books To Die For: selections by three authors whom I revere. There’s The Chill and The Goodbye Look by Ross MacDonald, and The Franchise Affair and Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey.
“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write” is one of the most intriguing opening sentences in crime fiction.
Finally, Thrillers has an entry for the Ashenden stories of W. Somerset Maugham. After reading Selena Hastings’s magisterial biography of Maugham, I went on to read some of these tales – and to be astonished by them. They’re just plain terrific -incredibly readable and engrossing. (Like Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham worked during wartime as an undercover intelligence agent for the British government.)
On its cover, Thrillers proclaims that it features “Today’s best thriller writers on one hundred classics of the genre.” Books To Die For give us ” The world’s greatest Mystery writers on the world’s greatest mystery novels.” Between them, these two books could keep a person happily immersed in the masterpieces of these genres for a long time. Ah, but one does like to look to the future as well, right? Here are just a few of the thrillers / mysteries high on my list of what to red next:
The first act of Wagner’s Parsifal is long.
Really, really long.
Or perhaps, just seems that way….
We saw Wagner’s magnum opus yesterday in a local movie theater, my friends Maggie and Emma and myself. Maggie and Emma were completely new to this work, and loved it. (I have good taste in friends.)
On reflection, Act One needs to be as long as it is, in order to get the listener/viewer into the proper frame of mind. This would be: fascinated first, then immersed, then amazed, and finally, if you’re lucky, transported utterly.
Here’s how it begins:
The absence of corresponding visuals is deliberately chosen. In my (admittedly inexpert) opinion, opera productions are becoming increasingly strident, calling attention to themselves sometimes at the expense of the music. For me, nothing – NOTHING – should take precedence over the music.
So – Is this new production of Parsifal, the creation of François Girard, guilty of the above besetting sin of distracting stagecraft ? Alas, for this viewer, it was – at least, to an extent. Definitely to the extent of the second act, where the stage is literally awash in blood, which the performers are forced to wade through and which ultimately gets all over everything (a real housekeeping nightmare, although in an interview, one of the stage managers revealed that shaving cream got it out quite handily).
You can see where the flower maidens would have their work cut out for them:
Fortunately the sheer force of Jonas Kaufmann’s vocalizing (Parsifal) more than compensates for the gore poor Kundry (Katarina Dalayman) was sloshing around in.
Rene Pape took the part of Gurnemanz, an elder among the knights of the Holy Grail. In Act One, he recounts the story of how the Grail and the spear that pierced Christ’s body during his crucifixion came to be placed in the care of these knights, and how their king, Amfortas, came by his wound. The wound, incapable of healing, causes Amfortas immense anguish. And I must say here that in this role, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei was stunning. Not only was his singing gorgeous, but his enacting of Amfortas’s suffering was utterly convincing, and moving beyond words.
Here is Rene Pape as Gurnemanz:
You can tell, but I’ll say it anyway: He is superb. (Ron and I Loved him in Boris Godunov.)
The story of Parsifal has some basis in the medieval epic Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach, a German knight and poet who lived from around 1170 to 1220. That tale in turn has links to the Arthurian legends; these seem to have permeated the sensibilities not only of the writers and artists of medieval Britain (and earlier) but also those of their Western European counterparts. The mention of Gawain in Act One fairly leaped out at me – especially since I’d just read a fairly detailed retelling of the story of Gawain and the Green Knight in James Lasdun’s book Give Me Everything You Have. In fact, I found that various associations were coming at me fast and furious in that first act: Kundry bringing a ‘balsam from Arabia’ for the easing of Amfortas’s pain put me in mind immediately of Lady MacBeth’s sleepwalking scene: “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” In fact, this blood soaked presentation bore a more than passing resemblance to ‘the Scottish play.’ At one point, MacBeth exclaims: “”I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, /Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” (There’s that word “wade” again….) Then, of course, there’s this, once more from the anguished MacBeth: “It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood.” (Maggie and Emma also reminded me about the Three Wise Men from the East, who attend upon the baby Jesus and give him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.)
The killing of the swan first put me in mind of Lohengrin. I’ve always loved the scene in which Elsa’s desperate entreaties are answered with the arrival of the knight Lohengrin, son of Parsifal, on his swan boat.
(And I recall my delight upon my first visit to Boston , when I saw the swan boats on the lagoon in the public garden. Are they still there? Yes! Click here for their history, including their connection to Lohengrin.)
The act of shooting the swan, for which Parsifal is so roundly chastised, immediately made me think of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There is much speculation as to the source of the strange and haunting tale told by the mariner. One is that it ties in with the legend of the Wandering Jew; another connects it to the legend of the Flying Dutchman.
There are, of course, numerous other associations. Anyway, while I had trouble warming to the staging – why must it be so dark, I wonder? – I loved, deeply loved, both the music and the mystery.
Click here for an essay on “Wagner’s Grail Studies.” The study of Wagner’s operas is a vast discipline I’ve only covered a small corner of it here. In 2009, I had my own close encounter with Wagner and Parsifal at the Villa Rufolo, amid the amazing, unearthly beauty of Italy’s Amalfi Coast.
So…what about that popcorn? I simply can’t go into a movie theater and not have popcorn. It’s one of the few indulgences I’m permitted nowadays. I was munching happily away before the opera got under way, but once the slow moving majesty commenced… I tried a few kernels, and I sounded to myself like I was firing a cap gun!
I waited until the first intermission to finish my little treat.
I’ve written before about a group of friends with whom I have lunch once a month. This past Monday, our conversation was, as usual, lively and stimulating. Angie’s description of The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, a recent selection by her book club, reminded me of Eric Weiner’s immensely enjoyable recounting of his search for The Geography of Bliss.
Having asked her book group members what made them happy, Angie turned the question over to us. We all admitted to being immensely moved and comforted by simple, everyday acts of human kindness – including, in one particular case, compassion and support freely offered when a disturbing diagnosis was divulged. Then the to-be-expected happiness creators were named: Children! Grandchildren! Beloved pets! In a subsequent email, Angie mentioned that her group also credited music with lifting their spirits. And there is so much more; one cannot help but be grateful.
(Angie also said something – I can’t remember exactly what – about entering the realm of the sacred. She added that this was not necessarily a specifically religious sensation. This may be true for some people – but I have a vivid recollection of standing in Ripon Cathedral and seeing, out of the corner of my eye, several people receiving communion in a small side chapel. The elusive sun of northern England shone through the stained glass windows. At that instant, I felt as though an arrow from God had come straight at me.)
We were also celebrating the birthday of one among us, Ann. For her birthday, gift, she requested reading recommendations from each of us. (You can see why I’m so fond of this exceedingly enlightened group of women!) Here are Angie’s suggestions: (I too am a great fan of the ‘Bruno, Chief of Police’ series written by Martin Walker and set amid the timeless beauty of France’s Dordogne region.)
These recommendations came with Angie’s usual lively commentary. She also added an apology for not naming any British titles, one of Ann’s stated preferences (such a discerning person!). Naturally I rushed in to fill that particular void:
In addition, I suggested these:
Kay was not able to join us Monday, but she still sent along her recommendations. Her annotations are so good, I’m going to include them as well:
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai. Lucy Hull hadn’t intended to be a librarian, but when offered the job of children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, she accepted because she had no other prospects and didn’t want to live at home. This is the one element in the book that really strains credulity, because clearly she was born for this job. In fact, she is so good at it that a 10-year-old misfit, whose born-again parents keep censoring his reading, talks her into running away from home with him.
This is a wonderful, funny, sad, and engaging tale about Lucy’s flight with Ian from Missouri to Vermont. Ian can be positively obnoxious (he’s 10 after all), but their shared love affair with books and frustration with evangelical America (Ian’s mother has enrolled him in a reeducation program for possibly gay kids) is one I know I’ll read again.
How It All Began by Penelope Lively. At age 77, Charlotte has retired from a career as the sort of teacher who changes students’ lives. Though widowed, she volunteers to teach adult literacy and is fiercely independent–right up to the moment that a mugger throws her to the pavement, breaking her hip. Forced to live with her daughter and son-in-law while recuperating, she agrees to have one of her adult students come to the house for tutoring. This sets the plot in motion, changing the lives of many people around her.
I’ve always enjoyed Penelope Lively’s novels, but this one is stellar. In one sense, it’s a portrait of a born teacher who will probably go on teaching in one way or another till the day she dies.
But it also contains some wonderful reflections on what reading means to us dyed-in-the-wool bookworms:
“Forever, reading has been central, the necessary fix, the support system. Her life has been informed by reading. She has read not just for distraction, sustenance, to pass the time, but she has read in a state of primal innocence, reading for enlightenment, for instruction even. She has read to find out if things are the same for others as they are for her–then, discovering that frequently they are not, she has read to find out what it is that other people experience that she is missing.”
This passage captures my own life-long affair with the book. The short novel is brimming over with such reflections, and it explains why I’ve got “How It All Began” on my Kindle to read and reread again.
(I haven’t yet read How It All Began, but I share Kay’s enthusiasm for the works of Penelope Lively.)
Wicked Autumn by G. M. Malliet. Wonderful! A cozy with a kick. The vicar served in MI5 for 15 years and is nobody’s fool, albeit a decent and kindhearted chap. The victim is a woman who bullies everyone in the Women’s Institute beyond bearing; so many people have a motive to kill her that the detective has an embarrassment of suspects on his hands. The writing is superb, a bit like a Granny Smith apple. Not too sweet, but mellow and full bodied.
(Kay’s reviews can be found on Goodreads.)
Wednesday night Angie called me. She had just finished Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. and needed to talk about it. Among other things, our conversation convinced me that McEwan’s cunning and inventive novel is going to be a great choice for book groups.
That Monday evening, while working at the research desk at the Central Branch of the library, I caught a particularly juicy readers advisory question. Having read some fiction by John Grisham and some Mary Higgins Clark, a young man declared that he wanted to read thrillers with “more depth.” Oh my, where to begin?
I told him that I have a category in my personal reading pantheon called “Thrillers with brains.” More recently, I’d written reviews of All Cry Chaos by Leonard Rosen and The Fear Index by Robert Harris. I had sought out these two novels out of frustration with four mysteries I’d read recently. Those mysteries had been engaging in various degrees, but their plots moved at such a glacial pace that I was left yearning for a true page turner.
Upon hearing this customer’s request, one title that came immediately to mind was William Landay’s Defending Jacob. It was not, alas, available right then at Central. Defending Jacob may be the best legal thriller I’ve ever read, but my interlocutor was only mildly intrigued. He was looking for something more along the lines of psychological suspense. (I must interject here, though, that in Defending Jacob, I encountered exceptionally acute – and astute – descriptions of mental and emotional anguish.)
At any rate – this is what I ended up giving him:
Later, after he’d left, I was annoyed at myself for forgetting Dan Fesperman, who wrote two novels of international intrigue that I greatly admire: Small Boat of Great Sorrows and The Warlord’s Son. And then there’s The Horned Man by James Lasdun, one of the most disturbing novels I think I’ve ever read. (I am currently reading a nonfiction work by this author entitled Give Me everything You Have: On Being Stalked. I am reminded once again what a superb writer James Lasdun is. I can hardly put this book down – although there are other times when I’m reluctant to pick it up. Talk about mental and emotional anguish….)
Recently, the Howard County Library System has garnered praise from the local media, both for its recent spectacularly successful “Evening in the Stacks” fundraiser, and for its overall excellence. Naturally I had to add my own two cents, in a letter to the editor.