Sunday, September 23, 2018

Watson's Apology, by Beryl Bainbridge

Carroll & Graf, 1985
222 pp


"I have waded in blood ... and it was not of my doing."  
July seems to have been the last time I made a post here which is like eons ago but I've been been gone, busy, gone, reading in other areas and what have you.  My current push is to read some of the books that have been sitting on my shelves forever so I'll definitely be filling up more space here from now on.  Seriously committed to this project, I started in the room that holds all of the British/UK fiction with J.R. Ackereley's charming and delightful Hindoo Holiday (NYRB) which I won't write about but which is a book I'd definitely recommend.

 Then it was on to this book, Watson's Apology, which is based on a real-life murder that took place on October 8, 1871 on St. Martin's Road, Stockwell.  The back-cover blurb reveals that the murderer was "a Victorian clergyman, John Selby Watson," and that he bludgeoned his wife "brutally to death." 

from The Sun
 Moving from the cover to the inside we discover right away what Bainbridge is going to be doing with this book from her "Author's Note," in which she says the following:
"This novel is based on a true story. The documents presented have been edited here and there to fit the needs of the narrative, but are otherwise authentic. Almost all of the characters are drawn from life, as are the details of the plot...What has defeated historical inquiry has been the motives of the characters, their conversations and their feelings.  These it has been the task of the novelist to supply."
 And what she supplies is a look inside of a miserable Victorian marriage, beginning with letters from Watson to the woman who he had briefly met "some years ago" while attending Trinity College in Dublin, Anne Armstrong.  Anne, whose socially-prominent family fell into decline when her father had "lost all his money," now  lives with her sister Olivia in a lodging house under destitute conditions, doesn't remember Watson at all, but with a "present so drab and the future so bleak," decides that "she would use him to free herself." She had written him
"telling him of the poverty of her existence and the vexations she endured, day after dreadful day, through being force to live, cheek by jowl, among people who were inferior to her in intellect and imagination." 
During their brief courtship it becomes obvious to each of them  that all is not quite right, but neither says anything to the other and they eventually marry.  At first she is convinced that she's made a "love match," while he is "astonished at how easily he'd adapted to marriage," but as time goes on, he finds himself in "an existence that is unpleasing," feeling rather victimized and at a point where he feels that "my marriage has destroyed me."  On her part,  Anne feels that all she's done has been "out of love;" at the same time she remains haunted by her family's past.  In the marriage, events begin to take their toll, sparking a desperate downward spiral for both Watson and his wife.   Where sympathy should lie is, I think, one of the big questions asked here, and the entire story made me wonder if the title of this book is meant to be a sort of "apologia" on Watson's behalf rather than an apology in the true sense of the word.  Whether Watson's wading in blood is or is not of his own doing is also a question, and the answer to that one will be down to the reader.

Very nicely done, and  although many readers thought that the courtroom scenes were dull, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel from its beginning to the very last page.  Then again, I'm a huge fan of Beryl Bainbridge and have many more of her books on my shelves waiting to be read.   I'd advise patience in reading this book and would recommend it to thinking readers rather than to those who just want a rehash of an old Victorian crime. This book is not that.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Dream of the Celt, by Mario Vargas Llosa

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012
originally published as El Sueño del Celta, 2010
translated by Edith Grossman
358 pp


"...he told himself that his life had been a permanent contradiction, a series of confusions and cruel complications, where by chance or because of his own clumsiness, the truth of his intentions was always obscured, distorted, turned into a lie." 
                                                    -- 208

I came to this book in a sort of roundabout way, after recently finishing Robin Furneaux's  The Amazon (1969).  Chapter eleven of that book examines  "The Putamayo Affair," which focuses on the Peruvian Amazon Company, the largest rubber enterprise on the Peruvian side of the border between Peru and Colombia.  I hadn't known about Casement's work in the Amazon, so I was glued to this chapter, and I wanted to know more.  After a bit of research linking Casement to the Putamayo, I came up with Dream of the Celt, a book I actually owned.  I was familiar with Casement and his work in the Congo having read Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, which is a book that in my opinion, everyone should read.  But I have to say that I was not as happy with Dream of the Celt as I think I might have been .     Let's put it this way:  I think it is absolutely outstanding that the author brought Casement's story into the public eye, but reading this book was beyond frustrating since the fictional narrative that could have emerged felt overwhelmed by what felt like a recitation  of the author's research findings.

from RTE

The Dream of the Celt begins in a cell at Pentonville Prison, where Casement is hoping that a request for clemency will come through and that he will escape the death penalty.  But the news isn't good -- evidently Scotland Yard has discovered Casement's diaries, "portions" of which have been "circulating everywhere," have been "the only topic of conversation in the city," and evidently might have some sort of damaging effect on his case.   While Casement continues to wait for news, and while his friends are doing whatever they can to help, we are taken back into his past, beginning with Africa.    It was there, as a very young and idealistic man, that he bought into the civilizing mission --  "the emancipation of Africans from backwardness, disease and ignorance," only to later go on as British consul  to gather evidence to detail the horrific atrocities against the natives in the Congo by those who  supported and oversaw King Leopold II's rubber trade, "the abuses committed here in the name of so-called civilization."  He meets and befriends writer Joseph Conrad, and inspires E.D. Morel to form the Congo Reform Association in 1904.  But it is also in Africa, as Casement reveals in a letter, that
"this journey into the depths of the Congo has been useful in helping me discover my own country and understand her situation, her reality. In these jungles I've found not only the true face of Leopold II. I've also found my true self: the incorrigible Irishman." 
It was his African experiences that caused him to question whether Ireland wasn't also a colony, "like the Congo," and which made him decide to devote himself to learning about and understanding the "history and culture of Ireland."

Later, Casement is called upon by the Foreign Secretary to investigate the truth of reports made by two Americans who had been in the Putamayo region (along the Peruvian/Colombian border)  who had collected  evidence of atrocities against the indigenous peoples there, once again in forced service to the rubber trade.  This time though, the company under scrutiny was registered in London, with three British directors, and when the Americans had their findings published in Truth magazine, the government couldn't just sweep things under the rug.  By 1910, Casement was on his way to South America.  [Anyone who is interested can read a brief history of the "Putamayo Atrocities" here, at the website of the Latin American Bureau.]    Here, he comes to another realization linking the oppressed peoples of the Putamayo to his Irish kinsmen:
"We Irish are like the Huitotos, the Boras, the Andoques, and the Muinanes of Putumayo. Colonized, exploited, and condemned to be that way forever if we continue trusting in British laws, institutions, and governments to attain our freedom.  They will never give it to us." 
The only way to freedom for the people of the Putamayo, he says, is for them to rise up in arms "against their masters;" for the Irish, it must be "an irresistible pressure" that "can only come from weapons."  To gain freedom, one must "fight to achieve it." 

Throughout the first two sections of this novel, it becomes apparent that his experiences in the Congo and in Amazon left Casement a conflicted man -- he served the British crown, but he knew that the only road to Ireland's freedom meant that he would have to turn against it.  Part three picks up in Ireland, after Casement's retirement from consular service where he brings with him his dream of a liberated Ireland.  As he says, it was time for him to "concern himself with other natives, the ones from Ireland."  It is just after the outbreak of World War I when he decides on a bold move that takes him to Germany, which eventually leads him to a major betrayal and to Pentonville Prison. 

The book is more than simply the question of Casement as hero or traitor, though, since Casement is portrayed as a man filled with contradictions and prone to self examination and even second guessing.  He does constant battle with his physical health, and in Germany was told that his mental health had become "destabilized" and would become undone without some rest.  He was also a man who had to keep his homosexuality hidden,  but made notes in his diary about his encounters.  In a big way, we can also see that the political and the personal are hard to separate in this man, for example, when at one point he notes that while Africa was a place of "enormous suffering," it was also
"a land of freedom, where human beings could be mistreated in wicked ways but could also express their passions, fantasies, desires, drives, and dreams -- without the whipping and judgment that Britain used to drown out pleasure." 
In the epilogue, the author explains that
"... a hero and a martyr is not an abstract prototype or a model of perfection, but a human being made of contradictions and contrasts, weakness and greatness, since a man, as José Enrique Rodo wrote, 'is many men,' which means that angels and demons combine inextricably in his personality." 
 Controversy over the "black diaries" still exists, as does controversy over Casement himself, but I think that for me a major part of this book asks the question of what it is that we expect from people we view as heroes or champions for a cause, especially considering that the very people who supported him throughout his career as an advocate for human rights were dropping their support at the end. I understand the reluctance of his friends to support his actions as a traitor to the British during the war, but it was the diaries revealing his homosexuality that seemed to seal his fate, more so than his actual crime.  If only we had had less facts here and more (albeit fictional) insight from Casement himself here, or had we heard more from his friends and supporters,  this could have been a great book -- as it is, the novel becomes somewhat of a chore to read which is, as I said earlier, a shame.  However, I would certainly recommend it because it is most certainly well worth reading.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Feathers of Death, by Simon Raven

Valancourt Books, 2018
originally published 1959
226 pp


I picked up this book based on its description as a "gripping thriller," but I'm not so sure I'd agree with that label. Thriller, no.  Gripping, yes: once I started it I couldn't stop reading.

The Feathers of Death centers around the army regiment known as Martock's Foot,  which dates from England's Civil War and has been now posted to a fictional country known as Prepomene,  a British colony where there have been "rumblings of rebellion." The regiment is a sort of closed little society within itself, professing standards, "moral or otherwise"  that are "liberal, tolerant, civilized and worldly," according to the narrator of this story, Captain Andrew Lamont.  He reveals that
" is usual in regiments where most officers have reckonable social standing quite apart from their Army rank, relations between the officers were very informal," 
and that "a very easy relationship could and did exist between commissioned and 'other ranks.' " We also learn that the men were "by nature respectful, docile, loyal and, above all, responsive to kindness . . ."  so that there was none of the "prying into mess bills, complaints about gambling, or investigations of sexual morals so common in the dowdier regiments."  Even when some of the officers become aware that Lynch has become attracted to young Malcolm Harley, they pass it off as "infatuation at worst. Passing fancy. Here today, gone tomorrow."  But as the situation between Lynch and Harley becomes more widely known,  tensions begin to grow both among the officers and among Harley's companions, threatening the long and carefully-established order within the regiment and ultimately leading to a moment of personal reckoning that results in tragedy.

Obviously, there's much more to this book but I don't want to give away any more than necessary.  I was fascinated by Alistair Lynch more than by any other character -- the author has afforded him a level of complexity that allows the reader to simultaneously blame him for his abuses of power, yet  in a way, admire him for breaking the rules. But there are also questions of complicity, justice, of class tensions, male friendships and more that arise throughout the story, as well as the qualities that hold this small but close regiment together.  All of these factors taken together make for an intense few hours of reading.  I will also say that while this is a story written in the 1950s and set within the space of the British military, this book does not end up as either an indictment of or a moral commentary on homosexuality -- on the contrary, the author approaches the subject in his thoughtful, well-grounded and no-nonsense approach  to this story.

Very very much worth the read; I so wish I could say more but that won't be happening.  It is a very human story, and one I recommend highly.

ps/don't miss the fascinating introduction to this Valancourt edition, but save it until the end.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

recent reads, digested: Madness is Better Than Defeat, by Ned Beauman; Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, and The Hole, by Hye-Young Pyun

Good grief! I didn't realize that I haven't posted since March!  It's not that I haven't been reading because I have -- it's more that I'm reading a lot of books I've really liked in the last few months but finding myself with little time to talk about them.  Today I do.

Up first is Ned Beauman's Madness is Better Than Defeat, which made me laugh out loud more than once.

Knopf, 2018
399 pp -- hardcover

I was introduced to Ned Beauman's writing with his The Teleportation Accident, which also made me laugh out loud more than once, Madness is Better Than Defeat begins in 1938 and follows two different expeditions into the Honduran Jungle, both focused on a particular Mayan temple with a design very different from the norm.   One of these has to do with the production of a movie, the other involves actually taking the temple apart and returning it to New York, where it will be reconstructed at the home of a wealthy and powerful businessman.  A standoff ensues between the two sides when the movie people discover that the New York faction has already started demolishing the temple, but each side is determined to follow through with their tasks.  As the decades go by and no one is sent in search of these people, they create their own society, which evolves through several forms over the years.  If that's not weird enough, the arrival of the CIA in Honduras makes things even more hectic.  While we live in their world for a while, the narrator of this story, an OSS/CIA veteran who may or may not be under the influence of psychotropic spores has his own problems, busy day and night in an impossible search for evidence buried deep in a warehouse, which he hopes will exonerate him from charges stemming from his actions in Honduras.   The author brings into his work a number of movie references, history, and philosophy before all is said and done; satire and allegory combine, especially when it comes to the CIA. It is crazy good, and highly recommended, especially for fans of Beauman's work.

Knopf, 2016
305 pp -- hardcover

A real-world book group read, and a book on the very serious side, Homegoing follows two branches of one family from eighteenth-century Ghana on into the present.  It begins with two sisters, born in two different villages, who each end up at Cape Coast Castle -- one as the wife of a white man from England who oversees slave trade operations, and the other, unbeknownst to her sister, a slave being held in the dungeon of the same castle awaiting transport.  The story is divided between the descendants of both women, exploring a bit of Ghana's history  as it pertained to the side of the family who remained in Africa,  and taking readers through different points of American history to discuss the lives of those descended from slavery.  In Ghana we live through the continuing tribal wars and conquests that lead to the capture of people who supply the slave ships, as well as colonization, while in America we go through slavery, the period of Jim Crow, the use of convict labor and the coal mines of Alabama, the migration north, and the hard existence of life in Harlem, where a black man's shade of color makes a world of difference.  Very nicely done, a bit of a tear jerker, but I have to say that as much as I enjoyed this novel, the ending was much too predictable for me -- I saw it in my head long before we got there.  Still, I definitely recommend it -- it's a brilliant piece of historical fiction.  It was also a book that my IRL book group all enjoyed, which isn't always the case. 

And now for something completely different, it's

Arcade, 2017
originally published in 2016,
translated by Sora Kim-Russell

This book was recently nominated for the Shirley Jackson award, but I'd read the author's short story "Caring for Plants" in the New Yorker last year, which actually led to me buying the novel.   It's a frightening tale, told solely through the point of view of the victim of a car accident (Oghi) in which his wife died and he was left in a coma.  Now he is awake, he paralyzed and unable to speak.  He has now returned to 
"the world where, as his doctor explained, the only way to survive was through sheer force of will."
 He has no family he can call on to help him once he leaves the hospital; his friends and colleagues at the university where he works obviously have their own lives, so his mother-in-law takes it upon herself to take care of him.  As it turns out, that probably was a bad idea, because while he lays, completely trapped in his own broken body, depending on his mother-in-law for his very survival, his mother-in-law is quietly making her way through secrets left behind by her daughter, who, as we begin to realize, was beyond unhappy in the marriage. While Oghi has plenty of time to contemplate his marriage, his mother-in-law begins to crack under the strain not only of her grief, but by being the caregiver to the person who she feels is responsible for her daughter's death.  

I've seen this book compared to Stephen King's Misery, but The Hole has much more weight and depth than King's book ever could.  Some interesting points come up in exploring Oghi and his relationship to others, making you wonder if he is deserving more of sympathy or dislike.  To tell more would be to spoil, and while not perfect, this is a dark page turner of a novel that I absolutely could not put down.  It's one of those books where every time a page was turned I was afraid of what would happen next;   I had to force myself NOT to turn to the ending more than once.   

I think this catches me up at least for now. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Alienist, by Machado de Assis

Melville House, 2012
translated by William L Grossman
originally serialized 1881 in A Estação as "O Alienista"
published 1882 as part of  Papéis Avulsos 
86 pp

(read earlier this month)

"I know nothing about science, but if so many men whom we considered sane are locked up as madmen, how do we know that the real madman is not the alienist himself?"

The Alienist is part of Melville House's lovely Art of the Novella series; books are available individually or as part of a subscription service, and they're well worth every penny.  I certainly got my money's worth with this book, which is true satire in every sense of the word.

We discover right away that the titular Alienist, Doctor Simão Bacamarte, "one of the greatest doctors in all Brazil, Portugal, and the Spains" is driven by science and rationalism.  As he replies when offered two very high offices by the King of Portugal who tried to prevent his return to Brazil, " my only office..."  And for sure, he makes scientific studies of everything. When he married his wife, for example, he chose her because she
"enjoyed perfect digestion, excellent eyesight, and normal blood pressure; she had had no serious illnesses and her urinalysis was negative."
She was also "neither beautiful nor charming," another point in her favor, since Bacamarte wouldn't be "tempted to sacrifice his scientific pursuits" contemplating her "attractions."  When she couldn't conceive, he even started on an "exhaustive study of sterility,"  as we're told, reading the "work of all authorities."  When his prescribed "special diet" didn't work, he "cured himself of his disappointment by plunging even deeper into his work."  As a result, he finds himself studying psychopathology, a "field, indeed, in which little responsible work had been done anywhere in the world."  In his town of Itaguai, the mentally ill have been neglected; eventually Bacamarte is able to persuade the Council to build a "madhouse," which comes to be known as the Green House.  It is there that the doctor plans to
"study insanity in depth, to learn its various gradations, to classify the various cases, and finally to discover the cause of the phenomenon and its remedy."
The trouble is, however, that there is no true scientific definition of what exactly constitutes mental illness, and as Bacamarte develops new theories, his ideas begin to change and so do his candidates for those to be sent to the Green House, to the point where "one no longer knew who was sane and who was insane."   Needless to say, there are people in Itaguai who don't necessarily agree.

 That's a very quick summary of the plot, but in this book there's much more than merely plot to consider as is usually the case in satire;  aside from the focus on the changing definitions of insanity by a self-professed authority  (a commentary, I think, on the folly of relying solely on science-based reason), ideas,  society and politics of the time are put squarely under the microscope here as well.  And then there's an interesting look at conformity, both inward and outward.  I don't want to say any more than that because it certainly is a story not only worth reading, but also worth spending time pondering to pick up what's actually going on here.  I loved this little book.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

finally out of obscurity: True Love: A Story of English Domestic Life, by Sarah E. Farro

Forgotten Books, 2017
originally published 1891
121 pp


I don't even remember what I was looking up when I came across an article in The Independent (1 June, 2016) about the author of this book, an African-American woman named Sarah E. Farro.  Once again, it was the title that caught my eye:

"Sarah E Farro: Why was one of only four African-Americans to publish a novel in the 19th century forgotten?"

Having never heard of her before, I was beyond intrigued.  As Professor Gretchen Gerzina notes in the Independent article, Farro wrote only this one novel, which seems to have
"disappeared from the historical record."
She also tells us that Farro was born in 1859, had two sisters, and that her parents had moved to Illinois from the South, information she gained from census reports from 1880.  We also learn that True Love was among 58 books by women writers from Illinois to be on exhibit at the World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893 and that it was "heralded" in contemporary newspapers, both here and in the UK.  And finally, we know that in 1937
"Farro was feted at a celebration of Chicago's 'outstanding race pioneers."
 I can only imagine Professor Gerzina's excitement on rediscovering Sarah Farro and her book; heck, I was excited to learn that it existed myself!   And now, thanks to her discovery, Farro's True Love has not only been digitized, but it also appears in Penguin's  The Portable Nineteenth Century African American Writers (2017), bringing this woman and her work out of obscurity for modern readers.

my photo -- title page

The story begins with the Brewster family, consisting of a mom and her two daughters.  While the outside world thought highly of Janey, "with her sweet countenance and her merry heart," Mrs. Brewster is much more attached to Mary Ann, a "pale, sickly, fretful girl, giving trouble to everybody about her."  Janey is engaged to Charles Taylor, "a quiet refined gentleman, the son of a wealthy capitalist," which doesn't sit well with her mother.  Mom believes that "If Charles Taylor had not been blind his choice would have fallen upon Mary Ann."  As the novel opens, the "fever" is making its way through the area, and Mary Ann has had the bad fortune to have succumbed.  Charles wants to take Janey away, to get her "far from the fever," but that is not to be. Aside from worries about what people will say, Mrs. Brewster needs Janey there to help her out while Mary Ann is ill.  As it turns out, Charles is away when he gets word that death has come to the Brewster home, but as he learns to his horror, it's not Mary Ann who is dead.  The novel follows Charles and various members of the Taylor family after this tragedy which has clearly taken its toll on the poor man.

You'll note that I haven't said a thing about slavery or about race;  this book, as Farro notes in her preface, is written
"to give to the public a sketch of her ideas on the effect of 'true love.' " 
She wants us to "sympathize" with her characters, whose "language and conduct may be appreciable or reprehensible according to circumstances." And certainly, as the novel unfolds, we come to realize that with the Taylor family and their set of friends and acquaintances, we're looking into the lives of a very well-to-do group of people who, in many ways, are bound by the confines of social convention in true Victorian fashion.    Race has no place here, and as Professor Gerzina states in the article cited above, Farro''s novel of "domestic romance that tends toward melodrama," doesn't "fit the mold" of other  "revived and 'rediscovered' " works of other African-American women who have been "noticed and celebrated not just because of their race, but because they all "wrote about race."  I'll turn once again to Professor Gerzina to relate why Sarah E. Farro and her work are significant:
"Today we assume that early African-American writers inevitably wrote about race, that 19th-century writers necessarily referred to experiences of slavery and struggle and that their access to literacy -- let alone the Victorian literary canon -- must have been limited.  Finding Farro's novel changes that. Because we didn't realize that authors like Farro existed, we had limited perspective on their work."
I'll quite frankly admit that the book isn't as polished as it could be, and frankly, neither the story nor the writing is all that good, but that's not why I chose to read it: I was absolutely delighted with the prospect of reading the work of a previously-unknown African-American female author who wrote during the 19th century.  I mean, a lot of books I read are from obscure authors, but I rarely get the opportunity to discover one which itself has only recently been discovered.  It was well worth every second of my time and even though I wasn't fond of the story, I feel great just having the ability to read Sarah Farro's work.  I feel privileged, actually.

Monday, March 5, 2018

A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley

Anchor Books, 1990
originally published 1962
240 pp


William Melvin Kelley is an author I discovered while reading the January 29, 2018 issue of The New Yorker.  Before that, I'd never even heard of this man, although after finishing this book I'll be looking to read more of his work.  Two things caught my eye in the New Yorker article: first, the title: "The Lost Giant of American Literature," and then the question that immediately follows:
"A major black novelist made a remarkable debut. How did he disappear?"
Always intrigued by a mystery -- in this case three: who was William Melvin Kelley, why had I never heard of him if he was a "major black novelist," and finally, the question of how he disappeared -- I combed through the article and became even more intrigued when Kathryn Schulz started to describe Kelley's A Different Drummer.  This part was really all I needed to read before hitting the "add to cart" button on Amazon:
"Kelley turned his considerable intellect and imagination to the question of what it is like to be white in this country, and what it is like, for all Americans, to live under the conditions of white supremacy -- not just the dramatic cross-burning, neo-Nazi manifestations of it common to his time and our own but also the everyday forms endemic to our own national culture." 
I hadn't even finished the article and the book was on its way to my house.

William Melvin Kelley in 2012; from The New York Times

While I'm not going to divulge many details here, what is most stunning about this book is that given the theme, the story is revealed through the eyes of the white residents of this fictional town, set in a fictional Southern state.  Their narratives try to account for the reasons why one day Tucker Caliban (as revealed on the back cover blurb)
"... a quiet, determined descendant of a magnificent African chief brought to America in chains...for no apparent reason ... salts his fields, burns down his house, kills his livestock, and heads, with his wife and child, for parts unknown -- an act that sets off an unexpected mass exodus of the state's entire black population."
These narratives from the white residents of the town also uncover their thinking on how they process the behavior of the African-Americans in this book, and more importantly, how their own relationships with African-Americans reflect their own needs at different times.  It is both heartbreaking and haunting; but on the other hand, Tucker Caliban is one of the most courageous literary figures I've encountered in some time; he is the epitome of dignity and pride, a silent leader whose actions speak much louder than words ever could.

This book could likely be the focus of a graduate seminar, and there is so much to be found in here that I can't begin to scratch its surface in just words and there is a lot which even after two reads I'm sure I've missed. I won't kid you -- this is not an easy book to read and answers are not simply handed to readers on a plate.  However, it is one of the most thought-provoking novels I've had in my hands recently; it also, although written in the early 1960s, remains extremely relevant.  Highly recommended.