The residents of Pepys Road, South London, are an eclectic mix. 82 year old Petunia Howe has lived there all her life, yet most of her neighbours are...moreThe residents of Pepys Road, South London, are an eclectic mix. 82 year old Petunia Howe has lived there all her life, yet most of her neighbours are incomers. Roger and Arabella Yount bought their upmarket property from the proceeds of Roger's job as an Investment Banker. Freddy Kamo is a Premiership footballer. Ahmed Kamal runs the corner shop with his wife and two brothers. Meanwhile, Zbigniew the Polish builder is putting up Arabella's shelves, whilst Quentina Mkfesi, a political refugee from Zimbabwe, is walking Pepys Road in search of parking infringements.
When the residents begin to receive postcards of their houses with the sinister message "We want what you have", the relationship between them and their material possessions are placed under the microscope. The appalling Arabella Yount has completely objectified herself in material terms. Roger needs a £1million bonus to meet his family's extravagant requirements. Freddy's father Patrick wishes that he was back in Senegal where life was poorer but simpler. Petunia's grandson Smitty is a Banksy-style artist whose anonymity is a commodity. Zbigniew monitors his share portfolio so that he can return to Poland to set up in business with his father.
Overlying the material relations are typically modern physical threats. The postcards turn nasty. The Kamal's brother is arrested as a terrorist. Freddy is injured playing football. Quentina is interned. Petunia has cancer. Roger is caught up in the banking crisis.
Yet despite these pitfalls, this is a surprisingly warm-hearted book. These tribulations are generally redemptive, underscoring the importance of family, love, friendship and respect. Only Arabella Yount is too far-gone in her materialistic cocoon to be able to contemplate the opportunities that Roger's change in lifestyle may offer, and whilst the fate of the admirable Quentina gives little to be optimistic about, she knows that Zimbabwe will not be ruled by a tyrant forever.
John Lanchester has succeeded in writing an immensely enjoyable State-of-the-Nation novel. The way in which each set of characters' lives impinge on each other only very tangentially is exactly how a modern street works. Admittedly most characters are not sketched in much depth and the novel lacks complexity - yet it is this lightness which captures the superficial freneticness and interconnectivity of modern life so well.
Mr Phillips is a very ordinary man. An accountant, a London Commuter, a daydreamer about sex, he wakes up on Monday morning and readies himself for th...moreMr Phillips is a very ordinary man. An accountant, a London Commuter, a daydreamer about sex, he wakes up on Monday morning and readies himself for the office as he does every day. Except there is a difference today, as he was made redundant on Friday, and hasn't yet brought himself to tell his wife or family.
Over the course of the day, he meets his son for lunch, he chats with a pornographer, he sees a minor celebrity and gets involved in a bank robbery, reflecting all the time with his interior voice on the nature of his former job, his family, the memory or prospect of sex, or whether the probability of death between purchase and draw of a lottery ticket outweighs the probability of winning the jackpot.
Meanwhile, his life as an office-working, commuting wage-drone is dissected sliver by sliver, and is immediately recognisable to all who trudge up to London each day. "Like most experienced commuters, Mr Phillips has a variety of techniques for seizing somewhere to sit, sneaking around the side of the door and sliding into the jump-seats or barrelling down to the far end of the compartment, through the thickets of passengers, briefcases, newspapers, outstretched legs...The battle for a space prepared you for, was an allegory of the daily struggle. You could argue that those who fought their way to the seats were the people who needed them least. To them that hath shall be given, that was the deal." It is this juxtaposition of the quotidian with the interiorised faux philosophy which makes this book so funny and identifiable.
Mr Phillips is vaguely lustfully following D-list celebrity Clarissa Colingford into a bank, when crash-helmetted shotgun-wielding robbers burst in. As Mr Phillips lies on the floor he reminisces on his previous near-death experiences, mortality rates of lottery-ticket buyers and speculates of the reaction of his family to his death. And then he stands up.
Later, he helps an old lady with her shopping. It turns out that she is the wife of Mr Erith (as the rhyme goes, there are men in the village of Erith that nobody seeth or heareth), his fanatical old RE teacher. She shows Mr Phillips a book where several sayings, including one by Paul de Man, are embroidered. "Nothing, whether deed, word thought or text, ever happens in relation, positive or negative, to anything that precedes, follows or exists elsewhere, but only is a random act whose power, like the power of death, is due to the randomness of its occurrence." Has Mr Phillips' day been the confirmation or refutation of this and the other observations? Or is Lanchester subtly saying, pace de Man, that as a work of literature "Mr Phillips" means nothing, due to the irrelevance of human matters.
So is it trivial or profound? What is sure is that it is very readable, funny and full of blasts of recognition that this fortysomething office-worker found uncomfortably familiar.
The prospect of a survey of all the Chancellors of the Exchequer from Randolph Churchill to Hugh Dalton from the unique perspective of someone who was...moreThe prospect of a survey of all the Chancellors of the Exchequer from Randolph Churchill to Hugh Dalton from the unique perspective of someone who was not only a notable incumbent of this position himself, but also one of our finest writers on the politics of the period in question, seemed replete with possibilities. Firstly, we would be able to chart the evolution of the role from its high-Victorian incarnation in its current form through the troughs in its status during the wars, to its current position second only to that of the Prime Minister himself. Secondly, we could chart the evolution in economic policy through a turbulent century where the economics of Empire and Free Trade were turned on their heels by two world wars, the Great Depression and the rise of the Welfare State. And finally, we could examine the types of person who became Chancellor, and the success or otherwise of these types in the role.
Roy Jenkins' book attempts tentatively to address these questions, but only in the latter is he successful, and then only up to a point. The book's shortcomings, if such they be, are those of organisation and ambition. Certainly one cannot fault the sonorous, slightly orotund flow of Jenkins' prose, of a type that one rarely encounters nowadays, or the clarity of biographical exposition. Parallels with the current credit crisis are of interest, such as the Barings crisis of 1890, where overexposure to Argeninian and Russian Bonds nearly brought Barings Bank, and with it the whole city of London, to its knees - perhaps if this book had been written today and not 14 years ago, these parallels may have been made more overt (although the coincidence of Barings' misfortunes in recent times is underlined).
However, Jenkins has used his own work as frame of reference for determining the scope of the book, which is understandable but unfortunate. He sees Randolph Churchill as a natural continuation from the scope of his work on Gladstone, and Dalton's successors were all the subjects of essays by Jenkins. Churchill, Lloyd George, Asquith and Baldwin are the subjects of abbreviated essays as Jenkins has written at length about them elsewhere. Yet these choices encumber the subject as a whole. The modern Chancellorship was the creation of Gladstone and Disraeli, under whose tenures the position was elevated to that of of second in the cabinet and budget day became a national institution. This is only hinted at in the introduction. Instead, the first incumbent we meet is Randolph Churchill, biographically interesting but certainly not the most typical or successful holder of the office, and by concluding with Dalton partway through Atlee's landmark administration, there is a sense that we have ended with a story half-told which, once commenced, should have continued through to Gaitskill at the very least.
The second shortcoming is one of ambition, and this is partly caused by Jenkins organising his material biographically. Chancellors such as Harcourt, Hicks Beach and the Chamberlain half-brothers had more than one term of office, yet their records are looked at in the context of single biographies, so it is very difficult to get a continuous sense of how economic policy evolved in context, or of how the position of Chancellor itself changed over time.
This biographical approach does place emphasis on the type of person who succeeded as Chancellor, yet in the cases of Churchill and Lloyd George you have two of the most influential Chancellors of the 20th Century, but in these critical cases the biographical details relevant to their Chancellorship is skimped over. As a consequence, there is no discussion of the relationship in Asquith's administration between Lloyd George as Chancellor and Churchill as President of the Board of Trade, how Churchill's unemployment pension and labour exchanges complemented Lloyd George's Old Age Pensions, and how this contrasted with Churchill's performance as a Conservative Chancellor fifteen years later. This is a major shortcoming.
This is unfortunate, as a comprehensive overview would be very illuminating. As it is, biographical attention is given to some of the forgotten names of British politics such as C.T Richie and Sir Robert Horne - which is very worthy, and the resulting vignettes are interesting in themselves, but I can't help feeling that this book as a whole should be seen as an opportunity lost.
When I was a child in the 1970's, the map of the Europe seemed immutable. Ongoing decolonialisation granted statehood to pre-existing territories of t...moreWhen I was a child in the 1970's, the map of the Europe seemed immutable. Ongoing decolonialisation granted statehood to pre-existing territories of the major European powers, and new states had sprung forth from violent conflict in far-flung corners of the globe, but Europe's boundaries, fixed in the aftermath of the Second World War, were constant. Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and the break-up of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovia. Europe's states suddenly became fragile entities, as centrifugal forces started to impinge on even long-established Western states like Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom. The old certainties had vanished, history had not ended.
Yet this is no new phenomenon - thirty years of post-war stability is the exception in European history, not the rule. The map of Europe has been like a kaleidoscope, borders shifting as the wheel of time turns. Yet when we analyse these patterns, so often our perspective is shaped through the prism of contemporary states, so when we look at Prussia, it is through the context of modern Germany, or Burgundy through that of modern France. What Norman Davies has done in this brilliantly conceived and executed book is to look at snapshots of European history from the perspective of those states which have failed to survive the test of time.
The result is a startling series of cameos.What is the relationship between medieval Aragon and modern Catalonia? How did a remote region of what is now Poland and Russia give its name to the State from which modern Germany sprang (and why does its name no longer exist)? Why are there two separate Galicias in Europe, and are they linked? (No, they aren't). Why did the mayfly state of Carpatho-Ukraine exist for just one day?
The fortunes of states ebb and flow. Who in the early 1980s could have envisaged that by 1991 the Soviet Union would have imploded? Yet its demise is no more surprising than that of medieval Byzantium, or of the mighty Dukedom of Burgundy. We are left with faint traces, palimpsests of what went before - Byzantine complexity, Prussian blue (which would have been Brandenburg Blue if it had been synthesised in Berlin five years earlier).
Fifteen vanished kingdoms are analysed, each in three parts. The first gives a contemporary context in the form of a short travelogue (necessary for some of the more obscure parts of Eastern Europe). Then the rise and fall of the state in historical terms is described, followed by the memory sites, the cultural traces of the vanished kingdoms which resonate to this day. We progress according to a rough chronology, and in the earlier chapters there is a slight tendency for the historical sections to resolve down to unfamiliar names of kings, places and battles, but the broader contexts largely offset this. By the time we come to more familiar historical territory (for me anyway) this is no longer an issue.
Davies attempts to analyse the reasons why kingdoms vanish. Some are absorbed or destroyed by bigger neighbours, some disintegrate from within. Others merge together to make a greater whole. Looking at the examples of Piedmont-Savoy, Aragon and the Soviet Union, he puts forward the case that Kingdoms which come together from distinct constituent parts have a greater tendency to split apart over time. Small nations such as Estonia can exist successfully under the umbrellas of Nato and the European Union, so he believes that the separatist forces acting on the United Kingdom will one day win through, forcing Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales down the path trodden early last century by Ireland. Whether you agree with this analysis or not, this compelling, beautifully written book is vital reading for all with an interest in European history or contemporary politics alike.
It's 1947, and lives are reaching out for normality after the dislocation of war. For some this is difficult, unable to replicate the adrenaline rush...moreIt's 1947, and lives are reaching out for normality after the dislocation of war. For some this is difficult, unable to replicate the adrenaline rush of falling bombs and saving lives. For others, the relationships which made sense in the unnatural intensity of the war years no longer provide security and satisfaction.
Sarah Waters' novel follows the interlinked lives of five people in these dismal years. Helen and Viv work in a dating agency. Helen lives with the sophisticated Julia, whilst Viv has been having a long-term affair with Reggie. Viv's brother Duncan works in a factory and lives with Mr Mundy, but is hiding a secret in his past. Kay lives alone and walks the streets without purpose. But why does Viv become so animated when she sees Kay walking in the street?
Structurally, this book is a bit like a classic detective novel. You are introduced to the story in the middle at the scene of crime, and the action unravels both forwards towards dénouement and backwards as the criminal and their motivations are revealed. In 1947, you learn about the characters, but subsequent sections are set in 1944 and 1941 and as we rewind backwards we find out why the characters are who they are and act how they act.
Sarah Waters is adept at creating a sense of time and place, and her picture of wartime London is highly evocative. The ebbing and flowing of relationships is sketched out with care and sensitivity. Yet there is something at the heart of this novel which didn't fully work for me. It's as if it were somehow not a true story of a series of relationships, but a technical exercise in showing how a book about relationships could be written in reverse chronology.
Perhaps that's unfair, perhaps one is just too conditioned to the unflowering of the plot, of the novelist's relentless drive towards a conclusion. Certainly, there are many novels where one has appreciated the storyline but the ending leaves one disappointed, and by this device Sarah Waters has avoided having to finish with her characters facing the humdrum normality of peacetime at the end of the book. But because of the structure of the book, we know who survived the falling bombs, the back-street abortions, and the slow reveal of why Helen has silk pyjamas and Viv wants to give Kay a ring does not provide an adequate motive force for the book as a whole - which is unfortunate, as many sections are compelling to read and the period and interrelationships are delineated with such care.
1785, and the French state is rotten, putrefying. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer, is summoned to a decaying Versailles to be given a task by...more1785, and the French state is rotten, putrefying. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer, is summoned to a decaying Versailles to be given a task by a government minister, the clearance of the cemetery of les Innocents by Les Halles in Paris, which is full to overflowing and filling its surrounds with stench and disease. Apparently there is an elephant somewhere in Versailles.
The elephant is the impending French Revolution, whose presence looms over this book whilst only ever being acknowledged in the prophetic street graffiti of the mysterious Bêche. And, as wide-awake readers will note Jean-Baptiste is preparing the way for the upheaval, and that "Baratter" means to agitate vigorously, they will realise that we are in the realm of complex extended historical metaphor. However, don't let that put you off - this is page-turning book, cleverly written, engaging and entertaining, and one can enjoy immensely it without all the cleverness. But dig away at the surface like Baratter's men from Valenciennes, and so much more opens up...
The title announces the theme: purification - of the graveyard, of the district, of the state, of la pute autrichiènne with whom Baratte will live. A day is coming when the last trompette-stop of the organ will sound and the innocents shall rise up from their graves. Jean-Baptiste travels to Valenciennes via Amiens (incidentally home to relics of John the Baptist) to employ Flemish miners, working men, simple but loyal, to excavate the bones of les Innocents and transport them to the catacombs below Rue d'Enfer. Miller captures the sights and smells of this unpleasant task in brisk, tight elegant sentences whilst continuing to toy with us.
Salome-like, the naked daughter of Jean-Baptiste's hosts tries to sever his head. Fortunately he is rescued by all-seeing Marie before he has shed too much blood. Call on Dr Guillotin who has expertise in such cases. It can be possible to over-interpret. As fire rages all around them, Jean-Baptiste finds Flemish miner Block (=stone = pierre =Peter??), gives him a key and tells him to take his followers to the river.
As a novel, it is not without its flaws. Structurally it is unkempt, events occur for little apparent reason, Jean-Baptise is the only character of interest.Yet as an entertainment, an exciting read, historically astute, well-written and playful, it excels. Since finishing it, I've found myself musing on the theme and the apocalyptic parallels it develops, which is worthy tribute. And the elephant? - it was lying dead in Versailles, rotting away.
I hesitate to start to write this review, as I feel a bit like Treslove, the main character of this book. Julian Treslove is a disappointed unmarried...moreI hesitate to start to write this review, as I feel a bit like Treslove, the main character of this book. Julian Treslove is a disappointed unmarried middle-aged man working as a celebrity look-alike whose two best friends are both Jewish, and both have recently lost their wives. Samuel Finkler, a friend of Treslove since school, is a successful philosopher, academic and TV pundit, writer of "The Existentialist in the Kitchen". The elderly Libor Sevcik was their teacher. Both may be Jewish, but they have conflicting attitudes to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Libor supporting the Israeli government's position, whereas Finkler takes the lead of the ASHamed Jews who are opposed to Israeli aggression in Palestine.
Julian has always had an ambiguous relationship with the confident, successful Finkler, defining his attitude to Jewishness through him (to Treslove, all Jews are "Finklers"). However, after being the victim of an possibly antisemitic attack in London, he starts to learn more about the religion before striking up a relationship with Hephzibah, Libor's niece. Nevertheless, despite trying to learn Yiddish, contemplating circumcision and recognising rising antisemitism on London's streets, Treslove never quite manages to fully reconcile himself to his nascent Judaism.
This is such an intimate, affectionate portrait of the varieties of Judaic experience, that, like Treslove, the gentile reader feels as if they are an onlooker, peering in to lives that are similar yet different to our own, trying to understand yet always conscious that there is a gap - religious, political, cultural, historical - that is impossible to transcend. In Treslove's case this is partly because he seems emotionally deficient at times, but a non-Jewish reader can only imagine the complexity of feelings and responses generated in Jews by the Palestinian conflict.
This is also a book about families and of death. Finkler and his wife Tyler coexisted up until her death in what was basically mutual enmity driven by Finkler's numerous infidelities (Treslove is surprised to learn that she wasn't originally Jewish, but converted on her marriage). Libor, on the other hand - and despite being intimate with Hollywood's most beautiful actresses - was always loyal in his heart to his beloved Malkie. Both find it difficult to come to terms with their loss. Treslove, meanwhile, fantasizes about a beautiful woman dying in his arms.
It is not easy to summarise all the themes of such a sensitive, intelligent novel. Jacobson eschews easy solutions and trite answers. Themes are argued back and forwards but none of the characters find easy resolutions and neither does the reader - questions are simply raised and left hanging. All this is done is the most beautiful prose by a master of the well-turned sentence and ironic juxtaposition. This is not laugh-out-loud funny like previous works by Jacobson, but it demonstrates a wry humour throughout.
However, this is not meant to be a funny book - it's a deadly serious one. In Treslove's terms The Finkler Question is nothing less than the Jewish Question, a fundamental set of issues for a Jewish writer such as Jacobson. With its subsidiary reflections on life, love and death, this is as serious as it gets.
2011 has been topped and tailed by two very similar short novels, both by experienced master-craftsmen, both looking back on events of the protagonist...more2011 has been topped and tailed by two very similar short novels, both by experienced master-craftsmen, both looking back on events of the protagonist's youth which weren't fully understood at the time, both written with a taut, spare economy and barely a word out of place.
Philip Roth's Nemesis was a simpler piece of story-telling; Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending is an altogether more ambitious work. Within its slight frame it dissects the unstable nature of history. As Adrian Finn says, quoting Lagrange, "History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." Barnes' book is an exploration of this thesis.
Tony Webster and his friends Colin and Alex are ordinary schoolboys in the sixties, intellectually curious and hung-up on girls. They are joined at school by Adrian Finn, whose intellectual fire-power immediately marks him out as Scholarship material. Tony looks up to Adrian, as do both his friends and the Masters at his school.
When Tony goes to Bristol University he starts to go out with Veronica, his first girlfriend, He is taken to meet her parents and their solid middle-class self-confidence immediately makes him feel inferior. It turns out that Veronica's brother is at Cambridge with Adrian, and after Tony and Veronica split up he gets a letter from Adrian requesting his permission to go out with Veronica.Tony's reply has unexpected consequences.
Fast-forward to today, and Tony is surprised to receive a bequest from Veronica's mother on her death. Veronica has some documents which have been left to him but which she is reluctant to release, so he tries to track her down in order to understand what happened when she split from him - yet his memory is unreliable and he is shocked to discover the picture of his younger self which emerges.
Barnes' characterisation has the precision of a stiletto. Tony is not naturally reflective, he is selfish, complacent, stolid and insensitive, yet cannot see it. He has caused damage that he cannot start to contemplate, but despite everything thinks he is an inoffensive nonentity. Veronica tries to penetrate his shell, but her pain is too great. The mystery is Adrian - to what extent does his theory of individual responsibility mean that he is unable to ascribe blame where it is due?
This is not a large book - only 150 pages - but its themes are massive. It does not feel slight, but rather it is as fully satisfying a read as many much larger novels - in fact, any further development would only detract from its key themes. Just as in Philip Roth's Nemesis, the sparsity engenders an emotional intensity and focus on a theme that would be lost in a bigger book. Both these master-craftsmen have the experience to know exactly when less is more.