Thursday, October 18, 2012

The New Yorker on Hilary Mantel's win

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Paris Wife - Paula McClain

A conversation with a really close friend today made me think of The Paris Wife. How do you know when a marriage is over? This friend, who recently walked out of her marriage after 15 years, the last several abusive, without so much as a rupee to her name, has come under flak from friends and family for putting up with it so long. While I’m thrilled to see that attitudes have changed, and that no one advocates living with abuse any longer, I also think she deserves a break.

As does Hadley Richardson. The Paris Wife is the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, the woman who put her faith in him before the world did. The New York Times review, and the wonderful new friend who lent me the book, were both scathing of Hadley’s tolerance of ‘Hem’ and for staying on in the marriage longer than necessary.

I felt rather differently. I completely agreed with Hadley’s decision to leave him, but I’m not surprised that it took her long. (Not that long, by the way, they were married only about 5 years in any case.) But let me start this story from the beginning.
Hadley Richardson was a sensitive, quiet woman in her late 20s, past the first flush of youth, when she met Hemingway, at the start of the 1920s. An injury in her early childhood had meant she led a reclusive, overprotected life, in the shadow of her suffragette mother, and scarred probably even more than she realised, by the suicide of her father. Hemingway, some eight years her junior, swept her off her feet. Eventually, using her money, the couple moved to Paris so that he could devote himself to writing…as all the literati of the time, like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and F Scott Fitzgerald lived there.

In theory, this should make for a grand tale. My quibble with the story, is not Hadley’s meekness. What annoys me is that in spite of such fantastic material – a stellar cast of characters, a luminous setting – the story never rises above the ordinary. The writing is far too uninspired, and the characters, are just a series of names dropped, with no real insights. The big names aren’t just exposed to have feet of clay (which still would make a good story) but are rather small, commonplace people.
What I did like is how beautifully the squalor and poverty of an artist’s life is portrayed. It, definitely, is not for the fainthearted. Hemingway’s neuroses, ego and changing personality are nicely done too. I’ve never been much of a fan of the writer, even though I’ve struggled with A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and To Have and Have Not, so I was not approaching The Paris Wife with anything close to reverence. At the end of it, of course, I was not a fan of the man either. I found his combination of puritanism, self indulgence, pig-headedness and licentiousness repelling.

Hadley I feel much kinder towards. Definitely a misfit in the hard glitter and shallowness of the parisien life, her essential niceness comes through. So what if she seems retrogressive? From our 21st century perspective, it is easy to be judgemental. Hadley, I believe, was a woman of her time, even as her female contemporaries were trying to be progressive. She wasn’t glamorous, she wasn’t creative, but she was solid. I can understand her staying. I can understand her thinking things would improve. I can understand her trusting someone, and then being shocked at betrayal. I can understand her wanting to believe that her love was true, and that it would triumph. I can understand her inability to see what was happening. I can understand her paralysis when faced with life changing choices. When you trust someone that much, you never imagine, for a moment, that they have changed; moved away.

In fact, as I went on, I was more surprised that Hadley did walk away when she did, rather than stay on or agree to any humiliating arrangement that Hem had in mind (a typical male, he wanted it all, his wife Hadley and his lover Pauline, also in typical male fashion, he didn’t want to be the villain). For women, sometimes will do anything for love, or the distant, highly seductive promise of better times.

Knowing when to leave is not easy. I would like to believe that there is however, a sign, a breaking point, which most sensible people do not ignore. I’m glad Hadley didn’t, I am relieved my friend didn’t.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Bring Up The Bodies - Hilary Mantel

I just finished Bring Up The Bodies last night, and I really don’t know what I should think of it. I did not feel the unalloyed pleasure in reading it that I did with Wolf Hall. Maybe it suffers from the middle child syndrome, and fails to have the novelty of the first part or the finality of the last. This is no reflection on Hilary Mantel’s writing, which is just as compelling in this volume.

Most of my discomfort was with the changing or emerging character of the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell. In Wolf Hall, I didn’t expect to like him, but I found myself drawn to his character. In Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel made efficiency sexy. His tenderness for his family, his camaraderie with the boys at Austin Friars, his adeptness at handling disparate personalities, and his sense of humour were endearing. There was integrity in everything he did, that made you believe that history had Cromwell’s measure wrong.

In Bring Up The Bodies however, I find Cromwell slipping from my grasp. If I was puzzled as to his motivations in Wolf Hall, I am more so now. What compels him to bring down Anne and her so-called lovers? Does he really believe they are guilty? If not, is he driven solely by vengeance over Wolsey’s death? An instinct for self-preservation brought on by Anne’s growing power? Or a desire to do the King’s will at all costs? The book suggests all three, but it is hard to reconcile this Cromwell with the one of Wolf Hall. I don’t want to believe that he was an opportunist, but perhaps it is a measure of his good sense and ability that he is one. It is easy to forget that times were different, and survival required sharper wits and less reliance on law.

All the same, these inconsistencies make Cromwell’s personality that much more complex. He is nearly as inscrutable to us, as he was to his contemporaries. Henry emerges as peevish and silly, Anne self destructive and arrogant. Yet in her final days, she arouses our sympathy. I had to remind myself of the number of lives she herself destroyed, and would no doubt have continued to, had she lived.

Reading of Anne’s destruction also fills me with foreboding, because I do know what is coming at the end of the last volume. There are times, fleeting moments, when the usually surefooted Cromwell seems hesitant, even fearful.

Is Cromwell, in some recess of his mind, beginning to know it too?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Charlotte Gray - Sebastian Faulks

Over the past few months, I’ve been quietly catching up on my reading. I re-read Sea of Poppies, in preparation for reading River of Smoke. River of Smoke is a very different animal from its predecessor, but it is an amazing book too. There are fewer characters and fewer threads. A long time ago when I was a quizzer – not a very good one – I went through a brief period where I stopped reading for pleasure, and more for acquiring knowledge. I tried memorizing opening lines of books, quotable bits, minor characters’ names – as these were the kinds of questions that were asked frequently at quizzes. It rather destroyed my pleasure in reading, and I had to consciously stop myself from doing so. I don’t enjoy reading non-fiction, so any knowledge I have acquired has come as a by product of my reading for pleasure. That was one of the best things about River of Smoke. I knew virtually nothing about the age or its politics, while now I understand a lot more about it, I really didn’t have to labour very hard to do so. I look forward very much to the third part in the trilogy.

I also read Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, one of the most lyrical and haunting stories I have read in a long time. I believe it is somewhat autobiographical and the least characteristic of Murakami’s novels, as there is nothing remotely surrealistic or non-linear about it. This time at the library I toyed with the idea of picking up another Murakami but then put it off for later.

What I did pick up was Sebastian Faulks’ World War II novel, Charlotte Grey. Really, it seemed to have been written with me in mind, the sucker that I am for this particular time in history. One of my favourite popular authors is Ken Follet, whose writing is always well crafted. I adore his WWII novels especially, such as The Eye of The Needle, Jackdaws, Hornet Flight and The Key to Rebecca . These are fast paced and full of nail biting excitement, and decent characterization. Of course, they are popular fiction, and do have all the limitations of that genre.

According to Wikipedia, Charlotte Gray is one of three novels written by Sebastian Faulks, set in wartime France. Birdsong is set in WWI, and The Girl at the Lion d’Or is set in the period before WWII.

Charlotte Gray is the story of a young Scots woman who goes to London at the height of the war (1942) and because of her knowledge of French, is slowly co-opted into the secret service as a courier. Her task is to accompany an agent in to France. Charlotte has an ulterior motive in going, her airman lover has been shot down in France and she hopes to find him. When she is due to return to England, she opts to stay back in the little French town Lavaurette, where her contact, Julien Levade, lives. She becomes, for a time, his father, Levade’s housekeeper.

Even though the book’s summary at the back makes it sound that the story is all about Charlotte’s search for Peter, her lover, it actually isn’t so. In fact, when they do reunite at the end, it isn’t because of any machinations of hers. Her search for him, in fact is mostly fruitless and it is just chance and luck that he escapes. It may have been the motivation for her staying on in France, but her stay goes on to mean much more than that.

What the book really does is offer an insight into the French collusion with Nazi occupation. With our benefit of hindsight, it is easy for us to see that the colluders were in fact making the wrong choices, but at the time, it was simply a matter of aligning with the power that seemed the stronger at the time, with the hope of being rewarded with power and prestige in a “new Europe”. And the English, of course were always their traditional enemies. As characters in the book say, Churchill was seen to be prolonging the war for his own ends, and it was believed that the English were refusing to bow to the inevitable. Charlotte Gray does a wonderful job of putting things in their historical context. When the book draws to its close, the allies have begun to regain ground and the mood has changed.

Some of the most luminous exchanges in the book are between Charlotte and Levade, the father. A man who is thoroughly imperfect, yet very perceptive. Julien the son, is endearing, and there are moments when you do wish that it was him Charlotte loved (I believe the movie version has it that way). But only for a fleeting second, because more than liking Peter Gregory, you fall in love with Charlotte’s intense love of him, and wish to hold on to the belief that such love does, and will, conquer all.

The Jewish question is also beginning to rear its ugly head in the book. Two little Jewish boys, Andre and Jacob, as French as can be, lose their parents who are amongst the early deportees. Julien Levade, himself a part Jew, hides them and provides for them. The little boys almost never take centrestage in the story, except for one harrowing chapter, which is perhaps the most heartbreaking in the entire book, and the one that stayed with me the longest. I defy anyone to read about the little boys’ fate with a dry eye.

For a novel about war and spies, the book is curiously lacking in tension, the feeling of imminent danger. You almost never fear that Charlotte will be caught. But then, it is never intended to be a spy novel in the conventional sense. There is a big denouement though, when all things come to a head, when Levade is denounced as a Jew and deported, and Charlotte is threatened with exposure.

As a child when I read my commando comics and concentration camp stories, I was horrified and saddened, but in a more abstract way. The Diary of Anne Frank, which I have read several times over, affected me deeply, but still on an impersonal level. But as one grows older, and struggles in a real way with a world that is often strange and arbitrary and seemingly full of random tragedy, these characters’ struggles begin to be your own. Charlotte Gray may be a work of fiction, but to me it felt very real.