“A House in Flanders” by Michael Jenkins

I found myself in a fantastic independent bookshop a couple of weeks ago – one of those quirky old places full to the rafters with an array of beautiful titles, displayed in a hotchpotch of authors and genres. Squeezing past groaning stools and book-strewn chairs I discovered a small pile of Slightly Foxed Paperbacks in the corner of the room. I couldn’t resist the thick cream cover or the press’s brilliant name; eventually I settled on A House in Flanders.

It turned out to be one of those occasions when a book couldn’t have appeared at a better time. After the political division and bitterness of the past few weeks and months, I needed something gentle, and kind – a dose of nobility. Michael Jenkins’ account of his time in France was the perfect antidote to a bellyful of Trump and Farage.

Over the course of several summers during the 1950s, the young Michael was sent to spend his holiday with a houseful of French “aunts” in Flanders. They weren’t really relations of his, but, as becomes clear during the course of the narrative, the introspective English boy was bound to the family by a bitter-sweet history. The sprawling French home reveals a riot of colour, familial love and shared secrets which prove to be a world away from his repressed English parents and boarding school, and he soon finds himself fulfilling the role of a go-between – not to enable a doomed affair as in L.P Hartley’s classic, but instead to offer a much-needed ear for the village, in the way outsiders often can.

Each chapter tells the story of a different relation or neighbour, their history, and role in the house. Tante Yvonne is the wise, childless matriarch who dedicated her life to keeping her family united under one roof. Gentle Tante Lise has control of the garden, Tante Florence oscillates between placidity and bursts of activity, Tante Alice jealously manages her property and Oncle Auguste is the former soldier occasionally beset by episodes of dementia. Apart from the exquisite cousin Madeline who inspires Michael’s first experience of love, the members of the household are octogenarians – at the end of their lives just as Michael is beginning his. One of the many special things about the book is the fact that the generational divide isn’t any sort of barrier to Michael being absorbed into their lives – their age gives the tantes a wealth of stories to tell but it doesn’t feel foreign to Michael. They become his world.

There is a sort of Edenic quality to Michael’s golden summers in the village – he wanders through golden fields on his various errands, absorbing the glorious countryside around him and learning its folklore. The memory of the world wars is never far from the surface, though, making itself known through the aunts’ stories; the confusion inspired by the few German characters to pass through the book; and the private sorrows and divisions which still haunt the village. Michael’s boyish thoughtfulness and lack of judgment integrate these flashes of brutality into the otherwise dreamlike narrative, so that the recent violence is somehow managed by his innocence. Death, loss, love, permanence and hope – they all have a place at the table here, managing to exist in harmony within the beautiful story.

At the core of the book is Tante Yvonne’s desire for the villagers to rub along with one another and for her family to stay close to home. Looking at her through Michael’s eyes you feel all of her strength and humour, as well as glimpses of the hardships she’s endured. Yvonne may have lived through war, lost loved ones and suffered the cruelty of being forced out of her home by invading soldiers, but there isn’t a trace of bitterness here – all Michael sees is courage, wisdom and an enduring faith in her neighbours. She’s both a peace-maker and champion of justice, steadfastly refusing to be beaten by war, grief or the passing of time.

What more of an inspiration could one want as this ruthless year draws to a close.

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“All The Light We Cannot See”, by Anthony Doerr

After a long absence (due to a happy cocktail of getting married a few months’ ago; taking an Environmental Studies AS level; and trying my hand at a few pieces of freelance writing for Collectively) I finished All the Light We Cannot See last night, and, once the sobs had subsided, immediately felt the need to write a review.

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is one of the most stirring and tender pieces of fiction I’ve read in a long time. Centred around the build up to, and fall out from, the Second World War, it tells the story of two children – Marie-Laure and Werner.

Marie-Laure is a young Parisian who, having lost her sight as a little girl, learns to revel in the mysteries of the world through the patience and love of her father. Her Papa is a locksmith at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, and as well as designing impregnable cases for the Muséum’s treasures, builds his daughter a miniature version of Paris as a way of teaching her how to find her way through the city. Their relationship is beautifully drawn – the way in which Marie-Laure’s father teases the confidence and imagination out of her, and, as the story progresses, shields her from the horrors of war, is deeply moving without ever feeling sentimental.

Just before she loses her sight, Marie-Laure is told the story of a large blue diamond locked up somewhere in the Muséum, which confers eternal life on whoever carries it whilst inflicting destruction on their loved-ones: the Sea of Flame. As the Nazis swarm across Europe (and unbeknownst to his daughter) Marie-Laure’s father is entrusted either with the real diamond or a decoy, and told to get it out of Paris. The pair make their way to Saint-Malo; to the home of Marie-Laure’s brilliant great-uncle, Etienne, a man still deeply scarred by the horrors he witnessed in the First World War. Inevitably the legend of the diamond obsesses one particularly cruel treasure-hunting Nazi, who pursues the small family to their hiding-place and threatens to destroy their sanctuary.

Woven into these scenes is the story of Werner Pfennig and his sister, Jutta, both snow-haired orphans living in a mining town in Germany. When he is still very young Werner finds a discarded radio, which he teaches himself how to fix. As he is flicking through the static one evening, he discovers a distant French voice giving dream-like lectures to children on science and the mysteries of the universe. He and Jutta fall in love with the voice and the worlds of knowledge it opens up to them. For Werner in particular, the mysterious Frenchman inspires a deep fascination in mathematics and engineering, and before long he has become a prodigious radio-engineer. His remarkable academic abilities win him a scholarship to one of the Nazi’s top boys’ schools, and as Jutta looks on in despair, her gentle, curious brother becomes mired in the moral horrors of Hitler’s programme for Germany’s elite children.

In one respect, this is a good old-fashioned page-turner: in addition to inter-weaving the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr also takes you backwards and forwards in time so that their denouement is teased from the very beginning. It’s wholly gripping, and I simply couldn’t put the book down until I’d finished it last night. More than that, though, the novel unravels the ways that war strips the magic and wonder from life. In their own ways, the novel’s children are fascinated by the natural world – by molluscs and radio waves, botany and birds. The machine of war corrupts, steals and warps those passions, threatening not just the characters’ lives but also the inexplicable mix of kindness and intellectual curiosity which defines them. One of the questions which is asked time and time again throughout the story is what these children might have been had it not been for the barbarity of that war: yes, the novel is affirming in many ways and there’s a vein of indomitable humanity throughout, but it is also, inevitably, completely heart-breaking, as each of the characters loses the world they’d known and the life they might have lived.

When I’d finished snivelling into the kitchen roll, I have to say that it all felt quite timely and political, too. Hopping onto my soap box for a minute, I’ll be voting to remain in the EU for a raft of reasons (it makes economic sense; our only hope of decent environmental legislation comes from Europe; the immigration scare-mongering is Daily Mail nonsense; and we need to avoid the TTIP by being part of Europe, not by substituting it for something more sinister (as George Monbiot wrote today)). But it’s also more fundamental than that. The EU may primarily have an economic raison d’être, but it was essentially assembled in the wake of this very war to create a united, peaceful, prosperous Europe. I defy anyone to read a novel like this and to feel isolationist.

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“Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine

A friend mentioned Delusions of Gender to me a few weeks ago, and, sucker for a good pun and a spot of neuroscience, I knew I’d have to read it.

This is an absolutely fascinating book, packed with wit, scholarship, and good ol’ fashioned feminism. Essentially Fine uses a combination of wry humour, memorable analogies, and her hugely impressive assimilation of information from a range of academic fields to dissect the ways in which popular neuroscience perpetuates a deeply pernicious kind of sexism. Bookshops are full of paperbacks telling us that men and women are simply wired differently; that girls are preconditioned to want to nurture, dust, and wear pink. Not only is that a very dangerous fiction, but it’s supported by what Fine reveals to be fatally flawed scholarship from the highest level: “The results of this study suggest that girls are born to be prewired to be interested in faces while boys are prewired to be more interested in moving objects,” writes Leonard Sax in his book “Why Gender Matters”, a conclusion echoed in the popular media around the world. The implications for career choices are clear. Cambridge academic Peter Lawrence, citing the newborn study, argues that men and women are “constitutionally different” and thus unlikely to ever become professors of physics and literature in equal numbers….

What she shows, very compellingly, is that society conditions us to associate traits, jobs, colours and shapes with maleness and femaleness almost from the moment we’re conceived. Once a mother knows the sex of her foetus, she quite literally starts to talk to it in a different way – she’ll soften her voice for a girl, focus on describing emotions, and speak to it more frequently. Even before our children are born, we’re trying to compartmentalize them according to their gender.

Which is greatly exacerbated as soon as children start to interact with the world around them. Liberal, educated parents with the best of intentions with regard to gender-neutral parenting reportedly attribute their daughters’ inevitable fascination with dolls and princesses all too readily to biology – if they’ve spent two years giving their little girl trucks and building blocks, but she still insists on cradling the truck like a baby or wrapping it in a pink blanket, surely it shows that her preferences are innate? Nonsense – what Fine portrays so shrewdly is that none of us lives in a vacuum. Even liberal, feminist parents probably own a T.V., and as Fine points out, the adverts which run between cartoons betray a startlingly sexism, which inevitably shapes children’s views of what’s “normal” for their gender (hence the brilliant campaign Let Toys Be Toys). Children develop their tastes not in response to their parents’ politics, but as a direct result of the way in which they learn to engage with their peers –and if every little girl in a pre-school group comes to a party dresses as a princess (an image which has been sold to her relentlessly from birth), the solitary female pioneer dressed as an astronaut will feel distraught, and instantly beg her parents for an Elsa costume. The same applies just as much to boys as it does to girls, of course – a young boy who might enjoy playing with dolls at home will soon learn to feel embarrassed by it at school, because those aren’t the sort of toys consumerism pushes onto his “group”. Grimly, but entirely logically, it isn’t enough to raise a family in an equality bubble if the rest of the world still runs along astonishingly gendered lines.

And it only gets worse as the years roll by. As children, we grow up watching Disney movies in which the lead female characters are left in the shade by their male counterparts when it comes to dialogue. When we get to school, we’re separated more and more – we play different sports, are encouraged to pursue different hobbies, are told that girls are somehow genetically disadvantaged when it comes to STEM subjects. Again what I found so astonishing was Fine’s explanation of the immediate and crippling effect these stereotypes have: if a group of girls are told just before taking a maths test that women are genetically less able at those sorts of tasks than men, they get a worse score than girls of equal ability who aren’t told anything of the sort. These stereotypes instantly become self-fulfilling prophecies. As she points out so effectively, if we were applying the same kind of segregation to left-handers and right-handers rather than to men and women, these societal pressures and assumptions would look nonsensical. And yet they persist.

It really made me think. As I was walking around the park on my lunch-break earlier today, I decided to listen to the Woman’s Hour podcast (with which I am currently obsessed). The topic up for debate was the controversial new junior doctor’s contract on the cusp being imposed on the NHS (for those of you not in the UK, the government is trying to overhaul the contracts of our national health service’s junior doctors, and it’s proving to be hugely inflammatory – in part because the new terms arguably discriminate against young female doctors). The show’s host asked the Tory MP being interviewed if the move was in fact a cynical way of trying to de-feminize our medical profession. I have to say that I agreed with a lot of what he said in general terms – but my hackles flew up when he suggested that female doctors are particularly useful because they demonstrate empathy, and a rapport with their patients. No! This is exactly the sort of language Cordelia Fine calls out in her excellent book. Empathy is a human quality, not a female quality; skilled female doctors, like skilled male doctors, are valuable because they’re good at their job, irrespective of their supposed ability to emote; and we shouldn’t take issue with sex discrimination just because we think women make up the “caring” part of the workforce, and are therefore useful in emotional situations. It’s utter madness, and does neither gender any favours.

I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone with any interest in gender politics; psychology; genetics; education; advertising; children; being left-handed; the human condition; and good jokes. Everybody, really. In the meantime, I just need to work out what’s to be done in the face of so much deep-rooted bias…

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“Cheerful Weather for the Wedding” by Julia Strachey

I’m getting married on 2 April, and it just so happens that the novel chosen by my book club – and which we’re due to discuss the week before the big day – was Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, by Julia Strachey. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the book, which I hope is a good omen.

All I knew about Julia Strachey was that she was part of the famous Bloomsbury Group – and I suppose that invokes certain preconceptions about a novel. I’d expected it to be something akin to Virginia Woolf: a tale of aristocrats set in their domestic sphere, probably coupled with streams of consciousness; perhaps featuring the odd artist or academic, and a tension between the Edwardian and the “modern”. And to an extent those assumptions hold true – this is very much a story taken from the world of wealth, set in that strange limbo period between an old-fashioned England and something more bohemian. There, though, the writers diverge. Whereas Woolf conjured painful psychological truths, laid bare in such extraordinary prose, Strachey comes at her story from a totally different angle. There’s a moment early on when a character looks into an old mirror so that the drawing-room, as reflected in its corpse-like face, seemed forever swimming in an eerie, dead-looking, metallic twilight, such as is never experienced in the actual world outside, and that description holds a clue about what it feels like to read Cheerful Weather. If Woolf was an author hunting for verisimilitude, then Strachey is someone who revelled (from a distance) in the strange tragi-comedy in everyday life. It’s a surreal, funny, coolly detached, and even slightly sinister portrait of a single day. Let’s just say I hope my wedding day is a happier occasion.

It’s a short story of just 114 pages, and there isn’t much plot to speak of. The wedding in question is between Dolly Thatcham and her fiancé, the Hon Owen Bigham. Evidently it isn’t a particularly happy affair – Dolly consumes half a bottle of rum before lunch, and the characters all exist in a perpetual state of physical discomfort. There’s also a rumbling threat throughout that the occasion will be disrupted by Dolly’s morose friend, Joseph, who’s either suffering from a bad cold or repressed love.

The narrator’s eye never lingers on a single character for long; it’s Dolly’s day, but the supporting cast are just as important as the bride. Dolly’s overbearing sister Kitty charges about, braying at the other guests and bemoaning the fact that she has ugly hands and no urban polish. Their mother, Mrs Thatcham, bustles about the house in a constant state of surprise, disappointment and confusion, criticising the servants for following her own muddled orders. There are two brothers who move from room to room – the younger being persecuted relentlessly by the older for wearing the wrong socks (the shame, the older says, if another Rugby man should be present and notice the youngster’s inappropriate choice as he kneels in church), in a dynamic which is both oddly sinister and very funny. Everyone looks constantly frozen and chafed, with mottled skin and raw hands: Had it not been for the uncomfortable streaks of yellow, and the dark patches, now apparent over his neck and on the sides of his cheeks, no one would have guessed that in Joseph, during the last few minutes, a mistral had started up, and that deep waters were being severely ruffled. 

There’s a general feeling of madness in the air – half the guests are three sheets to the wind, and no-one seems to be listening to anything anyone else says. As the cheerful Lob says at one point, ignoring Aunt Bella’s story about her affectionate servants, My dear lady…I don’t care two pins about all that! No! The question, as I see it, is quite a different one. The whole thing is simply this: Is it possible to be a Reckless Libertine without spending a great deal of money? Quite.

If the novel were longer the wholesale unlikeability of the cast might be a problem. As it is the whole thing is perfectly judged – you’re able to observe the characters as though looking at a peculiar species of animal, marvelling at their strangeness. It’s a vivid, unusual little story, which reminded me in some ways of the tone used by Jane Hervey in Vain Shadow. I really enjoyed being a voyeur into such a sad, funny little world for an hour or so – and will try to steer clear of the rum on 2 April.Cheerful Weather for the Wedding

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

A few weeks ago, I, like a huge swathe of the UK, started watching the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace (or Phwoar and Peace, as it’s been dubbed by the Daily Mail et al). It was utterly brilliant – entertaining; accessible; vast in scope; and incredibly romantic. So, at the end of the now-famous ballroom scene, I decided to abandon the adaptation temporarily and finally read the novel.

I don’t need to tell you that it’s a book with a special aura of inaccessibility – not only because it is such a giant tome, but  also because it’s about the Napoleonic Wars and, I’d assumed, a very Russian kind of misery. I read Anna Karenina five or six years ago and, after a rocky start, fell for its portrait of a histrionic, urban love affair set against Levin’s pure devotion to his country and his wife. It certainly wasn’t always an easy read, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Still, I eyed War and Peace askance – I thought it would be a Middlemarch or a Vanity Fair, giant classics which, so far, I’ve never really got on with. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’m sure a significant portion of my enjoyment can be attributed to the sparkling translation of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky – the idea of reviewing a translation is always a strange one for that reason – but it’s blindingly obvious from the very beginning why this is so often cited as being the greatest novel ever written. The world Tolstoy conjures is all-consuming; the distance of two hundred years feels like nothing at all; and everything he writes is fizzing with humanity.

The idea that War and Peace might be a novel at all never sat comfortably with Tolstoy – he considered it to be more than that, given that it is also in part such a detailed account of the war fought between the Russians and the French, interlaced with philosophising about what it means to be alive, morally sound, and happy. Perhaps after two hundred years of experimentation its easier for us to accept it being a novel, but that’s also aided by the curiosity, accessibility and lightness of touch with which Tolstoy analyses his existential questions and theory of history.

A bee sitting on a flower stung a child. And the child is afraid of bees and says that a bee’s purpose consists in stinging people. A poet admires a bee sucking up the fragrance of flowers. A beekeeper, nothing how a bee gathers flower pollen and brings it to the hive, says that a bee’s purpose consists in gathering honey….All that is accessible to man is the observation of the correspondence between the life of a bee and other phenomena in life. It is the same for the purposes of historical figures and peoples. 

If anything there’s something Homeric in the imagery and the deliberate, rhythmic repetitions in his language, and of course the juxtaposition of war and love: if it’s not a novel, then perhaps War and Peace has the soul of an epic poem. Just like the Aeneid, or the Iliad, it is incredibly easy to be swept up by Tolstoy’s story – but the language doesn’t sacrifice any detail to the extraordinary scale: Natasha realised that Sonya was in the corridor on the chest. The chest in the corridor was the place of sorrows for the young female generation of the Rostov house. Indeed, Sonya, in her airy pink dress, crushing it, was lying face down on nanny’s dirty striped feather-bed, on the chest, and, covering her face with her fingers, was sobbing, her bare little shoulders twitching.   

(Given that there’s something of the Bennett sisters in Natasha and her friend, it’s worth mentioning that reams has surely been written about the similarities between Tolstoy and Austen – not only because of the context (War and Peace is set at the time Austen was writing) but also because both authors have that ability to see a world in a grain of sand – to turn a ballroom scene into an opportunity to take a scalpel to human nature.)

I never quite forgave Tolstoy for denying me the specific love story I wanted from two of the characters – when it became clear that my pair were heading for an exquisite tragedy rather than the happy ending I so wanted for them, I thought I might abandon ship in a fit of pique. By then it was completely under my skin, though, and I couldn’t resist. I found tears streaming down my face for huge tranches of the story – but it also made me grin in recognition and pleasure, living every vivid scene. This is not the dour tragedy I thought it might be. It’s a novel  completely in love with life. Reading it is, in the truest sense of the word, a profoundly cathartic experience. All of human experience is contained within these pages – love, grief, confusion, humour, guilt, cruelty, redemption – at times I felt almost sick when the characters suffered. After one particularly gut-wrenching passage – Tess of the D’Urbevilles sprung to mind – I really did have to step away from the story for a couple of days, because I was so frustrated and disappointed. Ultimately, though, this is such a life-affirming piece of work. Flicking back to Hardy, brilliant though he is my problem with his novels has always been the relentlessness with which he brings his characters low – Tolstoy doesn’t share that nihilism. Everything here is balanced and true. Sorrow and joy in equal measure – war and peace.

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“The Buddha’s Return” by Gaito Gazdanov

In The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, Gaito Gazdanov isolates the physical and psychological; he leaves his characters stranded in a half-reality, a philosophical dream of their own creation; and asks searching questions about what it means to be alive and conscious of one’s inner life. In The Buddha’s Return, he takes that discombobulation to its extreme – the unnamed narrator who drifts through the novel in a fog of uncertainty, suffers a kind of sporadic delirium which sees him slip constantly from reality into incredibly vivid, nightmarish constructs. These waking dreams almost always involve the narrator punishing himself in some way – the opening words of the novel, for instance, are “I died”; and later he finds himself a prisoner of a fictional state, accused of a crime he didn’t commit but cannot deny in a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare (and neatly foreshadowing the second half of the novel). The fiction is as convincing as reality, and as the reader you have to try to follow the narrative thread like a trail of breadcrumbs through the narrator’s consciousness. It is very unusual, and despite being so fragmentary in some ways, incredibly gripping.

The central premise is that the narrator is imprisoned for killing a friend of his – a wealthy man called Pavel Alexandrovich, whom the narrator first met when Pavel was still a beggar on the streets of Paris. The one thing that offers the narrator some hope is that as well as killing Pavel, the murderer stole a golden statue of Buddha from Pavel’s apartment – a crime which the narrator could not have committed. In that sense this is, as is The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, an accomplished thriller, and it certainly has the pace and intrigue of a great piece of crime fiction. However that plot also functions as a vehicle allowing the narrator, and therefore Gazdanov, to explore issues of identity; alienation; loneliness; the power of our fictional inner lives; and a kind of social justice. The idea of justice in particular figures large here – both in the criminal sense, and with regard to a kind of broader social consciousness. The narrator is imprisoned by two justice systems in this novel – one fictional, and the other real – and in both cases he is urged to confess to a crime he didn’t commit, in order to satisfy the requirements of a monstrous judiciary. As a fictional interrogator tells him:

They will sentence you and adopt punitive measures – not because you’re guilty and it has been proven, but because this is how they understand the task of the Central Judiciary. Objection is unfavourable and punishable in principle. To argue with the law is a crime against the state, as is to doubt its inerrancy. 

When the legal system itself is so caught up with such corkscrewing levels of bureaucracy, what hope is there for the individual? The narrator is entirely alone in Paris – friendless, but for the enigmatic Pavel – and as such, wholly at the whim of the state. Indeed the entire cast of the novel is made up of foreigners, beggars, and prostitutes – everyone playing the hand life has dealt them, trying to surviving in what can often be an anarchic, unkind world. It’s a feeling of separation and unreality that feels very timely as we debate privacy laws, immigration, and live in dissonance with the natural world. Indeed in a novel that relies so much on mirroring, chance connections and repetition, there are only really two moments in which a genuine human connection is either promised or realised – the first being the conversation between the narrator and Pavel shortly before Pavel’s death, and the second offering a ray of hope at the end of the novel, as the narrator rediscovers the importance of a lost love. It’s comforting that even in a novel which is distinguished by their absence, mutual understanding and love are what the narrator finds himself striving for.

The Buddha’s Return is at heart a very European novel, which draws on the work of writers like Freud, Proust and Schnitzler (and of course, Dostoevsky) whilst being very critical of the continent’s history and class system. (As Pavel says at one point, “Here, every stone is dripped in blood. Wars, revolutions, barricades, crimes, despotic regimes, inquisitions, famine, devastation, and this whole historical gallery of horrors...” Europe, like the narrator’s internal life, is full of monsters.)  Managing to combine pace, great sensory detail and an ongoing psychological examination of his character, Gazdanov has achieved something very special. A novel like Rogue Male owes a debt, I think, to The Buddha’s Return – it’s a real feat to combine suspense and psychological analysis with such flair.

 

The Buddha's Return

“Mona Lisa” by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

Mona-Lisa by Alexander Lernet-Holenia is a jewel of a novella, seamlessly blending theories about the power of art with slap-stick comedy. The premise is simple enough – reminiscent of the Pygmalion myth, a young French nobleman called Bougainville finds himself in Florence, in the home of the great Leonardo di Vinci. Wrapped up in the task of trying to catch a fly in Leonardo’s workshop (in order to settle a sudden argument about how many legs the insect has), Bougainville accidentally reveals the artist’s most famous painting, whose bewitching smile had been hidden behind a curtain. He immediately experiences an overwhelming feeling of love for Di Vinci’s subject, and resolves to find her. Leonardo explains that she is a fiction, a combination of many women both real and imagined –although in an effort to get the young man out of his house, he implies that she may have been loosely based on the young wife of a Florentian nobleman. The woman, he explains, died some years ago, but Bougainville cannot believe this to be true. He convinces himself that she must be alive and in peril, hidden from the world by a jealous husband. His search gets more and more frantic and, as he blunders through the city, he manages to make himself both a figure of fun and deeply tragic.

The tone of the story is unusual, and perfectly judged. At times it is, as I say, extremely funny. There is one scene in particular in which Mona Lisa’s mostly-naked husband, interrupted by the questing Bougainville and his cronies in the middle of the night, slides down his banisters in a bid to escape their questions. In another, Bougainville’s furious commander berates him whilst at the same time retying his shot-brocade trouser laces tighter round his thighs – since, we are told, For over a century trouser laces were wound round the thighs, and for over a century they did not stay put, but slid down the legs. It’s pure Monty Python. In among these farcical scenes, however, are moments of real feeling – because as ridiculous as Bougainville’s love is for the woman in the painting, there is no doubt that it is sincere. As he says towards the end of the story, Nothing is capable of separating two people who love each other – these binary stars eternally revolving round each other – not even God. He is willing to sacrifice everything for the image of a woman he has never met, and in his sincerity manages to humble even Di Vinci.

Ultimately the blend of absurdity and tenderness poses genuine questions about our relationship with art; whether it is possible to feel real love if it is inspired by someone fictional or unknown; whether dreams can, in fact, be more authentic than life itself; and indeed, if we ever really know the people we love, or if their true selves are as removed from us as the Mona Lisa is from her audience. Bougainville may be a fool – but aren’t we all when we experience love for the first time, no matter how inappropriate the object of our affections?

The truth is, even had I wanted to paint her, it would have immediately turned into the likeness of someone else. After all, one always paints women who never exist, and the same goes for women one really loves.

Mona Lisa

As  a post-script, I had never heard of Lernet-Holenia before, but he sounds like an absolutely fascinating figure with a complicated story of his own. Veteran of the First World War, author of what has apparently been called “the only Austrian resistance novel”, part of an army film unit for the Germans during the Second World War…I intend to obtain a copy of I was Jack Mortimer as soon this long, lean month is finally over.

“A Possible Life” by Sebastian Faulks

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.

In A Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks tells five short, seemingly separate stories, plucked from different times, different countries, but with shared DNA. Each works as an independent tale, ranging from the horrors of the Second World War; a Victorian workhouse; a futuristic Italy; Napoleonic France; and 1960s California, and, as such, there is something to be said for the claim of some reviewers that this may not form a “novel” at all. That breadth, though, is surely the point of the structure –because in this ambitious book, Faulks isn’t just telling a single character’s story. He is distilling shared human experience into one expanded narrative, and very deliberately offering these five lives up as an examination of what we all have in common, not just what makes us unique.

I studied Birdsong when I was in my final year at school, and fell in love with it completely. It is, as I’m sure everyone knows by now, a story of two parts – a doomed pre-war love affair, which ultimately gives way to the horrors of the battlefield. One of that novel’s qualities is the mastery with which Faulks binds those two worlds together – images of Parisian waterways merge into trenches, and phrases echo one another across the years, offering tragic, clinging reminders of the proximity of life and death. Faulk’s has a way of concertinaing time, finding the epic rhythms which run through his characters’ lives, binding them to their forebears and descendants. It is not so much a democratization of experience as an insistence that what we think of as being our unique moments in fact ripple through time. It’s both an intellectual and tangible phenomenon – objects have tears in them, to quote Virgil, and Faulks uncovers this with rare skill.

A Possible Life exhibits that to maximum effect.  None of the stories are linked overtly, but the ripples are undoubtedly there. A chipped statue of the Madonna owned by one character finds itself in the hands of another, centuries later. The trauma of living through a war and bearing physical or mental scars is experienced keenly by three of the characters. A fleeting glimpse of a cricket match makes its way from the first story into the third. These people are explicitly bound by their things, their religion, their common humanity – and very literally, but the atoms from which they are made. At the end of the opening story, the main character experiences some subtle rearrangement of particles within himself. In another, as a character contemplates the death of her mother, she considers that the atoms that had made her mother had existed since the start of time. The sections of the novel aren’t just linked by themes and things, but by the matter which literally constitutes each character.

In the third story, a gifted scientist uncovers the mundane secret of human consciousness. It is the question which pervades each of these stories – how we cope with the weight of memory when we witness atrocities; whether our lives have a narrative we ought to be able to understand; the cost of creating a work of art so intimate that it speaks to the collective consciousness – essentially, how to understand the human condition. These are vast, existential ideas, but they aren’t overbearing. Instead the questions are woven lightly throughout narratives which otherwise deal with war, love, loss, art and loneliness; they flicker into focus occasionally, letting you know how connected we all are, even in isolation, but each section is otherwise allowed to have an arch of its own.

The only criticism I could offer is that, for me, the first story was so powerful that it rather overshadowed the rest of the novel. That perhaps betrays my own tastes rather than being an objective reflection on the success of the novel’s structure, but the poignancy of the opening story was only really recaptured by the beautiful closing lines. Notwithstanding that slight reservation, this is ambitious, protean, and thoroughly engaging. Faulks is the consummate master when it comes to revealing those minute, repeated details which pepper our lives, and as he has demonstrated so many times before, he can inhabit any number of characters completely believably (including, much to my delight, James Bond and Bertie Wooster). This is a very special, brave book.

“My time has come to disperse,” says my father. “We are made of fragments and they must go back. They have finished with this man.”

A possible life.jpg

“Montaigne” by Stefan Zweig

I only really discovered Montaigne through Sarah Bakewell’s excellent How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, though references to him (which I apparently failed to pursue) peppered many of my lectures at university. Bakewell’s book is incredibly entertaining and accessible, and was a perfect introduction to a writer who, at first glance, can seem so alien.  The reality, of course, is that Montaigne’s writing completely belies the stern portrait which glares at you from the cover of his Essays – he is funny, wise, thoughtful; the first writer to analyse his own internal life with such easy integrity and charm. I cannot think of a better guide through life’s thorniest questions.

Montaigne by Stefan Zweig is an exquisite offering from a writer who read the Essays with a particularly vivid intent; it is an excellent companion to the Essays, as well as being a remarkable work in its own right.

The context in which it was written imbues Zweig’s words with a terrible poignancy. Having been driven from Europe by the horrifying spread of Nazism, Zweig found himself in Brazil where, when exploring the damp cellar of his new flat, he found a copy of the Essais. It was a fateful discovery. For Zweig, the friendship and culture of Europe was everything, and he had been profoundly affected by his exile. In Zweig’s eyes, Montaigne had lived through a similar kind of cultural collapse – after the promise of the Renassiance where centuries were opening up where creative power, step by step, wave on wave, was carrying dark and chaotic existence towards the threshold of the divine, France has been struck by periods of incredible violence; the riots against the salt tax had been ferociously repressed in Bordeaux, and as a child, Montaigne witnessed terrible crimes against humanity. In spite of this, though, Montaigne successfully guarded his own, integral freedom – first through retiring to his tower and immersing himself in reading, and then later, through travel. For Zweig, who drew such important parallels between this and the violence of his own time, this was powerfully instructive; and ultimately, tragically, fatal. For at one point in his Essays, Montaigne suggests that a free man should choose the nature of his own death – and for Zweig, this became a very literal instruction. Over-burdened by the loss of his European ideals, and with no hope that the brutality sweeping across Europe would end, he eventually took his own life.

It isn’t something that Zweig addresses directly in Montaigne, and though it inevitably colours the experience of reading the book, Zweig’s writing, like Montaigne’s, is in fact full of an inspirational vitality. The challenge, he says, is to remain human in inhuman times; to live your own life, not simply to live. Zweig is brilliant at drawing out Montaigne’s most inspirational qualities – particularly his egalitarianism and tolerance. For the first few years of his life, he says, Montaigne’s father sent him to live with a family of poor woodcutters: In doing this, the father not only wants to accustom the child to “austerity and frugality”, in order to strength him, he wants to “bond him to the people from the outset and for him to experience the situation of those who have need of our assistance”, expressing a notion of egalitarian nurturing that seems almost inconceivable given the period. Of course, Montaigne’s life was cushioned by privilege, but those early ideals of freedom and egalitarianism stayed with him – as Zweig writes, He who demands freedom of thought for himself recognizes the same right for all men, and no one respected this tenet more than Montaigne…He who thinks freely for himself, honours all freedom on earth. What powerful ideals to speak across a span of four hundred years to a man who has just had to flee the genocial racism spreading across his own continent.

Zweig writes beautifully, transmitting Montaigne’s philosophy faithfully and without losing his own voice. I was, in particular, fascinated by the way in which he contextualises Montaigne’s life; the wheel of fortune, that favourite image of mediaeval literature, spins freely in Zweig’s account. Born at a time when the advancements of the Renaissance were at risk of being lost to a resurgent violence, Montaigne extracted himself from public life in order to focus on his own self-examination. In the late 1580s, when the Essays had given him such acclaim, he was summoned to negotiate a peace between the warring Henri de Navarre and Henri III, ultimately leading to the conversion of Henri de Navarre to Catholicism, guaranteeing centuries of peace and the glory of France. That’s quite a claim. Shortly before this zenith in his political life, though, Montaigne had been made a refugee from his home by the plague: Without even a coat, dressed in whatever he happens to have on, he flees the house without knowing where he is going, for no-one will take in a family fleeing a plague-ridden city. Far from being a recluse in a tower, Montaigne experienced life is all its glory and horror. It is in part what makes him such a timeless, wise literary friend, and what Zweig clearly found so compelling.

For Zweig, robbed of the Europe he valued so dearly, finishing the Essays marked the end of his own life. As Will Stone writes in the introduction to this beautiful Pushkin edition, he respectfully withdrew from the world, his artistic legacy to endure or fade at the discretion of posterity. The loss reminded me of a book I read last year, Antal Szerb’s The Third Tower, which offers a very different perspective on the same European crisis, and owes a similar debt to Montaigne’s incorruptible sense of self. For me, the last words of The Third Tower are the perfect articulation of Montaigne’s legacy – this, rather than Zweig’s final act, must be the true essence of the Essays.

Somehow, all it needs now is courage. Just don’t surrender your solitude for anything or anyone. How does Milton’s Satan put it? “What matters where, if I still be the same?” Whatever becomes of Europe, trust in your inner stars. Somewhere, always, a Third Tower will be waiting for you.

It’s enough.

Montaigne Zweig

“From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone” by Paul B. Thompson

The books I’ve read over the past year – particularly in relation to climate change – have undoubtedly made me question the choices I make about food. I can’t claim to have become a vegetarian, but I am eating a lot less meat, and choosing meat-free options where I can. The more I read about the ways in which we farm and consume meat in the west, the more convinced I am that change is unavoidable. We simply don’t need to eat meat every day – particularly low-quality, intensively farmed stuff which has been pumped full of antibiotics – and the longer we ignore the ethical conundrums which accompany our dietary choices, the harder it will be for us to cope with the consequences. 2015 has been the year in which the world’s leaders made their pledges at COP21; in which fires raged through Indonesia, in part as a result of the management of palm oil plantations; in which scientists discovered a gene which has developed resistance to colistin, a crisis created by the ways in which we farm meat; and in which floods have raged (and are still raging) through the UK, arguably exacerbated by the fact that our landscape has been stripped of trees for the purposes of farming. We are obviously affecting nature through our actions, in many cases with tragic results – and a great deal of this is linked to what we eat.

I have to say that I don’t relish the idea of eating less meat. I’ve always been a very willing carnivore; the emotional aspects of eating animals have never really perturbed me, and I love the culture of it – not to mention the taste. Black pudding in a fry up; the pork pies at a picnic; scratchings in the pub….there is a social bond created by sharing these foods, and it isn’t something I want to eschew. For me, the decision is wholly linked to the environmental and scientific impact of the quantity of meat we consume. We can’t maintain this rate of deforestation; methane production; and antibiotic abuse, and still hope to live within functioning ecosystems.

I was hoping that From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone would be an interesting exploration of the kinds of issues I’ve already been starting to think about: unfortunately, though, I couldn’t take to it, and upon reflection think that I’m not its target audience. It did raise some new ideas for me: whether GM foods can be ethically justified because of their ability to feed the poorest communities; whether obesity results from personal choice or genetic predisposition caused by the diets of our grandparents; and the key role that literature has played in exposing the least ethical practices within the food industry (such as, for example, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.) For me, it was too full of academic jargon, and simply too inaccessible for someone without a background in ethics – the “everyone” part of the title is perhaps a bit misleading. I also prefer something with a clear, emphatic argument – as in This Changes Everything and Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations, both of which are impassionate and wholly engaging. This is more of a neutral exploration of various ethical issues, which, unfortunately, when combined with the language, wasn’t enough to keep my attention. For someone with the right background, I’m sure this would be an excellent book. For a layman, though, it’s not very easy going.

From Field to Form