Category Archives: Fiction

‘Quartet in Autumn’ by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977 Barbara Pym’s novel, Quartet in Autumn focuses on the lives of four work colleagues, Norman, Edwin, Letty and Marcia, who are all single and approaching retirement. They work in the same office; we never find out what it is they do but it seems as if their jobs are pretty superfluous as none of them will be replaced when they retire. They seem to spend most of their time making cups of tea and eating jelly babies. All four characters live alone, have no immediate family and very few friends. Norman lives in a bedsit, likes fried food and complaining; Edwin is a widower who is interested in attending church functions and likes making holiday plans, though he rarely goes on holiday; Letty also lives in a bedsit and plans to move to the country on retirement to be close to her friend, Marjorie, whom she has known since childhood; Marcia lives in her deceased parents’ house. Since her parents and her cat died she has largely withdrawn from the world around her. She collects milk bottles and tinned food and likes cataloguing things. She’s not a big eater.

Although there’s a lot of humour in this novel I was glad that Pym is not too hard on these characters. Each character is aware, to different degrees, that they are out of sync with the world around them and that their impending retirement is only going to exacerbate this. At first it’s difficult distinguishing between the two male characters and equally between the two female characters but their differences soon emerge. For example it soon becomes clear that Marcia is a bit odder and more reclusive than Letty. Marcia has recently had a mastectomy and has formed a kind of crush on the surgeon who performed on her; she looks forward to her hospital appointments and occasionally takes the bus to the surgeon’s house in the hope of seeing him. Marcia had vaguely thought of Norman in a romantic role but now Mr Strong, the surgeon, has replaced Norman in her thoughts. She buys mostly tinned food but barely works up the enthusiasm to use their contents, usually making do with a biscuit and a cup of tea. As the novel continues she gets thinner and thinner, her appearance becomes stranger and her garden is wilder. She has aroused the interest of the social services, in particular Janice Brabner who sees it as her duty to help Marcia whether she wants it or not.

Letty lives in a bedsit; she was the daughter of middle-class parents and had moved to London in the late twenties where she met her friend Marjorie. Letty often meditates on the strangeness of life and wonders how it could have been different.

Like most girls of her generation and upbringing she had expected to marry, and when the war came there were great opportunities for girls to get a man or form an attachment, even with a married man, but Marjorie had been the one to marry, leaving Letty in her usual position of trailing behind her friend. By the end of the war Letty was over thirty and Marjorie had given up hope for her. Letty had never had much hope anyway.

Although they chat throughout the day the four colleagues rarely enquire about each others’ lives outside the office. Even their lunchtimes are spent in different ways. Norman, for example, likes to go to the British Museum or, when the weather is nice, a visit to the park. The problem is that nearly everything about modern life is a source of irritation to Norman such as long hair, semi-nudity in public, litter, abandoned cars or just cars in general, etc. It’s slightly worrying that I can identify with Norman. Edwin, however, is more satisfied, though a bit duller, filling his days attending church services and functions and reading the Church Times.

Letty’s plans for retirement become derailed when it turns out that her friend Marjorie is going to remarry. About the same time her landlady sells her house to an exuberant Nigerian Christian family who aren’t really to Letty’s liking. With her prospects looking grim her thoughts often turn to her approaching retirement, equating it with death.

Letty allowed her to ramble on while she looked around the wood, remembering its autumn carpet of beech leaves and wondering if it could be the kind of place to lie down in and prepare for death when life became too much to be endured.

But there is a positive side to the novel and that is that, despite their awkwardness, the characters do try to reach out to each other. For example, Norman helps to find some lodging for Letty, after their retirement they organise a lunch and all three characters try to reach out to Marcia even if Marcia is largely beyond help. Letty adjusts to her new lodgings and landlady and starts trying some new things, such as helping out with the church as well as watching television and sharing meals with her landlady. She comes to realise that she has slightly more control over her life than she had thought before.

So, the humour has a dark edge, very often commenting on death. As Marcia clears away some plastic bags she ponders:

So many things seemed to come in plastic bags now that it was difficult to keep track of them. The main thing was not to throw it away carelessly, better still to put it away in a safe place, because there was a note printed on it which read ‘To avoid danger of suffocation keep this wrapper away from babies and children’. They could have said from middle-aged and elderly persons too, who might well have an irresistible urge to suffocate themselves.

Or this quote as Letty sits down to chat with her new landlady following a funeral:

‘I think just a cup of tea…’ There was something to be said for tea and a comfortable chat about crematoria.

If this sort of thing upsets you then you may wish to give this book a miss, but you’d be missing out on a funny, compassionate story of four awkward but endearing characters. The end is very uplifting.

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‘Paris’ by Émile Zola

Image source: scan of personal copy

Paris is the last volume in the Three Cities trilogy and was first published in 1898. After the struggle I had with the previous volume, Rome, (see here and here) I did wonder if I would ever finish the trilogy; but I have. Even the first volume in the series, Lourdes, was a bit of a struggle. The main character throughout the series is the Abbé Pierre Froment, a priest who no longer retains his faith, and although Zola makes us sympathise with Froment’s predicament we know right from the start that he will end up leaving the church; it just takes so bloody long for it to happen. The whole series is seriously flawed, in my opinion, Lourdes would have worked better as a piece of journalism, Rome should have been abandoned completely, although a short story could possibly have been salvaged from it, and Paris, which was the best of the three, would still have worked better without Pierre’s struggle with his faith.

Paris opens with Pierre agreeing to take some alms from Abbé Rose to a former house painter, called Laveuve, who is on the verge of starving to death. Abbé Rose is being watched by his superiors as his persistent alms-giving is starting to annoy the church hierarchy. Pierre agrees to take the few francs to the man and visits Laveuve in his working-class slum. Pierre witnesses many scenes of poverty which Zola describes ruthlessly. Pierre enquires with a family as to the whereabouts of Laveuve, whom they know as ‘The Philosopher’. Pierre eventually locates him in a nearby hovel.

Here, on a human face, appeared all the ruin following upon hopeless labour. Laveuve’s unkempt beard straggled over his features, suggesting an old horse that is no longer cropped; his toothless jaws were quite askew, his eyes were vitreous, and his nose seemed to plunge into his mouth. But above all else one noticed his resemblance to some beast of burden, deformed by hard toil, lamed, worn to death, and now only good for the knackers.

Pierre not only delivers the alms from Rose but he also spends the rest of the day trying to get Laveuve admitted into the Asylum of the Invalids of Labour by using his connections with the wealthy people on the board of the organisation. Zola here presents the high-society of Paris, particularly the Duvillard’s family and friends; the Baron Duvillard is a banker involved in an African Railway scheme and his wife, Eve, does at least want to help Pierre. But he’s passed around from person to person, none of whom are willing to help him directly. In the end all his efforts are in vain as Leveuve dies before any decision can be made. He is disgusted with himself that he had allowed his hopes to rise once again, to hope that he could actually help people with charity, and as a result his doubts return.

He had ceased to believe in the efficacy of alms; it was not sufficient that one should be charitable, henceforth one must be just. Given justice, indeed, horrid misery would disappear, and no such thing as charity would be needed.

Pierre is then witness to an act of terrorism as he notices a man, Salvat, whom he had seen when visiting Laveuve, meet Pierre’s brother, Guillaume. Salvat walks away to the Duvillard’s mansion, followed by Guillaume, who is followed by Pierre. Pierre watches Salvat enter a doorway and is soon seen running from the building; Guillaume enters the building and there follows an explosion. Pierre helps his injured brother get away and lets him stay at his house to recuperate. The only casualty of the bomb is a young servant girl.

Pierre and Guillaume, who had been estranged, now become better acquainted and Pierre gets to know both Guillaume’s family and his revolutionary friends. Guillaume is a chemist who had been working on a new explosive and Salvat had managed to pilfer some of this when he was working briefly for Guillaume. The rest of the novel now concentrates on Pierre’s complete disassociation with the church and his appreciation of Guillaume’s scientific and atheistic outlook on life. Pierre is completely astonished and then smitten by Guillaume’s fiancée, Marie, who seems to embody the best of this new, more open, outlook to life. Now that Pierre has lost his faith in God he seems to find a new faith in some sort of scientific positivism, whereby all the problems of the world are going to be solved by socialism, science and work. This was no doubt close to Zola’s personal views but it certainly seems to be highly unrealistic to a modern reader. I wonder how the contemporary reader would have found these arguments? It is strange that all the political talk about socialism and anarchism concentrates on Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon et al. rather than Marx, Engels, Bakunin et al.; it’s almost as if a hundred years of political thought meant nothing to Zola.

There is a lot more in this novel as well; there’s the manhunt of Salvat as well as his public execution; the threat of terrorism; there’s Zola’s look at bourgeois society and its decadence at the end of the nineteenth century by portraying political, financial and moral corruption; there’s the joys of cycling (for men AND women); the joys of marriage and fatherhood. Unusually for Zola this novel has a very positive, almost utopian, ending, predicting the downfall of Catholicism and the rise of Science and Justice.

Therein lies the new hope—Justice, after eighteen hundred years of impotent Charity. Ah! in a thousand years from now, when Catholicism will be naught but a very ancient superstition of the past, how amazed men will be to think that their ancestors were able to endure that religion of torture and nihility!

I wonder what Zola would have made of the world today?

The novel ends with the whole family looking out over a Paris bathed in golden light from the setting sun. Marie holds up her son, Jean, to look at the sight, promising him that he’s going to reap the benefits that Science and Justice are going to bring. Jean would be aged sixteen in 1914.

This was cross-posted on the Reading Zola blog.

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Ten Random Books

Today Simon at Stuck in a Book published a post called 10 random books to tell us about yourself inviting us to do just that—select ten books at random from our bookshelves as a way of getting to know fellow bloggers from their bookshelves.

So, I followed Simon’s approach and used my GoodReads shelves and an online random number generator to see what popped up. The books include everything, fiction, non-fiction, books that have been read, unread books, books I’ll probably never get to read, comics, plays, poetry etc. etc. Here’s the results:

1. ‘Travels with My Aunt’ by Graham Greene
I had a bit of a Graham Greene session a few years ago, having not read anything by him up to then, but never got round to reading this one. I’ve read several reviews by other bloggers and it really appeals—it will probably be my next Greene book.

2. The Literary Detective: 100 Puzzles in Classic Fiction’ by John Sutherland
I can see why I added this to my GoodReads TBR shelf but to be honest I doubt if I’ll ever get round to reading it. I’m sure it would be a fun read though.

3. ‘Varney the Vampire Or the Feast of Blood’ by Thomas Peckett Prest & James Malcolm Rymer
I added this to my TBR as it was a group read for the Gothic Literature GoodReads group. I didn’t get round to reading it but it looks like it would be a fun book. It was a serialised Victorian gothic horror ‘penny dreadful’ first published between 1845-7. It’s not going to be top-notch literature but looks interesting enough and must be one of the first vampire stories.

4. ‘The Quarry’ by Iain Banks
This was published just days after Iain Banks’ death on 9th June 2013. I read it a few months later, along with a re-read of my favourite Banks novel The Wasp Factory, as a commemoration of Iain Banks life and works. I enjoyed it and found it somewhat similar to The Wasp Factory.

5. ‘The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’
by Henry Fielding

This is one of those classics that I keep forgetting about. I’m sure I’d like it though I will probably want an edition with some notes. I saw the 1960s film years ago.

6. ‘Betty Blue’ by Philippe Djian
Ok, so I saw and loved the film when it came out in the late eighties but have never read the book, or anything else by Djian. I’ve read a couple of reviews recently (here and here) of Elle, which has also been made into a film starring Isabelle Hupert. I should see about reading something by Djian.

7. ‘Rowlf’ by Richard Corben
Richard Corben was a comic book artist/illustrator who produced work in the underground comics of the late 1960s and moved into the mainstream, contributing to magazines such as Heavy Metal. His work could very often be categorised as horror, sci-fi or fantasy but he had his very own distinctive style. I have a copy of this buried away somewhere along with many others; one day they will be allowed out in the sunlight again.

8. ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ by H. Rider Haggard
Basically a late Victorian adventure story. I read this in 2010 and remember being surprised at just how good it was though I was in just the right frame of mind when I read it. It’s probably incredibly poitically incorrect and I can imagine some people getting in a rage over it. Personally, I’m not shocked when Victorians don’t have the views of twenty-first century Western intellectuals.

9. ‘Up Above the World’ by Paul Bowles
I’ve read a few books by Paul Bowles but nothing recently. I first discovered his work when I first got into ‘The Beats’; I soon realised that I generally preferred those authors that inspired the Beats rather than the Beats themselves. Every now and then I get the urge to re-read Let It Come Down and then remember that I got rid of my copy. Up Above the World looks as if it will be similar to his other works, involving travellers adrift in an alien and hostile environment. Sort of like a nastier Graham Greene and with more drugs.

10. ‘Identity’ by Milan Kundera
I’m pretty sure I’ve read this one but I can’t remember a damn thing about it. I think I was a bit disappointed with it at the time but I’d be interested to see what I’d make of it now. I had half-planned to read/re-read Kundera’s later works (i.e. post-Immortality) but haven’t got round to it yet. However I have a copy of this one and as I’m trying to read as many books from my physical TBR pile this year this one could well get read soon.

All the book cover images were taken from GoodReads.

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‘Too Loud a Solitude’ by Bohumil Hrabal

Image source: scan of personal copy

Too Loud a Solitude was first published in 1976; this translation, by Michael Henry Heim, was first published in 1990. Too Loud a Solitude is a first person narrative by Haňta, a man who, for the last thirty-five years has been compacting books into a pulp, whilst drinking beer constantly to help him get through this ordeal. He doesn’t even like drinking, it’s just that it makes him think better, or so he claims. Haňta enjoys his job, mostly because it gives him access to so many books to read; he’s read so much that he can no longer remember what are his own thoughts and what are those that he has read. The opening page is just brilliant and I will quote a rather large part of it:

I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me. My education has been so unwitting I can’t quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books, but that’s how I’ve stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past thirty-five years. Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.

Haňta is dedicated to his job, he lovingly makes each bale into a piece of artwork by adding special books or images from books of the Old Masters. His boss thinks he’s a beer-soaked idiot though.

Haňta has a huge book collection at home and looks forward to his retirement when he can lovingly compact only the books he truly treasures—he aims to have his own compactor when he retires. He’s got so many books at home that there is a genuine fear that he’ll be crushed to death if one day they were to fall on top of him.

Haňta’s cellar is overrun with mice which he happily sends into the compactor to get crushed with the books. Two of his friends, ex-university men who are forced to work in the sewers, tell Haňta of the ongoing battle that’s going on underground between the white rats and the brown rats—a war of epic proportions is raging which plays on Haňta’s mind. Haňta tells us of his earlier life as well. He tells an amusing story of his love for a girl called Manča; you will just have to read the book yourself to find out why she earned the nickname Shithead Manča.

Haňta has quite a few visitors in his cellar, some are real like the two gypsy girls and the professor, whilst some are not, like Jesus and Lao-tze. Haňta is used to having visions when he drinks; his father and grandfather also had visions when they drank.

After his uncle’s funeral Haňta spends time thinking about the life he’s lived, the books (and mice) he’s sent into the compactor, the books he’s read:

It never ceased to amaze me, until suddenly one day I felt beautiful and holy for having had the courage to hold on to my sanity after all I’d seen and been through, body and soul, in too loud a solitude, and slowly I came to the realization that my work was hurtling me headlong into an infinite field of omnipotence.

Rather than hurtling towards an infinite field of omnipotence Haňta seems to be hurtling towards some sort of nervous breakdown as he starts ruminating about his life, both past and present, he remembers a gypsy girl he loved in the past who disappeared one day; he discovered that she had been sent to a concentration camp; as a form of revenge Haňta loves compacting Nazi literature.

Although there’s not much of a plot to this novella it does end in quite a dramatic way but I will say no more on that. This is a strange but rather fun book to read; Hrabal’s style reminded me of early Beckett (such as Murphy) or the wackiness of Kurt Vonnegut. The story is about the love of reading and the way that books are treated by the majority of people, as waste matter that needs to be disposed of. At first I thought the books were being compacted due to censorship but I don’t think that’s the case, they’re just books that are no longer needed as only a few oddballs are left that enjoy reading them. Whenever I read a book such as this I’m aware that I’m probably missing out on all sorts of symbolism. The Wikipedia page says that the ‘novel is vibrant with symbolism’ but gives no examples. Hrabal also repeats things throughout the novel, especially the fact that Haňta has worked as a paper compactor for thirty-five years, which gets mentioned nearly every chapter. This could annoy some readers but I found it amusing; again it reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s style. I’m not sure what effect it has other than to make the reader realise that this fact is of extreme importance to the narrator. I have a couple more books by Hrabal and will look forward to reading them soon.

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‘Pierre and Jean’ by Guy de Maupassant

Pierre and Jean was Maupassant’s fourth novel and was originally published in 1888. It’s a short novel, running to only about 130 pages in my edition, but Maupassant, well used to short-stories, doesn’t hang about and gets the story moving from page 1.

It begins on a boat; Gérôme Roland is fishing and he is accompanied by his wife, Louise, their two sons, Pierre and Jean, and the young attractive widow Mme Rosémilly. M. Roland is a retired jeweller from Paris who decided to move to Le Havre once he had made enough money. Pierre the older son had tried various professions but has recently qualified as a doctor, while the younger son, Jean, who is more diligent has recently passed his diploma in law. Both brothers are looking to set themselves up in business in Le Havre. There is an element of competition between the brothers and both have an eye for Mme Rosémilly.

When they return from their boating expedition the servant informs M. Roland that his lawyer, M. Lecanu, wishes to speak to him urgently. It turns out that an old friend of the family from their Parisian days, M. Maréchal, has recently died and left his inheritance to Jean, whom he thinks is worthy of this legacy. Everyone is shocked but overjoyed, and of course a little sad of the death of their friend whom they had nearly forgotten about. But why does he only leave the money to Jean, and not also Pierre? M. Roland argues that it was because Maréchal was present at the birth of Roland’s second son.

Both Jean and Pierre are a little dazed by the events and both go out separately for a walk. Pierre is out of sorts and wonders if he is jealous of Jean. He admits he is a little jealous but won’t let that stop loving his brother. When Pierre goes to visit a friend of his and recounts the day’s news the friend says, without elaborating further, “That won’t look good”, but Pierre has no idea why he says that. Later, when talking to a barmaid about the inheritance she innocently mentions that it’s no wonder that Jean looks nothing like Pierre. It’s a little later that he realises what these comments mean; that Maréchal must have left the money to Jean because Jean was Maréchal’s son, which also means that Pierre’s beloved mother must have had an affair behind his father’s back. Now the seed has been sown in Pierre’s mind he keeps thinking and thinking, digging deeper and deeper. He tries to remember Maréchal from his youth and remembers a photograph of him that used to be in the house. Pierre wonders what he should do, after all at this stage they are only suspicions, but even if they were untrue it could easily lead to gossip and be a threat to his mother’s honour. But Pierre is unable to tell Jean his suspicions as the others are all celebrating their good fortune. Instead, Pierre tries to find out more about Maréchal from his parents.

    He kept on saying to himself: ‘Why has this Maréchal left all his money to Jean?’
     It was no longer jealousy that made him seek an answer, not the rather unworthy but natural envy he knew was hidden inside him and that he had been fighting against for three days, but terror of an appalling thing, terror of believing that his brother Jean was the son of this man!

But poor Pierre doesn’t know what to think; if it’s true then it means that his beloved mother had an affair. But he soon admits that it could be true.

    Certainly she might have loved just like any other woman. For why should she be different from any other even though she was his mother?

So, I wondered at this stage of the novel how a typical nineteenth century writer may have ended it: the mother may die of guilt and shame; the brothers may have fought over Pierre’s suspicions with one or the other dying or living their life in poverty; Pierre may have convinced Jean to give up the inheritance to protect their mother’s reputation, etc. etc. None of these are correct. I shall reveal the ending in what follows so you may wish to stop reading at this point if you don’t want to know the ending. Instead, after seeing the picture of Maréchal, Pierre is convinced that Jean is Maréchal’s son and finally confronts Jean with this information. Pierre has become increasingly irritable over the last few weeks and by now Pierre suspects that his mother knows of his suspicions. Jean thinks Pierre is just jealous of him, especially as he’s just announced his marriage to Mme Rosémilly. But Pierre unburdens himself and when he’s finished he leaves. The story up to now has been from Pierre’s viewpoint but it now cleverly switches to Jean’s viewpoint. Jean quietly tries to process the information and then goes to his mother, who was in the next room when Pierre blurted everything out, and asks her if were true. When she acknowledges that it is true she is prepared to depart from his life forever, however, Jean is having none of it and offers her love and protection.

Alone, Jean thinks about the events of the night and what needs to be done:

If he had learned the secret of his birth in any other way he would certainly have been outraged and felt a deep resentment, but after his quarrel with his brother, after this violent and brutal accusation which had shaken his nerves, the heartbreaking emotion of his mother’s confession took away all his energy to revolt. The shock to his feelings had been violent enough to sweep away all the prejudices and pious susceptibilties of natural morality on an irresistible wave of emotion.

He contemplates giving up the inheritance but reasons that he can no longer claim any inheritance from M. Roland as that is Pierre’s by right so then the inheritance from Maréchal is then his by right. The next day Jean arranges, with Pierre’s acceptance, to organise a doctor’s position on a cruise ship for Pierre. Pierre is quite happy to go as he’s now guilty about blurting out his suspicions to Jean and it will give him an income for a while as well as some time to think. M. Roland meanwhile is totally oblivious to everything that’s going on around him.

Pierre is not sure what his mother told Jean but seems happy enough to allow everything to carry on as normal. It’s funny how Maupassant subverts the nineteenth century novel with Pierre, the legitimate son, having to make way for Jean, the illegitimate son and it’s odd how no-one in the novel thought that splitting the inheritance between Pierre and Jean was a viable solution.

This was cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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‘The Feast of Lupercal’ by Brian Moore

On the front cover of my copy of this book, Moore’s second novel under his own name, there is a quotation from The Times stating that ‘Brian Moore is astonishing’; after reading two books by him (the other one was his first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) I would have to agree. If I describe Judith Hearne as being about the futile attempts by the titular heroine to improve her own life in a repressed society then the same could be said for The Feast of Lupercal except with a male protagonist; but it’s not simply a re-run of Judith Hearne, it’s more of a companion piece to it.

Diarmuid Devine is a thirty-seven year old schoolmaster at a Catholic boys’ school, Ardath College, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is a bachelor who lives in some dingy digs and is very set in his ways. He’s largely ignored at the school by fellow teachers and students alike and is treated as being of no real importance. He enjoys helping out with an amateur dramatic group, with some behind the scenes work, but even there he is either ignored or taken for granted; for example his name is missed off the programme for five years running; it’s not certain if this was deliberate or not. He is also a virgin though no-one else knows this. Despite all this Devine (or Dev) gets a shock when he overhears two colleagues talking about him in the lavatory where they describe him as an ‘old woman’ who wouldn’t ‘understand what a fellow feels about a girl’. Devine is shocked to realise that people think of him in this way and begins to ponder his situation.

As for girls, well, he had never been a ladies’ man. He was not ugly, no, nor too shy, no, but he never had much luck with girls. It was the education in Ireland, dammit, he had said it many a time. He had been a boarder at this very school, shut off from girls until he was almost a grown man.

And he is still there, only now as a teacher. So, Dev decides to change things and try to talk to women and he gets the chance at a party hosted by a colleague and friend, Tim Heron, where he starts a conservation with an attractive young woman who turns out to be Heron’s niece. She is called Una Clarke, she’s from Dublin, she’s a Protestant, and is staying with her uncle before starting her nursing training at a local hospital. At the party Devine has to endure the teasing from his colleagues for being seen talking to a young attractive woman, and he hears the gossip that she left Dublin because she was involved with a married man and was sent to her uncle’s in Belfast by her mother. He’s not sure whether to believe the gossip but when he wonders what a twenty year old Protestant could possibly see in a thirty-seven year old Catholic schoolteacher he decides to leave the party early.

Devine, as organiser of the amateur dramatic group, is asked by Father McSwiney to put on a play to help raise funds for a charity. After a meeting with Una and another member of the drama group it is agreed that Una will audition for a part in the play. As she hasn’t had much acting experience the others in the group are not too keen on her taking the part but Devine offers to help her out with some tuition. Devine and Una get to see quite a bit of each other and Una reveals that the gossip about her is true; that she was in love with a married man back in Dublin and was shipped off to her uncle’s in Belfast to keep her out of trouble. When she reveals that she may still be in love with the man Devine is distraught but outwardly reassures her. Devine now becomes self-conscious of his unfashionable appearance. He shaves off his moustache and decides to get some new clothes. There are a couple of amusing scenes where Devine goes to a tailor’s to buy some clothes but hasn’t a clue about fashion and another where he has some intensive dancing lessons as he’s promised Una that he’ll take her dancing.

Una’s uncle, Tim Heron, is not pleased that Devine and Una are seeing each other and tries to put a stop to it and threatens to get her pulled from the play. Tim tries to bully him and Devine, unused to confrontation, only meekly defends himself. Moore’s narrative highlights the total lack of any private life for the students and teachers: The teachers know about Una’s past; Heron finds out about Una and Devine; the boys overhear the conversation beween Heron and Devine; the teachers overhear and punish the boys when they are found gossipping about the same things the teachers are gossipping about. And the Dean of the school is informed about everything.

Una doesn’t get the part in the play as an actress who has played the part before becomes available—it’s not certain whether this was down to Heron’s interference or not. When Devine lets Una know about not getting the part she’s preoccupied about something else and is unconcerned about ‘the silly play’ as she has had some bad news. Devine feels that she is slipping away from him as he believes that she is pregnant. He is distraught but desperate; this is his only chance of love. Walking home Devine, in his desperation, reasons to himself that everything is not all lost:

Supposing the worst were true? Well then, the Dublin fellow could not marry twice, could he? A husband would have to be found, a husband who would take the child and breed legitimate brothers and sisters to keep it company. She would not refuse him. She could not.

Later in a pub, on his own and in a maudlin state, he ruminates further on his own lack of experience with women.

He signalled for another double. Another double was served. But drink was no substitute, was it? He was like a flower that had never opened. He felt foolish when he thought of that, but it was true. Like a flower that had never opened. He had been afraid to open, afraid. He was ashamed to think how few girls he had gone out with more than once. He would not have confessed it to anyone, not even a priest, but he could count only four. And none of those girls would even remember him today. Not one of them. No girl had ever found him interesting. And he had his pride, dammit, he was not going to plead and beg with them. He could get along rightly, so he thought, without any silly girls. Or so I thought then, he thought now. But it’s no more true today than it ever was. I was always lonely for a girl to find me interesting, to know one girl half as well as I knew my only sister.

Initially I was going to post on the whole of the plot as the rest of this novel is expertly handled by Moore but I think I will stop here. Devine is a character whom everybody feels they can push around. Moore makes us empathise with him and realise just how confined he is—both by society and his own personality. Devine was ridiculed for having no love life but when he does have a glimpse of love he’s opposed, ridiculed and humiliated by just about everyone in the novel. The ending is simply superb and there is a scene with Una and Devine that is tragic and, if you have a nasty streak, could be considered comic. Moore has an amazing way of subtly portraying weak personalities; Devine, totally out of his depth, fails at everything, he doesn’t have the strength to stand up to people and misjudges everything. He realises, when it’s too late, that he’s done the wrong thing and his attempts to correct it are equally disastrous.

It is explained in the book that the Feast of Lupercal was an ancient Roman feast of expiation. After the offerings the priests ran through the streets striking those they met with thongs. Barren women would let themselves be struck by the priests in the belief that their barrenness would then disappear. The symbolism in the novel is blatant whereas the characterisation is subtle, which is how I like it. I should also add that it’s not quite as humourless as I’ve portrayed it.

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‘Memoirs of Hadrian’ by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951 Club)

The fictional Memoirs of Hadrian was published in 1951 but was first conceived by Marguerite Yourcenar in 1924 when she was only twenty-one years old. In the years inbetween Yourcenar must have done an incredible amount of research in order to write a book which is so convincing at times that I had to remind myself that this is a fictional account. The memoirs are in the form of a very long letter to the young Marcus Aurelius, who has been chosen by Hadrian to succeed to the throne after Antoninus Pius; Antoninus has been chosen to succeed to the throne after Hadrian. In this way Hadrian is attempting to steer the Roman Empire through the rough period ahead with Emperors that he can trust and whom he believes will do a good job. He sees Antoninus Pius as someone who will continue Hadrian’s reforms and Marcus Aurelius as the closest thing to a Platonic philosopher-king.

After a slight preamable Yourcenar describes Hadrian’s early adult life in the army and then the senate. For instance, he recalls being the one to first inform Trajan that he had succeeded Nerva. It is under Trajan’s rule that Hadrian realises that the Roman Empire is over-extending itself. When he becomes Emperor he puts a halt to most expansionist policies with one result being the wall across Britannia that is now known under his name. Hadrian hadn’t been named as successor to Trajan although he was probably the most obvious choice. This made his path to power a little tricky and Yourcenar has Hadrian being a bit equivocal over the details on this matter. Four conspirators from the Senate are killed by his servant Attianus. Hadrian claims to have written to him to ‘act quickly’ but then seems to be shocked that they were all assassinated. Although with most of the memoirs we get to see how reasonable and intelligent he is (after all wouldn’t we all portray ourselves that way?) this episode shows us that he is capable of being just as ruthless as any other would-be Emperor. He also claims that he ‘deserved to wield power’ and that the ends justifies the means.

Hadrian played by his own rules and was prepared to shake things up. He refused honorific titles, he disliked the brutality of the Games but endured them to keep up appearances, he travelled throughout the whole Empire, he relinquished undefendable territories that were won by Trajan and passed many legal reforms. Hadrian, although married, also had a passionate relationship with the young boy Antinous and the pages following his death at twenty demonstrate how much he cared for the boy; his grief over his death is real and lasting.

Hadrian is one of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ starting with Nerva and ending with Marcus Aurelius, these were ‘benevolent dictators’ who stood out in contrast to the other tyrannical Emperors. With the memoirs we get a sense of Hadrian’s idealism; he is in awe of the Greeks and feels that the Romans compare unfavourably with them but his idealism does not blind him to the practical measures that are required to run an Empire. Below is a brilliant, albeit long, quote from the book showing his idealism.

My ideal was contained within the word beauty, so difficult to define despite all the evidence of our senses. I felt responsible for sustaining and increasing the beauty of the world. I wanted the cities to be splendid, spacious and airy, their streets sprayed with clean water, their inhabitants all human beings whose bodies were neither degraded by marks of misery and servitude nor bloated by vulgar riches; I desired that the schoolboys should recite correctly some useful lessons; that the women presiding in their households should move with maternal dignity, expressing both vigor and calm; that the gymnasiums should be used by youths not unversed in arts and in sports; that the orchards should bear the finest fruits and the fields the richest harvests. I desired that the might and majesty of the Roman Peace should extend to all, insensibly present like the music of the revolving skies; that the most humble traveller might wander from one country, or one continent, to another without vexatious formalities, and without danger, assured everywhere of a minimum of legal protection and culture; that our soldiers should continue their eternal pyrrhic dance on the frontiers; that everything should go smoothly, whether workshops or temples; that the sea should be furrowed by brave ships, and the roads resounding to frequent carriages; that, in a world well ordered, the philosophers should have their place, and the dancers also. This ideal, modest on the whole, would be often enough approached if men would devote to it one part of the energy which they expend on stupid or cruel activities; great good fortune has allowed me a partial realization of my aims during the last quarter of a century.

With the planned succession of his power passing to Antoninus Pius and then to Marcus Aurelius Hadrian hopes to secure the dominance of Rome’s power but he is not always so optimistic as is shown with this quote where he envisages the downfall of Rome:

But other hordes would come, and other false prophets. Our feeble efforts to ameliorate man’s lot would be but vaguely continued by our successors; the seeds of error and of ruin contained even in what is good would, on the contrary, increase to monstrous proportions in the course of centuries. A world wearied of us would seek other masters; what had seemed to us wise would be pointless for them, what we had found beautiful they would abominate. Like the initiate to Mithraism the human race has need, perhaps, of a periodical bloodbath and descent into the grave. I could see the return of barbaric codes, of implacable gods, of unquestioned despotism of savage chieftains, a world broken up into enemy states and eternally prey to insecurity. Other sentinels menaced by arrows would patrol the walls of future cities; the stupid, cruel, and obscene game would go on, and the human species in growing older would doubtless add new refinements of horror. Our epoch, the faults and limitations of which I knew better than anyone else would perhaps be considered one day, by contrast, as one of the golden ages of man.

Although I’m glad to have read this book and I’m impressed with what Yourcenar has achieved I didn’t enjoy reading it as much as I thought I would. I have read other fictional accounts, such as Graves’s Count Belisarius or Gore Vidal’s Julian, that were more enjoyable to read. Yourcenar has gone for authenticity rather than readability which isn’t a bad thing but it did make it a bit tedious at times. I’m sure that anyone who knows a lot more than me about the Roman world will get a lot more from it, but still, I’m glad that I read it.

I read this as part of The 1951 Club where contributors all read books from the same year. This was organised by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

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Filed under Fiction, Yourcenar, Marguerite