Tim Parks - Europa

Rating 5.4

There was a till receipt left as a bookmark between page 86 and 87 of my second hand copy of this novel. I cannot help but assuming that page 87 is as far as the former owner of Europa managed to get. And, if so, I don't blame him or her.

Actually I would prefer reviewing the till receipt than this book, at least for a moment. For, believe it or not, the till receipt can tell us something important about this novel.

First of all, it's a French till receipt implying that the former owner of my copy of Europa was either a Frenchmen or someone who spent some time in France. I would pick the French nationality of the owner, though, as the grocery he/she made is a big one and includes a list of items I have never heard about, something that only an authentic Frenchman or Frenchwoman might be familiar with, such as:

- Cidoupeche 2L
- VDP rouge
- Thon Miette X2
- Mir Poudre Coul
- St Hubert

(By the way, any idea on what they could be?)

Not to mention some classic gourmet products like:

- Pate brisee
- Creme fraiche
- Baguette 250g

Secondly, it has to be said that the prices reported in the till receipt are still in French Francs meaning that this huge grocery for a total amount of 671.00 FRF was done before the Euro coming on 1st January 2002. Unfortunately, no date is provide at the bottom or top of the receipt. But this hardly matters.

My deduction is that this 1998 Vintage edition of Tim Parks book was purchased at some point in the three years after its publication, read (or half-read) and then left untouched on a shelf for the following 10 years before its former owner (now relocated to the UK) gave it to the Helen & Douglas charity shop were I bought it on 14th January 2012.

This assumption of mine is based on the fact that the ink on the receipt is still very easy to be read at least 11 years after having been printed. By coincidence I saved some receipts of the little groceries I made in Berlin on 2002 and Oslo on 2005 and in both cases, the ink on the paper has almost faded away because it was sometimes exposed to light and air and breath and the skin of my fingers.
This leads me to think that this French receipt was kept inbetween page 86 and 87 of Europa for no less than 9-10 years without being exposed in the meantime.

Now, let's come back to the book.
Does the fact that the former owner of Europa
a) Left a bookmark at approximately one third of the book;
b) Never re-opened the book at that page;
c) Gave the book to a charity shop in the UK.
suggest you anything?

True, the book could have been brought from UK to France and then again to the UK, or perhaps never left the British isles welcoming a French receipt till as a bookmark between 2000 and 2001 (most likely).
But the very fact that the former owner of this novel decided to get rid of it without even giving it a second chance ten years after being done with it, casts a shadow on the quality of the book itself. Which, I must admit, looked poor to me.

Tim Parks wrote a very disturbing novel about a coach trip from Milan to Strasbourg in the mid 1990s putting himself in the shoes of a British university lecturer in Italy (which is pretty much what Mr Parks did during his long Italian life).
Whereas a few characters are interesting and the exhausting monologue of the protagonist has his pros and cons, where Europa utterly fails is in delivering a convincing plot and a realistic portrait of a bunch of Italian girls in their 20s traveling with their professors to the European Parliament.

There is this awful, awful scene with the girls dancing in their coats in the square below Strasbourg impressive cathedral by night and singing along "Sei un mito" a horrible Italian pop song of the 1990s which I found deeply embarrassing.
Let's face it. I was 12 years old when that song came out and had it as the soundtrack of many a school trip by coach, but nobody ever sung the song along. And we were kids.
I think that Tim Parks failed here. I'm not saying that a bunch of 20 something Italian girls in the mid 1990s attending university was living in an ivory tower, but please Tim don't make them look like half-wit morons in order to remark the intellectual superiority of your alter-ego justifying his soft spot for naughty sex.

I am sorry to say that, but Europa was a very disappointing reading.
Just let me find another till receipt and I will bring the book back to the charity shop where I bought it. I hope someone will enjoy a bit of archaeology as a well-welcomed distraction before reaching page 86.


P.G. Wodehouse - Carry on, Jeeves

Rating 7.5

How many times I read, heard and seen about Jeeves since I moved to the UK?
Quite a lot.
And yet I had never tried to have a formal introduction to the fellow, so far.

Now, the problem was that I didn't know where to start with Jeeves.
There is simply too much that P.G Wodehouse wrote about this guy and I don't like beginning anything halfway. Therefore, I had to find the very first moment in which Jeeves pops up in a story.
Well, I was lucky enough to find that moment in Carry on, Jeeves.

The first short story here on a stripe of ten is actually the account on how and when Jeeves started working (or better working it out) for Mr Bertie Wooster, the self-proclaimed aristocratic chump.

There is no doubt that Carry on, Jeeves is a funny reading and pure perfection in form. P.G. Wodehouse had some wit and felt comfortable enough following pretty much always the same pattern, just like in a fairytale or in poetry.

A) Bertie Wooster meets a chap he knows (an old school pal, an acquaintance of one of his aunts);
B) The pal has a problem and Bertie is eager to help him, hence he calls for Jeeves;
C) Jeeves finds out a brilliant scheme saving the chap and giving credit to Bertie Wooster;
D) A few complications / unfortunate coincidences arise meaning funny moments for the reader;
E) Jeeves puts out a new scheme restoring order and harmony never losing his aplomb.

Thus said, this literary scheme works in a jolly good way. One never gets bored reading about the social cosmopolitan adventures of Wooster & Jeeves and - most important of all - feels at ease, relaxed, pleasantly happy. The British aristocracy wins but is scorned very well in the process and even an idler spendthrift such as Bertie Wooster is able to catch our liking.
Not to mention Jeeves, whose status of, essentially, a butler is never an obstacle to the wonder, admiration and respect he commands among dukes, sirs and landed gentry of all sorts.

Then there is the old-fashioned niceness of Wodehouse/Wooster language full of its "old bird", "old chap", "old thing" and which most villainous swearing are "deuce" and "dickens". The only books that found me as much aware as this one of the peculiar English language of their main narrator have been milestone novels such as A Clockwork Orange and Lolita.

But the jet-set adventures of Jeeves have an enchanting demureness of their own making this little book an irresistible reading, poking fun - mind you - at the likes of Freud and Schopenhauer. Because we all like being simpletons at some point waiting for a clever scheme to save us from any complication.

Carry on, Jeeves.
Very good indeed, sir.


George Orwell - Burmese Days

Rating 7.3

At an early stage of his life George Orwell might have had serious problems in relating with women. It was probably a matter of not sharing the same interests. One can easily picture the twenty something Eric Arthur Blair talking about literature, poetry, politics with the wrong sort of women, assuming they were interested in what he said, but getting a half-bored reluctant feedback. I assume it was not easy finding the cultured literary type of woman the young writer aimed to in the deep Burmese jungle or in the gutter of London and Paris.

This intellectual loneliness of young Orwell may be perceived in the very first novels by him. Gordon Comstock, the main character of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, is a lone wolf, despising the rest of the world and toying himself with being a writer and, in doing so, sort of ignoring the rather plain but pragmatic and affectionate girl who seems to like him.

Mr Flory, the protagonist of Burmese Days is another romantic chap. Like Comstock, he is a lonely dreamer whose ideals are misunderstood by most of those around him, but unlike Comstock, Flory would very much like having a sort of permanent relationship, a marriage with a woman who would redeem him from the dissolute life he led in colonial Burma.

All that said, this book has very little in common with all that Orwell wrote. This is a well crafted novel which, unfortunately, aged way too quickly and with a setting so different from the rest of Orwell's production that cannot be compared with much else. Sure, there are some scenes of a local rebellion but they are portrayed in such a naive, almost funny way that they cannot really match the pages of Homage to Catalonia.

This was a novel sold to the masses as "a saga of jungle, hate and lust". No surprises that there is very little politics here. Neither an explicit criticism of the British colonialism as one may expect from "Bolshie" young Orwell. It's true how the author shows his sympathies for the more culturally open minded Flory and draws at least five parodies of the typical Englishman dwelling in an Eastern outpost: the racist ill-tempered Ellis, the sport obsessed, self-concerned Verrall, the snobbish, queasy Elizabeth and the status seeker, hypocrite Mr and Mrs Lackersteen, but that's not enough.

Even a decent fellow like Flory pokes fun at the "ugly concots" of traditional Burmese medicine, gladly goes whoring, kicks his native servant and treats like a beast his native mistress without feeling any guilty for his behavior but thinking he can pay her way off.
And for a trivial British like Mr Ellis there is an Indian Dr Veraswami who - despite of his good nature - has smarmy manners, sweaty hands and a blind fascination for the superiority of the Whites.
Not to mention the obese, manipulator magistrate U Po Kyin Po - a Burmese of course - who embodies all the worst vices from bribing to raping but takes back only honors as a metaphor of the ill-corrupted state of British rule over Burma.

How much of this cast of characters is a mere parody and how much Mr Flory reflects how Orwell himself felt in the six long years he spent as a police officer in Burma? A young man with an awful Hitler-like moustache who was desperately longing for a young woman who could match his solitude? We cannot know this for sure. But, once again, the suspect arises. As Orwell/Flory puts straight here:

"There is a humility aboute genuine love that is rather horrible in some ways".

Let's talk a bit more of the humility affecting a non reciprocated crush. It's hard to ignore the careful attention the author dedicated to make Elizabeth, the girl Flory falls in love with, absolutely repellent to the reader's eyes. What struck me the most is how "revolting", for using her own words, this young lady is. Elizabeth is unbearable from her very first apparition in the novel to the very end of it, a bitchy capricious puppet of a young lady who gets the best fun of her life shooting at a leopard, complaining about the "horribly dirty" Burmese people and being irritated by "highbrow" talking about books, local traditions, feelings.

Beware the girl! She's one of the most disagreeable characters Orwell ever created, although in such a obvious way that one never gives her much credit. In short, Elizabeth is the mirror of the British haughty colonialism in the Far East and the impersonification of that bourgeois Englishness Orwell hated the most.

And you know what? Burmese Days is well written and somehow engaging. There are cliffhanging moments, much irony, a convincing setting in a half-forgotten provincial Burmese outpost engulfed in jungle and plenty of disillusion. It's not your usual Orwell, but it's a pretty good novel, an entertainment delivered in a capable manner from an author who really knew the places and the feelings he wrote about.


Graham Greene - The Third Man

Rating 7.0

There seems to be a whole business about The Third Man which is still going on in Vienna long after the release of Carol Reed's movie based on a script by Graham Greene. A very peculiar sort of script: this novella.

If you walk around the majestic Viennese Ring or through the polished, Charlotte Russe-like Innere Stadt of today, you will come across a "Third Man Museum", could join a "Third Man Tour - in the footsteps of Harry Lime", get the chance of watching the actual movie at the Burg Kino and will certainly meet a busker guitarist, playing the Harry Lime Theme at some corner. Not to mention the merchandising of t-shirts, teacups, dishes, key-rings with the face of Orson Welles or his silhouette at the end of a dark tunnel printed on them popping up from many souvenirs shops.

I've been there myself quite recently and somehow managed to resist to The Third Man's call. The greatest temptation I renounced to was the purchase of dusty old copy of Der Dritte Man, the German translation of what Graham Greene wrote. I don't read German and I guess I will never do it. But, look, a dusty old, apparently neglected book to nurse and cradle in my hands is always a stroke of love.

Anyway, a few months later this last Viennese trip and back to the UK, I bought a copy of The Third Man / The Fallen Idol in one of those ubiquitous charity shop of Oxford and surroundings. May Calliope, Clio and Erato bless them! And here we are with this Third Man.
(My apologies, fans of The Fallen Idol, but there is no room in this review for it).

Graham Greene wrote a brilliant spy story with a perceivable coldness and discomfort feeling in it. Vienna looks stunning here in a way that is completely forgotten nowadays. It's a grim, hunger-stricken Vienna still under the postwar domain of four powers: Britain, France, the US and the Soviet Union. It's a Vienna where it's easier (and cheaper) spending half an hour with a tart than with a slice of Sachertorte, a dark town where everything felt apart, rubble fills the streets and the blackened tumbledown façades of the Habsburg-age palaces hang on the bystanders and the racketeers. To put it into Greene's words:

"The Danube was a grey flat muddy river a long way across the Second Bezirk, the Russian zone where the Prater lay smashed and desolate and full of weeds, only the Great Wheel revolving slowly over the foundations of merry-go-round like abandoned millstones, the rusting iron of smashed tanks which nobody had cleared away, the frost-nipped weeds where the snow was thin".

Well, what a contrast with contemporary wealthy and greeny Vienna, I say!
This is a Vienna caught at the end of World War Two and looking like London during the Blitz (a beloved novel set for Greene) or Berlin during the same period: a town on its knees where the local currency has no value and only foreigners can get goods and commodities thanks to their status.

The mysterious disappearance of Harry Lime - a British spy - and his chasing through Vienna by a childhood friend, Rollo Martins (Holly in the movie) makes a good plot with a pleasantly noir touch, but what I liked and sympathised with here is actually the city of Vienna rather than the characters.
Personally, I do think that Greene was far more talented a novelist than a screenplay writer (all the things he changed from the original novel for the first movie adaptation of Brighton Rock are a black stain in his literary career) and although The Third Man is technically a novella, there is something missing here. However, this book stands out as an important and clever one among its author huge literary production.
I would just say that there are better examples of Greene's mastery around. But this one will not disappoint you either.


Ambrose Bierce - The Spook House

Rating 6.2

This book was not too bad, but a bit monotonous, I'm afraid.
Short and sometimes very short Gothic-like stories about haunted houses, people appearing and disappearing out of the blue mostly in the US but also in the UK.

Just like Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce was a very interesting fellow, but he somehow fails to impress me here with just a few remarkable exceptions.
All in all, these miniatures of horror short stories are what I consider a decent reading before going to bed. A few possible nightmares could be included in the following sleeping hours but never that spooky.

Think about Henry David Thoreau camping with Edgar Allan Poe in some desolate spot of the American Bible Belt in the 19th century roasting sausages at the bonfire and telling each other boy scout thrilling tales and there you are: Ambrose Bierce - The Spook House.

And this:


Howard Jacobson - The Mighty Walzer

Rating 6.4

Well, call me derivative or simply lazy, but this novel really reminded me of Under the Frog by Tibor Fischer which I read a few months ago.

Both books pretend to revolve around the exotic wonders of a sport half-unknown to the British audience (basketball there, ping-pong here), are set in the 1950s and take a long detour somewhere else.

Whereas Fischer aimed a bit too high with his sketch of Hungary and the 1958 Revolution, Jacobson decided to cope with a more familiar territory: Manchester, well actually the mostly Jewish neighborhood of Manchester he grew up in. Which is nothing new as he did the same in the only other book by him I read so far, Kalooki Nights.

And no surprises that the term "kalooki" pops up in The Mighty Walzer too, alongside with a whole lot of semi-Yiddish terms washed in the Mancunian slang. Beware you readers of Isaac B. Singer, Abraham Yehoshua, Bernard Malamud and Jonathan Safran Foer because what you learned about some Yiddish expressions such as "meshuggah", "schlomo", "shtetl", "bar-mitzvah" or "goy" won't save you here.

The truth is that Jacobson decided to add some spice to his story with the Jewish background of the sexual initiation and disillusion of life of his Oliver Walzer with an avalanche of tongue-twisting words that are not always self-explanatory because of the context they're put in.

- Have I written "sexual initiation"?
- Yessir.
- But hang on a moment: according to the Sunday Telegraph this is "the first great novel about ping-pong" and "one of the greatest sporting novels ever", is that untrue?
- Kind of, I'm afraid.

Let's rather say that Jacobson wrote his own Portnoy's Lament, leaving the ping-pong bat idle for most of this novel and not always finding a decent substitute for it. The forehands, backhands and smashes of the so called "in-between" are not always successful.

All that said, there are some good and a few very good things in The Mighty Walzer. First of all, I should mention the brilliant part with Ollie Walzer attending Cambridge University. Well, this is very well written stuff: witty and merciless with that decadent Oxbridge life which I peeped and eavesdropped at (clearly out of my envy for not having studied there in my heydays). For a few pages Jacobson forgets his prolixity and Yiddish-Mancunian patois becoming the satirist he doesn't manage to be in the rest of the book.

Alas! This sort of literary miracle happens only for a few pages.
But it's good to know that Jacobson could make it if he only wanted to.
The Mighty Walzer doesn't have that much to do with ping-pong and it's definitely not a "sporting novel", but Howard Jacobson is able to get at least those ten points which make this novel worth a match.
It's all about spin, lads.