26.6.12

Patrick Hamilton - The Slaves of Solitude

Rating 7.6

It seems like I became pretty hopeless in writing my book reviews in the last days. It could be this persistent headache I feel from early morning till late evening. It could be boredom. It could be me.

The problem is that now I know that I will not be able to do this novel any justice. And that's a pity, as no one like Patrick Hamilton would deserve to get a good review.

Time could be such an unforgiving beast.
And what time does to magnificent but ill-preserved books, yellowing their pages, piling dust on their covers, weakening their binding, fading printed words could sometimes happen to worthy authors (and bored head-ached reviewers too!). 

Just like it happened with Mr Hamilton.

For twenty years, between the 1930s and the 1950s, Patrick Hamilton was a hit, probably a local minor hit, but still a rather successful novelist in his homecountry as well as a respected playwright (no one less than Alfred Hitchcock made a movie out of one of his plays).

 But Mr Hamilton kept himself ill-preserved over-indulging in alcohol thereby being at mercy of time.
The beast bit him straight shortening his life and then in a more subtle but equally painful way gnawing out Patrick Hamilton's popularity.
The result of this erosion by time is that nowadays who really knows about Mr Hamilton among non-compulsive readers?

Sure, the period and people he wrote about - England before and after World War Two & office clerks, retired ladies and pub-goers - could be blamed: but then again, how would you explain the success still experienced by authors like, say, George Orwell and Graham Greene who played in the same court?


True, while Orwell and Greene managed to diversify their literary production setting their novels as far as Burma and Vietnam, Hamilton's exoticism never went farther than Brighton and the Thames valley.
But I'm afraid that it's mostly the reputation of drunkard gained by middle-aged Hamilton which cut him off from posthumous rediscovery.

All this preamble to say that The Slaves of Solitude is one of those little gems one should be aware of, especially if born and bred in the UK or having had the chance to live there for a while.
There were many times while reading this book in which I thought that the fictional town of Thames Lockdon was the same Abingdon (now Abingdon-on-Thames) where I have been living in the last two years. Unfortunately, Wikipedia told me that I was wrong: TL it's actually Henley-on-Thames. For what it matters.



What is astonishing in this book is the ability of Hamilton to look into the lives of ordinary people caught in an extra-ordinary contest, having been forced to leave London during the Blitz to find shelter in a boarding house in a dull small town along the Thames.
It's the capacity of putting himself in the shoes of unattractive spinsters beyond their prime, boastful retired men, idle American GIs reflecting their interactions in the microcosm of a small nosy town and under the magnifying glass of a boarding house which impressed me the most here.
That and some hilarious literary inventions like the Bible-Chauceresque Troth language spoken by an old odd self-proclaimed gentleman and the depth level of introspection reached in unlucky-named Miss Roach, a rather atypical heroine.

And even though the finale of this novel is all but grand, but quite disappointing the characters and the atmosphere I found in The Slaves of Solitude will never be forgotten.

22.6.12

Hisham Matar - Anatomy of a Disappearance


Rating 7.2

This novel found me on a rainy morning spent wandering around a seaside town in Kent.
Now, how a proofreader only copy of Anatomy of a Disappearance popped up onto the shelves of a charity shop in a backwater place named Ramsgate would be interesting to discover.

Anyways, my copy of this novel doesn't have either the name of the author nor the title of the book printed on its cover, but only a black and white photo of a curly-haired woman wrapped up in a towel. You cannot see the face of the woman whose backside lines are at the same time covered up and underlined by the tightness of the towel around her hips. A steaming cup of coffee (or is it black tea?) is at her hand's reach.

Who is this woman, I wondered? And then I discovered the word "Mona..." on the back cover of the book. But all this preamble could be useless as a disclaimer note shown in the very first page of the novel says that "the contents of this copy may not resemble those of the final work". I wonder if they do.
To be honest, I would prefer if they don't as I would be pleased to think that what I read is somehow unique, an aborted draft, a rare specimen of a book. Oddly enough, I couldn't spot a single typo in this "not revised" copy of Anatomy of a Disappearance whilst the only tiny inconsistency I noticed is a time one which I won't bother to report.

Mona, I said. Or Mona...with the three suspension dots included.
She looks to be the woman here. The Woman, I mean.
She is the mysterious and irresistible character who would turn up the table of the events around 12 years old Nuri and his father Kamal. From what I read, she resembles the woman portrayed on the cover.

And yet, the fil rouge of this semi-autobiographic novel is not only Mona, but a total of three important women and the way they interact with Nuri (and his father):
A mother (a wife), a stepmother (a second wife - Mona), and a servant (a servant?).

At first, I thought the novel revolved around the loss of his mother experienced by young Nuri then I believed it was about the stepmother character (Mona), only to discover how the book left her behind.
To the author credit, I have to say how he has been very clever in diverting my attention switching from one woman to another.

However, I'm not sure that the women Matar left behind along the plot are fully developed especially in the way Nuri perceives them and their influence on him at the end.
It's true how the 12 years old boy we met at the beginning of the novel became a 25 years old man at the end of the story, but it doesn't look like Nuri's character managed to evolve very much in these 13 years apart from graduating in the UK and despite the unexpected events which happened around him.

That anatomy of a disapperance making the title of the book can be seen as the sum of several disappearances at the same time.
Where Matar partially (or consciously) fails is in going beyond the mere anatomy of bodies reacting in a spontaneous way to a disappearance for telling us how minds and feeling react.

No further complains, though as this is what I call a good short novel.
The events are set among England, Switzerland and Egypt and Hisham Matar appears clearly at ease in all of these three very different fishbowls.
All in all, Anatomy of a Disappearance was a nice catch for me in musty, decadent Ramsgate. Even though the contents of my copy may not resemble those of the final work.

13.6.12

Irène Némirovsky - Suite Française

Rating 7.7

Beautifully written.
And sadly unfinished although unexpectedly recovered.

Suite Française doesn't look a bit like the partially unchecked first draft it was.
But this is probably due to the perfectionism involved in the meticulous writing technique of Irène Némirovsky.

I disagree with those who found the main characters here slightly stereotyped.
Not even Albert - the Péricand family cat - has stereotyped manners here.

This unfinished novel in two movements over the five Némirovsky had planned is not a masterpiece and perhaps over-hyped due to the sad personal story (and controversial behavior) of its author.


Still, Suite Française is a very good book, although covering only two-fifths of what Némirovsky wanted to write and - I guess - very little of what she wished to achieve.

True, those who criticize the fact that the Jewish-Ukrainian converted to Catholicism and Paris resident (but without a French citizenship) Mrs Némirovsky failed to stress out any aspect of the persecution of Jews in occupied France here may have a point. And yet these people should also bear in mind that the third part of Suite Française was intended to be titled Captivity dealing with detention camps and, quite likely, also with the French-Jews being there.

 Let's never forget that this book was intended to be a symphony about France and French people during wartime including those of Jewish heritage, I guess, but without looking at them as a somehow different and isolated subgroup within a nation. 
What seemed to count for Irène Némirovsky is national identity and not religious belonging. I assume she converted herself and her daughters into Catholicism only as a rational attempt to avoid persecution. 

And actually the fact that Némirovsky and her husband (another wealthy Russian expat) never got a French citizenship played its significant part in  leading to their arrest, detention and extermination. Had the Némirovskys managed to get a French passport they would have probably been spared their tragic fate.

Now, I reckon how one of the best scenes of Storm in June involves the unexpected semi-martyrdom of a young priest escorting through the countryside some creepy orphans from a violent Parisian arrondissement. But casting a Catholic priest along with - among others - two bank clerks, a novelist, a dancer, a soldier, farmers, a noblewoman and a bourgeois family reflects the microcosm of a nation in the author's eyes.  

 This ambitious unfinished novel/project will probably be more appreciated by a female audience especially given its second part, Dolce, with its clever feuilleton-like structure and a certain Flaubertesque mood, but personally I had a very good time while reading it and am sure Suite Française cannot fail to charm anyone with a soft spot for history, aestheticism and scintillating natural and domestic descriptions.



PS: Thumbs down for the cheap-romance like cover chosen for the British edition of this book.
Wouldn't have been much better placing a photo of the original manuscript (pictured on the top left, of this post) or some poignant black and white picture taken in occupied France (like the one above)? Just a thought, eh.

1.6.12

Jan Karski - Story of a Secret State


Rating 8.4

Now, this one was extremely good.
And it's hard to believe how Story of a Secret State had to wait for so long before being re-published.

Jan Karski - a nom de plume, pardon d'action - wrote this book with the extreme urgency of a man who has just managed to get through four years of war, starvation, captivity and, on the top of it, a dangerous clandestine patriotic activity.
A brilliant combination, isn't it?

Nevertheless, Story of a Secret State is written very well with its author never claiming to be the best one among those around him or stressing out his bravery and determination.
In fact quite the opposite; Karski admits his human fragility while being tortured, his fear of being captured while crossing borders and reckons how some people did heroic actions in Nazi/Soviet occupied Poland without getting the honour they would have deserved at the end of the war.

The way Karski tells us about the Polish Underground organization between 1939 and 1943 is amazing and very detailed. There are interesting insights on the way clandestine press worked and how boys, girls and women helped the Underground in many ways from carrying vital information to hosting its members.

Then there are the missions Karski himself took part in. These adventures are described in a detailed and precise way here, without forgetting a touch of irony when needed and not stepping back towards human tragedy.
This is the same free man who went to a concentration camp in incognito and later tried to convince Roosevelt and Churchill to speed up their intervention in continental Europe informing them about the horrors he witnessed in first person.
This is the man who entered the Warsaw Jewish ghetto while the Nazi were sending off its whole population to be exterminated and just before its fearless but unsuccessful insurrection.



And there's much more to be found here.

As for me, Story of a Secret State has a lot of extra meanings and personal links.
I had the chance to visit most of the places Jan Karski wrote about from Radom (!) to the Tatra mountains around Zakopane and always wanted to see Lvov where he was born.

And of course there is Warsaw with its recent history, its uprising, its destruction, its cultural vitality despite communism and its current redevelopment (although not always fulfilled in a proper way). I visited the modern but rather messy Warsaw Uprising Museum and don't remember any mention to Karski there.
I walked in the area where the Ghetto used to be and below the massive socialist residential blocs known as the mammoth's wardrobes it was hard to picture how all it looked before.
I slept in that same Praga district of Warsaw which doesn't look very different today from how Karski portrayed it in the 1940s.

Even if you never visited Poland and have no intention to, this book has to read, if only to get a glimpse of how a whole nation managed to build up a parallel State hidden under the rubble of bombarded Warsaw and how the majority of Poles were not passive at all during World War II.

Behold! This book has nothing to do with nationalism etc. This is an engrossing reading where history gets human features and feelings and doubts and despair and joy while it happens. There is no fictional spy story (sorry Graham) which could be that good. And true.