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Mr. D. James "nonsuch" (london, uk)
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The Confidant
The Confidant
by Hélène Grémillon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wartime Secrets Revealed, 1 Oct 2012
This review is from: The Confidant (Paperback)
Hélène Grèmillon, The Confidant

The Confidant is a story within a story. Camille Werner, a publisher's reader, receives a long unsigned letter from an unknown man, Louis. He tells the story of his childhood love for a school friend, Annie, whom he associates with a porcelain doll and how he symbolically threw one of her mother's model dolls into a deep lake.

The story makes no sense to Camille, who is more concerned with the sufferings of the ailing Madame Merleau the concierge of the flat she is about to leave. But the letters keep arriving, and she has no way of tracing Louis, there being no signature or return address, only a postmark indicating postage from the fifteenth arrondissement in Paris. Camille reads Louis's story of Annie's wartime rejection of him, chosing instead to be incarcerated with Monsieur and Madame M in L'Escalier, a rural estate nearby. She becomes intrigued: `I wanted to find out what happened, what was the terrible tragedy involving Monsieur and Madame M.'

Eventually the reader guesses, and Camille soon discovers, that she has been chosen as the confidant for the crucial role she unwittingly played in her late parents' sexual shenanigans. The reader will need to keep track of who's who and who was who: who is the confidant's mother, father and brother. Indeed, who does she think she is?

This story of wartime betrayal by lovers of a soldier engaged at the front, is somewhat reminiscent of Raymond Radiguet's Le Diable au Corps, especially with its muted wartime background to the love idyll and the deceptive naming of the newborn by a mother in the throes of childbirth. The point of view of course is more complex, for here we have diverse letters of confession and reported scenes going back fifty or more years, for this, distantly, is World War Two with Paris under threat and Hitler on the rampage.

As a mystery story the book has a certain compulsion, but I became irritated by the breathless prose of Annie, Louis and the pomposity of the sententious Madame M (as impersonated by Louis) and I remained unconvinced by her attempts to reach her ward's `innermost feelings through the decor if I could not reach then through my words.' Nevertheless Madame M is an intriguing villainess, who is `literally possessed by my obsession,' as she (via Louis, remember) infelicitously puts it, and who sells her husband's lovechild into brothel slavery. Sad news indeed for Camille the confidant, whose parents were not who or what she believed!


Goodbye Yesterday
Goodbye Yesterday
by Gerd Treuhaft
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars A Good German, 1 Oct 2012
This review is from: Goodbye Yesterday (Hardcover)
Goodbye Yesterday
By Gerd Treuhaft

This autobiography of Gerd Treuhaft, who survived the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald to serve in the Pioneer Corps and later continue his career in journalism, makes fascinating reading. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1938 for criticising the Nazi regime, Treuhaft, who has every reason to be bitter at his treatment, is remarkably restrained. In fact over half his book is concerned with his life as a showbiz reporter after the war, where he met and interviewed such luminaries as Richard Attenborough, Ingrid Bergman, Maurice Chevalier and Walt Disney.

This story moves at a cracking pace, recalling a long tough life with geniality. It's something of a roller-coaster ride though, especially when the author engages with a galaxy of stage and screen stars. The many typographical errors rather detract from this otherwise neatly produced, well-illustrated book.


Love and Death on Long Island
Love and Death on Long Island
by Gilbert Adair
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars Love in a Life, 1 Oct 2012
Gilbert Adair, Love and Death on Long Island

This fictional memoir of a love affair between a defunct ageing writer and Ronnie Bostock, a handsome young actor is an engaging study of an obsession bordering on madness. The reader soon realises that the sophisticated and highly articulate narrator has nothing in common with the rising star, a young pin-up whose image appears on sundry teen magazines as a role model. In fact Ronnie's picture on the stills outside a Hampstead cinema becomes the seed of a monstrous passion that drives the narrator to fly to Long Island to meet his love object.

This short novel is beautifully paced, as the narrator intellectualises his physical yearning for the boy: `Was I alone in tracing beneath the conventional surface a timeless and universal ideal, an almost supernatural radiance of pure heart, of innocent spirit and of sun-inflamed flesh?' The details about the youth's ripe redness of the lower lip, the way he wiped sweat from his brow and even `the inside cup of his elbow' show how far the obsession has gone, but we are as yet only a third of the way through the book; the pair have yet to meet, and, although Ronnie knows nothing of his latest fan, a meeting is inevitable.

The style Adair adopts is deliberately pedantic and meticulous. In some sentences the distance between subject and eventual object can exceed 50 words. Precision and accuracy are essential to the narrator's fidelity to his feelings. He is the archetypal dilettante, with a sublime contempt for the world around him; the fake and tawdry trappings of the entertainment industry, for instance, allow him ample opportunity for invective, as do the clichés of the press. Yet when the banalities of gossip columnists are lavished on Ronnie, the lover is delighted: `that he would kiss a girl on their first date "only if she made it clear she wanted me to" and that his greatest ambition was to play in a movie opposite Madonna. `Had he ever been in love? "Who hasn't?" Pet hate? `Designer stubble.' And his secret unspoken fantasy? `To go to bat for the Mets.'

Embracing the mandarin style of a Henry James and the self-referential qualities of a Marcel Proust, Love and Death on Long Island is a classical display of fine writing in miniature format. Overall it's a haunting account of romantic love, the supreme idiocy that flesh is heir to.


Therapy
Therapy
by David Lodge
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Escape Me Never!, 1 Oct 2012
This review is from: Therapy (Paperback)
David Lodge
Therapy

There are always strong autobiographical strains in Lodge's fiction, so much so that the conflation of author and character bemuses and might even inhibit immersion into the fictional world. The ageing narrator in Deaf Sentence, for instance, is a semi-retired academic, a specialist in linguistics and English Literature. Like his author he suffers the agonies of not being what he used to be, plus the suspected ridicule of others, feelings of redundancy, deafness and all the impotent symptoms of the `male menopause.' He inhabits a midland town, as does the professor in Nice Work, and the cityscape is pretty obviously a simulacrum of Lodge's own Birmingham. Campus life is endemic to Professor Lodge's fiction.

In Therapy we are once again in Rummidge (i.e. Birmingham), but this time our linguistically-obsessed narrator is a television script writer - Lodge ringing the changes by drawing upon his experiences with the dramatisation of Nice Work. As ever, marital conflict looms large, as the obsessed writer strives to reconcile the demands of work and domestic life. Laurence `Tubby' Passmore, however, carries his neuroses to extremes, undergoing treatment from his GP, a psychoanalyst, an aroma-therapist, a sex therapist,, an acupuncturist, various drugs and almost any young female who can relieve him of his feelings of inadequacy. `Tubby' is so obviously a paranoid neurotic that his life is constantly in tatters. If you divorce you'll regret it, if you don't divorce you'll regret it. Divorce or don't divorce you'll regret both. Small wonder that he finds comfort in Kierkegaard, the author of Either/Or. Of course, nobody who is capable of writing as fluently, perceptively and humorously as Lodge could be as dysfunctional as Laurence - dysfunctional, except that, as `Tubby' the narrator, he is capable of earning a small fortune by writing a sit-com The People Next Door, which, while pure soap rubbish, seems for a time to have a large viewing public by the throat. Not that Laurence is ever recognised as the author - he is but an essential cog in a vast popular machine.

Always readable, always funny and inventive, this as an immensely enjoyable novel. At one point, Lodge seems to move away from relaying Laurence's journal to presenting us with several internal monologues by his intimates, but this, rather cleverly, turns out to be yet another therapy recommended by one of his practitioners - an attempt to see himself as others might see him.

The concluding third of the book, begins with `Tubby' desperately attempting to revive an old love affair, whose subject seems to be the answer to a reject's prayer. Reminiscent of the obsessive return to an old romance experienced by the narrator of Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea, this twist provides an additional tension and a somewhat sobering but not desperately sad ending to a fine book.


A Man of Parts
A Man of Parts
by David Lodge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Little Light Faction, 1 Oct 2012
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: A Man of Parts (Paperback)
David Lodge,
A Man of Parts

David Lodge's latest book, A Man of Parts, is subtitled `A Novel,' but it reads and feels more like a biography of its subject, HG Wells. Lodge has become increasingly attracted to drawing on literary figures for his fiction and this latest `novel' not only straddles the two genres, but perhaps to its detriment ends by falling into pure biography.

Unlike his fictional Henry James novel Author, Author, the Wells book attempts to cover the whole story of the life and loves of the protagonist. This is some feat, as Wells had a long life, passing through two world wars, seeing dramatic changes - the rise of socialism, feminism and the erosion of traditional social and moral structures - and mixing in the most elite political and literary circles. A concise account of his encounters with friends, contacts and mistresses would fill volumes, and indeed, A Man of Parts is a modestly compact 565 pages. So the book, while never exhaustive can at times become exhausting, as we follow our hero from his shabby-genteel background to his position as popular writer, scientist, prophet and visionary on the world stage.

Perhaps the problem is that Wells himself is almost larger than life, too grandiose anyway to be fitted into novel form. During the reading one forgets that this is a novel, that most of these conversations and meditations on the state of the world are fictional. `Nearly everything that happens in this narrative is based on factual sources,' declares Lodge in his brief introduction. Thus the words of the major players speak for them. `Quotations from their books and other publications, speeches, and (with very few exceptions) letters, are their own words,' he informs us. This is admirable practice for a biographer, but slavery for a novelist. One episode in Wells's life - say his relationship with Gorky's mistress - would have provided material enough for an intriguing novel. Instead of this we have a lively biography of a Man of Parts, most of them private and here teasingly made public, as Wells practices what he preaches with sundry nubile virgins of like mind in the healthy practice of Free Love.

This book will not disappoint the prurient, its accounts of sexual congress in hotel bedrooms and en plein air, add an additional spice to the narrative, especially when Wells's partners are famous literary figures. The naughty joke begins with the title and continues as our hero exploits various Kamasutra positions, including bestial acts, cunnilingus and fellatio. All good fun for the author and his freelover hero! But those familiar the novelist's work will neither be surprised nor shocked at these Lodge-istic antics.

All in all, this is a fascinating life of a notable figure, an idealist who sadly fails to see his ideals for himself and humanity realised. It is also a valuable source book for students of the period.


Daniel, asleep
Daniel, asleep
by Anya Cates
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.47

4.0 out of 5 stars The Articulate Narrator, 1 Oct 2012
This review is from: Daniel, asleep (Paperback)
Daniel, asleep
Anya Cates

This debut novel tells the story of a woman, Marie, who loves a convicted murderer and rapist. Daniel, who, escaping after a crash while in transit to hospital after being beaten-up in prison for being a child rapis,t flees to Marie for shelter. The hunted criminal draws her into many devious plans for a future abroad. But is he really guilty? And how far is her complicity justified? The questions are posed and pondered intelligently.

The plot is compelling and the characters well-drawn, but the telling through Marie's eyes is often flawed by pretentious prose and a plethora of self-analysis from Gates's very articulate narrator. `My body feels as dense and heavy as a dwarf star,' declares Marie, who on one occasion finds the traffic has `left my nerves feeling strung out to the point of twanging like a demented out-of-tune fiddle.' Marie also has an irritating penchant for social criticism (of, say, the intrusive press, the justice system or the NHS). I suspect it is the author as author condemning dim-witted policemen or a health service that `no longer has time for the individual but treats patients like inconvenient cattle.'


Blind Faith
Blind Faith
by Ben Elton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Conform or Perish, 1 Oct 2012
This review is from: Blind Faith (Paperback)
Ben Elton
Blind Faith

`The Lord made Heaven and Earth. The Lord made us. The Lord does this, the Lord wants that. We don't know how or why, we don't need to know, it just happens. There's never any explanation, it's all a miracle. Children are born, some die, it's God's will, we can't change it. Don't you think that, in a way, that's sort of ... sort of ...?' Thus Trafford, the hero of Elton's Blind Faith, puts the question to his wife Chantorria, a terrified conformist in the insane world of London several centuries after a global warming disaster has driven humanity back into an age of faith. Yes, this is a cautionary tale, a savage exposure of man's need to believe and conform.

The novel harks back to Orwell's 1984, but with a lighter touch and emphasis on religion rather than politics. In place of Big Brother and The Party we have The Temple, the authority that never fails, one that through the power of The Love controls cyberspace and individual thinking. Reason is subordinated to faith, science merely a manifestation of the Lord's power; democracy is the will of the people, but a people brainwashed, threatened and in terror of non-conformity. Huge wallscreens in every apartment and public space monitor behaviour, with leaders demanding displays of faith in The Love, in which personal revelations of one's indulgence in, say, feasting or oral sex, are mandatory. Pleasures must be shared, as must pain and grief caused by the perpetual child mortality rate - the water is polluted, London a reeking sewer, commuting replaced by Fizzy Coff - a physical appearance at the office, a necessarily rare occurrence in the overheated congested city.

Despite the parallels with Orwell - incipient paranoia when indulging in Own Life for example - Blind Faith's totalitarianism encourages, nay, demands, self exposure. There is no Puritanism here: nakedness and sexual activity at all times, especially in public, are de rigueur. In fact, abstinence or reticence in these matters suggests a dearth of respect for The Love and is a serious concern of the local Confessor or the apartment censor Barbieheart, `the principle eyes and ears of the building, an enormous, globular, housebound sentinel who, although too big to leave her apartment, occupied every room.' Like Winston Smith, Trafford falls secretly in love with a dissident, but ultimately with wider consequences when his viral email causes millions to receive their first Humanist mail shot.

Blind Faith is an exuberant and gripping novel that pillories evangelism and political correctness, delighting in exposing People Power and the cant and hypocrisy at the heart of belief. From obligatory local Hug-ins to massive pop-style congregations at the New Wembley Stadium, where The Love rules and you'd better not only believe it, but say it loud, shout it Big Time, and never betray a scruple of doubt. For heretics the torture chamber and the stake await! Books are out and wallscreens are in. Birthing videos must be posted, as must one's private sex life. After all, what's to be ashamed of? The Lord gave us genitals that we may celebrate Him, Big Time! Darwin is the Devil's agent and science is merely the Lord's way of reminding us of His power. Vaccination and those who support or practise it are defying the Lord's will and must be hunted out, tied to the stake and burned over a pile of seditious books, any that may yet be found floating in the upper stories of deserted houses.

Of course this is all over the top, but very funny and not so far-fetched that it doesn't chime with certain tendencies in our insidious world of what Elton calls `infotainment', where cheerful idiocy rules the airwaves and cyberspace, and privacy and modesty are heretical.
At the end of the book, when Trafford's daughter, Caitlin Happymeal, is the sole infant survivor in the latest smallpox epidemic (because of her covert vaccination) he is `ordered to stand on that stage at Wembley and credit divine intervention ... to give thanks to a stupid, vicious, capricious, illogical, immoral, maniacal deity who clearly exists only in the imaginations of idiots and bullies.' Will he conform or be a recusant and face the consequences? Elton's nail-biting plot has several more twists and turns before we know whether Trafford, like Orwell's Winston Smith, will become yet another victim of orthodoxy.


Tony and Susan
Tony and Susan
by Austin Wright
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Metafiction that almost works, 1 Oct 2012
This review is from: Tony and Susan (Paperback)
Austin Wright: Tony& Susan

First published in 1993 and then forgotten for nearly two decades, Austin Wright's posthumously acclaimed novel-within-a novel is a fascinating read. For once, the ecstatic praise given to the book, by pundits such as Ian McEwan and Ruth Rendell, is almost justified.

The first section dealing with the kidnapping, rape and murder of a middle-class mother and daughter - and the attempted murder of Tony, husband of Laura and father of teenage Helen, is a triumph of spare, tense prose. The assassins are absolutely chilling in their calm obedience to their cynical leader, Ray, an unforgettably repulsive hoodlum. The reader is so caught up in the story that he or she forgets the soft beginning of the novel, in which Susan Morrow has received this story from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield. The horror story is thus not real, but an invention of a man whom she had years ago dismissed as a failure and a wimp, one who thought he could write but would never, in Susan's eyes, amount to very much. Now he proves her wrong.

Like all good stories, Tony & Susan is about motivation. Why should Edward send his ex-wife such a horror story? Was he trying to show her how wrong she'd been about his talent? Did he just want to shock her with a grisly yarn, perhaps to threaten her, to tease her - or did he want to finally win her approval, even to bring about reconciliation? The reader needs to know, and that is what sustains our interest up until the final stage of the novel. Will Edward ultimately appear and explain himself?

The title is, of course, ambivalent. Tony is a fictional character in Edward's narrative, but a sensitive soul (rather like his author); one who is involved in helping the police to catch three ruthless killers. The reader first sympathises with Tony's grief in losing his wife and daughter in such appalling circumstances and then roots for him in his somewhat reluctant pursuit of the killers. Susan is a reader surrogate who cannot but admire her ex-husband's talent as a novelist and would perhaps reconsider her dismissal of him as a loser - especially as her present husband, the professionally successful Arnold, is, she suspects, having an affair when he goes on his repeated conferences.

That basically is the crux of the matter: will Edward return to hear Susan's verdict - on him as a writer and as a man whom Susan could appreciate and perhaps even love? Or has she fallen in love with Tony rather than his creator?

The novel began brilliantly, but then began to sag as Susan drowns in floods of self-questioning. She imagines scenes of what the returning Edward might say and how he will respond to her critique. The writing here degenerates not only into a plethora of rhetorical questions but into literary posturing; heavy metaphors and similes, and banalities such as `Forgetfulness follows the trail of her reading like birds eating the Hansel and Gretel crumbs.'

The prose at times becomes either irksomely vague or over-explicit: `She sees Tony looking at it [their Maine cottage] in his dim archetypal blindness, and she feels meanings around her which she cannot see. She wonders if they are real or only her imagination and how long it will take her, if ever, to know.' Yes, it's confusing, but why tell us what we already know: that the fictional Tony seems more real to her and more lovable than either of her two husbands ever had been? And isn't it Susan rather than Tony who suffers from that `dim archetypal blindness'? What's a dim blindness, by the way, and how is this blindness archetypal?

Despite these reservations and the fact that the book would improve greatly if cut by at least a third, this is a gripping and many-layered story, which says much about the way that fiction interpenetrates our `real' lives; and it has an unpredictable but highly satisfying conclusion.


The White Tiger
The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Smiling at Villainy, 30 Sep 2012
This review is from: The White Tiger (Paperback)
Aravind Adiga, The WhiteTiger

This Booker-winning novel exposing the corruptions rife in contemporary India comes with many plaudits from America, Britain, India, Germany, but not as far as I can see from China or Russia, which is significant in that the ills besetting the last two countries are not dissimilar to those of India, except that poverty is as far as one knows less extensive.

Adiga's novel begins with an address to `The Premier's Office in Beijing, Capital of the Freedom-Loving Nation of China' given by the son of a rickshaw-puller, Balram Halwai. Balram, our narrator, is a wanted man, having, as he soon tells us, cut the throat of his employer, Mr Ashok. Balram was his driver and had become that very rare thing, a trusted servant, in his employer's eyes. Gradually we learn of the seedy world behind the fine promises of democracy; we learn of the way that the ever more expanding and ever more desperate poor are treated by the rich and powerful, of the hypocrisy and indifference of the rich few to the plight of the teeming millions whom they exploit. And in this book it is funny - for we readers, that is.

Does Balram exaggerate? Possibly, but the reader is entertained by the antics of this `entrepreneur' who is forced to become, and happy to call himself, `a mass murderer.' True he has only killed one man, but his example will likely be followed by other slaves who are obliged to kill in order to survive. Addressing His Excellency Wen Jiaho in the Premier's Office in China, Bulram boasts `my start-up has got this contract with American Express, my start-up runs the software in this hospital in London,' but this is not his story, which is about Indian politics, which boasts of democracy, but beats up dissenters. The way up, as pigherd Vijay discovered was to `let the politician dip his beak into his backside,' to grease and brown-nose your way to the top of your profession as an entrepreneur. It's an unsavoury business, but it gets results and keeps you from dying of hunger. It's so sad that laughter is the only possible response. This is not exactly documentary, but closer to it than the satire of Swift and Orwell.


Albergo Empedocle
Albergo Empedocle
by E. M. Forster
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Forster in Embryo, 30 Sep 2012
This review is from: Albergo Empedocle (Paperback)
Albergo Empedocle

By E M Forster

Albergo Empedocle, first published by Forster in 1903, was omitted from his Collected Short Stories (1947). When asked why, Forster said it was `not good enough.' Both the Italian setting and the characters prefigure those of his early novels, Where Angels Fear to Tread and Room With a View, and, as Nigel Foxell's introduction points out, all Forster's favourite themes are sounded here.

For Forster enthusiasts and the general reader this is a handy little book, an easy read and a marvellous introduction for any newcomer to Forster. I enjoyed it immensely, not least because it can be read in half an hour and pleasure can be taken in seeing the precursors to George Emerson, Lucy Honeychurch and the English bourgeois class that surrounds them. Good for groups too, especially busy readers.


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