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J C E Hitchcock (Tunbridge Wells, Kent, United Kingdom)

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A Kind of Loving
A Kind of Loving
by Stan Barstow
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: 5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars A Book Every Teenager Seemed to Have Read, 19 July 2014
Stan Barstow was one of number of working-class social-realist novelists who emerged in England during the 1950s and 1960s and who have collectively become known as the “kitchen sink” school. (There were also “kitchen sink” movements in art, the theatre and the cinema at around the same period). Like several other members of the school, such as John Braine, David Storey and Barry Hines, Barstow was from Yorkshire, the county which forms the setting for most of his works; another influential member, Alan Sillitoe, was from the neighbouring county of Nottinghamshire.

“A Kind of Loving”, published in 1960, was Barstow’s first novel. The plot is a simple one. Vic Brown, a twenty-year-old draughtsman working for an engineering firm in the industrial West Riding town of Cressley, falls in love with Ingrid Rothwell, a beautiful eighteen-year-old secretary working for the same firm. After a couple of dates, Vic just as abruptly falls out of love with Ingrid, but the two continue dating. Although he no longer loves her, and does not even like her very much, he is still sexually attracted to her and realises that, because she has fallen in love with him, he has a good chance of getting her into bed.

Younger readers may find it difficult to credit how much social attitudes have changed over the last fifty-odd years, but in the fifties and early sixties most British people still subscribed to a fairly conservative set of sexual values, values which still predominated in some areas during my own teenage years in the seventies, despite the so-called “sexual revolution”. Nice girls, and nice boys, did not have sex before marriage. If a boy got a girl pregnant he was obliged to offer to marry her and thereby “make an honest woman” of her; if he did not he ran the risk of being condemned as a heartless and dishonourable cad. The girl was obliged to accept his offer; if she did not she ran the risk of being condemned as an unmarried mother, a term in those days virtually synonymous with “scarlet woman”. Neither the boy nor the girl was allowed to put forward the argument that they did not love one another, or that they were mutually incompatible, or that they were not ready for marriage. When Ingrid finds herself pregnant, therefore, her marriage to Vic becomes inevitable.

Another theme of the novel is that of social class. In other respects a conservative era, the fifties were a time of increasing social mobility and Vic, the son of a coal miner, has vague ambitions of bettering himself, although resigning from his white-collar job to work in a shop might seem like a backward move. Unlike the working-class Vic, Ingrid is from a middle-class background, and the novel contains a certain amount of satire at the expense of her family, especially her narrow-minded mother Esther. Esther Rothwell, the bourgeois mother-in-law from Hell, is socially a monstrous snob but intellectually an equally monstrous inverted snob. One of the many reasons why she objects to Vic as a son-in-law is his growing love of classical music and serious literature, something which marks him out as a “highbrow”, in her eyes a term of abuse.

Like a number of other “kitchen sink” novels such as Sillitoe’s “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, “A Kind of Loving” is narrated in the first person by its hero. This was one of the features that caught the attention of the critics when these works first appeared; if seemed as though they were expressing the authentic voice of the working class in their own words. Barstow’s language here is appropriately racy and informal, making use of colloquialisms and regional dialect, even if some of the words used now seem dated. Indeed, some of Vic’s slang had fallen out of date even by the seventies; none of my contemporaries would have referred to a girl or woman as a “bint”, a word which had come to seem not only old-fashioned but also vaguely derogatory, and “dokka”, meaning “cigarette”, had by then become positively archaic.

During my youth, “A Kind of Loving” was one of two books every teenager seemed to have read, the other being Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”. I think that most of my contemporaries sympathised with Vic, seeing him as a young man trapped into marriage, not so much by the guileless Ingrid but by some impersonal “system”. My sympathies, however, were more with Ingrid, a naive young girl short-changed by the man she loved, and this feeling was strengthened when I saw the television version in the eighties. (How could any red-blooded male fall out of love with Joanne Whalley, the lovely young actress, later to become a Hollywood star, who played Ingrid in that series?)

Vic has many good qualities- intelligence, drive, ambition, friendliness, a gift for expressing himself, an eagerness to expand his mental horizons and honesty (with himself) about his emotions. In his relations with Ingrid, however, he is also a flawed character, and his main flaw is that he cannot be honest with her in the same way as he can be honest with himself. She also has her faults, chiefly her inability to stand up to her domineering mother and the naivety which prevents her from realising that her feelings for Vic are not returned. The blurb on the back of my edition which describes her as “beautiful but demanding” strikes me as wide of the mark; part of her problem is that she is not demanding enough. More than thirty years after first reading the book, however, my sympathies are still with her.

Others will doubtless disagree with me, but I feel that this is a novel to which different readers will react in different ways, depending on their own personality and experiences. (My own interpretation probably derives from the fact that I have never “Fallen out of love” with a girl in the way that Vic does). That is a strength on Barstow’s part rather than a weakness- a novel which meant the same thing to every reader would probably be a very dull read. I loved this book when I first read it, and it still touches me today.

Barstow later wrote two sequels to “A Kind of Loving”, “The Watchers on the Shore” and “The Right True End”, forming what has become known as the Vic Brown trilogy, and I hope to review those two books on here before long.

Louise Farrenc: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3
Louise Farrenc: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3
Price: 9.51

5.0 out of 5 stars Undeserved Neglect, 26 Jun 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I have long been intrigued by the question why of why some creative artists have risen to such heights of fame that they have become established among the “great names” of their particular discipline, whereas others, who may have been just as talented, have languished in relative obscurity. Louise Farrenc (1804 –1875) is a case in point. In her lifetime she was a well-known composer, concert pianist and teacher. (She held the prestigious position of Professor of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire for thirty years). Since her death, however, she has been relegated to a position in classical music’s minor leagues; modern performances of her works are rare.

Was she then a minor composer of limited talent who has sunk into a well-deserved obscurity? The two works on this disc, however, would suggest that that was very far from being the case. In any event, arguments about which composers are “better” than others are always going to be subjective; there is no objective standard by which the relative merits of two works of art can be compared. Certainly, Farrenc’s music shows the clear influence of her predecessors, especially Beethoven, but musical composition does not take place in a vacuum, and no composer can avoid being influenced by others. If we were to write off as derivative and second-rate every nineteenth-century composer whose music reveals the influence of Beethoven, there would be precious little left that was worth listening to. (That would be Brahms gone for a Burton, for a start).

Farrenc was perhaps unfortunate in three respects- her sex, her nationality and the genres in which she worked. The social conventions of the nineteenth century allowed women to be musically gifted, but as an accomplishment, not as a profession. If they dabbled in composition, they were expected to confine themselves to songs and piano miniatures, not substantial orchestral works.

French musical life during this period was dominated by opera, regarded as the highest form of musical expression. (A similar situation prevailed in Italy, which perhaps explains why the highest award that could be won by a promising young French composer was still the “Prix de Rome” a period when it might be thought that a “Prix de Vienne” or “Prix de Berlin” would have been of greater value). Farrenc never attempted an opera, but preferred to write abstract orchestral, instrumental and chamber music, genres regarded in France as typically Germanic and foreign at a time when Franco-German relations were generally poor.

This disc contains the first and third of Farrenc’s three symphonies, both composed during the 1840s. Both are strongly influenced by Beethoven, but they also seem to foreshadow the works of later composers such as Brahms. They exhibit many common features of early 19th century symphonies- the slow introduction to the opening movement, followed by a main section built around two contrasting themes, a songlike second movement (in both cases marked “adagio cantabile”) and a triumphant finale. The First Symphony, conservatively, still has a minuet and trio for a third movement; the Third, more typically for the Romantic era, has an agitated scherzo.

I think that the answer to the question I posed in my opening paragraph is partly psychological and partly financial. Psychologically, all music-lovers like to think that they are knowledgeable about the subject, and the smaller the pool of composers regarded as “major” or “significant”, the easier becomes our task of acquiring the necessary knowledge. Financially, it is easier for concert promoters to put bums on seats or for recording companies to sell recordings if they concentrate on the established names rather than neglected geniuses- so those geniuses tend to stay neglected. On the evidence of these symphonies and the other works of hers which I have heard, Louise Farrenc deserves to be regarded as one of these. (The first two movements of the Third Symphony are particularly fine). All credit to Johannes Goritzki for his efforts to rescue her from an undeserved neglect.

September Moon
September Moon
by John Moore
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars His Own Little Acre, 20 Jun 2014
This review is from: September Moon (Hardcover)
John Moore was part of the great “Edwardian generation” of English literature; his contemporaries included the likes of W H Auden, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, R C Hutchinson, John Betjeman, Anthony Powell, Daphne du Maurier and H E Bates, a writer with whom Moore has much in common. Both were part of a tradition of rural writing dating back to Hardy; other members of this tradition included Mary Webb, Sheila Kaye-Smith and, to some extent, Henry Williamson. All these writers seemed to make a particular part of the country their own. In the case of Hardy this was, of course, the south-west, especially his native Dorset, Webb’s was Shropshire, Kaye-Smith’s Kent and East Sussex, Williamson’s Devon. Bates was a native of Northamptonshire, and most of his early works are set there, but some of his later ones take place in his adopted country of Kent.

In Moore’s case his “own little acre” was his native Gloucestershire and the neighbouring counties of Worcestershire and Herefordshire. “September Moon” is set in the hop-growing areas of this latter county, and as the title suggests the action takes place in the month of September, some time during the mid-fifties. The significance of the month is that this is when hop-picking takes place, and much of the plot revolves around the battle to get the harvest in while the weather is good. The hop-growing industry was always heavily dependent at harvest-time upon seasonal labour. In Britain’s other major hop-growing area, Kent and Sussex, this was largely provided by East Enders from London, but in Herefordshire hop-pickers were drawn from three communities, the miners of the Welsh Valleys, the workers of the industrial Black Country near Birmingham and itinerant gypsies. People from all three sources are introduced as characters in the book.

In form this is a “Romeo and Juliet” story about two lovers, Tim Sollars and Marianne Tomkins, from antagonistic families. Marianne is a determined, spirited girl, but Tim is a bit of a nonentity, and much more interest lies with their respective fathers, the Old Montague and Old Capulet of the Welsh Marches. (Marianne’s mother is dead, and Tim’s plays only a minor role). John Sollars is a by-the-book traditionalist who takes pride in farming his land according to the most time-honoured methods consistent with profitability, and the current patriarch of an ancient family which has farmed the same land for many generations, going back to the fifteenth century.

Tommy Tomkins, by contrast, is the scion of a family of Birmingham industrialists who made their fortune in the boiled-sweet trade. He decided to invest his inheritance in farming on a whim, but matters have not worked out well for him. His attempts to introduce innovative, modernising methods (such as automated hop-picking equipment) have not proved successful, the business suffered while he was away fighting in the war, and his land has an unkempt, ill cared-for look. His finances are in an even more chaotic state than his land. His neighbour John Sollars despises him utterly, partly because of his slovenly habits, partly because of his poverty and partly because he is not a born-and-bred countryman. The prospects for the romance of Tim and Marianne therefore appear bleak.

The feud between Sollars and Tomkins is paralleled in a sub-plot about two feuding gypsy families. Wisdom Lee, “King of the Gypsies”, is another man for whom tradition is all-important, whereas his rival Black Barty is a sly, dishonest braggart. Another important character is Tommy Tomkins’s brother George. In contrast to the feckless Tommy, George represents what might be called “Unmerrie Englande”. He is a dry, humourless and joyless individual who stands firmly within the long and dismal history of killjoy English Puritanism. He has lent Tommy money on the security of a mortgage over his farm and is now threatening to foreclose, even though he has no need of the money because his carefully saved inheritance, his well-paid job as a high-ranking Civil Servant and his frugal bachelor habits have left him a wealthy man.

There is a difference between Moore and Bates insofar as their attitude to the countryside is concerned. Bates was a great nature-lover, but was actually a native of the industrial town of Rushden, and this is something reflected in many of his novels. In works like “Charlotte’s Row”, “The Feast of July” and “Love for Lydia” the countryside is always present, but largely as a place into which the industrial workers and other townspeople of the East Midlands can escape. Only a minority of his characters, such as Tom Holland in “Love for Lydia”, are actually employed in agriculture. For Moore in “September Moon” the countryside is not a place of beauty and leisure but a working landscape; there are far more details of the technical side of farming than there are in Bates, and far fewer descriptive passages about the natural world. The character of John Sollars might come as a surprise to those who imagine that all countrymen are a living repository of nature lore. In his eyes a cluster of pink flowers is merely a cluster of pink flowers; actual knowledge of their English name, let alone their scientific name, would count as mere useless book-learning. (To Sollars all knowledge is useless if it does not help put money into his pocket).

The trouble with “September Moon” is that it is not really a comic novel but not really a seriously dramatic one either. Potentially tragic themes are introduced, but are allowed to dissipate in the atmosphere of general good-will which pervades the rather contrived ending. Black Barty’s scheming comes to naught, and even the miserable George Tomkins reveals a softer side to his character. On the positive side there are some well-drawn characters and the book is quite informative about farming in the 1950s, but for me “September Moon” does not put Moore in the same league as Bates at his best.

Burmese Days (Penguin Modern Classics)
Burmese Days (Penguin Modern Classics)
by George Orwell
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars White Men Gone to Seed, 20 Jun 2014
“Burmese Days” is the first novel by George Orwell and is partly autobiographical. It is based upon Orwell's own experiences as an officer in the Indian Imperial Police between 1922 and 1927; at this period Burma was still officially part of the Indian Empire and did not become a separate colony until later. At its centre is John Flory, an employee of a timber firm based in the small up-country town of Kyauktada. The story is essentially one of unrequited love. Flory falls passionately in love with Elizabeth Lackersteen, a British girl who comes to Burma to live with her uncle and aunt after the death of her parents, but their relationship is a doomed one and ends tragically.

The novel falls within a tradition of tales of “white men gone to seed” in the colonies; Conrad’s “Almayer’s Folly” is a good example from an earlier generation. Conrad, however, did not take any position for or against colonialism itself; his is not an anti-colonial propaganda novel designed to argue that the Dutch East Indies would have been better off if still ruled by their indigenous peoples. Orwell, however, is highly critical of the British Raj. Ironically, the only character in the book prepared to put forward an intelligent defence of imperialism is an Indian, Doctor Veraswami. The problem with Veraswami’s arguments is that the British characters in the novel bear precious little resemblance to his idealised portrait of a race of enlightened administrators, engineers, scientists and doctors striving to bring the benefits of their civilisation to less fortunate parts of the globe.

British society in Kyauktada revolves around the “European Club”, and Orwell paints a harsh picture of the colonials, most of whom are either government officials, police officers or, like Flory, employed in the timber industry. Their most prominent vice, although it is far from being their only one, is bigotry against all non-white peoples, whom they habitually disparage in the most insulting terms. Lechery and drunkenness also feature high on the list, as does a general lack of interest in any intellectual or cultural pursuits.

Flory is in many ways an exception who finds it difficult to fit in with white society. He is relatively liberal on racial issues- he regards Veraswami, for example, as a personal friend- cynical about the supposed merits of imperialism, an admirer of many aspects of Burmese culture and something of an intellectual. He does not feel at home among his fellow-whites in Burma, but feels trapped in the country and unable to return to England, where he would be just as much out-of-place. His is essentially a tragedy of social identity; be belongs neither to native Burmese society nor to English society and while he is ostensibly a member of the same society as his fellow colonials, he never feels at home in their company.

Part of the reason why Flory finds himself so strongly attracted to Elizabeth, apart from her good looks, is his naive assumption that she, as a newcomer in the country, must share his system of values, whereas she is just as racist as any of the old Burma hands at the club, looks on the Burmese people with disgust and is an aggressive Philistine who regards intellectual and cultural pursuits not just with a lack of interest but with positive loathing. Flory’s greatest sin in her eyes, apart from the fact that he once had a Burmese mistress, is that he is a “highbrow”.

To be fair to Orwell, the Burmese come out little better than the British. The two most prominent native characters are the massively corrupt official U Po Kyin and Flory’s mercenary former mistress Ma Hla May. This does not, however, necessarily undermine Orwell’s anti-colonialist credentials; he would have seen it as an indictment of Empire that the British, supposedly so concerned with honest governance, should have allowed a man like U Po Kyin to rise to high office and then turned a blind eye to his corruption and intrigues. (Although it is possible that such a man might have achieved even higher office had Burma remained independent). As for Ma Hla May she is in some ways a victim of the hypocrisy of white (and, for that matter, Burmese) society, which was prepared to tolerate- even encourage- sexual liaisons between British men and local women but which strongly discouraged (even if it did not actually forbid) racially mixed marriages. As a white man’s mistress, Ma Hla May had a recognised place in society; as a white man’s wife both she and he would have been shunned.

The book is not without its faults. Some of the characters are rather too one-dimensional; U Po Kyin, the vicious racist Ellis and Tom Lackersteen, who attempts to rape his niece while drunk, are all just a little bit too bad to be true. Orwell also seems to have forgotten that not all his readers would have been as familiar with Burma as he was, often using local terminology without making any attempt to explain its meaning. Overall, however, this is an impressive first novel, powerfully written and with a genuine tragic hero at its centre.

The Complete English Poems (Penguin Classics)
The Complete English Poems (Penguin Classics)
by John Donne
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.46

5.0 out of 5 stars A difficult poet? Perhaps. A complex poet? Undoubtedly. But that complexity is part of his greatness., 5 Jun 2014
John Donne was perhaps the most eminent representative of that group of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century poets known as the “metaphysical poets”, although it has often been pointed out that they were never a self-conscious literary school or movement, and would never have referred to themselves by that epithet, which was invented by Samuel Johnson in 1781, inspired by a criticism of Donne made by John Dryden about a hundred years earlier.

Some of the metaphysical poets, such as George Herbert, wrote exclusively on religious themes, but with Donne this was not the case, although it is true that one of his two great themes was man’s love for God, the other being man’s love for woman. Donne does, however, display two common “metaphysical” traits. One was a taste for philosophical speculation, even in his secular verse, and it was this for which he was taken to task by Dryden, who said of him that “"He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign”.

The second is his use of the metaphysical conceit, an extended metaphor combining two very different ideas. I remember being taught at school that the classical example of a conceit was Donne’s comparison of his wife and himself in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" to a pair of compasses, joined even when they are physically separated. At least, we were taught that the lady in the poem is Mrs Donne, but that may just have been prudery on the part of the teacher. Like many of Donne’s poems this one cannot be precisely dated, and we know that he wrote poems to other mistresses before his marriage to Anne More in 1601.

Other well-known conceits include his comparison (in “The Flea”) of a flea biting two lovers to love-making and his description (in his “Elegy XIX: To His Mistris Going to Bed”) of his mistress as “my America, my new-found land”. In “A Lecture upon the Shadow”, perhaps less well-known but nevertheless a striking poem, he draws parallels between the shadows cast by two lovers at different times of the day and the progress of their relationship. Donne’s imagery is often drawn from the sciences, from astronomy (as here), from alchemy and from geography.

This volume includes all of Donne’s English-language poetry. (Besides English, he also wrote in Latin). Not all of his output consisted of religious verse or love-poems; he also wrote brief epigrams, verse epistles, satires and “epicedes and obsequies”, that is to say poems written to mourn the death of a particular person. These are not the poems by which he is best-known today, although his satires contain some pithy indictments of the corruptions and follies of late Elizabethan and Jacobean England. His Third Satire deals with the subject of true religion, something dear to Donne’s heart; he was brought up in a notable recusant Catholic family, being related by blood to both Jasper Heywood and Thomas More, but left the Catholic Church for Anglicanism, which he saw as a via media between the extremes of Catholicism and Protestantism, and was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest.

His mourning poems, and some of his epistles written to living persons, are not well-known today, even though they contain some elegant poetical writing, possibly because, to modern tastes, they can come across as insincere and fawning. If everything Donne wrote in these poems was meant sincerely, I can only say that he had the great good fortune not only to have been a contemporary of some of the greatest saints who have ever lived but also to have known them personally. (Strangely, none of these persons have been officially canonised by any Church, unlike Donne himself, who is commemorated in the calendar of the Church of England). In his two long poems entitled “The Anniversaries”, religious meditations occasioned by the death of a young girl named Elizabeth Drury, his language becomes so extravagant that one would think he were writing about God, Christ or the Virgin Mary rather than a teenage girl whom he does not appear to have known personally.

This insincerity contrasts strangely with Donne’s better-known poems in which emotional honesty is one of his hallmarks. Earlier erotic poets of the Petrarchan school could pen love-ballads, containing all the commonplaces of courtly love, to imaginary mistresses. A literal reading of Thomas Wyatt’s poems, for example, would suggest that he spent most of his life in the throes of unrequited love for a “cruel mistress” (in the poetic rather than the sexual sense) who refused to yield to his advances. A reading of Wyatt’s biography, however, would suggest that the poet, who was separated from his wife, was at the time living in a relationship with a real-life mistress (in the sexual rather than the poetic sense) who was presumably quite happy to yield to his advances.

With Donne, however, although we may not know whether his love poems were written to Anne or to some other person, they are so heartfelt that one is left with the feeling that they must have been written to a flesh-and-blood woman, not to some hypothetical descendant of Petrarch’s Laura. Some years ago my then girlfriend and I had a strange experience while saying goodbye late one evening. As we embraced, although nothing sexual actually took place, it seemed to us as though our personalities had joined and that we had become one person. When we eventually parted we discovered that an hour had passed even though it had only seemed like a few minutes. The only way I could describe the experience was by saying that we had made love without actually having sex- until I read Donne’s poem “The Ecstasy” which gives a perfect poetic description of an identical experience.

Donne had a great gift for finding the perfect description of emotional experiences, and not just joyous ones like this. His "A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy's Day, Being the Shortest Day", is one of the most moving descriptions ever written of grief on the death of a loved one. (It may have been occasioned by the deaths of his daughter and his close friend Lady Bedford, who both died in 1627 and who shared the Christian name Lucy).

Donne’s love poems seem to have been written early in his career and are notable for their relatively free verse forms and rhythms which approximate to those of ordinary speech; they may have marked a reaction against the smooth, polished style of earlier Elizabethan poets such as Sidney. They were published after his death in a collection called “Songs and Sonnets”, although none is a sonnet in the strict sense of the word. His religious poems- the other main plank on which his reputation rests- were generally written later, and are stricter in their form; they include numerous strict-sense sonnets. Like his love poems, however, they are a record of deeply-felt personal experiences, not simply of a conventional piety, and like them often rely upon a startling juxtaposition of contrasting ideas.

Donne is sometimes thought of as a “difficult” poet, and there are good reasons for this. He is adept at compressing a great amount of meaning into a few lines, often relying upon paradoxes and double meanings to produce passages which are capable of being understood in more than one sense, and this can make his verse semantically complex, requiring several readings to be fully understood. His poems contain many allusions which are not always immediately transparent to the modern reader; this edition, edited by Professor A C Smith, contains copious notes, often longer than the poems they elucidate. And yet he was also capable of producing poetry of an elegant simplicity, a good example being the sonnet beginning “Death Be Not Proud”, a profound meditation on death and immortality. A difficult poet? Perhaps. A complex poet? Undoubtedly. But that complexity is part of his greatness.

Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
by Orlando Figes
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.49

5.0 out of 5 stars Valuable insights into the way Russians see their place in the world, 31 May 2014
This book describes itself as a “cultural history of Russia”, although it is really limited to the period between 1682 (the accession of Peter the Great) and 1953 (the death of Stalin). Earlier periods of Russian history are only touched upon briefly and, although Mr Figes’s end-point is officially the death of Brezhnev in 1982, the Khrushchev/Brezhnev area is not dealt with in any depth. (There is, for example, not a great deal about Solzhenitsyn, Russia’s major literary figure from that period). “Russian” here means “ethnic Russian”, so the culture of the non-Russian peoples of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union lies outside the scope of the book, although Ukrainian writers like Gogol are included if they wrote in Russian.

Mr Figes’s main theme is the division in Russian culture between Westernisers and cultural nationalists. In the Middle Ages Russia’s cultural links lay westwards, with the Byzantine Empire and with the Slavic peoples of Central Europe, but the country was cut off from the mainstream of European culture by two events, the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century and the fall of Byzantium to the Turks in the fifteenth. Peter the Great saw his mission as being to rescue his country from its supposed “backwardness” and to restore it to its rightful place in Europe, and his schemes, and those of his successors, towards this end aroused both passionate support and passionate opposition. The Russian Imperial Eagle (now restored as the national symbol) had two heads, and this was often symbolically interpreted as meaning that the country looked both westwards towards Europe and eastwards towards Asia, although this interpretation is perhaps not completely accurate. To most Russians Asia, apart from their own possessions in Siberia, is just as foreign and exotic as it is to Western Europeans; Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”, for example, is a typical piece of 19th century Orientalism. It might be more correct to say that one of the eagle’s heads is looking outwards towards Western Europe, the other looking inwards to Russia’s own native traditions.

The book demonstrates how much of Russian culture during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the product of a conflict, or of a creative tension between these two forces. Geographically, St Petersburg, associated with the westwards-looking aristocracy, came to be seen as the city of the Westernisers, and Moscow as that of the nationalists, although there were occasional exceptions. The nationalist composer Balakirev, for example, was a native of and great lover of St Petersburg, whereas Anton Chekhov, a scientific moderniser by outlook, came to regard himself as an adopted Muscovite. Figes explores the ways in which Russian literature, music, painting and architecture were influenced by this creative tension.

The sections dealing with painting were particularly illuminating. Just as German critics at one time called Britain “das Land ohne Musik”, so many Westerners, including some who should have known better, have treated Russia as “das Land ohne Malerei”, apart from mediaeval icons, a few early 20th century Modernists like Malevich and Kandinsky and Soviet Socialist Realism, stereotypically dismissed as endless portraits of muscle-bound female tractor drivers. The achievements of the great Russian 19th century artists like Repin, Savrasov and Vereshchagin have often been overlooked, possibly because few of their works are to be found in Western galleries.

My one complaint would be that Figes tends to devote more attention to the cultural nationalists than he does to the Westernisers. For example, he refers to all the painters I mention above, whom he analyses in terms of the “Russianness” of their work but not to, say, the classicist Karl Briullov or the Impressionist Valentin Serov, both of whom were, in their different ways, strongly influenced by the West. Similarly, in the field of music, he pays more attention to the nationalist “Kuchkist” school of composers (or at least to Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Borodin- even he cannot find much to say about Cui) than he does to Tchaikovsky, and more to the pre-Revolutionary Stravinsky of “The Firebird” and “The Rite of Spring” than he does to Prokofiev. He says of Rachmaninoff’s “The Bells” that it “allowed him to explore that Russian sound” but curiously omits the fact that it is based upon a poem by an American writer, Edgar Allen Poe.

Today nationalism is often thought of as a right-wing phenomenon, but in the past this was not always the case. Many 19th-century Russian revolutionary movements, such as the Decembrists, the Slavophils and the Narodniks (“Populists”), may have drawn on the ideas of the Western Enlightenment about freedom and equality but were also inspired by the traditions of the indigenous peasantry, who during this period constituted by far the greater part of the Russian nation and whom they saw as embodying the Russian spirit in its purest form.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 may have seemed to many as representing the final triumph of the Westernisers. Unlike their 19th-century predecessors the Bolsheviks, adherents of the socio-economic theories of a German-born Londoner, had no interest in a purely Russian national socialism. Theirs was a vision of a world revolution leading to an international socialism, a revolution which would arise from the new industrial working-class rather than from the peasants, whom they despised. In the cultural sphere they initially embraced the spirit of Modernism, less out of personal conviction- Lenin’s cultural preferences seem to have been as conservative as those of his successor Stalin- than out of a belief that in the era of the Civil War they needed as many friends as they could get. There was doubtless also a calculation that there was political advantage to be gained from associating the “politics of the future” with the “art of the future”.

From about 1930 onwards, however, Soviet culture became increasingly small-c conservative, possibly out of a conviction that there was no political advantage to be gained from associating the “politics of the common man” with the “art of the elite”, which is how the avant-garde was becoming viewed. Socialist Realism, with its emphasis on “art for the masses”, became the new orthodoxy. Although Figes outlines the theory of Socialist Realism, he does not devote much attention to the output of those official artists who worked within the system (possibly because he quite clearly has no political sympathy with Soviet Communism).The novelist Mikhail Sholokhov, for example, is not mentioned, even though (like Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn) he won the Nobel Prize, and the composer Nikolai Myaskovsky, “father of the Soviet symphony”, is mentioned only once, as the “only twentieth-century composer to have written more symphonies than Shostakovich”. (That claim, incidentally, is incorrect. Several other twentieth-century symphonists have beaten Shostakovich’s total of fifteen; the two who most immediately sprang to mind were Havergal Brian (32) and Alan Hovhaness (over 60)).

Most of the book’s two final sections is devoted to two other groups of artists, the émigrés like Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and Nabokov who had left their homeland for a new life abroad and the “inner emigration” of those like Pasternak, Shostakovich and Anna Akhmatova who remained in Russia despite their opposition to Communism. The divisions between the three groups were by no means absolute. Some artists- Vladimir Mayakovsky is a good example- initially welcomed the Revolution only to become disillusioned later. Others, such as Prokofiev and Marina Tsvetayeva, originally left Russia at the Revolution, only to return later after a change of heart. (Even Maxim Gorky, feted as the Soviet writer par excellence, spent a considerable period living abroad, - part of the time in Mussolini’s Italy- before returning in 1931). Solzhenitsyn became an émigré against his will, refusing to leave Russia until he was expelled by the authorities. Figes shows how the old distinctions between nationalists and Westernisers remained valid even after the Revolution. Official Soviet art, for example, became not only increasingly conservative but also increasingly nationalistic, and this, oddly, also applied to much dissident and émigré art. “Dr Zhivago”, for example, is a grand epic in the Russian tradition, and nostalgia for his lost homeland led Rachmaninoff to compose in an increasingly conservative style.

“Natasha’s Dance” is not only a comprehensive study of its subject but also brilliantly readable- I found myself unable to put it down and turning the pages in a hurry. (Something unusual with me with a non-fiction book). Although it is primarily a cultural rather than a political history, many of its insights are valuable in affording an understanding of the way Russians see their place in the world- something of increasing importance today in the light of the current Ukraine crisis.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Penguin Modern Classics)
Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Penguin Modern Classics)
by George Orwell
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Nostalgie de la Boue, 16 May 2014
George Orwell is today best remembered for his essays, for works of reportage such as “The Road to Wigan Pier” and “Homage to Catalonia” and, above all, for his two political fantasies “Animal Farm” and “1984”. His four earlier social-realist novels, of which this is one, are less well-known. The title plays upon the Labour Party anthem “The Red Flag” with its promise to “keep the red flag flying here”. Orwell uses the aspidistra, a type of house-plant popular in the 1930s, as a symbol of dull lower-middle-class respectability, just as his contemporary H.E. Bates was to do in his novella “An Aspidistra in Babylon”.

The main character is Gordon Comstock, a young man in his late twenties working as a poorly-paid assistant in a second-hand bookshop. He has ambitions to be recognised as a poet and has already had one volume of poetry published, a critical success but a commercial flop. (We get to read one of his poems, politically radical but stylistically conservative by the standards of thirties modernism, like a sort of left-wing John Betjeman). He lives in a cramped, uncomfortable bedsit in a seedy lodging-house and struggles to make ends meet on his meagre salary of 2 per week (a below-average wage even in the mid-thirties). We learn that Gordon once worked as a copywriter in an advertising agency, a job which brought him twice his current earnings, but that he resigned from the position and has always refused to return to the world of advertising, despite the entreaties of his girlfriend Rosemary.

The reason is Gordon’s curious love-hate attitude towards money. He is critical of what he sees as “worship of the money-god” and wants to prove, to the world and to himself, that he is capable of defying the religion of money by surviving on as low a wage as possible. He despises the work he once did at the agency because he regards advertising as a demeaning and corrupt way of earning a living. Yet this does not mean that Gordon has embraced St Francis’s concept of “glad poverty”. What he has done is to embrace a grudging, embittered poverty; he resents the limitations imposed upon him by a lock of money, yet at the same time refuses to take any steps to obtain a better-paid job. To make matters worse, he finds that his financial circumstances are affecting his mental state; he is unable to make any significant progress on his projected epic poem “London Pleasures” and his relationship with Rosemary is affected because he believes (unfairly) that she only judges a man by the contents of his wallet.

I described Gordon as a left-wing Betjeman, but he is only left-wing in the sense that he hates the capitalist worship of money. He is not left-wing in the sense of supporting some positive alternative to capitalism such as communism or socialism. The only active socialist we see in the novel is Gordon’s friend Philip Ravelston, a wealthy magazine publisher, and his is the hypocritical champagne socialism of a man who does not have to work for a living because he has a fat private income. Gordon, however, dismisses Ravelston’s vision of a socialist future as being something like Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, only less jolly, and sourly remarks that anyone could be a socialist on at least 5 per week. When Gordon unexpectedly comes into money after an American magazine publishes one of his poems, he blows the lot on a drunken debauch, which leads to his losing his job. He finds another, but the pay is even worse, and he sinks deeper into poverty, squalor and spiritual resignation. And then something happens to shock him out of his nostalgie de la boue.

To some extent “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” is an autobiographical novel. In many ways Gordon’s circumstances are Orwell’s own. Orwell was born in 1903, Gordon in 1905. Both men were born into middle-class families who made sacrifices to send their sons to public school. Like his hero (or anti-hero) Orwell had worked in a second-hand bookshop. The character of Ravelston may have been based upon Orwell’s own publisher Sir Richard Rees. (The portrait is not an entirely negative one. For all the hypocrisies of his political position, Ravelston is a sincere and loyal friend to Gordon). The book contains numerous aphorisms along the lines of “For money buys all virtues. Money suffereth long and is kind, is not puffed up, doth not behave unseemly, seeketh not her own”, and it is often difficult to tell whether these are Gordon’s thoughts or Orwell’s own. Orwell’s use of free indirect style in passages like these seems to have been designed deliberately to blur the distinction between the author’s voice and that of his character. And yet one cannot imagine a man like Gordon volunteering, as Orwell did, to fight in the Spanish Civil War which broke out in 1936, the year the book was published. Gordon may represent Orwell’s own vision of what he himself might have become if he had lost his political ideals.

Later in life Orwell was virtually to disown the novel, dismissing it as something “written simply as an exercise and I oughtn't to have published it, but I was desperate for money”. The poverty which afflicts Gordon was clearly something that he had experienced himself. Creative artists, however, are not always the best critics of their own work, and other commentators at the time defended “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”. Cyril Connolly, for example, called it "a harrowing and stark account of poverty", and the book still retains its relevance today, not just as an entertaining picture of a bygone period in our history.

Gordon is in some ways an unsympathetic character- in his self-pity, in his treatment of the faithful Rosemary and in his shameless sponging off his long-suffering older sister Julia. In his defiance of the system, however, he can also at times seem admirable. He is a timeless everyman, not just someone unique to the 1930s. I suspect that we all know at least one Gordon Comstock. Moreover, the social conditions which Orwell details here are not perhaps so “bygone” as we might like to pretend; indeed, the gap between incomes and housing costs is even greater today than it was in 1936, and the poorly-paid have even less chance of getting out of inferior rented accommodation. We today tend to think of the “hungry thirties” as a time of poverty and deprivation, and so they were for some, especially the unemployed. (Ravelston is guiltily haunted by the thought of the thousands of jobless in Middlesbrough, a town particularly badly hit by the depression). Yet there was another side to the decade, one evidenced by the vast new housing estates which grew up around London and many other towns and cities. In the thirties it was possible to buy a decent house in the capital for around 500, about five times Gordon’s annual salary at the bookshop. In 2014 you would need a lot more than five times a shop assistant’s annual earnings to afford even the meanest flat in the capital.

Effi Briest (Penguin Classics)
Effi Briest (Penguin Classics)
by Theodor Fontane
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars A German Madame Bovary, 14 April 2014
Theodor Fontane’s “Effi Briest” is often linked with “Anna Karenina” and “Madame Bovary”, at least by German critics, as one of a great trilogy of 19th century “adultery tragedies”, although it must be said that it is less well-known in Britain than Tolstoy and Flaubert’s novels. (There are also other candidates for the honour, including “La Regenta” by the Spaniard Leopoldo Alas and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”, although that novel can be distinguished from the others by its historical rather than contemporary setting).

The three novels have much in common. In each the protagonist is a young woman, unhappily married to an older man, who seeks an escape from her unhappiness in an extra-marital affair, only to find that unhappiness continues to elude her and that by committing adultery she has only made her position worse rather than better. In each case the wronged husband is a pillar of upper or middle-class respectability who has done nothing which society or the law would regard as a matrimonial offence. Charles Bovary, Alexei Karenin and Effi’s husband Baron Geert von Innstetten are not unfaithful, drunken, violent, financially improvident or consciously cruel. Their fault is that they are cold and emotionally distant, unable to feel love for their wives or to inspire it in them.

In a defence of his first novel, “Before the Storm”, Fontane described it as a “Mehrheitsroman”, or “multiple novel”, that is to say a novel which aims to give a portrait of a particular society at a given point in history. He contrasted it with the “Einheitsroman”, or “unitary novel”, such as Dickens’s “David Copperfield”, which follows the adventures of a single protagonist. Unlike “Before the Storm”, “Effi Briest” is a “unitary novel” of this type. Although the book was published in 1895, the main action takes place during the 1880s; Bismarck is still Chancellor and William I still Kaiser. The title character is the daughter of an aristocratic family from Brandenburg. When we first meet her she is only seventeen and seems even younger; the opening chapter contains a description of her playing childish games like “tag” with her friends. (I gave up playing tag when I left primary school).

Effi’s life is suddenly turned upside down when she receives a marriage proposal from the 38-year-old Innstetten, whom she has never met before. Not only is her suitor old enough to be her father, it turns out that he was at one time also the suitor of her mother Luise, but was rejected by Luise’s family who wanted their daughter to marry an older man of established position rather than a boy of her own age, even one from a noble family. Despite the disparity in their ages, there is no question of Effi rejecting Innstetten’s proposal; both Luise and Effi’s father are adamant that she should marry him. Fontane implies that Luise’s keenness arises from the fact that she was, as a girl, deeply in love with Innstetten herself and sees her daughter’s marriage to him as some sort of vicarious fulfilment of her own youthful dreams. As for Herr von Briest, he is simply a cheerful Philistine who cannot be bothered to think deeply about any subject, including his own daughter’s marriage, and dismisses any invitation to do so with his oft-repeated line “That is too big a subject!”

Following their marriage, Effi and Innstetten move to the small seaside resort of Kessin, where he is a provincial governor. Effi is neglected by her husband, who is more interested in his work, and the local people are unfriendly and suspicious of strangers. She only makes two friends, the chemist Alonzo Gieshuebler and Major Crampas, an officer in the local militia. Her friendship with Gieshuebler is always a platonic one, but Effi, desperate for affection, falls in love with Crampas, even though he is even older than her husband and a married man with a well-deserved reputation as a philanderer. (Gieshuebler’s profession may be a reference to the fact that Fontane’s father was a chemist and he himself worked as one before turning to writing. It may, however, also be a subtle reference to “Madame Bovary”, which also features a provincial chemist among its characters, although the kindly Gieshuebler is very different in personality to the arrogant, self-important Homais).

One of Fontane’s themes is the strict, narrow-minded social codes which prevailed in Wilhelmine Germany, in some ways even stricter than those of late Victorian Britain and which contrasted oddly with the Christianity which was the country’s official religion. Effi’s affair is a brief one, but when evidence of it comes to light several years later, by which time the family have moved to Berlin, Innstetten feels that he has no alternative other than to obtain an immediate divorce and to challenge Crampas to a duel. To make matters worse for Effi she loses custody of her daughter and is rejected not only by her husband but also by her parents, who fear social ostracism if they are seen to condone her adultery.

A cuckolded Englishman (or, for that matter, American) of this period who put a bullet through his wife’s seducer would doubtless have gone to the gallows as a murderer, and it would have availed him little if the murder had been dressed up in the form of a duel. In Germany and some other continental countries, however, atavistic notions of personal honour still persisted. Innstetten is not an evil man, but he lacks the imagination and the moral courage to realise just how atavistic and un-Christian is the social code which governs his actions. In the event, he does not have to stand trial over Crampas’s death, and his career as a civil servant is not affected by the fact that he has blood on his hands.

I felt that one weakness was that the growing attraction between Effi and Crampas was dealt with in insufficient detail, although perhaps censorship or social convention meant that Fontane had to be circumspect about such matters. Nevertheless, this is a very fine novel with a genuinely tragic heroine at its centre. Effi is younger than either Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary, a girl unable to cope with the adult world into which she is suddenly thrust, and this makes her fate all the more pitiable.

One feature of the novel is Fontane’s ability to create a convincing sense of place. Effi’s home town of Hohen-Cremmen (somewhere west of Berlin) is painted as a place of sunlight and flower-filled gardens, an earthly paradise from which she is exiled. Kessin, by contrast, is a remote place set among dunes and pinewoods by the Baltic in Pomerania, today in Poland but in Fontane’s day part of Germany. Although the town is busy during the brief summer season, for the rest of the year it is isolated and lonely, and Effi’s sense of isolation is increased by her fears of the ghost which is said to haunt her house. Significantly, the ghost is supposedly that of a young Chinese man who died there, even further from his native soil than she is from hers.

Thomas Mann was a great admirer of this book- his “The Buddenbrooks” may have taken its title from the name of a minor character- and he once said that if he had to have a library containing only six novels, “Effi Briest” would be one of them. Mann’s opinion has been shared by many of his fellow-countrymen and the novel enjoys classic status in Germany, which makes its comparative neglect in the English-speaking world hard to understand. Perhaps we need to do more to discover Fontane, and German fiction in general.

Encounters: Stories
Encounters: Stories
by Elizabeth Bowen
Edition: Paperback
Price: 12.41

4.0 out of 5 stars The Bare Minimum, 4 April 2014
This review is from: Encounters: Stories (Paperback)
I actually own Elizabeth Bowen’s short stories in the single-volume Penguin omnibus edition, with an introduction by Angus Wilson, but as there is not enough space in a review of this nature to do justice to all her stories I have decided to review each of her collections separately.

“Encounters” was Bowen’s first book, published when she was 24. All fourteen stories contained in the collection are relatively brief, even by the standards of the short story genre, and the plots are pared down to the bare minimum. The title “Encounters” reflects the fact that most of the stories are simply an account of a meeting or conversation between two or more people.

Bowen’s style in these stories shows the clear influence of an older female writer, Katherine Mansfield, who also published her first collection of stories, “In a German Pension”, in her early twenties. (I nearly described Mansfield as Bowen’s “older contemporary”, but this would not be quite accurate, as there was no real overlap between their writing careers. Although Mansfield was only eleven years older than Bowen, she died in 1923, the year in which “Encounters” was published). Both writers concentrate more on conveying thoughts and emotions than they do on describing external action. They often keep the traditional short story feature of a “twist in the tale”, but this twist generally involves a change in a character’s mental state or the way in which that character is perceived by the reader.

A good example is the story “The Return” which details a conversation between Mrs Tottenham, a wealthy middle-class woman unhappily married to an older man, and her paid companion Lydia. At first Mrs Tottenham arouses little sympathy in the reader, despite her unhappy marriage, because of her overbearing and patronising attitude towards the younger woman, but at the end of the story she unexpectedly breaks down and reveals something of her past which enables us to see her in a different light. Bowen’s final words are revealing:”The place was vibrant with the humanity of Mrs Tottenham. It was as though a child had been born in the house”.

In “Daffodils” a teacher tries to persuade three of her pupils to think for themselves and see the beauty of nature. Bowen’s point (and the point being made by her character, Miss Murcheson) is that, possibly because of the famous poem by Wordsworth, daffodils have become a convenient shorthand for the beauties of spring, and yet it is this very convenience which prevents us from appreciating them for what they are, as flowers rather than as a symbol of something else. We think that Miss Murcheson has persuaded her pupils to see this, but as soon as they leave her flat we realise that they have only been agreeing with her out of politeness. “Miss Murcheson has never really lived” one says as they saunter down the road.

In “All Saints” there is a subtle shift in the relationship between the two characters. After an evening church service a vicar is approached by a strange woman who offers to pay for a new “All Saints” window for the church. At first he seems in control of the situation, treating her with a rather condescending politeness, but as the story progresses the balance of power changes. He becomes nervous of the woman’s unconventionality and of her unorthodox views about religion which he sees as a threat to his own. The story ends with him turning abruptly away from her and fleeing through the darkness.

Several of the stories deal with romantic affairs but, despite Bowen’s youth at the time they were written, these are not takes of young love but accounts of the often complicated relationships of the middle-aged. In “The Confidante” she sums the particularly intricate interrelationships between four people in only five pages; essentially the plot is that a wife connives at an affair between her husband and her cousin in order to seduce the cousin’s fiancé away from her. In “The Shadowy Third” a widower and his second wife find their happiness together obscurely threatened by memories of his first, always referred to simply as “Anybody” rather than by name. Although the story ends with a defiant “Nothing can touch us!” from the husband, the reader is left wondering how true this is.

“The Evil that Men Do” is one of the best stories in the collection, and probably the most complex, being more than just a conversation-piece. A middle-class wife, married to a dull and unsatisfying husband, receives a passionate letter from an admirer she has met at a poetry reading and replies to him, not knowing that he has died in a road accident This is one story where the twist occurs at the beginning; the reader has known all along what the wife does not.

Not all the stories contained in the collection are as good as those I refer to above; there are one or two where Bowen pushes minimalism rather too far and actually pares her plots down past the bare minimum, ending up with something inconsequential and unsatisfying. Overall, however, this is a fine collection, displaying a sensitivity and depth of understanding of human nature remarkable in such a young author.

Alms For Oblivion Vol III (Vintage Classics)
Alms For Oblivion Vol III (Vintage Classics)
by Simon Raven
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.09

5.0 out of 5 stars God Is Not Mocked, 21 Mar 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Volume III of Simon Raven’s novel sequence “Alms for Oblivion” only contains two novels, both set in the early seventies. As the titles might suggest both are concerned with death.

“Bring Forth the Body” opens with Somerset Lloyd-James, now an MP and a junior minister in the government, being found dead in his bath one May morning in 1972. In form the novel is a mystery story, not so much a whodunit- there is never any doubt that he committed suicide- as a whydunit. Captain Detterling, one of Lloyd-James’s parliamentary colleagues, and Leonard Percival, an intelligence officer, are tasked (by the government, who are anxious to find out if Lloyd-James might have been caught up in some scandal) with carrying out an investigation into his motives for taking his own life. Detterling (we never learn his Christian name) and Percival appeared as minor characters in some of the earlier instalments in the sequence, but this is the first in which they appear as protagonists. In the course of their investigations they uncover a good deal of information about Lloyd-James’s past, most of it not to his credit, but much of this information turns out to be a series of red herrings, at least in the sense that it does not provide the true explanation for his suicide.

“The Survivors” is a mystery story of a different sort. This is the last and longest novel in the sequence and has a correspondingly complex plot. Several of Raven’s recurring characters, including Detterling (who has now inherited the title Lord Canteloupe following the death of a distant cousin), Max de Freville, Tom Llewyllyn, Fielding Gray and Daniel Mond, meet up in Venice. The mystery initially seems a trivial matter, the identity of an unidentified figure in an old family portrait. Gray, with the assistance of some of his friends, begins to research the matter and discovers a tale of eighteenth-century debauchery and mayhem, the ramifications of which may affect people in the present day, and one of his friends in particular.

Like the earlier novels in the “Alms for Oblivion” sequence, these two are essentially satires on the mores of England’s Establishment and its upper classes. Raven’s characters seem as amoral as ever, if not more so. Even someone like Peter Morrison, who in the earlier episodes seemed straightforward and honourable, is now, as a government minister, involved in some very underhand dealings to boost British trade. Morrison’s view seems to be that he can act unethically with a clear conscience provided he does so in order to benefit the national interest rather than his own private ends, but this somewhat tortured principle does at least place him above many of the other characters, who have very few scruples where their own private ends are concerned. These two novels contain at least as much hypocrisy, skullduggery, double-dealing and sexual misbehaviour as any of the earlier instalments.

Yet, despite being a chronicler of bad behaviour, Raven generally writes with a moral purpose, and in these two books his morality is more explicitly religious than previously. This religious emphasis is particularly marked in “Bring Forth the Body”; without wanting to give away too much of the ending I can say that, when the truth about Somerset Lloyd-James is finally established, it appears that an element in his suicide was despair at the thought that he had, for many years, systematically disregarded the moral teachings of the Catholic Church to which he nominally belonged. The book ends with the stern admonition “God is not mocked!” In “The Survivors” the mathematician Daniel Mond is tormented by his inability to believe in God, although he desperately wants to, but two other unlikely characters (one of them returning from an earlier book) find peace in retiring to a Franciscan friary.

Although many of the characters in “Alms for Oblivion” may be morally reprehensible, they are also often fascinating to read about, and both the novels in this volume are highly readable. Raven clearly knew what he was doing when he cast both in the form of mystery stories, because the effect is to make the reader want to turn the pages as quickly as possible in eagerness to find out the solution to the mystery.

With “The Survivors”, Raven brings “Alms for Oblivion” to a triumphant end. Throughout the series he has managed the difficult feat of combining great readability with social relevance, satire with well-rounded characters and entertainment with a firm system of values. My only regret in finishing the series is that there are now no more instalments for me to discover.

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