There were silences as murmurous as sound

beautiful-damnedThe Beautiful and Damned
by F Scott Fitzgerald

I love the way Fitzgerald writes, but his books sure are depressing. This book lives up to the title and to its reputation as Fitzgerald’s most pessimistic work. I started the book wondering why it’s so long since I last read Fitzgerald but by the end I’d decided long breaks in-between are necessary for my sanity.

It is the story of Anthony and Gloria. They are the young and the beautiful, the idle rich. Anthony is expecting to inherit billions on the death of his grandfather, so he spends his allowance frivolously on himself, his friends, girls. Gloria dates eligible bachelor after eligible bachelor, sometimes even getting engaged, but never staying with one man for long enough to fall in love. They of course fall for each other, but is it really love or is it a shared appreciation for the same carefree lifestyle?

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The earth had become a strange and placid panorama

Over the Front in an Aeroplane

Over the Front in an Aeroplane
and scenes inside the French and Flemish Trenches

by Ralph Pulitzer

I spotted this piece of journalism when I was browsing Project Gutenberg for books to add to my Kindle. I’m not a big fan of novels about fighting wars but for some reason wartime journalism interests me. (It might be because for a while in my youth I aspired to be Kate Adie.) As far as I can tell this book is sadly now largely forgotten and I’m sure there are better accounts out there of the First World War, but I liked this and thought Pulitzer did a good job of describing the war to the folks back home in the US.

“‘So far,’ an English staff-officer remarked to me, ‘we English have been bungling amateurs in the art of war contending against trained professional specialists. But with a couple of years’ more experience I believe we shall know as much about it as they do, and then we shall win.'”

This Pulitzer, by the way, was the son of Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper magnate who bequeathed money to Columbia University that became the Pulitzer Prizes. In 1911 Joseph died, making Ralph the head of a major news corporation aged just 32. Which perhaps explains why in this book Pulitzer is not treated just as any other journalist. In fact, he devotes a whole chapter to the average journalistic experience of the frontline, which he makes sound quite cosy, if also frustrating (good food and hotels, not much access to the action).

“With a snap and a roar the battle plane started slowly forward, gained in speed till we were running along the big field like a racing automobile, then suddenly the people standing around dropped away from us as if on a gigantic express elevator leaving one standing on the upper floor of a skyscraper, and in a moment more the earth had become a strange and placid panorama with which we had no connection or concern.”

Pulitzer spent a month – August 1915 – in France and Belgium visiting various sites on or near the frontline. The book is structured in a slightly odd way that feels as though it may have been a series of columns before it was a book, or perhaps that was just his ingrained writing style. Each chapter details an experience of some kind, from the first and title chapter of flying over the frontline near Paris, to a grenade-throwing lesson, to a comparison of the French and Belgian trenches.

Each experience necessarily begins with making nice to the relevant generals and in early chapters the many levels of command to be met and receive hospitality from is detailed perhaps a little more than necessary, but it certainly gets the point across that no journalist, even Pulitzer with his extra special access, can truly claim to have experienced the frontline like any soldier. There are descriptions of meals that had me salivating, including plenty of wine, champagne and brandy.

“The officers of all the armies feel that it is infinitely more important to prove to you that they can give you a good cup of coffee and a good cigar than it is to show you the most beautiful battle that was ever fought.”

It was genuinely fascinating to read an account from so early in the war that was nevertheless aware that this fight would continue for a few more years, from an American whose country was not involved in the war but knew it almost certainly would become involved. Pulitzer shows boyish excitement about technological advances in weaponry (i.e. fancy new guns) but also talks about the human cost of war, both in lives lost and in homes/villages/ways of life lost.

“One must realise that [the Belgians] are practically an army without a country. One must understand that when they get furloughs they cannot spend them with their families in their homes, getting comfort and encouragement. They either stay within sound of the firing or spend a bleak six days among the strangers of England or of Northern France.”

Published 1915 by A L Burt.

Source: Project Gutenberg.

The extraordinary silence of these long, self-contained days

The Wine of Solitude

The Wine of Solitude
by Irène Némirovsky
translated from French by Sandra Smith

Since reading Suite Française when it was discovered and released I have been eager to read more of Némirovsky’s early novels. This is my second and so far they have failed to come close to the brilliance of her final, inspirational work. Not that this is by any means a bad book, but I suppose I had been expecting something more.

I suspect some of Némirovsky’s own life fed into this novel. It follows a family with a Jewish father who move from Ukraine to Russia to Finland to Paris in the 1910s and 1920s, so the background is the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the stock market rise and fall. Which is a turbulent, exciting and occasionally terrifying background for what is at heart the coming of age of a young woman.

“The smell of cigars and brandy wafted through the house until morning, slipping beneath her door and insinuating itself into her dreams. A faraway rumbling shook the paving stones: artillery detachments were passing by in the street.”

But it’s not that simple. Hélène dearly loves her father but he has no time for her between his gambling and business affairs – everything is about making money for Boris Karol. And Hélène’s mother should never really have become a mother at all, as she just wants to party, have affairs with young men and buy expensive clothes and jewels. Hélène harbours quite deep hatred of her mother, which becomes more bitter as she gets older.

“When she was ten years old she began to find a melancholy charm in the solitude of these Sundays. She liked the extraordinary silence of these long, self-contained days, which were like faint little suns in a different universe where time flowed at a slower pace.”

There is a lot of negative emotion in this book, as if Némirovsky is pressing home the point that money does not equal happiness. In fact, the brief interludes of happiness for Hélène are determinedly simple pleasures – going for afternoon walks with her French governess, sledging in snow, childhood summers in Paris playing with children who don’t judge her for being different, for having fashionable clothes and speaking better French than Russian. But mostly her early life is unhappy. Not terrible or desperate, but unhappy. And part of her journey to adulthood is learning to find and enjoy those simple pleasures, and making the decision whether to be cold and strong like her mother or passionate but breakable like her father.

“A storm was brewing over Paris; the sky was covered in copper-coloured wisps of cloud that slowly moved closer together to form a blanket of pink mist that parted every so often to reveal a dazzling ray of light.”

There is some beautiful writing here, especially in the descriptions of places, but I found the dialogue and descriptions of emotions a little simplistic or false-sounding. There would be pages of Hélène analysing herself in a manner both too detached and knowing but also naively that for me broke the spell.

“No, I won’t read. All those books make me anxious and unhappy. I have to be happy; I have to like other people…Tonight, I’ll cut out pictures, I’ll draw—I’m happy; I want to be a happy little girl.”

Not that it wasn’t worth reading. And I certainly think there is more to this book than the cover art lets on (a terrible cliché of the elegant young woman in Paris, which doesn’t come close to expressing the darkness that this book contains). It just suffers from my having read what was probably Némirovsky’s best before I read the rest.

First published as Le vin de solitude by Editions Albin Michel in 1935.

This translation published 2011 by Chatto & Windus.

Source: This was a present from my Dad for Christmas 2012.

C is for…?

by Tom McCarthy

This is another book club read that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise and I’m a little annoyed that in the end I missed the book club meeting about it due to illness, as I think I would have got a lot more from the book by discussing it. As it was, I must admit that it fell a little flat for me.

One of the many review quotes on the book’s cover calls it “admirable for an unashamed literary ambition” and, well, it certainly does scream its literariness but I’m not sure how admirable that is. Although the narration is third person, it follows quite closely the thought processes of its main character Serge, frequently combining stream of consciousness with mechanical or scientific detail in a manner that I found hard to follow and frankly dull. There were so many allusions to science, myth or literature that you could create a very long reading list to interpret the nuances of C.

The novel follows the story of Serge’s life, starting with his birth, and it’s a reasonably interesting life. Born in 1898 to a deaf mother and a father who is both an inventor and principal of a school for the deaf (in which sign language is banned), in the early section there is a certain amount of comedy, sadly lacking later on. Serge’s name itself is pronounced in the French manner by his mother (“sairj”, which he prefers) and the English way by his father (“surge”, like electricity, a running theme) who is a brusque, difficult but enthusiastic and highly animated man. Serge has an older sister, Sophie, who he is devoted to, though as they get older he worries that she is so much cleverer than he. She performs chemistry experiments from an early age, is generously indulged by her father and cannily uses her little brother without him realising he is being manipulated.

From well-to-do English countryside, the action moves to a spa town near Dresden, where Serge has been sent to be healed of a digestive disorder; then to the First World War, during which Serge serves as a frontline aeroplane radio operator; then to post-war London, where Serge half-heartedly studies architecture while becoming increasingly embroiled in drug culture and addiction; then finally to Egypt, where Serge is sent without him ever really being clear what he is supposed to be doing. They’re very different locations and situations but what ties it all together is radio and Serge’s obsession with it.

Serge’s father, at the start of the novel, is building one of the first wireless stations. It becomes the favourite hobby of teenage Serge to listen in on conversations in Morse code and this feeds directly into his wartime employment. Between injury, illness and drug-taking he is often delirious or otherwise in an altered state of mind and at those times his thought patterns become electricity- or Morse-like, rearranging the world he sees into waves and patterns.

Serge is a very believable, multi-faceted character, but he is a little cold for my liking, though there are reasons for him being that way. I thought the depiction of him as a soldier and just after the war was particularly well done, the stand out moment being when someone begins to sympathise with what he must have been through in the war and how hard that must have been and he replies, “But I liked the war.” It’s actually an ambiguous statement, because Serge spent much of the war and a lot of the time since so drug-addled he has no handle on reality, but he thinks he really means it.

It’s not a book to read if you’re easily annoyed by little rich boys getting out of scrapes through a combination of money and knowing the right people. Or indeed if you want to know exactly what is happening and have every question answered (there are a few recurring details that I expected to come to something but never did, plus there’s all the need for interpretation). But neither of those applies to me usually, so I can only conclude that it was the writing style itself that put me off. It was certainly at times beautiful and evocative, but far too often I found myself skimming long passages through boredom, and I definitely wasn’t engrossed.

First published in 2010 by Jonathan Cape. Paperback published 2011 by Vintage.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010.