The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

In October this novel won its author the 2010 Man Booker Prize for fiction. It was highly praised by the judges: Andrew Motion, the chair of the panel, described it as ‘a marvellous book: very funny, of course, but also very clever, very sad and very subtle. It is all that it seems to be and much more than it seems to be. A completely worthy winner of this great prize’. Much of the published critical reaction has also been very enthusiastic. However, a check of customer reactions on the website tells a different story. There is certainly some enthusiasm, but a lot of the commentators speak of their disappointment, and of finding the book tedious, boring, and impossible to finish.

Although by his own admission not an observant Jew, Jacobson is a writer very conscious of his Jewish background and heritage, and this, apparently like many of his other books (though Redback set in Australian academia is an exception) focuses very much on the experience of being Jewish today. Set in London, its primary focus is on Julian Treslove, a melancholy middle-aged and middle class man who seems never to make much success of anything he tries. Prominent in the novel are two Jewish men, both recently widowed, the elderly Libov, who once had a successful journalistic career which brought him into contact with celebrities, and Samuel Finkler, a former schoolmate of Treslove’s but now a media celebrity on the basis of his work popularising (and trivialising) philosophy. Treslove and these two frequently meet together, and could be regarded as friends, though there is a good measure of rivalry and jealousy in the relationship between Treslove and Finkler.

Central to the novel is Treslove’s mugging one evening by a woman, who says something to him which he interprets as possibly being ‘You Jew’. This heightens in Treslove a desire to possess qualities he believes Jews to possess, and to become a Jew himself, a ‘Finkler’ as he calls it in his own mind, and much of the novel, which has little in the way of a ‘story line’, is concerned with his exploration of what being Jewish involves. (Perhaps surprisingly, the theology and religious beliefs of Judaism has little role in this. The emphasis is on social and attitudinal aspects of Judaism.) There is much introspection on Treslove’s part, and he and the reader encounter a great many varieties of Jewish experience, much of it involving anxieties and misgivings. A group called ‘ASHamed Jews’, in which Finkler plays a major role, though not without challenge, is prominent. This takes place against a background of significant anti-Semitism, which several of the Jewish characters, and one strongly suspects the author, see as a major problem threatening the physical and social well-being of Jews in countries like Britain today.

If the frequent suggestions that the novel is ‘very funny’ encouraged anyone to read it in the expectation of a good laugh, he or she would be disappointed. There are amusing moments, but much of the humour consists in the presentation of the bizarre, the offbeat, the hyperbolic – such as the Jewish man trying to reverse the physical effects of circumcision. Some critics have praised the characterisation, but readers may find it a problem that the characters are presented with little warmth or humanity. Treslove is a rather tiresome ‘loser’: he does not conspicuously display qualities of decency and honesty which redeem other losers in literature, and the fact that women are attracted to him, albeit some briefly, and two have borne sons to him, strains credulity. Finkler is frankly rather unpleasant, and Libov does not emerge far from the ‘elderly Mitteleuropa Jew’ stereotype. The female characters rarely if ever become more than foils to the men – this is perhaps most noticeable in the case of Hephzibah, who becomes Treslove’s partner in a relationship which seems to offer remarkably little to her.

Perhaps the greatest success of the novel is in its treatment of male grief. Neither Libov nor Finkler had a perfect marriage relationship, though Libov came a lot closer than the frequently unfaithful Finkler, and each feels quite complex emotions as they come to terms with their loss. Jacobson must also be credited with writing prose that is invariable lucid, and which carries the reader on even when he or she is suppressing an inward groan when yet more angst rears its head. The Finkler Question is probably to be regarded as a work for the connoisseur, no more readily and instantly enjoyable than the new classical music composition that the orchestra conductor slips in between the Rossini overture and the Tchaikovsky symphony, but it is interesting as an example of what expert opinion regards as outstanding novel writing at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Sense and Sensibilty by Jane Austen

Oh - isn't it great to read Jane again? I have enjoyed myself very much in this reading. I hope some of you are enjoying it too and will share some thoughts and favourite scenes or passages with us. This book should be shared aloud. I confess it took me 50 or so pages to get back into the rhythm of her prose but once having achieved that I smiled and sometimes laughed all the way through the book.

Sense and Sensibilty (1811) was Austens first published novel . The story centres around the Dashwood young women , Elinor and Marianne , their mother , a step brother and his family and a host of family friends and occasionally, would-be enemies. It is a first rate domestic comedic drama with a very simple plot line - and there in lies the genius. The dialogue between the characters and the musings of Elinor , her sister and others bob along with wit, incisive observation on character ,in the small and larger matters of love life , enough to delight anyone. The main twists in the story are related to who is going to marry who and the very important associated issue of how much money each couple is going to have for their reasonably relaxed and indolent lifestyles. In this novel as contrasted with some of the later novels - Emma for instance- no one is observed, even obliquely , working at earning a living - men or women. Whatever farming supervision and management is undertaken on estates owned by some family members gets very little or no mention - it all gets done out there somewhere but doesn't impinge on the plot line at all . We don't meet any dependent governesses needing salvation or support either.

But who do we meet ? A wonderful array of people who in the course of the novel exhibit for us love, selfishness, wisdom, cunning, generosity, meanness, cleverness, stupidity etc etc. In fact just about all the juxtaposed qualities used by many of us in our day- to- day lives. If the social scenery we are observing is relatively contained, even by comparison with other Austen novels, it is so so stylishly presented from the point of view of Sense and Sensibility. I think the very restricted view concentrates the minute observation so clearly. I particularly love the author's obvious delight in summarising foibles so well. One passage among many illustrated this point well for me - a summary of the characters of two of the least attractive women in the book , Lady Middleton and Mrs Dashwood junior - the wife of the step brother , not Mrs Dashwood senior - mother of Elinor and I quote:
"There was a kind of cold hearted selfishness on both sides, which mutually attracted them; and they symathised with each other in an insipid propriety of demeanour, and a general want of understanding". Ch 34 - Ouch.

Austen , in this early novel, uses this strong criiical approach to behaviour and communication to bring home her acute observations time and time again - but , of course in the end the good girls get the right husbands . But then also, the more selfish ones manage allright also - particularly if they have a good income. This work is possibly the most romantic of her novels yet spiced with the most acerbic observations of relationships, interdependence and enlightened self interest. A passage toward the end of the novel shows this intent very clearly . Lucy Steele ,a young woman of no fortune who needs to marry well , curries favour with her wealthier relatives and family acquaintances to get by and move in "Town" (London) circles .She successfully and surprisingly marries Robert Ferrars, a man of good income, by a circuitous and dubious route - much to the shock of most of the people who know her. The author summarises as follow and I quote:
"The whole of Lucy's behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience" Ch 49. Ouch again.

I just love it - do you?

Going back to look at some of the other characters - First , the sisters Elinor and Marianne are central to the story . We have the opportunity to view their romances through a range of betrayals and misunderstandings to eventual successful marriages at the end of the book. Elinor is a typical Austen heroine - wise and her family's rock of sense. Marianne is lovely but with a little too much sensibilty although very kind hearted and bright . Mrs Dashwood senior, their mother , loves her family of three daughters unselfishly .We know very little about Margaret , her youngest daughter, mostly because she is not of marriagable age and therefore of no use to the storyline. Mrs Jennings , a would-be duenna with wealth to spare, is a great character who bubbles along talking and indulging in written communication continuously. Her misunderstandings are an important humorous element in the novel. There are a range of fairly cardboard cut-out men who have important associatve roles too in exemplifying mores of selfishness and occasionally , nobility.

I think you will be pleased with this book about a certain class of English country folk at a certain stage of society going about the important task of achieving and arranging marriages by one of the best novelsts ever. Love to hear your take which will be bound to be different from mine.

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

In June and July 2010 a dramatisation of the Charles Dickens novel Little Dorrit was shown on Australian television. The dramatisation was the work of Andrew Davis, famous in part for his dramatisation of Jane Austin's Pride and prejudice. Being based on a far more sombre work, Davis's Little Dorrit inevitably lacked the grace and good humour of his version of the Austin novel, but it produced several hours of very watchable television in a lavish production which generally adhered closely to the novel (though there were some fairly minor changes: Mrs Merdle, for example, is last seen in the television series amusingly planning a 'midlight flight' along with the daughter-in-law she despises, carrying what portable property she can salvage from the financal wreckage of her husband's bank. In the novel she settles into genteel poverty, accepted by High Society as a victim of a villainous husband.)

The novel originally appeared in monthly parts in 1856-57, when Dickens (1812-70) was at the height of his powers, but we encounter it now in a long volume (of over 850 pages in the Penguin edition). It was relatively unpopular when first published, being widely criticised for its somber tone and excessively complicated plot. More recently, however, several critics have argued it is among the finest of Dickens's novels, and even his best work. One doubts, nevertheless, that it is among the better loved or better known of his novels.

The novel is set, mainly in London but also in France and Italy, about 1825. The plot is elaborate, and the novel is in a real sense a mystery story. The plot opens in a prison, and prisons, particularly the London debtors's prison, the Marshalsea, figure prominently. Amy Dorrit, 'Little Dorrit', the eponymous heroine, initially appears as the daugher of a longterm Marshalsea prisoner. Imprisonment is in fact a major theme of the book, and we see that in all sectors of society, from high to low, among good and bad, people are prisoners. Little Dorrit's father and brother, Arthur Clennam, the novel's hero, and the villainous Rigaud, alias Blandois, are among those who are literally prisoners at one stage or other, but the fabulous wealthy financier Merdle, who generally holds himself as if he were being taken into custody, is clearly a prisoner of his own dishonesty and deception, and the fanatical religious puritain Mrs Clennam (who appears to be Arthurs' mother until late in the novel) is a prisoner both of her ill health, which apparently keeps her confined to one gloomy room, and of her gloomy and vengeful religiosity.

A great range of social classes and categories of people appear in the novel, and this vivid richness is one of the pleasures of reading it one hundred and fifty years after it was written. Dickens shows, sometimes in ways that stretch credulity, that quite unlikely people are related, sometimes by family ties, more often by sharing a common fate (as when the crash of the Merdle bank brings down high and low). The novel can indeed by sombre, particularly in its first half, sub-titled 'Poverty' and largely set among those living hand to mouth in the bottom rungs of society, but it can also be highly amusing and entertaining. The pretensions of those who pride themselves as being 'Society' are amusingly satirised. A well-known feature of the novel is the 'Circumlocution Office' a far more biting satire on the civil service of the time, presented as existing only to prevent anything useful being done in Britain and to feather the nests of the extended Barnacle family that controls it. (Opinions will probably differ, but for this reader the Circumlocution Office satire was rather heavy-handed and soon became unfunny and unconvincing.)

One cannot long consider the novel Little Dorrit without considering the character Little Dorrit. A small, frail young woman in her early twenties she is very much in the tradition of Dickens's blameless, meek and gentle, pure and noble heroines. We are told ad nauseum how small and how good Little Dorrit is. One might describe her as saintly, except that most real saints seem to have relatively flawed personalities by comparison (and, except in one melodramatic scene near the end, when she is confronted by the puritanical Mrs Clennam and utters some banal pieties, Little Dorrit is not portrayed as religious). The unrelentingly sentimentality lavished on Little Dorrit is probably a stumbling block for most modern readers, and given that other novelists of the period, such as the Brontes and George Eliot, were able to give their readers far more human female characters, it probably reflects Dickens's willingness to pander to the sentimentality of his mass audience (and perhaps his own curious ideas about ideal womanhood). It must also be said that the melodramatic ending of the novel is far from convincing, even if we take into account the belief of time in the reality of coincidence in human life.

Reading Little Dorrit is a major project, and not always an easy one. Dickens's prose is unfailingly graceful, except when he deliberately mades it otherwise for effect (as in Flora's amusing but also somewhat poignant monologues), but his sentences can make demands on us to which we are not now accustomed, and the sentimentality is offputting. But one does feel in the presence of a major work, and moments of real enjoyment are far from rare.

"Running in the Family" by Michael Ondaatje with commentary by Faye Lawrence

Michael Ondaatje is well known for his Booker winner, the novel "The English Patient". . As well as being a very successful novelist he is a noted poet, literary editor, academic and film maker. Ondaatje was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka , in 1943 , moved to England with his mother and attended senior school there before migrating to Canada. He became a Canadian citizen in the 1960s where his literary talents have been recognised with many awards. He lives in Toronto.

"Running in the Family" , published in 1982 , is a memoir about his family in Sri Lanka which reaches back and forwards over several generations to tell a highly personal , yet historically and culturally fasinating story . It has all the hallmarks of a poet and imaginatve novelist - wonderful imagery, incredible story-telling , atmosphere you can feel, emotion and humour. Ondaatje tells how he was drawn to travel to Sri Lanka to re-connect with his family and his roots by a "the bright bone of a dream I could hardly hold onto". The memories , smells and sounds of Sri Lanka called him . He writes of "wanting to touch them (his relations) into words".

A special feature of this lyrical , explorative memoir is the story of Sri Lanka itself . The physical, cultural and historical background is beautifully , often humourously and graphically portrayed. One is constantly reminded of the physical surroundings - heat, rain, floods, cool shade, wonderful animal life , colonial architecture , spices, tea plantations , winding roads, jungle , plants, flowers etc.

In this sensual setting we hear equally wonderful stories about recent generation family members no longer alive .The recollections by friends and relatives of the authors father and maternal grandmother and both amazing and touching. The Grandmother is depicted by relatives as an Aunty Mame character with a penchant for picking flowers from friends or public gardens and presenting them as gifts. The stories are gleaned from family members and friends recollections as the author travelled around and visited many places in this small and vibrant island which he knew as a child - and in the hands and mind of the poet novelist they take on a fictional/family legend quality of sometimes alarming and always entertaining qualities .

Interwoven with the more fanciful, entertaining family stories is the authors visceral , dreamlike recollections , reconstructions and analyses of the family history going back some centuries but mostly looking back at two previous generations. At times the reader can be puzzled by the multiple story tellers Ondaaatje is employing in the narrative - however it tends to fall into place as you go along . I was confused at times but delighted overall and found the style and technique added to the character of the relatively small memoir - aptly so about a small but altogether fascinating country.

I was intrigued by the historical vignettes about Sri Lanka which come through the memoir via the family background. You get a tantalising view of the colonial past and the multicultural legacy of centuries and centuries of migration , conquest and assimilation - often via poets or writers of the past. I dont mean to give the impression that there is an attempt to chrionicle this long, fascinating history but the author in talking of his family connections going back centuries does offer some intriguing insights into its nature , its difference, its fascination for locals and foreigners.

There is one particular chapter "Don't talk to me about Matisse" which delighted me with the literary refrences and feel for the place. In this chapter the author writes of an ancestor Dr William Charles Ondaatje, a Tamil, who was a Director of the Botanical Gardens in the mid 19th Century "who knew at least fifty-five specimens of poisons easily available to his countrymen" and wrote them up in journals. D.H. Lawrence found Ceylon very difficult and in typical style strongly wrote of his feelings and distaste. Michael Ondaatje comments in this context "Heat disgraces foreigners" The lyrical , often sad Ceylonese poetry quoted contrasts with these observations. The line"Dont talk to me about Matisse" comes from such a poet.

"Running in the Family" then is not the usual run- of- the- mill family memoir .The reader goes on the explorative journey with the author and picks up a lot of information on the way about this multicultural , unique part of Asia with which Australia has many close connections - not only from this difficult current time but of the past 50 or so decades .For instance I was motivated to follow up on the Sri Lankan Cultural groups and found from my google search that Melbourne has a large community of citizens of Burgher origin from Sri Lanka - folk with some Dutch background . Yasmine Gooneratne , a Professor at Macquarie University ,and a fine novelist in her own right is mentioned in the book as supplying information and background. Sri Lanka is then more than just a sum of its parts - it is a significant and influential part of our world. Michael Ondaatje in his exploration of his heritage has opened this up to me. I hope it met his needs in finding his roots.

Coonardoo by Katharine Susannah Prichard - commentary by Faye Lawrence

I have just returned from a trip to the Nothern Territory where I had nine days visiting dramatically beautiful and highly significant cultural sites in Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks. I re-read "Coonardoo" as my evening reading whilst I was travelling around this region which was both a poignant and poetically apposite experience to add to the magnificence of the terrain and the cultural intensity of the country. The novel is set in Northern Western Australia however the countryside is sufficiently similar to be evocative of the country I was in.

Coonardoo is the Aboriginal heroine of the story which was first published in 1929. It is a tragedy and a love story. The love story is particularly remarkable because it was between an Aboiginal woman and a white cattle station owner. As is often mentioned, the fact of sex between Aboriginal women and white men was not unusual in the remote parts of Australia at that time but a story of actual love was daring in the extreme and caused somewhat of a scandal.

Katharine Prichard was writing of her time as any writer would be but she was stretching the imaginitative limitations at the same time. The passages where the love between the two is explored are few in the book but they are strong and touching. Throughout the book we are constantly reminded of the womanly affection and love which Coonardoo has for Hugh - the station owner - whilst the love Hugh has for Coonardoo has to be explained in the context of his (and white Australias) limited understanding of the Aboriginal society. Hugh cannot entirely face the fact of his deep affection until towards the end of the novel. Hugh's morality, meaning that he will not live in partnership with an Aboriginal woman, is explored warts and all by Prichard. Hugh is a decent man by the standard of the day , kindly and respectful to his Aboriginal indentured workers which in turn adds to the poignancy of the situation. Coonardoo is a tragic victim as much of his decency as of the overall racism , ignorance and roughness of the remote country. An excellent essay on the novel "Coonardoo" by Drusilla Modjeska for the 1990 edition outlines this thesis very well and is recommended.

The novel is remarkable on several other levels - we are treated to poetic descriptions by Prichard continually . She paints clear exciting pictures of the scenery, the birdlife and the atmosphere. One description of heat in this country shows off her wonderful writing and observation and I quote from Chapter 19. "The air, at a little distance, palpitated, thrown off from the stones in minute atoms, visible one moment, flown to invisibility the next. Weaving with the sun for shuttle. the air spun heat which was suffocating." and then a little later in the paragraph "And stillness, a breathless heaviness, drowsed the senses, brain and body, as if that mythological snake the blacks believed in, a rock python, silvery grey, black and brown, sliding down from hills of the sky, were puttting the opiate of his breath into the air, folding you round and round, squeezing the life out of you"

This one example of her powerful descriptive writing also serves to bring out a couple of other strong points about the work. Namely that it is of its time - mention of "blacks" collectively and other terms are stated simply and leave a modern day Australian somewhat shocked. But along with this there is the honest attempt to give the Aboriginal way of life as she saw it and researched it a dignified and very significant part in the story. It is a view from "the homestead verandah" of inter-relationships of the two cultures but it is a very empathetic and intelligent one. Prichard lived at Turee station in the Kimberleys for several months with some family friends and was inspred by her time there .She had known very little of Aboriginal culture or Station life before this . She had gone there from Perth to have quiet time to finish "Haxbys Circus" but stumbled upon this incredibly rich aspect of life in Australia which provided her with the background for this inspired, imaginative work. The detail she absorbed of Station life, white Australian prejudices and ignorance , Aboriginal life, storyline and language, droving and horsebreaking etc are woven into the story with great skill.

The characterisations in this two culture novel are inevitably uneven. We know a lot about Coonardoo but we cant know her thoughts very well - because the author will not have her think like a white woman . There is therefore an uneveness in the portrayals of the main Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal characters . The Aboriginal characters other than Coonardoo are depicted by their actions set in cultural patterns . In this context they are honestly drawn and illuminate the Aboriginal tapestry of this story and are vital to the richness of it. However they are not characters perhaps in the usual novelistic sense.

Of the white characters , Hugh is somewhat problematic but his mother , Mumae, who valiantly worked the beloved catlle and horse station, "Wytaliba" whilst Hugh was away at school hovers over the story even after her death. Mumae is portrayed as an astute "verandah" observer - a decent hard working woman of the outback who treated her Aboriginal workers (indentured who work for food only ) with kindness but firmness as if they were children . She is pivotal to our understanding of where the story is going. In death she hovers ,it is believed ,over all in the guise of white cockatoos. Other white characters are intriguing - Sam Geary - awful but honest, Cock-eyed Bob, Saul, Hugh's wife Mollie who is well drawn, Phyllis, Hugh's Kimberley loving daughter - all add to the many dimensions of this fine and highly readable. novel.

I recommend this fine novel by a writer of rare sensitivity for her time who is , I think , being rediscovered. She is one of those very special women writers who have contributed so much to the Australian cannon by their sensitivity to the country and people and by their rich talent.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

First published in 1955, The Quiet American is probably one of the best-known and most admired of Greene's many novels. It is based in part on the writer's experiences as a reporter living in Saigon in the early 1950s. The setting is Vietnam during the war between the then colonial power, France, and the Viet Minh, the largely Communist rebel movement seeking to end French rule, in the period shortly before the definitive French defeat iat Dien Bien Phu n 1954. But in another sense the setting could be said to be what has often called 'Greeneland', the exotic, corrupt, decadent world of several of Greene's novels. (The Mexico of The Power and the Glory may spring to mind.) However, to say this is not to imply that there is something formulaic or unconvincing about the novel's portral of Vietnam, which in fact comes vividly to life for readers of the novel. It may be a bit of a cliche, but one does feel almost able to see the colours and smell the smells of the times and places Greene evokes.

There are a few memorable minor characters, such as the Pascal-reading, devoutly Catholic senior police officer Vigot, but this is essentially the story of three people. The narrator, Thomas Fowler, is a middle-aged English reporter, cynical and a bit world weary but happy enough living an unambitious life in Saigon with Phuong, a young Vietnamese woman. Into his world comes Alden Pyle, the 'quiet American' of the title, an idealistic Harvard graduate convinced that he has a mission to help Vietname by fostering a 'Third Force', a democratic nationalism which will provide an alterantive to both colonialims and Communism. Pyle also develops an interest in Phuong, and determines, with temporary success, to win her away from Fowler, with a view to marrying her and taking her to America. Central to the novel is the relationship between the two men, not really a friendship (despite Pyle's earnest efforts) but never really open hostility either. At one stage Pyle saves Fowler's life during a Viet Minh attack, and at the end Fowler appears to be complicit in Pyle's murder, having discovered that Pyle's activities include supplying the wherewithal for a rebel general to mount murderous attacks on Saigon civilians. Fowler decides that however noble Pyle's motives may be, his actions make him a menace that must be removed.

It has been suggested that the three main characters, Fowler, Pyle, and Phuong, to some extent 'represent' Europe, the United States, and Vietnam (or the colonised Third World more generally). There is probably a measure of truth in this, but the two men at least are individualised sufficiently to make them more than stereotypes. Phuong is a more problmatic case, and there have been accustations of both sexism and Orientalism in her portrayal. We do find statements like this comment by Fowler to Pyle on Phuong: 'She'll suffer from childbirth, and hunger and cold and rheumatism, but she will never suffer as we do from thoughts, obsessions - she won't scratch, she'll only decay.' However, it must be kept in mind that though Fowler is the narrator, he is also a character with biases, and that he cannot just be assumed to be presenting the author's views for us to endorse.

When first published the novel was denounced by some as being anti-American. Certainly it suggests that in some respects American idealism of the kind Pyle represents is likely to create greater suffering and mayhem than cynicism and pragmatism. But today it is difficult not to see the novel as more prophetic than ideologically biased. We inevitably read it in the light of the Americans' own war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and its pictures of the French, fighting what is clearly a losing war while pretending officially that all is well and victory is folllowing victory, is uncannily reminiscent of what we know was to come later, in the years leading up to the ultimate American defeat. (Some might see disturbing parallels to the Afghanistan war of today.)

The Quiet American may not display the most profound characterisation. Its picture of the Caodaist religion (which still claims seven to eight million adherents in Vietnam) may be a comic opera travesty. But is a beautifully written book, vivid, entertaining, thoughtful, and very enjoyable despite the disturbing elements of its subject matter.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

I read this very well known and loved, Gone with the Wind - published in 1936, for the very first time just recently and I am glad I did - all 1,000 plus pages of it. It is a very exciting story , very well written backed by incredible research and based around personal background knowledge. It is peopled by several memorable characters , with a mighty setting around a great historical event which all makes for a tale on a grand scale. For me however the most outstanding and enthralling aspect of it all is the fictionalised historical background to the Amrerican Civil War from the point of the view of the South and in particular the aftermath Reconstruction period and its affect on Southern society. This was a part of this terrible war history that I was ignorant about . I am sure we are getting a very Southern view of this period from Margaret Mitchell , a proud and biased Southener, nevertheless it is fascinating one and has made me more aware of the background and some of the differences, sensibilities and perceptions in US Society even today.

Margaret Mitchell obviously knew this society so well - and even though she was writing about an earlier generation -it reads , in some ways, like a personal account of these happenings. The background detail of the society is incredibly strong . The desciptions and insights into Plantation life and the City of Atlanta are engrossing. All the prejudices about race, the impossible ideal of the southern white belle , the southern white male who must bear arms and fight to defend his and his family's honour against lesser mortals and northeners at any time , the fearful Ku Klux Klan - are so clearly and powerfully displayed in this story. The film was very good , followed the story quite well but it didnt really bring out the points about Reconstruction, Racism and and the Society mores near as well as in the book. Apparently this was a deliberate decision by Director Selznick- the racism and Southern bias was just too mush for his and Hollywood's sensibilities - the film came out in 1939 and was an instant success as was the book. We know Margaret Mitchell took 10 years to write it and that she published no other novels. The sales and the film made her very wealthy.

Re the characters one could go on and on about them - Could someone like Ashley really exist outside Scarlet's imagination ? Is Melanie too good for words? I understand that most young American women of the 50s and 60s considered Melanie was the main heroine to be admired and emulated whereas recent surveying in US schools has young women choosing Scarlett as their favourite and most admired character in the book. Margaret Mitchell is said to have thought Melanie was the main heroine - the perfect example of Southern womanhood - but I suspect Scarlett developed a life of her own for the author. For me, some of the very best minor characters are the white older dowager Women of Atlanta society - they are drawn affectionately by Mitchell - warts and all and are essential to the "feel" of the place. The sad racism means that none of the black characters can be believed - charicature and stereotyping are the norm .

My main thought is that one can enjoy and read this for the excitment and grandeur of the story and the clever writing however a current day reader gets most from it as as a major social and historical novel giving special insight into the regional mindset of some folks in the Southern (Dixieland) States of America. I think it is well worth reading. I would be delighted to hear from others about their experiences of reading it recently or years ago.

“Truth” by Peter Temple

Readers who first came to read Peter Temple through his very popular and lyrical “Broken Shore” may be a little surprised with “Truth” – I am one of those - I was surprised that is -but then not disappointed.

“Truth” features Inspector Villani, chief of the Victorian homicide squad who was a Melbourne based senior colleague of Joe Cashin in the earlier, novel which was set in a sylvan Victorian country setting. This one by contrast takes place almost wholly in the urban setting or at least it feels like that.

It is a tough uncompromising style of cop novel. There are a couple of gruesome murders being investigated by Villani and his squad. Along the way there are several compromising issues and incidents involving the inspectors and their seniors. Villani himself, is faced with leadership issues, moral questions and a series of major personal versus career crises – with his wife, daughters, brother and father for starters. It is realism plus and all takes place over a relatively short period of a week or even less It is packed with detail brought out with terse dialogue and in depth backgound detail - a movie almost in the making I think.

On the dialogue which is a special feature of the novel’s style – one cannot help but note how terse and realistic and probably authentic it is. I found I needed to read very carefully to keep up with what was going on in the different scenarios and to understand the conversations between the police especially. Temple makes no compromises - he has said that he likes to challenge the reader and indeed he does. You have to literally sit in on conversations – and work out was has gone on before between the conversationalists; fill in the dots; remember earlier references – a sort of literary and concentration puzzle - I think rewardingly so. Apparently his American publishers have requested and are getting a 200 words plus dictionary for the book in order to clarify the Victorian police patois for fans there. In this book especially Temple does remind us of some of the very best of American detective and thriller writers. I wonder, is Melbourne the new crime capital of the world?

I also liked the personal dilemmas Villani faced in this fast paced story involving his daughters, his superiors, his lover and especially with his father. The father is an idiosyncratic character who will not leave his semi rural property with the advent of nearby bushfires. Villani senior’s sons – the chief inspector and his doctor brother are involved in a remarkable series of scenes on this theme towards the end of the book. So there is plenty of personal, family interest throughout the novel along with the action. Villani is a well-drawn successful career policeman and maybe the authenticity of the writing holds up best in encapsulating for the reader what it is like to “live” an intense career like this. I think this is a very fine thriller which meets the criteria for being a work of literature.

What is the “Truth” herein? - Varied I think. The quickly realised truth at the end is a little stunner but then the realism of the book has conditioned you for it.


Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall was the 2009 winner of the Man Booker Prize, probably the most prestigious award for novels in the English speaking world. Unlike many winners of the award, it is not a dauntingly challenging work, demanding dedication and concentration from the reader. Wolf Hall, though a book of 650 pages, is acccessible and readily enjoyable, whilst being intelligent and stimulating.

It is an historical novel, set in one of the most colourful and dramatic periods of English history, the years 1529 to 1536 during which Henry VIII divorced Katherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn, and during which the English Church broke with Rome. The cast is a large one, though rarely confusing, and a very wide range of social settings and types of people appear. But at the centre is Thomas Cromwell, a man of humble origins who rose during this period to be the king's most trusted adviser, and the possessor of great wealth and influence. The novel is recounted in the third person, and usually in the present tense, and we encounter Cromwell in a wide variety of situations, and intereacting with everyone from the king to labourers and people on the fringes of society.

Mantel creates an attractive Cromwell. He is a man of affairs and no otherworldly saint, but he is a loyal servant first of Cardinal Wolsey and then of the king, a good friend, an often compaasionate opponent, a devoted family man, generous to the underdog. He is the most competent of men, a lawyer, administrator, and financial manager of immense skill, a competent linguist in several languages, but also able to turn his hand to cooking a splendid dinner or shoeing a horse. Perhaps as a central figure Cromwell is a bit too perfect, but Mantel is very skillful in making a somewhat unlikely hero attactive to the reader.

Mantel's skill in evoking early Tudor England is immense. She clearly has done extensive reaearch, but her learning is worn lightly, and the world she creates is fascinating, vivid, and convincing. There is no sense of anachronism: one does not have the sense here, as often with historical novels, that some of the characters have twentieth or twenty-first century mindsets inside clothing from centuries past. The language is modern but not jarringly so: the reader is not challenged by any of 'ye olde Englishe speeche'. It is, however, not always easy to know who is speaking. Mantel avoids guidelines of the 'Cromwell replied' kind. The reader will probably find it useful to assume that he' normally means Cromwell.

Modern attitudes to Thomas Cromwell have probably been shaped in large part by Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, which commenced life as a radio play in 1954 but is better known in the 1960 stage version and the 1966 film. In Bolt's work Cromwell is an unscrupulous and ruthless opportunist who contrasts with Thomas More, the saintly martyr for freedom of conscience. There is evidence (including an interview available on YouTube) that Mantel set delibertely about presenting a diametrically opposite view. Her Cromwell is clearly a true 'man for all seasons'; her More, though achieving a certain dignity as his end (which is also the end of the book) approaches, is a shabby, mean-spirited, cruel, religious fanatic. He is probably the closest thing to a villain in Wolf Hall , which generally allows its characters to speak for themselves, and to engender in us some sympathy for their situation and point of view.

It has been suggested that Mantel uses the freedom of the novelist to shed new light on the history of the period, but her work is of course not history, and leading Tudor historian David Starkey has described it as 'tosh'. Certainly not all historians views Cromwell so sympathetically. Past generations admired him as an important creator of the early modern English administrative system and as a man who did much to make England Protestant, but more recently he has been widely viewed as vicious, unscrupulous and cruel, and outraqesously avaricious.

Mantel is said to be working on a follow-up novel dealing with the remaining years of Cromwell's career (which of course ended on the executioner's block, like that of so many who served Henry VIII). This reader looks forward to it with eager anticipation.