The Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien

Books discussed in this blog generally fall into one of two categories: they are well-known works from earlier times by writers with an established place in the traditional canon (Austen, Dickins, Conrad, etc.); or they are recent works by writers with a reputation as authors of serious fiction.

The Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien (1897-1974) does not fit easily into either category. It was first published in 1940 by an Irish writer who did enjoy a certain literary prestige in her time but who is far from a house name today. The fame she does enjoy is probably due in large part to her reputation as a feminist writer. The feminist publishing house Virago republished The Land of Spices in 2001.

Superficially the book is a school story. It is largely set in an Irish convent boarding school run by a French order of nuns in the early years of the twentieth century. One of its two central characters is a pupil, Anna Murphy, who is sent to the school from a disfunctional home at the exceptionally early age of six. A major concern of the novel concerns Anna's growth and development at the school, in the course of which she learns some hard lessons outside the classroom as well as within it. But unlike most school stories, this is not to any significant degree the story of its central character's interactions with other pupils. Anna is neither isolated nor immensely popular: she never becomes the heroine of the school, and we learn relatively little about schoolgirl friends and enemies.

O'Brien is more concerned about Anna's relationship with her other central character, the school's headmistress, Reverend Mother Marie-Helene Archer. The reverend mother is a highly intelligent women from a cultivated background in England and Belgium who has entered the religious life rather unexpectedly (for her and others) after a traumatic experience that is only gradually revealed. She brings great abilities to her religious career, but finds the task of heading a convent in the rather raw and unsophisticated Irish environment challenging and unsatisfying. Early in the novel we encounter her writing to her superior in Belgium asking to be relieved of the post. In a curious way the six-year-old Anna leads her to change her mind. It is the first of a number of occasions in the novel where one of the two main characters very significantly impacts on the other, and towards the end of the novel Mere Archer intervenes rather more dramatically to ensure that Anna gets the opportunity to go to university in the face of opposition from her domineering grandmother.

This account might well make the novel seem a bit predictable and sentimental: an intelligent teacher recognises intelligence in a young pupil, grows to like her despite their differences in background, age, and status, and eventually enables her to fulfil her potential. The reality in the novel is far more subtle. Reverend mother and pupil do not become close friends and allies: Anna is in fact not especially likeable, and their close interactions are not frequent.

Not all the action takes place in the school. We learn a good deal about Marie-Helene's early life in Belgium, and about the troubled home life of Anna and her relationship with a beloved younger brother. There may be parallels between the two characters,but they are far from obvious.

O'Brien's success lies in her creating of vivid scenes and convincing dialogue, and in her very shrewd and perceptive evocation of upper middle class Catholic Ireland, simultaneously smug and anxious, in the years immediately before the First World War. There are many memorable scenes, some of them very amusing in a quiet way. The book is not without flaws: the lengthy passages in which the characters are analysed can become a bit tedious, and O'Brien makes no concesssions to the linguistically challenged. The German quotations are short, but it is useful (though by no means essential) to have a reading knowledge of French, for several letters between the Irish convent and headquarters in Belgium are in that language and left untranslated.

It is strange to realise now that the novel was controversial, at least in Ireland, when first published. I understand that a copy was formally burnt in the grounds of the convent school O'Brien had attended (and on her experiences of which she drew). There is one brief 'sex scene' of the utmost delicacy, but one suspects the problem was actually the suggestion that the sisters in a convent are capable of jealousies, rivalries, and petty acts of meanness and snobbery.

I found this a beautifully written and evocative book. I believe it deserves to be far better known.

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson

This short novel was first published in 1978 . I remember reading it about then and being very impressed. My recent re-read left me still very impressed but with a different realisation and thoughts about it. I did not remember ironically enough - just how much it was about memory and the need to put aside painful experience and memory in order to survive at times .However I did remember it gave me a strong sense of the survival drive of the main character, Nora, as she reminiscences and brings out the story of herself as a child, a young person, a confident career woman, and lastly as an older woman . The accompanying theme of self realisation and learning is the main thematic thrust of this novel. By comparison with other more recent writers with high reputations Anderson weaves psychological insights in illuminating prose effectively and without didacticism. It is story telling of the first order.

We meet Nora , our first person narrator ,when she is about 70 years of age . She has returned to her childhood home in Queensland after many years living and working in London. As she recovers from pneumonia brought on by her travels she is remembering people and events from her past. Her places of memory are outer Brisbane where she spent her childhood , Sydney where she lived for a few years after her marriage and London where she lived and worked until her return at the age of 70 to her childhood home. Anderson's fine writing illuminates this life and the situations with shining , economical clarity . We get to know Nora as she is growing up and can watch this progress , mistakes etc.

In fact the whole book illustrates a self realisation and insight which Nora is working through - here is just one sentence towards the end of the book which gave me a thrill when I read it . Nora is talking with a visitor , Jack, who mentions a name of someone from her past and she thinks "My globe of memory has given one of its lightning spins, and i am dumbfounded not only by what it shows, but by the fact that it has remained on the dark side for so long". A mystery is beginning to unfold in her mind and we travel with her along the path of memory. The blending of the dialogue Nora has with her visitors over the couple of weeks of her sickness and convalescence , and with her thought processes and observations is the structural basis for the novel and it all works easily and seamlessly for the reader.

Another feature of the book which delighted me is the sense of places in the book and the fine graphic descriptions thereof. Details of natural and built surroundings are an important part of memory for our narrator, thank goodness . For instance, we are treated to a wonderful picture of life in some terraces in the Woolloomoolloo area in the thirties which were home to artists, writers ,dressmakers - men and women living and working in the City of Sydney when King's Cross and the Darlinghurst areas were havens for them in a puritanical town. This is an important learning environment for Nora so that when her sad marriage ends and she sails to London she is open to new friendships and experiences. There is a note at the beginning of the book which as well as saying the characters are imaginative constructions notes "only the houses on the point are taken from life" and Anderson brings those Woolloomoolloo houses on the point to "life". I smiled when i read that information after finishing the book and am grateful for her writing about that era and those places with such sensitivity.

The evocative title ,Tirra Lirra by the River comes from the Tennyson poem The Lady of Shallot and its inclusion in the texts fits the themes of the novel very well. The Lady was required to view the beautiful Lancelot and life through a crystal mirror and Nora , lover of poetry and life learner , is shining the mirror on herself and life and getting "it" in a way. Nora at 70 is a bit curmudgeonly but likeable and along with her resilience maintains humour and an interest in people. The people in her life are well drawn too.

However the character of Nora is central to the story and is a perfect characterisation. This ability to get to the heart of the female persona with empathy but without sentimentality is a feature of first class female writers. In the Australian context I think of Olga Masters, Elizabeth Jolley and Amy Witting - contemporary with Anderson who are a group to conjure with in this regard. They all published in their later years around about the 1960s to 80s and signified a particular flowering of literature in Australia . Their success and abilities co-incided with the womens liberation movement of that time and I believe the social change was an factor in their success and opportunities - their high literary abilities were strictly their own however. It was just fortuitous in time.

Whatever, Tirra Lirra is a strong, evocative , poetically written book of special insight into character,relationships of a wide range ,perceptions, suburban life styles and settings - which has stood the test of time for me.

Njal's saga

I have just finished rereading Njal's saga. There is probably no book length work I have read, in English or Icelandic, more often since my first encounter with it as an undergraduate student in 1967. I enjoyed it this time, as always, but my enjoyment was tinged with concern. What would any readers of this blog make of it?

It was not hard to identify aspects which could be offputting. The genealogies, which the old Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson Penguin version relegated to footnotes, are one. If you know saga literature, there is an interest in encountering names you have met in other sagas, and in tracing interrelationships, but for the reader new to sagas they are probably an irritation. The Njal's saga author's apparent fascination with legal technicalities, which distinguishes this saga from all the others, does have some historical interest and serves to raise the tension before the great fight breaks out at the Althing, but it probably tries the patience of most readers.

But perhaps the main stumbling block for modern readers is the seemingly incessant cycle of 'tit-for-tat' slayings, often involving improbable sword strokes which hew off heads or limbs. (They have been described as the fantasies of a people who had to live with blunt and far less effective weapons.) I think one has to accept that this had an interest for the saga author and his original audience that it does not have for us. The original hearers and readers, and Icelanders for centuries afterwards, doubtless believed that they were hearing about the deeds of ancestors. The characters had a reality for them that they do not have for us.

Hopefully the modern reader can accept these things as aspects of a literature from a different time and place, and as contributing to one of the glories of this saga, its rich and rounded picture of a society. To a remarkable degree Njal's saga ranges over Iceland, and over virtually all levels of society. It has a rich gallery of memorable characters, and while there are stereotypes, even minor characters are often interestingly fleshed out. (A fairly minor example is Bjorn the White, who when first introduced seems no more than a comic cowardly boaster, but who turns out to be capable of just a little more, and gains stature as a result.)

Njal's saga is remembered particularly for its major characters, notably Njall, Bergthora, Gunnar, Hallgerd, Flosi, and Kari. It probably needs to be acknowledges as rather 'masculine' literature, but some of the female characters do take on considerable depth and complexity.

Another powerful characteristic is its success in creating memorable scenes. Few readers forget Gunnar's fateful decision to go back to his farm and abandon plans for exile abroad (the wording of which most educated Icelanders have by heart), his last stand in the presence of his treacherous wife, or the burning of Njall, Bergthora, and their family. But even minor scenes can be well done. An example is the first scene in the saga, which sees the brothers Hoskuld and Hrut together at table, and Hoskuld very realistically seeking praise from his brother for his beautiful daughter Hallgerd, then a child. Hrut does what is asked, but cannot quite refrain from adding a note of foreboding, creating for a time a coldness between the brothers. Hallgerd, of course, does turn out to be a thief, and far worse. It is noteworthy that we last encounter her as the friend of Killer-Hrapp, a worthless rogue who is strangely attractive to women.

I would share the general view that this is the finest of the Sagas of Icelanders. Perhaps now I am a bit less certain that I would recommend it as the one to be read first. Maybe The Saga of the People of Laxdale , also in Penguin, might have been a better choice. Seriously proposed as possibly having a female author, the saga has a central narrative focusing on Gudrun Osvifsdottir (mentioned briefly in Njal's saga), her four marriages, and her central role in a famous 'eternal triangle'. Or perhaps two short sagas, The Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red's Saga, translated in the Penguin volume The Vinland Sagas, might be a better place to start. They tell a fascinating story about the Norse discovery of America about the year 1000 and the attempts to found a settlement there, but they are also interesting stories of family life in Greenland and the attempted American colony.

I do look forward to reading some reactions to this saga.

Icelandic sagas

The Icelandic word 'saga' has found its way into English and most other Western European languages. It means 'narrative' or 'history' and is used today in Iceland both for histories and for novels. But when speakers of English refer to 'the Icelandic sagas' they normally have in mind prose narratives composed in Iceland during the Middle Ages. Generally they are thinking primarily of one genre in particular, referred to in English as the 'Sagas of the Icelanders' (or as the 'Family Sagas', though this latter term is somewhat out of favour as many of the sagas in questions focus on individuals, or the inhabitants of a district, rather than on a family).

There survive about forty 'Sagas of Icelanders'. All are anonymous. During the second half of the twentieth century the usual view was that they were mostly composed in Iceland during the thirteenth century, but more recently the idea that they may be largely fourteenth century in their present form has gained currency. These sagas deal mainly with the deeds of people who are said to have lived in Iceland during a hundred year period, the so-called 'Saga Age', extending from about 930, shortly after the initial colonisation of Iceland was completed, to 1030. Thus the sagas are dealing with a period several hundred years before the time in which they were composed. Clearly it was regarded by later generations of Icelanders as a seminal period.

Two questions have long exercised the minds of saga scholars. Are the Sagas of the Icelanders history or fiction? And are the sagas as we now have them literary compostions by writers not very different from modern authors, or should they be regarded as faithful reproductions of oral stories told around the firereside by storytellers? The general view today is that there may be elements of history in them, but that what we have are in large measure works of fiction (a little like modern historical novels), and that while the sagas doubtless owe much to oral tradition, the versions we now have are in large measure literary compositions.

The Sagas of the Icelanders are works from the European Middle Ages, but they are unusual for their time. They were written by Christians but they are not overtly religious, nor do they have the aim of hammering home a moral. They strike modern readers as realistic narratives, though emanating from a society a bit more superstitious and credulous than our own: ghosts may briefly appear, and wise men and women may have some ability to foretell the future, but we are not in a world of superheroes and dragons, nor do they deal with chivalric knights and beautiful princesses. The Sagas of the Icelanders deal with the feuds of farmers and farmer's wives, and the men and women we encounter in them are readily recognisable to any reader of modern novels.

Icelandic narrative prose is one of the glories of saga literature. English translations inevitably cannot do it full justice, though good English translations do a reasonable job. The prose is remarkably lucid and subtle, and well suited to the presentation of dialogue, which is prominent in most of the Sagas of Icelanders. Saga objectivity is famous: we as readers seem to be presented with the facts as an observer on the scene might encounter them. We are not generally told how to judge a character, or how to respond to a scene. We are not told what characters are thinking: we have to work it out from what they say and do. (In fact there are subtle clues as to how the writers want us to react, but they are indeed quite subtle.)

'Njal's saga', at which we will be looking in Classic Readers this month, is the longest of the Sagas of the Icelanders - about 300 pages in the Robert Cook translation for Penguin Classics. It is almost universally regarded as the finest of these sagas. It has some features that may deter modern readers, such as the large cast of characters with names unfamiliar to English speakers, and genealogies that usually accompany the introduction of a significant figure into the narrative. But its characterisation is exceptionally rich, and it tells a powerful and moving story which moves inexorably to a satisfying conclusion, providing a vivid picture that extends beyond Iceland to Norway and Ireland at the time of the famous Battle of Clontarf in 1014.

"Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck

"A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green." This evocative first line sets a strong tone for "Of Mice and Men" which is continued throughout the short novel. The clarity of scenery along with ominous possibilities and yearnings are present on every page of this beautifully realised, theatrical story. The arresting title comes from a Robert Burns Scottish poem "To a Mouse" . A translation from the second last stanza has the line "the best laid plans of mice and men" in it - referring to the way schemes go askew and leave us nothing "but grief and pain". It is most apt for this tragedy.

The novel was published in 1937, early in Steinbeck's career. It tells a poignant story of two itinerant farm labourers in California during the Depression years looking for work and yearning and hoping to save for a better life with a small farm they could call their own. They are an unusual couple - Lennie is large, powerful, lumbering, friendly and slow witted whilst George, his companion , is wily, short and dedicated to looking after Lennie. George has promised Lennie's dying Aunt who was Lennie's only relative and carer, that he would always look after Lennie for her. George keeps his promise on a day to day basis with forbearance and at the climax carrying out a dramatic and ethical dilemma action with selfless love.

The story of two such men may not sound very exciting but it is. A key to this reading satisfaction , along with the strong visual nature , theatricality and central ethical drama, lies with the insightfully drawn characters. I cannot think of many better novels in this regard. There are no caricatures here but real people representing human endeavours : longings and hope , jealousies, kindness, meanness, cruelty, weakness and strength sketched economically and supported by keen dialogue. The story has been successful as a stage play , movie films and opera. It is very adaptable to these story modes and as I see it the fine characterisation is a key here.

Steinbeck's portrayal of the slow witted Lennie and his relationship with George cleverly depicts for us the complexity of human self knowledge and cunning in connecting with the" other". Lennie needs George and George , in his own way ,needs Lennie . There is a particularly poignant section of the book where the only Black person on the farm who is everyone's rouseabout , tells of how the Blacks have been moved off the farms in the area and he, Crooks , is alone . He bemoans the fact that none of the white men listen to him or talk with him. He muses regretfully to simple Lennie "George can tell you screwy things , and it dont matter. it's just talking. It's like bein' with another guy . That's all" We get such a graphic picture of isolated loneliness in the racist context told with breathtaking economical dialogue. We learn indirectly that several of the men in the bunkhouse are somewhat envious of Lennie and George and their friendship and the way they need each other.

The scenes shift quickly in this novella - and after that scene above with Crooks the drama heats up and Lennie who does not know his own strength and has an obsessive interest with softness in all living things, mice, puppies and fatefully the soft hair of women. The only female character in the story, the wife of Curley, a boss, is central to the sad ending of the story . She is simply but sympathetically drawn as a dissatisfied wife looking for excitement. Whilst this is a stock characterisation in a way - this description of her after her accidental death pulls our sympathy in a different direction " Curley's wife lay with a half covering of yellow hay and the meanness and the plannings and the discontent and the ache for attention were all gone from her face. She was very pretty and simple…."

To me this book is above all about relationships - and the essence of them. Steinbeck has captured so much of this in "Of Mice and Men " to put it in the classic, treasure category. A book to be savoured.

"The Secret River" by Kate Grenville

"The Secret River" by Kate Grenville was first published in 2005 to critical acclaim. It is an historical novel set around the Hawkesbury area near Sydney in the first two decades or so of the nineteenth century. The main character is William Thornhill ,who was transported to New South Wales aboard the ship Alexander “for the term of his natural life” for stealing some timber he was delivering as part of his work as a ferryman on the Thames. His wife Sal, a free woman, was allowed to come on the transport to Sydney too - in a separate section of the ship.

In the first chapter “Strangers” we meet William lying awake beside his sleeping wife and new born child in a wattle-and-daub hut in Sydney in 1806 listening to the eerie sounds of this new strange place . He gets up from the bedding and goes outside into the night and comes face to face with an Aboriginal man - the “strangeness” of it all is palpable. This first chapter sets out the tone and the powerful themes of the book - fear, courage, ambition, greed,usurpation, misunderstanding and the great difficulty of communication across cultures .

After this first chapter the book goes back to London and places the story in its context with what life was like for William and Sal growing up and marrying, leading up to their transportation to New South Wales . The research undertaken by the author illuminates this background chapter in an exciting way. We feel we know these people through their young life stories and expectations and therefore have empathy with them as they struggle to work out an existence in the new colonial settlement of Sydney.

The main adventurous part of the novel however takes place in the Hawkesbury River and upper reach farmland area near Sydney . William gains his emancipation certificate after a few years in Sydney and moves to the Hawkesbury , takes up some land and plies his old trade of ferryman by shipping farm produce from the farms to Sydney which hungers for it and returns with goods for the settler farmers. Life is very hard for these river settlers who for the most part have simply squatted on these lands , fenced them rudely and started out growing corn etc. The Aboriginal owners who live in and around the countryside and the river area foraging, fishing, hunting, camping and celebrating are pushed further and further away with often tragic outcomes.

The central tragedy in the story is a massacre by the settlers of an Aboriginal clan who were seen as the enemy - a very sad story of violence and counter-violence. William takes part in this tragic violent act , albeit reluctantly . It has a lasting effect on him.

However the story moves on as do the dispossessed Aborigines . The Thornhill’s prosper and set themselves up with a comfortable life with their five children. At the end we see an ageing William sitting on his sandstone verandah at "Wiseman's Ferry"looking pensively through a telescope at the wooded cliffs wondering if “they” were there.

even after the cliffs had reached the moment at sunset where they blazed gold , even after the dusk left them glowing... even then he sat on, watching, into the dark”.

This descriptive language ,whilst economical throughout the story , lends the book its special beauty both in the sketching of the natural surroundings and in setting up the relationships and the inner thoughts of the main characters.

The characterisation of the Thornhills , William and Sal, their children and the other settlers is very believable. Sal, for instance, is striving to return home to London and we learn she sees herself with “a five year sentence” before she can achieve her dream , yet we know William is yearning to be a landowner and make a new life for himself and family. Each is nervous about their separate dreams and careful to protect each other from the other’s yearnings as they toil to live in the very harsh circumstances for the first several years. There are caring people among the settlers as well as selfish, unthinking and at times violent people . Grenville brings these minor characters illuminatingly to life and the story is the richer for this.

All the more remarkable ,then, was the decision by the author to not use pidgin English for the Aborigines in the first encounters in order to gain as much verisimilitude with what would have been happening and how the experience would have been from the settlers point of view and the Aboriginal people of the area. I think this works and we see the Aboriginals in the story as real people - caring for their way of life . Their tragedy of being misunderstood , treated condescendingly and often with contempt and violence gives the story much of its poignancy and power.

Kate Grenville wrote another book about how she came to this story and the research she undertook for it - “Searching for the Secret River” . This is recommended too because it brings out so much of interest for the reader about the writing of engaging historical fiction. There was some controversy with some historians at the time of publication - Grenville was thought to have claimed too much historical significance for the novel. “Searching....” is a very thorough answer to this issue in my opinion. We know , for instance, that Grenville’s ancestor was Solomon Wiseman who settled in the Hawkesbury area and is remembered in the town name of Wiseman’s Ferry. Wiseman , a Thames ferryman, was transported for theft , along with his free woman wife , Janet , in the “Alexander” which was an actual convict ship . The Wisemans arrived in Sydney in 1806. The author’s research in London for original records and local colour is well set out in this latter book too. Grenville has said in answer to the controversy that she does not claim her novel as a work of history as such and that there has been some misunderstanding of her words in an interview re the historical nature of the work. Her website contains this information and story for anyone who wishes to explore this further.

However in the end what we have is a work of fiction , beautifully written and realised ,informed by research and strong personal interest. It brings a section of Colonial Australian history to life and allows the imagination to ponder the circumstances surrounding these people both colonisers and original owners with empathy and some wonder.

'Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead' by Paula Byrne

Unlike the subjects of almost all the previous postings to the Classic Readers blog, the book now under consideration is not a novel. It is instead essentially a biography - of the novelist Evelyn Waugh. But unlike several earlier biographers of the novelist, Paula Byrne very deliberately sets out not to provide a 'cradle to grave' account of her subject, but instead to focus on his relationship with a family and the stately home of that family, and to explore the ways in which that relationship fed into the creation of what is probably Waugh's most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited.

The family in question is the Lygons, the children of the seventh Earl Beauchamp, and the house is their country house Madresfield, commonly referred to by the family and their friends as 'Mad'. Waugh first visited it as a young graduate in 1931, and over the next few years he was a frequent visitor who greatly enjoyed the opportunities to partake of its comfortable aristocratic splendour and spend time with the family, and in particular three of the daughters, with at least two of whom he developed close and lifelong platonic friendships. The situation at Madresfield in the early 1930s was unusual, in that neither the earl nor his wife was present, and the young people had a fully staffed and functioning major English country house at their disposal. The earl had left England in disgrace to avoid the legal and social consequences of a homosexual scandal, and his wife had divorced him and moved with her youngest son to a house near a home of her brother, the Duke of Westminster, the earl's fiercest enemy. Waugh had known two of the Lygon brothers William and Hugh at Oxford, and had been particularly close to the younger, Hugh, generally agreed to be the main model for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead, though at least one reviewer has expressed misgivings regarding Byrne's ready acceptance of the view that the two were involved in a homosexual relationship.

Paula Byrne vigorously asserts in her preface that she is writing a new kind of biography, and states that the heyday of the comprehensive biography is past. This has clearly somewhat riled some reviewers, who claim that most of what she presents is not new, though they acknowledge that she has ferreted out some previously unknown details, notably regarding the divorce of the earl and his wife, and Evelyn's Catholic confirmation in Rome. Whatever the merits of this criticism, Byrne had undoubtedly written a lively, entertaining, and generally very readable book which evokes the world it describes very vividly.

I found particularly fascinating the parts dealing with Waugh's boyhood and his time at Oxford, and the account of the Lygon family before Waugh's first visit to Madresfield. The narative of the visits, and his interactions with the Lygon's during the few years between 1931 and the house's passing into the ownership of the eldest Lygon son and his wife on the death of the seventh earl, is interesting, but perhaps the detailed account of this world of nicknames, in-jokes, and special jargon which united the participants does untimately become just a little tedious. The milieu described does seem to have been rather frivolous and self-indulgent.

A significant part of the book is involved in tracing the links between the Lygons and the characters in Brideshead Revisited , and between the house Madresfield and Brideshead in the novel. The existence of such a relationship has been known from the time the novel was first published in 1945, and Jane Mulvagh dealt with the topic in her book Madresfield. The extent to which one feels such analysis contributes to a literary appreciation of the novel will depend on one's approach to literary criticism. I had a literary education which discouraged exploration of such parallels and insisted on a focus on the novel itself, but it must be admitted that Byrne presents a lot of interesting material.

Eveyln Waugh (1903-66) has a reputation as a considerable writer and a rather unpleasant person - snobbish, rude, and curmudgeonly. Byrne sets out to correct this view of his personality, and she provides much evidence that he could be a loyal and generous friend. She suggests that to some extent he became a victim of a persona he created, acknowledging that it did in fact largely take over his being later in life, when he found himself increasingly out of sympathy with the postwar world and the post-Vatican II Catholic Church.

Mad World is an easy and entertaining read. For this reader, it dragged just a little in the middle, but it was thoroughly enjoyable as a whole.

"The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Reading this grand and long work for the first time achieved a long term ambition of mine - and I am glad I have read it at last. I read
a Penguin edition published in 2003 , translated by David McDuff in 1993.

The themes and story line
The book explores a number of strong themes including - ethics and patricide , jealousy , religious commitment and doubt, guilt and redemption, childhood and children, psychological insights into an individual's behaviour , exploitation of lower classes and women and a time of political change and social change. It is often deeply philosophical and then by contrast becomes , in the second half especially , a very dramatic story. This story revolves around a family of reasonable but not great wealth consisting of a father and his three sons . The story is set in a small town community in Russia . The central drama is the murder of the father and the consequent suspicion of patricide by one of his sons.

Leading up to this drama , which includes the collection of evidence and a long court room scene, there are whole chapters and passages setting out the background of each of the main characters and the social and religious world surrounding them . For instance , we dont just hear about the monastery and monks who are important in the early part of the story , we receive extensive insights into their dogmas and practices . There are whole arguments put before us of the way to salvation and otherwise. In fact the extent and intent of the religious discussion in the book surprised me . I think a reader of Victorian English classic fiction is not really familiar with this depth of discussion about conscience, for instance. I became enmeshed in the very "Russian" atmosphere depicted here which was a large part of the enjoyment.

Humour and farce are also strong characteristics of the novel. The rollicking nature of the work at times amuses considerably and gives balance to the starker aspects of the social scenes and the story itself. A series of Chapters in Book IV called "Crack-ups" presents some humorous and even ridiculous scenes in drawing rooms and other settings involving affairs of the heart and various mix-ups. It is pertinent to note here that one of the sub-plots revolves around the rivalry of the father of the family and one at least of his sons for the love and affection of Grushenka a worldly , yet put-upon young woman . I found reading about her and watching her reactions , as described by the narrator, particularly insightful into the restrictive yet changing society we are presented with. Here I would like to mention that I also found the work distinctly full of the sounds of society - the talking , calling out and singing of the people and other sounds of the countryside and the town. It resonated very strongly for me.

Some of the Characters
The father of the family, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov exploits his own sons , is self indulgent , and , has been indifferent to and at times cruel when bringing up his sons. We meet this ageing patriarch at a slightly more sympathetic if pathetic , vulnerable time of his life . He delights in almost childlike , outrageous behaviour at the expense of others . His personality casts a strong and ambiguous shadow over the drama.
His three sons are Mitya, Ivan and Alyosha . Mitya , the eldest , was the child of Fyodors first wife and Ivan and Alyosha are the sons of the second wife. Both of the mothers died before their sons were grown up and the boys were looked after by foster parents . Mitya has a full-on personality a little like his father but he has a kinder nature . He is accused of the murder but who is really guilty and of what does guilt consist? Ivan is very thoughtful and working painstakingly through the philosophical considerations of an atheist. Alyosha is saintly by comparison to his brothers and considers becoming a monk but decides against it. He forms a vital link with all the players in the story . Smerdyakov, thought to be an illegitimate son of Fyodor who keeps him as a servant, is more than likely the actual murderer. Of the female characters , Grushenka ,is perhaps the most fascinating whilst several other of the women have relatively minor but socially poignant roles. One of the sub-plots revolves around a group of school boys and the lingering death of one of them - with the boys characters and roles dealt with in some depth.

A note on the structure and influences
The story is told to us by a narrator who is in turn a character. He has opinions and observations about what is going on which are entertaining in themselves. He has been described in the introduction to my edition as a sort of "grotesque… Hoffmanesque" character. He is conservative and sometimes crabby, particularly about women . The author's voice comes through as well at times and the result is a mixed, far from simple rich sound and a scenic tapestry - requiring one to concentrate and listen well. It is worth the effort may I add. It was originally published in serial sections over about 18 months . It was then published in book form in 1880 only a few months before the author died. Dostoyevsky experienced deep tragedy in his life including penal servitude in Siberia and the loss of a dear young son from epilepsy just before he started on this work. He went on a pilgrimage to a hill top Orthodox monastery before he started the novel when grieving for the loss of his son. These experiences are said to have informed some of the action and concerns of the work.

My overall impressions
"The Brothers Karamazov" introduced me to a new and unexpected reading experience - even "War and Peace" did not prepare me for the richness of style and range of emotions set out for us in this tragic family saga. There are many sub-plays going on and it deals a lot with personal psychology. There are also wonderful descriptions of Russian small town life, the countryside and the ways of going about day to day life to fill many a novel. The inter- reactions of groups of characters including inter-generational ones are engrossing , sometimes dangerous, and also often tender.
One is of course reading a great classic in translation . The David McDuff translation read lyrically and well - further evidence for me that the work is lyrical in the original also. It is a kaleidoscopic work and I know I cannot do it justice in these few words - I hope to give you the impression however - this is a major reading adventure.
As someone reasonably familiar with the English Victorian classics , "The Brothers Karamazov" (1880) was different from the English greats of the near period , Dickens and Elliot for instance , - engaging yet a little difficult too. It required concentration and imagination to picture the amazing social and action scenes and follow the philosophical arguments and thought processes of the characters. I would be delighted to hear from any other reader who is familiar with the work and to hear of your reactions.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) the Polish born former merchant seaman and ship's captain who learnt English as an adult and established himself firmly in the canon of great English novelists, was irritated when admirers used to ask him 'when are you going to spin us another yarn of the sea'. His annoyance was understandable: far from being a casual spinner of tales, Conrad was the most painstakingly and consciously artistic of writers. But the thoughtless questions were at least somewhat understandable: Conrad's novels do often concern the sea, and they are very often set in parts of the world which in his time seemed exotic to British and American audiences.

Heart of Darkness, a short work probably best described as a novella, is mostly set not at sea but on a great unnamed river (in fact the Congo in what was then the Congo Free State, a vast African domain brutally ruled as a private estate by the Belgian king Leopold II). But the setting is certainly exotic, and in a literal sense the journey up river is a journey into the interior, or heart, of what in 1899, when the work was first published in part form, was often called the 'Dark Continent'. It involves encounters with naked black people who are unquestionable presented as primitive and cannibalistic, and an attack by them on the Europeans' steamer is a major incident in the book. But a lot more is involved, and Heart of Darkness has become one of the most discussed and debated books in the 'canon' of twentieth century literature.

Darkness is a pervasive element in the book. The African jungle is dark and sombre, its people lack the civilisation of Europe. But Europe and Europeans are no strangeness to darkness. The book opens with night falling on a ship moored in the Thames, where the narrator Marlow relates the story to four listeners, and a major scene towards the end takes place in a darkening drawing room in Western Europe. We are reminded that the Thames and England probably once seemed as dark and frightening to visitors from Rome as Africa does to people of the narrator's time. The symbolism of light and darkness in the novel is a major element.

More important than physical darkness is the darkness which can overwhelm the human soul. The purpose of the river voyage is to bring out from the interior a man called Kurtz, who is said to be behaving very strangely in his isolation from all other Europeans, and who, it emerges, has used barbaric brutality to make himself into a sort of god for the native people. Kurtz, however, is in many ways an exceptional person, intelligent, multi-talented, and idealistic. He towers above the other Europeans Marlow encounters in Africa, who emerge as petty, stupid, indolent, and greedy. It could be said that Kurtz (despite his intellect, or because of it) has entered into a personal heart of darkness, and gone mad as a consequence. His last words as he dies on the voyage back to the coast -'The horror! The horror!' is a comment on what he has found.

T.S. Eliot used a black servant's announcement 'Mistah Kurtz - he dead' as an epigraph for his major poem 'The Hollow Men' but arguably the novella is more about the journey of the narrator Marlow than about Kurtz. Like many other aspects of the book, the impact of Marlow's physical and spiritual journey is not easy to summarise concisely or with confidence. Certainly the journey profoundly affects him, and makes him more dissatisfied with life in Europe, but it is difficult to know what to make of the climax of a strangely memorable scene near the end of the book, when Marlow falsely tells Kurtz's fiancee that her intended died with her name on his lips. A desire to spare a grieving women further grief? A chivalric wish to help her maintain her illusions? A failure in honesty and courage on the part of Marlow? A reflection of his awareness that only those who have been to the heart of the darkness within themselves and within humanity can really be expected to understand it, and it is pointless to try to explain it?

Some have seen Heart of Darkness as a book condemning colonialism and imperialism. Certainly it gives no nobility to the Europeans in Africa, emphasising their rapacity, and suggests that the Africans who accept European ways become rather ridiculous figures. The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe famously denounced the novella as racist, denying Africans a voice and a humanity, and we must probably conclude that in his attitude to them Conrad was of his time, or only a little ahead of it.

Heart of Darkness is not always easy reading. It is immensely vivid, but the piling up of detail came seem overwrought, as no less a figure than F.R. Leavis suggested. It is an enigmatic work in many ways. But at the end of the few hours required to read it one feels sure one will never forget it.