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Edinburgh International Book Festival 16.08.2012

Question to Allan Massie: How do you think you would have responded as a French man in occupied France during the early 1940′s?

Allan Massie: I would have been a tepid collaborator.

He stressed that the French believed that the war had been lost and that the only recourse was to make the best of it, particularly as they never thought that Britain would carry on fighting. Resistance to the Nazis only started in France when Hitler invaded Russia and was so long in coming because the Germans were instructed to behave correctly in France, which they did until about 1943-44.

Why the history lesson? Because Massie, a modern day Scottish polymath, author of some 30 books, both fiction and non-fiction, has turned his attention to historical crime writing. Vichy France has long fascinated him. In 1989 he published the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year A Question of Loyalties, which is also set there.

One of his objectives is to show that pleasant things happen even during a war. People try to live normal lives. It is remarkable, he said, that Kafka never mentioned World War I in his diaries. And so his characters, living in occupied Bordeaux, come to terms with the political situation. They raise families, enjoy good food and wine (when they can get it), fall in love, read excellent literature! In the first of the series Death In Bordeaux, the French surrender and the establishment of occupied sector is a matter of hope for Lannes and his wife, whose eldest son, is a prisoner of war in Germany. These new circumstances may mean his release.

Of course, nasty things do happen and Lannes finds himself investigating a rather sordid murder which sees him having to pit himself against degenerate members of the French elite and influential Vichy apologists. Crime fiction fans will recognise familiar tropes and be delighted by the subtle reconfiguration: Lannes, although living with his wife, is estranged from her because of her distress at her son’s absence; his relationship with his superior, excellent at the start, begins to fracture over the issues of collaboration and compromise.

These vexed issues grow thorns in the second novel, Dark Summer In Bordeaux, as people sicken of “this war that is not being fought”. The characters begin to polarise in their opinions with Lannes’s sons taking opposing stances. One leaves to take up a position in Vichy France, the other to join de Gaulle’s fledgling resistance. Interestingly Massie said they were both admirable characters. They just have different ideas and ideals. That non-judgmental attitude carries over into the writing with the reader being able to understand the rationale of both. Poor Lannes is literally stuck in the middle, a man whose sympathies lie with his “musketeer” son yet a servant of the establishment, seeking to preserve his integrity in the face of extraordinary political pressures, which, one can only assume, are going to intensify as the Vichy years progress. You have to sympathise when he longs for a “an old-fashioned, pre-war murder” i.e one that he solve without political interference and admire him for his resolution to some of the occupiers’ demands.

There’s no denying it. The clouds are darkening in Dark Summer in Bordeaux. The thunderstorm approaches and while that may be bad news for Lannes (and I admit, knowing where this goes historically, I am beginning to worry on his behalf), the good news for me is that Massie’s original trilogy has now become a quartet. Cheekily he said he would write more, if he were approached with regard to a TV series. Thought I’d pass the message on as I wish someone would start talking to the man now!

Death In Bordeaux / Dark Summer in Bordeaux

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Hilary Mantel 14.08.2012

She’s here …. at last!

The EIBF isn’t pure undiluted pleasure, you know. It comes with horribly anxious moments for someone who cannot access the online ticket facility on the day the box office opens and who knows that plan A i.e buy own ticket, just won’t cut it. This was the event I was not prepared to miss and it took twitterish machinations, of which Thomas Cromwell himself would be proud, to ensure that I was able to take my seat on the night. (As it transpired both plans B and C bore fruit … no matter, I was taking no chances.) Herewith profuse thanks to my fellow conspirators.

Let joy be unconfined!

So it may surprise you that this report will not be a full one. Most of the proceedings have already been recorded in the reports at Every Book Has A Soul, Cornflower, plus the transcription of the author’s words in the Guardian. I’m going to concentrate on the efforts of the unsung hero of this event, chairperson and novelist James Runcie, which turned what was always going to be a great event into something extraordinary.

Starting with the assumption that everyone in the audience had read the book freed him from discussing the novel Bring Up The Bodies superficially. Instead, after Hilary Mantel had read the scene in which Henry falls in love with Jane Seymour (pages 26-29), Runcie concentrated on matters of technique, for instance:

- Use of pronouns. He (paragraph 1) becomes you (paragraph 6) becomes we (paragraph 14). Yes, said Hilary Mantel, I want to bring the reader into the time and place of Henry’s entourage. I want the reader to be there with them, moving forward with imperfect knowledge into an unknown future. I want the reader to see through Cromwell’s eyes, not to judge with hindsight but to make decisions with him and to conclude that they would have acted in the same way.

- The modern vibrancy of a text infused with Shakespearian effects from the high language of rhetoric to the crudity of the servants in Cromwell’s kitchen.

- The particular inspiration of Julius Caesar Act 3 Scene 2 in which Mark Anthony through rhetoric turns a crowd into a mob. Mantel particularly fascinated with spin and transformation building, she said, turning points in every scene – even the quiet ones. It is her way of dealing with historical inevitability. The reader already knows the end but not the torturous way it is arrived at.

- The focus on reducing units of time as Anne Boleyn’s life comes to an end: from days to hours to minutes to seconds. Anne’s hope of a reprieve was realistic. Henry was capricious.

The time for audience questions came too soon. Don’t worry, said James Runcie, if you have no questions, I can go on. I wish he had. I could have listened to this kind of textual analysis for the full 17 days of the festival.

The big question: Is the book any good?

Do you still need convincing? It is brilliant, though when I first read it, I thought not as good as Wolf Hall. I was chastised in the kindest way at the event, although I still maintain, perhaps churlishly, that in reacting to her critics and simplifying the text by clarifying who He is, Mantel has penned some clumsy insertions of the He, Cromwell kind.

My biggest issue is that Bring Up The Bodies acts as a revisionist history – a veritable wobble in my glass. Prior to reading this, feisty Anne Boleyn, was my favourite of Henry’s queens – probably based on the classic and sympathetic figure in Anne of A Thousand Days. Well, there’s nothing sympathetic in these pages. In fact, it is a portrait laced with Cromwellian venom. On page 38 he describes her thus:

Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tynburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman. They were traitors and deserved the death, but it is a death exceeding most in cruelty. The pearls around her long neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives.

As events progress, an emnity develops between Anne and the man who made her. One that culminates in a kill or be killed standoff. We all know the ultimate victor in this and how he gained the victory. But perhaps we’re not aware of just how calculating Cromwell was in seizing a half-truth to bring down a queen. We are after reading this. Anne may have been indiscrete, vengeful and ultimately unlikeable, but she was not Catherine-Howard-stupid. As one convinced of Anne’s innocence and, therefore, the innocence of the men who were sacrificed to Cromwell’s political objective/personal vendetta, I’m not capable of suspending my moral judgement in the way Mantel wishes. It is actually quite chilling though, just how reasonable Cromwell’s murderous thought processes become when reading these pages.

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Despite my growing unease, let us tarry a little while longer in Venice ….

Winner of the Strega Prize 2009

Published by Serpent’s Tail

Translated by Shaun Whiteside

Everyone, but everyone has heard parts of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (even if only while holding on the phone).  What they may not know – like me –  is the context in which they were written.

Stabat Mater offers insights into the life of the orphans of the Ospedale della Pietà, many of whom were skilled musicians kept segregated from the world.  When giving concerts in church, they were hidden behind metals grills. When travelling through the city to play for their benefactors, they remained veiled.  This was dictated by the shame of their births.  (Many were the unwanted children of the city’s prostitutes)  Their education contained similar contradictions:  progressive in regard to their musical education, yet rooted in the dark ages in other respects.

The narrator, Cecilia, 16, fantasises of escape through marriage or of her mother coming to reclaim her.  She is given to nocturnal wanderings,  always accompanied by a nightmarish Medusa-like figure of death.  During one of her nocturnal walks she witnesses a secret birth in the toilets in the basement of the orphanage.  This is her initiation into the origins of  life and it sows her jaundiced view of mother-child relationships.  The epistolary form  - this is the letter which Cecilia writes to her unknown mother – allows for full and honest expression of her emotions, which like the notes from her violin soar from the ecstatic to the depths of her jaundiced and claustrophobic existence.

Children spring from their mothers’ bellies and burst out crying, still terrifed by what they’ve abandoned, the death they’ve escaped.  They’re body-parts of the mother who flees from them. 

Mothers try to keep them bound to themselves, they hold them back when they are born, but the babies escape anyway, so the disappointed mothers take their revenge, they incite death against them, the rope that holds them back becomes the snake that bites their little belly and injects it with deadly poison.  They too are marked, they were innoculated with their fate in the womb.  The snake is pulled away, but in the middle of their bodies children bear a mother-scar, a death-scar, forever.

When Vivaldi replaces the worn-out composer-priest of the first half of the novel, Cecilia’s mood – and that of the novel – lightens.  Vivaldi’s refreshing compositions break boundaries and open up new musical horizons.  Vivaldi recognises Cecilia’s musical talent and becomes a personal mentor, relieving some of her solitude.  Yet in a dark incident (darkness is never far away in this pages) he also teaches her the importance of personal experience for musical interpretation.   He also promises her that

I will make you play the most intoxicating pieces, you will shake people’s souls in their foundations, that point at which our self dissolves into something coinciding with the vibrations of the cosmos.  

Cecilia’s part of the bargain is to remain in the convent, anonymous yet world-famous behind the metal grilles. Is Vivaldi’s promise sufficiently enticing for one already aware that she is buried alive in a delicate coffin of music?

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The seed for Lucarelli’s trilogy was a chance encounter with a man who had spent 40 years in the Italian police force between 1941 and 1981. This is how Lucarelli’s describes this man’s career.

He had started in the fascist political police, the OVRA, a secret organization the meaning of whose acronym was never known with certainty.  As an “ovrino”, he told me, his job was to tail, to spy on, and to arrest anti-fascists who were plotting against the regime.  Later, still as an ovrino, he was to tail, to spy on, and to arrest those  fascists who disagreed with fascism’s leader, Benito Mussolini.  During the war, his job went back to tailing, spying on, and arresting anti-fascist saboteurs, but toward the end of the war, when part of liberated Italy was under the control of partisan formations fighting alongside the Allies, my strange policeman friend actually became part of the partisan police.  As he was good, he told me, he had never done anything particularly brutal and the partisans needed professionals like him to ensure public order and safety.  Naturally, his duties included arresting fascists who had stained themselves with criminal acts during the war.  Several years later, when, following elections, a regular government was formed in Italy, our policeman became part of the Italian Republic’s police; his job, to tail, to spy on, and to arrest some of those partisans who had been his colleagues and who were now considered dangerous subversives.

If proof were ever needed that truth is stranger than fiction, there it is.  Had Lucarelli made De Luca’s career as torturous, he would have been accused of absurdity.   As it is, De Luca’s career is grounded in the facts above.  The trilogy begins in Carte Blanche during the final days of World War II and the allied advance through Italy.  The Damned Season continues in the months immediately following  and the third part, Via Delle Oche,  is set in Bologna against the backdrop of the 1948 national elections.  Commissario De Luca is a talented detective whose tainted background constantly threatens to derail him.  Once a fascist, always a fascist, his opponents cry.  Never a fascist, responds De Luca. Always politically neutral.  “I’m a policeman.  It’s my job and I’ll take sides with anyone who let’s me do my job.”  His actions bear this out, but is it enough to claim that he never got his hands dirty, never brutalised anyone when his office was so close to the interrogation cells that he could hear the victims’ cries?

De Luca compromises himself in other ways.  He is not adverse to involving himself sexually with females closely associated with the crimes he is investigating.   And when he wishes to assert himself, he can strop with the best of them.  This usually involves him sweeping everything off the nearest table or desk.  As a result he is not entirely likeable. Yet his talents as a detective make him a sympathetic character and I worried on his behalf.

Particularly during the second instalment,  The Damned Season, when, on the run with false papers in northern Italy, he is recognised by a partisan, turned local policeman, and coerced into helping resolve a particularly brutal case in which a whole family has been massacred.  De Luca is on a knife edge throughout.   Masquerading as an engineer,  his legendary investigatory skills, which he must employ to prevent him being turned over to the Allies, are most likely that which will give him away.  The suspense is palpable, even though we know he gets out of this alive, due to there being a third book.

He reappears in that assigned to the vice squad in Bologna in 1948, still dogged by his past.  When a man is found dead in one of the city’s brothels, the authorities are quick to explain it as suicide.  While the man hanging from a rafter does have a noose around his neck and an overturned stool beneath him, his feet don’t reach the seat when the stool is righted.  “Normal enough that a hanged man grows a little longer if he’s left a while,” De Luca quips.  “But I’ve never heard of one getting shorter.” True to form De Luca refuses to look the other way even when it becomes apparent that the evidence indicates the involvement of local politicians and the police force.  With the elections looming and new agendas to be protected, the question is whether De Luca will get his man before the old agendas catch up with him.

These books are classic noir.  Matter of fact, action-packed, with little to no character development, for which we should be grateful as it’s a challenge keeping up with the turbulence of the historical period. For that reason it is important that the books are read in chronological sequence.  De Luca’s personal story adds further moral ambiguity and suspense into the usual police procedural mix.  When photographs of a black-shirted De Luca come to light, that ambiguity intensifies and the time finally arrives to answer the questions that have been threatening since book 1.  An entirely fitting finish to the trilogy.  Firstly it is amplifies the air of moral doubt and uncertainty that has pervaded the books and secondly, it leaves this reader wanting more!

Carte Blanche  /  The Damned Season   / Via Delle Oche

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  • Winner – 2009 Man Booker Prize
  • Winner – 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction
  • Winner – 2010 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction
  • Winner – 2010 Tournament of Books
  • OK – so I’m the last book blogger in the world to have read this – winner of everything going (apart from last year’s controversial Orange, when it was robbed). There is a reason for the delay.  I decided I wanted to listen to the unabridged audio.  My library has a copy and when I joined the queue, just after it won the Booker (October 2009),  I was third in it.  15 months later, when my book group decided to read the book, I was still third in the queue.  The one unabridged audio version has obviously gone walkies.

    So all that waiting to read a book that was such an obvious match for me.  Historical fiction, told well, I was going to love it.  And I did – all 650 pages of it – it took just under a week (and one when I was working full-time) – and I could happily have read 650 pages more.   Hooked into and transported back 5 centuries from that very first sentence into a violent, cruel and frankly, terrifying time.   Nay, not  into a world but into Cromwell’s head by means of  an incredibly controlled third person narrative where he and his viewpoint are absolutely paramount.   Our eyes see through his, we know the facts only if he does and revisionist as it may be, there’s sense in  Thomas More’s fanaticism (though today we would call it hypocrisy) and Mistress Boleyn’s games (was she or was she not a Tudor Wallis Simpson?) 

    What can be said about this novel that hasn’t already been said?  Nothing - it is simply superb.  It transcends historical genre fiction in a way that Jean Plaidy never did.   (Ah yes, Jean Plaidy, a favourite author in my adolescence.  I learned a lot of what I know about Tudor Britain from her.  40 years ago, I remember she taught me the word “excruciating” – she was talking about the pain of being hung, drawn and quartered.)  While I was busy learning vocabulary from Plaidy, I was busy feeling the pain of Mantel’s disembowelled monks.  Wolf Hall makes you pay attention to the way it is told.  It is the point-of-view, the experience of being inside Cromwell’s head that makes it, as James Naughtie said when awarding it the Booker Prize, a contemporary novel that happens to be set in the 16th century.  And don’t forget the gory bits, the horror that enthralls and even when you would like to, you cannot look away.

    Did Henry’s court have the same kind of hypnotic effect on his nobles and on the commoner Cromwell?  Why did people put themselves in harm’s way by ingratiating themselves with the king?  Proving that human nature spans the centuries, the motivations of today, prevailed then: ambition, greed, the thrill of beating the odds, denial in the form of  it’ll never happen to me syndrome.  But Henry’s court  is Wolf Hall, a ravenous beast, and it devours many at the king’s whim in this first volume.  And knowing what we know now, the clouds are gathering ominously for poor Anne ( portrayed as a harridan, but I find myself oddly sympathetic – perhaps I’m too conditioned by the sympathetic Anne of a Thousand Days).  Meanwhile Cromwell is at the height of his career and influence but having nailed himself to Anne’s mast, he’s going to have to be a master tactician to emerge unscathed from what’s coming next ….

    Mantel has talked about how much she enjoyed writing Wolf Hall and the story of Cromwell’s ascendancy.   I just hope that the story of his demise proves not to be too traumatic for her – because like many others, I just want it to be rolling off the presses now!

    We mark our reads out of 10 at the book group.  Surprisingly perhaps Wolf Hall did not garner 10′s all around.  For some it was too gory, for others, no matter how well history is packaged, it is still history.  Oh yes, and up here in Motherwell, it is English history. Anathema to some!  However, one member tried to give it 20 out of 10.   I stand alongside her and if I could give Wolf Hall 10 stars out of 5, I would.  Instead I’ll settle for 5 red stars – I confidently predict this will be my book of 2011 – and that if there’s a future Best of the Bookers, Midnight’s Children now has a rival for its crown.

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    Book 2 of my mini-Germanathon  was written by a quinessential English author and shortlisted for the inaugural Orange prize in 1996.  There appears to have been some controversy with at least one of the judges (Susan Hill) believing that Fitzgerald’s novel, a book of genius,  should have won.  Other judges labelled it “a thin little historical novel by a middle class middlebrow writer.” 

    It was my first Fitzgerald so I had no preconceptions, even if her reputation is somewhat stellar.

    The novel certainly deals with the life of a genius i.e Frederick von Hardenburg, more famously known as the German poet and philosopher, Novalis, widely accredited with the founding of the German romantic movement,.  The blue flower became the symbol of that movement after Novalis used it in his unfinished novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen,  to symbolise desire, love, and the metaphysical striving for the infinite and unreachable.

    In Fitzgerald’s novel, that striving is condensed into von Hardenburg’s doomed relationship with his young child-fiancée, Sophie von Kühn.  History attests to the facts, hence, no spoilers as I reveal that Sophie was merely 12 when von Hardenburg fell in love with her at first sight and 15 when she died a cruel death from tuberculosis.

    Short chapters.  Multiple narrators.  Easy reading, yet a sense of the unfathomable as von Hardenburg, the intellectual, topples head over heels with a child 10 years his junior during a mere 15 minute meeting.  She’s nothing special.  Raucous and ill-refined.  Speaking with a broad accent.   “Never had he met a maiden of good family with so little restraint.”   That would be her upbringing for the ethics of Sophie’s family is fundamentally different from the von Hardenburg’s.  Laid-back v. up-tight in modern parlance.

    At this point readerly sympathy lies  with von Hardenburg’s confidante, Karoline, spinsterly daughter of his landlord, whose love for von Hardenburg remains unspoken and unreciprocated throughout.  Yet, as Sophie sickens and undergoes the horrors of C18th medicine, the view of the uncouth maiden softens as we suffer with her.  Relief as we realise that those rough edges, despised at first, provide her with a resilience that a finer maiden would have lacked.

    As Sophie’s tragedy provides the narrative drive,  so much more is effortlessly conveyed in Fitzgerald’s prose.  A comprehensive view of C18th life in the university cities, the rural towns and the family homesteads.  The straightened circumstances of aristocrats living in reduced circumstances but with renowned connections:  The great and the intellectual of C18th Germany, Goethe, Schiller, Fichte, Schlegel, all appearing in these pages.  And finally, the precariousness of existence and the lottery of survival as untimely death lies in wait for a whole generation of the von Hardenburgs.

    All of which is told in an understated, matter-of-fact way in a novel described as a masterpiece by A.S Byatt.  An informative essay by her here.   Said essay raising valid points which eluded me as I read a novel.  Enjoyable yet slight on first encounter.  Fitzgerald’s genius perhaps a shade delicate for my more dramatic tastes.  Not to worry, I shall be sampling more.  I suspect the lady will grow on me.

     

    1997 NBCC Winner 

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    Which classic crime author comes to mind when you read this?

     Then the green curtain in the confessional twitched and was drawn back and a good-looking woman of about thirty stepped out.  She was holding a rosary, crossing herself more for form’s sake than anything else.  She was wearing a tight red dress and it was easy to see why she had spent such a long time in the confessional.  From the look of her, none of the venial sins would have detained her.  She was built for just the one kind of sin, the mortal kind that cried aloud to heaven …..

    The woman is Brita Warzok and Bernie Gunther, the dry, sardonic, wise-cracking private investigator in Philip Kerr’s 2007 novel, lives to regret the day she ever crossed his path.

    It is 1949 and, after the death of his wife,  Gunther reestablishes his private investigation business following the catastrophe of WWII.  He is based in a Munich, bombed-out and ruined by the Allied campaign.  The rebuilding of the city is in full swing and Gunther expresses his respect for the builders who are reconstructing the many buildings in line with their original architectural designs.  (As do I - Munich is the apple of my eye.)

    Alongside reconstruction, the fledgling Federal Republic of Germany  is grappling with the issue of retribution.  Many Nazis have been hanged and many more are on the run.  There are those of Gunther’s mindset who believe that the Nazi sadists should all pay for their crimes with their lives. Others advocate an amnesty in order to stabilise administrative functions quickly.  Amongst them, surprisingly, a Jewish lawyer who sends Gunther his first few cases.  Brita Warzok is his third case.  She needs to know if her husband is dead or alive because she wants to remarry.

    What follows is an enlightening but shocking tour through post-war Bavaria and the murky foundations of the Federal Republic of Germany; the organisations helping Nazis to escape justice (Odessa, the Comradeship) and their counterpart, the Nakam (Jewish vengeance squads).  And while the narrative tone is pure Chandler, the material is much darker, with many war-crimes and atrocities related in gruesome detail. (Not a book for the faint hearted.)

    Gunther,  at risk of life and limb, is brought into contact with two war criminals, Adolf Eichmann and Eric Gruen.  The crimes of the former are well known.  But what of the atrocities perpetrated by Gruen in the cause of finding a malaria vaccine? Experiments that were continued well after the war on the inmates of mental hospitals and German POWs.  Experiments condoned by the Americans ….. (cf Life Magazine, June 4, 1945, pages 43-46).

    All of which (and more besides)  is uncovered in Kerr’s novel as Gunther is set up as fall-guy for a war criminal seeking to effect his escape.  No government is safe from Gunter’s political cynicism which becomes more virulent as he is made aware of the deceit and hypocrisy of both victors and vanquished.  It is, at this stage in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, impossible to tell one from the other.

    1/2

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    There be money in historical fiction.  A lorra lorra money.  When I heard her speak at the Glasgow Aye Write Festival some 3 years ago, Philippa Gregory said that she had a contemporary novel stashed in the bottom drawer of her desk waiting for the day when the fascination for all things historical waned.  Obviously that day has not come for she is about to publish her 6th Tudor novel, The Other Queen, while her first, The Other Boleyn Girl,  is currently generating revenue at the box office.

    Now I’m not enough of an historian to say whether Philippa Gregory’s interpretation of the Mary-Henry-Anne triangle sticks to the facts.  There is sufficient controversy in historical circles regarding the paternity of Mary’s son  and Anne’s alleged incest with her brother to suggest that Gregory has added a goodly portion of sensationalism here and there.  Regardless, The Other Boleyn Girl, is a page-turning read with more intrigue per page than the most lurid British Sunday paper.   But I have to say I was expecting more of the film.  Exquisite costumes, A-list actresses, Eric Dana, a handsome Henry in his prime.  Main point of how both sisters were sacrificed to the ambition of their father and uncle made well.  But it did suffer because there was just too much material for two hours - many of the scenes reduced to vignettes as a consequence.  I now find myself craving  a rewatch of Anne of A Thousand Days and the classic BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII. 

    Alison Weir, respected historian, has also turned her pen to historical fiction.  Innocent Traitor focuses in on the tragedy of Lady Jane Grey, another pawn in the power struggles and religious foment of Tudor Times.  I’ve enjoyed a couple of her non-fiction titles in the past.  How does her debut novel stack up?  

    With no need to invent a plot or an ending - the facts are as Alison Weir herself says in the afterword astonishing and horrifying – Weir cleverly writes most of the novel from a sucession of feminine viewpoints:  Frances Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk,  Jane’s mother, who gives not a toss about her daughter; Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife, a kindly women who becomes Jane’s surrogate mother and mentor; Mrs Ellen, Jane’s nurse, the one point of unfortunately helpless stability in her life, and Jane Grey, herself.  Jane’s voice matures from that of an obedient but abused child to that of her obedient but abused - I hesitate to use the word – adulthood, as her life is cruelly cut short at 16.  There are only two males voices:   John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, the machiavellian mind behind the plot to put Jane on the throne and Jane’s nameless executioner. 

    Each voice is distinctive and grounded in the mindset of its time and sex.  With such a variety of narrators we get the full picture of the danger which surrounded Jane and a kaleidoscopic view of the character herself; Jane, who found her consolation in books and learning as she discovered she would never be forgiven for being female.  This education made her one of the finest minds of the times.  But with the men in her life as abhorrent and uncaring as her mother, she never stood a chance, apart from one.  Mary Tudor had offered her a reprieve on condition of her renouncing her Protestant faith.  But Jane was stauchly Protestant and the end result was never in doubt.  The ultimate irony is that the only decision of her own she was ever allowed to stick by,  forfeited her life.

    Jane wasn’t the only victim of the times.  Edward VI, crown notwithstanding, suffered agonies at the hand of Dudley as he lay on his deathbed.   The kindly Catherine Parr very nearly lost her head.  It was only the fortuitous finding of a signed death warrant that allowed her time to avert disaster – although disaster struck soon enough after Henry died.

    In Children of England, Alison Weir had already published a non-fictional account of these same events.  Now she has used the freedom of a novelist to inhabit the minds of her characters, to give them flesh and blood and breath.  She plays a little with details but not the facts per se and she’s honest about exactly what she’s done in her afterword.   In doing so she has penned a fine historical novel. 

     

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    I don’t know much about 18th century literature and I know even less about Alexander Pope – generally regarded as the greatest English poet of the time.  But the Australian (I am suitably shamed) Sophie Gee does.  Her debut novel centres around the summer of 1711 and the events which inspired Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”.

    The cover hints broadly at what is to be expected. 

    Aristocratic shenanigans, balls, masquerades (my copy came complete with a shocking pink mask – to encourage reader participation, I presume), coffee houses, wit, love affairs and scandal.  Scandals, in fact and you can debate which is the greater.  Would it be the affair between the most beautiful woman – Arabella Fermour – and the most handsome male – Lord Robert Petre?  Or would it be the underlying political intrigues of a Jacobite conspiracy?

    Certainly the novel starts with a very strong prologue in which a Catholic priest is attacked and murdered. Thereafter, however, the political intrigue is demoted.  Always there.  We know who’s involved but never the exact extent. The plot to assassinate the queen – Queen Anne – must not divert us from the main preoccupations  of the day …

    … which are – lest you forget – hunts, masquerades and balls. The flamboyancy of the period is staggering.  Lashings of C18th wit and repartee where everyone says plenty but never much of note. Everyone is wanting to make the best match. Yet sincere declarations are unwelcome, serving only to engender discomfort and tension.

    Alexander Pope is in town, seeking to drive forward his literary career and find fame and fortune.  He is hindered in many respects:  he’s Catholic, he’s not wealthy and he’s a hunchback (the result of a childhood illness).  Yet the brilliance of his mind is generally acknowledged – he needs only his breakthrough poem.  This season is about to give him the material for that poem in spades for Arabella Fermour and Robert Petre’s clandestine relationship is about to get downright dirty and dangerous ….

    Pope is not without his critics.  In an article, the 18th century equivalent of Banville’s now infamous demolition of McEwan,  John Dennis begins a critical essay “As there is no creature so venomous, so there is nothing so stupid and impotent as a hunchback toad …”.  A quotation used staggeringly by an assumed friend to embarass Pope in a public setting  – a scene which serves to foreshadow the moment of Arabella’s public humiliation when  …. oh, but that would be telling, wouldn’t it?

    While focusing on the social niceties and apparent tolerance of both lower classes and Catholics, Sophie Gee uncovers the nastiness beneath the surface veneer.  There are cold eyes above the smiles.  And there are teeth; teeth used often enough to demonstrate that the moral heart of this society is more akin to the physical state of London itself:

    The streets are running sewage, with water over the ankle.  I’ll swear that I had my foot caught around the puddings of a dog while I was crossing Albemarle Street. 

     

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    Graham Greene once described Brian Moore as “my favourite living writer”.  Moore’s death in 1999 means I can’t do the same but I can confirm that he is rapidly ascending the ranks of my all-time favourites. He must have something special for I kept reading even though Black Robe is a tale of full of atrocity and foul language.  Not my usual fare at all.

    But it’s impossible to stop reading a novel that encompasses all of Moore’s compulsive themes: sex, the clash of ideologies, loneliness, betrayal and religion.  That’s a heady mix.  But then Black Robe is a heady novel.

    Set in the mid-17th century, it describes Father Paul Laforgue’s journey into the heart of darkness of Northern Canada.  He is sent to relieve a dying priest of his post in a country inhabited by hostile, violent tribes.  While he is prepared for martyrdom, his young novice, Daniel, is more ambivalent and succumbs to infatuation and the temptations of the flesh offered him by Annuka, a young Algonkin squaw.  And so begin the religious complexities.  Not only does Laforgue attempt to save the soul of his fallen Christian brother, he must also attempt the conversion of the pagan and, it must be said, savage natives.  These are not the natives, cowed, domesticated and addicted to alcohol that we meet in Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, set 200 years after the events of Black Robe.  The tribes of Black Robe are savages.  To illustrate: at one point Laforgue, Daniel and his lover’s family are taken captive by the hostile Iroquois.

    “May we caress the captives?” asked one of the women.

    “Caress them” said Kiotsaeton, “but carefully, We must  make them last.”

    The women, gleeful, at once thrust their burning brands against the genitals of Chomina and Laforgue, causng them to double up in pain.  They then burned Annuka’s shoulder and thrust a flaming stick into Daniel’s armpit  …

    and this is just the start of a torture session that ends in the parboiling and cannibalism of a young Algonkin child.

    Moore makes it clear that the savagery is a result of the native religious system,  which, with its belief in the world of night and the power of dreams,  is so far removed from Christianity that the idea of conversion is inconceivable.  Daniel and Annuka’s relationship,  at face value demonstrating that reconciliation is possible, becomes the catalyst for the destruction of her family.  Laforgue’s problems reconciling his experiences with his own beliefs precipitates a personal crisis of faith.

    What’s amazing is Moore’s evenhandedness in showing both sides of the religious divide.  Raised an Irish Catholic, Moore famously renounced his faith on the boat leaving Ireland.  He waited that long, he said, so as not to hurt his mother.  Yet, he remained cognisant of religious faith that could inspire men to behaviour beyond what is normal.  So, while Black Robe shows the extremities of Indian belief, it does not condemn.  It explains.  So too Moore’s treatment of Jesuit faith and the behaviour of the missionaries.

    The events are shocking and the outcomes bleak.  Yet Moore is depicting real history – his source the voluminous letters that the Jesuits sent back to their superiors in France.  He doesn’t sanitise the facts and as a result, demonstrates the bravery, the arrogance and the shortsightedness of the seventeenth-century Jesuit Blackrobes.

    Presented with Moore’s trademarks, spare unadorned prose, strong visual elements, controlled pace and a tight plotline, this was quite simply unputdownable.

     

    I won’t be rushing to rent the film. The pictures in my head are graphic enough!

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