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Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

To the victor the spoils they say, and in terms of historical reputation, Johannes Gutenberg was the conqueror.  Inventor of the first moveable type printing press and publisher of the first book – the Gutenberg Bible – or so established history would have me believe.  A visit to the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, the final destination of my Germany 2016 mini-tour, and a reading of Alix Christie’s 2014 historical novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, opened my eyes to other possibilites.

Gutenberg didn’t invent moveable type.  That was invented about 4 centuries earlier in China by Bi Sheng using ceramic plates.  Moveable metal type was then developed in Korea.  What Gutenberg developed (because he had no prior knowledge of these Eastern systems) was a method of casting reusable metal type from a mould. The letters, together with his printing press, constituted the typographical system that proved to be the greatest invention since the wheel.  There has been nothing of similar importance until the invention of the internet.

imageThere I go, giving Gutenberg all the credit. Yet was this achievement really all his own, or should the roles of his financier, Johann Fust, and his apprentice Peter Schoeffer not be recognised also? They certainly are in Christie’s novel which is narrated by Schoeffer, looking back on the events of 1450-1455.

In 1450 Schoeffer is called back from his training as a calligrapher and engraver by his guardian, Johann Fust, to be apprenticed to Johannes Gutenberg.  Of course, he is resentful.  This new-fangled technology is going to destroy his career, and besides, mass production will never be able to able to produce books as beautiful as those made by hand.  Well events are to prove him wrong but not without a lot of blood, sweat and tears.  Christie takes us into the workshop and shows us the struggles that the team had: the technical struggles, the trial and error involved in finding the perfect alloy of lead, tin and antimony (a recipe that could not be improved upon for 500 years); the personal struggles resulting from the long hours; the political struggles that needed negotiation and the absolute secrecy that had to be maintained for 5 years to prevent the Archbishop of Mainz from confiscating the press; the personality clashes arising because Gutenberg was not the saint that we perhaps think he was ; and finally, the financial problems that contributed to the court case in which Gutenberg was forced to hand over his press to Fust.

Was that the real reason for the rift between the two partners? The facts are hard to establish as only a fragment of the court papers remains.  There is a school of thought  that Fust and Schoeffer (who testified against Gutenberg) had always planned to seize control of the press. This novel does not subscribe to that view and interprets events in an entirely different but thoroughly plausible way.  Although, with hindsight and with Schoeffer as apologist, that shouldn’t be so surprising.

Although, having no prior knowledge of these events, this took me completely by surprise and I found myself turning the pages ever faster.  It also ensured that I entered the Gutenberg Museum looking for evidence of Christie’s hypothesis. Naturally I found only the historical version of events – i.e the fragment from the court papers and only a couple of mentions of both Fust and Schoeffer.

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To beautiful books!

This saddened me as I’d grown quite fond of the latter, who, following his apprenticeship with Gutenberg, went on to publish the Mainz Psalter, generally recognised to be the most beautiful book ever published. (Note to self – must find one and visit.) Still I was gratified to learn later that Mainz hasn’t forgotten him entirely, and I can verify that the wheat beer that bears his name is as refreshing as it looks!

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Now if I were handing out a prize for most entertaining narrator on this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist, Lizzie Burns, protagonist and narrator of Mrs Engels, would win hands down.  She’s a real character.  How’s this for an opener ….

No one understands men more than the women they don’t marry and my own opinion – beknown only to God – is that the difference between one man and another doesn’t amount to much.  It’s no matter what line he’s in or which ideas he follows, whether he is sweet-tempered or ready-witted, a dab at one business or the next, for there isn’t so much in any of that, and you won’t find a man that hasn’t something against him.  What matters over and above the contents of his character – what makes the difference between sad and happy straits for she who must put her life into his keeping  – is the mint that jingles in his pockets.  In the final reckoning, the good and the bad come to an even naught, and the only thing left to recommend him is his money.

Her outlook, which when you consider that Lizzie, a working-class Irish girl, is the unmarried Mrs Engels of the title, shacked up with the exceedingly rich, cotton-mill owning Mr Friedrich Engels but still pining for her poor former Irish lover, explains a lot.  (Even if it doesn’t explain her ongoing desire for the latter given the legacy of that relationship.)  The further into the novel we go, the more unconventional and complex Lizzie’s domestic arrangements become.  Without the wedding ring, there is only so much that Lizzie can do in Victorian society, but she is a force to reckon with, a pillar of strength for Engels, the smoother of many obstacles and embarrassments.  Yet she has to put up with Karl Marx, a rival who takes all of Friedrich’s time and a lot of his money.  Worse still, his wife, Jenny, towards whom she feels a natural antipathy, not unrelated to the history of Lizzie’s sister, Mary, Lizzie’s predecessor to Engels’s affections.  But put up with her she must, and also with Engels’s sometimes high-handed approach, if she wants to continue enjoying his wealth in their “grand” house in Primrose Hill.  Otherwise it’s back to the Manchester slums for her.

Through her not-so-convinced eyes we see the birth of Marxism.  And it’s a revelation, I must say.  The portraits of Marx and Engels as political theorists are not always flattering, and Jenny Marx comes across in places as Mrs Bennett reincarnated.  Nor are the French comunards, displaced by the failure of their 1871 uprising,  and seeking refuge in London, a sympathetic crowd. Fine clothes and wine, their particular weaknesses.

Shifting between the present life in Primrose Hill and her earlier impoverished life in the Manchester factory, Lizzie’s narrative is always honest, graphic, and in places very down to earth.  Even the pragmatist she accepts some real blows with a shrug of her shoulders.  I suspect the reigniting of the affair with her Irish pro-Fenian lover is fuelled more by rebellion than by affection.

How much of Lizzie is the real woman?  Impossible to say because the real Lizzie Burns was illiterate, and so has left no written records.  Engels, of course, had other things to write about other than his partner who died at 40 and who he refused to marry until she lay on her death bed. (But at least he made an honest woman of her in the end.)  McCrea has, therefore, written into the gaps of the historical record, and not only created a credible  record of what might be true but an absorbing novel to boot.

Mrs Engels was my fourth read from this year’s Walter Scott Prize shortlist, and the first I thought would make a worthy winner.  Will book 5 A Place Called Winter or book 6 Tightrope snatch the shadow trophy from McCrae’s hands?  All to be revealed before Saturday’s official award ceremony …….

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

This is the title on the shortlist I was anticipating the most.  Billed as the companion piece to Any Human Heart and blurbed as the best thing Boyd has ever written, it had a lot to live up to, particularly as Any Human Heart is IMO a masterpiece.

Amory Clay is the female counterpart to Logan Mountstewart.  She’s born in 1908 and dies in 1983, so sees most of the C20th.  Her profession as photographer is useful.   It allows Boyd to move her around the globe to many of the C20th hotspots.  She starts off as a society photographer with her uncle, who advises her to create a scandal to make her name known.  Cue move to the louche Berlin of the 1930s.  The resulting pictures are too effective.  Following an obscenity trial, her reputation is in shatters.  To restart her career, she needs to move to the States,  sponsored by the man destined to become her employer, lover and long-term protector.  There follow sojourns in France during WWII as a rather uncourageous war photographer, in Scotland as part of the landed gentry during the 1950s, another stint as a war photographer during Vietnam, after which her final years are spent living alone with her dog back on the West Coast of Scotland.

There’s a lot happening on this world stage, and Amory Clay’s personal life is just as eventful! As if dalliances with her married employer and a French writer, marriage with a Scottish Lord were not enough, Amory’s life still has time for final adventure chasing after her AWOL daughter to an American commune. At 447 pages, this is one of the longest novels of the Walter Scott Shortlist, and it is also the quickest read.

Boyd loves to mix his books with other art forms and so here the chosen medium is photography. Scattered among the text are photographs, purporting to be those taken by Amory Clay. Now I haven’t heard Boyd speak, nor have I read any interviews about this novel, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear of him finding a cache of unaccredited (and not always brilliant) photographs around which he has seamlessly woven his tale.  (Aaah, look what I just found.)

A key question for the success of this novel is whether Amory Clay feels authentic. She does in most things:  discovery of the carnal coinciding with the slackening of moral restraint in the C20th,  lack of courage at the front line and her honesty about it,  falling for men who are not emotionally the best choice, the  sometimes distant relationship with her daughters. Her forgiveness of her father stretched my credulity somewhat (No hints here, it’s a major plot feature.) I particularly enjoyed her analysis of light.

 I watched the day slip into night, noting the wondrous tonal transformations of the sunset on its dimmer switch, how blood-orange can shade imperceptibly into ice-blue on the knife-edge of the horizon ….

Much to enjoy, therefore, but nothing that had me as a reader firing on all cylinders. Why ever not? Let me be clear. Sweet Caress is a good novel and a vast improvement on the last Boyd I read. (In fact, Waiting for Sunrise had me thinking that I wouldn’t bother reading any more.) But I had been led to expect something on a par with Any Human Heart and so I was waiting for the sheer brilliance and emotional cataclysm of the dog food moment. It was perhaps unfair of me to do so.

 

 

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize

And so to the finale of Allan Massie’s atmospheric crime quartet set in Vichy France. (Parts 1 and 2 are reviewed here, Part 3 here.). It is the early summer of 1944. The Germans have lost the war and the allied invasion is expected, eagerly or with apprehension depending on the choices made during the Occupation. For Superintendent Lannes the end can’t come quickly enough, even though his family will suffer one way or the other, given that one son is happily working for Vichy France, the other has joined the free French and his daughter has fallen in love with a fully-fledged German sympathiser, now fighting in Hitler’s  army. For himself, Lannes just wants to be able to work again, free from political interference. At the beginning of this novel, however, he is suspended at the order of the Germans – he’s paying the price for doing the morally right thing in the previous novel.

But he is not bitter. He understands that his boss Schnyder was simply being expedient “determined to survive, however things turned out.” He is suffering from ennui, however, and so when he is approached by the Count of St. Hilaire to investigate the disappearance of his grand-niece, he accepts. The case brings him into contact with the real bogey man of the quartet, the lawyer Labiche. Throughout the quartet Lannes has crossed swords with Labiche multiple times, and with the end of the Occupation in sight, Lannes senses his chance for revenge.

Continuing to tread the streets of Bordeaux, Lannes meets the circle of friends and adversaries that have populated the previous three novels, and I do think that this may be confusing to those coming to End Games without prior knowledge. This is one series where I would advise starting at Book One. That way the jumps to the parallel lives of Lannes’s sons and Michel, his daughter’s lover, will not disconcert. Nor will their purpose. Not a single one of them comes out of the other side with their ideals intact ….

… and even Lannes, desperate to be free from intolerable political pressures, has to recognise that the time has not yet come. Now that the Boches have gone, justice will have new masters. In the words of Judge Bracal:

For four years the prevailing wind has come from Vichy. Now the wind has shifted. It blows with the Resistance, and … for weeks and perhaps months to come, the Law will be whatever the Resistance says it is.

I have followed Lannes during the dark years trying to uphold justice in the face of Vichy/Nazi law. He has at least tried to maintain his own integrity. He has not always succeeded. Finding now that similar struggles will continue through the Expiation and beyond,  he is finally embittered and filled with hatred for the hypocrises of his fellow countrymen.  Rising above it all is sometimes an impossible task.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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imageShortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

You can always tell when the weather’s good in Scotland – this blog goes quiet. (Good days are too precious to waste inside on the computer.) However, normal service has been resumed, and I am once again sheltering inside. Time to start on the Walter Scott shortlist, which I shall attempt to read in its entirety before the winner’s announcement is made on 18th June.

Let’s start with the only lady on the list, and a novel that is curiously not available in the UK. I had to import the book from Australia to read it. At least this made me realise how lucky we are in the UK, where books are more reasonably priced ….

Salt Creek is Lucy Treloar’s debut novel which has also been longlisted for the 2016 Miles Franklin award. It is set primarily in 1855 in the Coorong, a remote and inhospitable coastal region in Southern Australia. Stanton Finch, following a failed business venture, refuses to accept charity from his wealthy in-laws and moves his family to establish a dairy farm in Salt Creek. The fact that he must build his new home from driftwood, the remnants of ship-wrecked vessels, is presentiment enough for what is to follow.

Neither climate nor pasture are ideal – salt from the sea permeates the landscape. So the odds are stacked again Stanton Finch, who besides having no business sense, does not understand the ecology. Unlike the Ngarrindjeri, the aboriginal tribe who are about to be displaced – though not in a violent clash of cultures. This is a gradual dispossession – though sickness brought by the settlers, and a betrayal of Stanton Finch’s values by Stanton Finch himself who believes himself to be an enlightened Christian man ascribing to the maxim that all men are born equal. With that in mind he sets out to help the Ngarrindjeri, with gifts of food and clothing, protecting their fresh water supplies, and he semi-adopts an aboriginal child, inviting Tull into his home to educate him, the hope being that Tull will spread the values of civilisation through his own people.

Which is all very well until life deals him one blow after the next. A stubborn man, Stanton Finch exacts the price of each failure on his family. When Tull makes the naive mistake of believing himself to be equal, the despot in Stanton Finch rises while the downward spiral accelerates, shattering any remaining semblance of family cohesion. The family saga (and saga it is – perhaps a little too domestic for my taste) is told in retrospect by Hester, Stanton Finch’s eldest daughter. The harsh years at Salt Creek are the formative years for her and her siblings, and the place one they must escape if they are not to descend to the depths of their father. Not all of them do.

This is not your standard pioneering tale – a tale of man waging a successful battle against the elements, of “civilising” those who have no need of it. Rather it is anti-heroic, a “decivilisation” if you will. There are no miracles, just harsh realities depicting the self-deception of the settlers, with hard questions asked of their Victorian world view.

The role of hero in these pages is reserved for the landscape. As Treloar notes in her acknowledgements, The Coroong is strange and secluded and grand enough to humble. That’s a lesson that the presumptious Stanton Finch must learn very much to his cost.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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imageI’ve never been happy with my review of Kehlmann’s Measuring The World from nine years ago. I always felt that I had been blindsided by the humour of the piece; that I hadn’t got to the core of things. In the years since, I have heard Kehlmann referee a translation duel and speak of the style he used – everything in indirect speech, putting a distance between reader and subject, endowing the action with a cinematic quality. I must read it in German, I thought. I still haven’t done that. However, as my second reading of Carol Brown Janeway’s fluid translation immediately followed my reading of Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, I returned to Kehlmann’s novel with fresh eyes.

But firstly let me say that Measuring the World has, in the intervening years, has lost none of its charm or entertainment value. It remains an absolute humdinger. However, knowing much more about the obsessive Alexander Humboldt gave me a better insight into Kehlmann’s talents. It is the historical novelist’s job to

a) show us the human reality that the historical record glosses over. Such as how impossible Humboldt must have been to live with. Poor Aimé Bonpland takes the brunt of this for 5 years in the South America wilderness. The man deserved a sainthood! Gauss, too, a curmudgeon, best left alone with his head in the clouds of higher mathematics.

b) condense the lives of the two greatest scientists of their time into just 260 pages. Their differing backgrounds, their radically different modus operandi, nothing to share but their genius and an incredible number of discoveries.

But to do so artistically, in a new, a novel way. I’ve already commented on the humour. Kehlmann also uses structure to good effect, starting his novel at the only time when the two men met before looping back into the past to tell their histories in parallel. (Demonstrating from the offset, the Gaussian theory of parallel lines meeting?) The literal highpoint of Humboldt’s career at 18,690 feet, at the point where a ravine stops Bonpland and himself from climbing to the summit of Mount Chimborazo. This episode occurs dead centre in the book. Not that everything was downhill for Humboldt after that, but he was never to experience the same exhilaration.

A novelist can also use poetic licence, concatenating events, perhaps even changing them for dramatic effect. I’m now suspicious of the electric eel adventure I highlighted in my first review as Andrea Wulf tells it differently. Humboldt and Bonpland sent horses into the pond of electric eels. Kehlmann emphasises how they used their own bodies. Which made me a little suspicious of Eugen Gauss’s calamitous experience in Berlin. Great for the novel but life surely couldn’t be that cruel? Facts, it seem, are somewhat different. Not that this detracts in iota from Kehlmann’s telling. Historical novelists are not oath-bound to tell the truth!

imageAnd so to the 2012 film starring Florian David Fitz as Gauss and Albrecht Schuch as Alexander von Humboldt. Interestingly Gauss taking centre stage on the DVD jacket. An indication that his story (the poor kid made good) was the more interesting and coherent on film. Humboldt’s more panoramic storyline more difficult to convey when confined to short episodic bursts. Some of these scenes, such as the hallucinations on Mount Chimborazo just didn’t work at all. That said, the film is a visual treat and the overlay of a narrator, not only necessary to hold it all together, but also a nod Kehlmann’s indirect narrative. A word of warning though. Watch only if you are a German speaker as half the English subtitles are missing!

My thanks to TJ at My Book Strings. Her choice of Kehlmann’s Measuring The World as #4 of 12 Germans for 2016 gave me the necessary push to revisit an old favourite. TJ’s review is here and Naomi at Consumed by Ink has also joined in here.

© Lizzy’s Literary Life 2016

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It would be a shame to let 2015 pass without reviewing what was the longest literary experience of the year, both in terms of page count and time committment: 1696 pages which because I listened to the three unabridged audio books translated into 60 hours of listening over a period of 6 months.  (I only listen to audio books when I’m alone in the car.)

The Ibis Trilogy is Ghosh’s retelling of that infamous episode in British history, the first Opium War (1839- 1842). I still remember the incredulity I experienced when – it was years and years ago and I’m more worldly-wise now – I first heard that we fought a war to preserve our right to trade in hard drugs, so when Sea of Poppies was first published in 2008, with that beautiful dust jacket, it was added to the TBR right away.  Same thing happened with River of Smoke in 2011.  For some reason though, I didn’t make a start until the final part, Flood of Fire was published in 2015.

If that was a strategy, it worked well, because “reading” the three parts back to back let me appreciate the coherence of the whole in a way that may otherwise have been lost.  To summarise briefly:  Sea of Poppies shows the impact of the Opium trade on the little men, the people in The Bay of Bengal, who grow and manufacture the product; River of Smoke shifts primarily to the viewpoint of the traders, with growing resistance to the trade from the Chinese authorities; and in Flood of Fire all hell breaks loose!

imageBut let’s start at the beginning and admit that Sea of Poppies was not what I was expecting at all!  For some reason, I thought that most of the action would be on the Ibis – the ex-slaver – and at sea.  Not so, it is a leisurely gathering together of those who finally take to sea in the Ibis in the final chapters of the book.  The device  allows Ghosh to explore in detail the back stories of those that find themselves on board: the officers, the crew, and the indentured Indians on their way to work in the Sugar plantations in Mauritius.  And therein lies the emotional pull of this first part.  For amongst the passengers are Deeti and Neel; the former, the widow of a heroin addict, fleeing death on her husband’s funeral pyre.  Neel, once a wealthy rajah, is now being transported as a debtor after his creditors unscrupulously call in debts when he refuses to sell them some of his ancestral lands.  Much to his disgust, he shares his cabin/cell with a filthy Chinese heroine addict, and yet, the story  how Neel overcomes his prejudices, and not only helps but befriends Ah Fatt is one of the most humane subplots of the piece.  Among the officers, who in the main are as beastly and sadistic as you would expect, given that they are representatives of the British Empire, is a fine, young, honourable, American, named Zachary Reid.

These people, like the IBIS, form a backbone through the trilogy. Although, given that they all set off on the voyage to Mauritius, they all end up in different places.  A storm and a mutiny at sea take care of that!

imageRiver of Smoke introduces us to another ship, the Anahita, which is floundering in the same storm.  She is owned by Barum Modi, a Parsee business man.  Her hold is full of opium and it is crucial that this trip is successful, if Barum is to buy out his double-dealing brothers-in-law.  The storm does not augur well, nor do the times.  It is 1838, a year before the First Opium War, and the Chinese are beginning to crack down on the trade.  Luckily for Barum the Anahita and most of his cargo makes it through the storm to arrive in Canton.  As do Neel and Ah Fatt, who is Barum’s son by his Chinese mistress.  This revelation allows Ghosh to   inject a domestic drama – father and son are estranged – into the midst of intense commercial and political negotiations. Which are staggering  in their self-righteousness and hypocrisy to say the least.  Here in a nutshell is the British argument.

… the only offence cited against us is that we have obeyed the laws of Free Trade – and it is no more possible for us to be heedless of those laws that to disregard the forces of nature, or disobey God’s commandments.

And yet, even though Barum is one of them, he became my favourite character in the trilogy, whereas Commissioner Lin, the bogeyman for the opium traders, became my favourite villain!   Who would have thought it.

imageI spent the pages of River of Smoke missing Zachary Reid.  I needn’t have worried.  I got more than enough of him,  his mistress, Mrs Burnham, and their sexual peccadilloes, during Flood of Fire.  Pages and pages – or hours and hours of listening, which I couldn’t fast forward.   Quite simply, too much information.  In my view, a miscalculation by Ghosh – I’m not sure what the point was beyond the fact that the C19th was as libidinous as the C21st.  What started as an affair of convenience though, did result in  real feelings, and Mrs Burnham did the best she could to turn Zachary into a successful man of his time.  She did a fabulous job and these pages see Zachary turn from a charming , honourable freshman into …..

…. a man of the times  …. a man who wants more and more and more; a man who does not know the meaning of “enough”.  Anyone who tries to thwart my desires is the enemy of my liberty and must be expected to be treated as such.

Something which bodes badly for Ah Fatt.  Of all the heinous acts in this trilogy, Zachary Reid’s treachery is the lowlight.  Although it’s hard to condemn him.  He has been remoulded by the opium trade to become a man of his time after all.

As I write this, I wonder if the Reid/Ah Fatt dynamic is metaphoric in some way …..

…. because this is where the British Empire finally strike the Chinese.  The first Opium War arrives and with it battle after battle, during which the Chinese are hopelessly outgunned and completely outmanoeuvred, despite outnumbering their foe.  We see the war up close through the eyes of Kesri Singh, an Indian soldier in the service of the British army (and brother of Deeti) and observed by a non-combatant in the diary of Neel Rattan, who following his stint with Barum, is now in the employ of the Chinese.

Ghosh’s narrative is incredibly detailed; the result of his prodigous research. Occasionally he  forgets not to let it show and the narrative sags as a result.  (The start of book two and botanic epistolary interludes.)  His ambition though is to recreate a panoramic overview of the world of that time and, in that he succeeds with a multi-national cast of dozens from all social strata, detailing not only the microcosms of their lives but also their languages, specialist vocabularies and dialects.  The linguistics were quite challenging as l listened – I feel sure that I wouldn’t have lost my way had I been reading.  Eventually I let it wash over me – I got the gist anyway …

… and I became as fond of Ghosh’s characters as the author himself.  Even if the ending can’t be a happy one for China (and Ah Fatt), things work out, as far as they can, for most who had a hard time on the Ibis in book one. For a significant number the Ibis plays a key role as she sails off into the distance at the end of book three, mirroring the way she sailed into view at the very beginning.   Neat it may be, but I can think of no more satisfying way to tie up almost one million words of great historical writing.

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