Posts Tagged ‘socialreading’


Secretaries, clerks and diplomats, hastening down corridors, ignored them as they passed. The talk was of Brussels. The city’s name was whispered like a password. It lay on every tongue and was stammered out by every typewriter; it was cut into the white wax of the stencils and rung on every telephone.

The technologies (typewriters, stencils) are the only clues that we’re not in the the present day.  We’re in 1968 when Britain was obsessed with trying to gain membership of the then European Common Market.  Our applications of 1963 and 1967 had been vetoed by France, and Germany was seen as being our closest European ally. But that close friendship is in peril in A Small Town in Germany.  It’s 1968 and unrest in Europe is broadspread,  Student protests in Paris. Dissent infamously crushed in Prague in the spring.  The Germans are also unsettled.  With the chancellor, Kiesinger, an ex-nazi, denazification is but a mirage.  The growing tide of left-wing opposition is led, at least in Le Carré’s novel, by the British-hating Karfeld, who favours a rapprochement to the Eastern bloc.  The last thing the British diplomat in Bonn (the small town of the title, even if it was the then capital of the Federal Republic) needs is a junior member of staff, with distant connections to the East, disappearing with highly sensitive files ….

Enter Alan Turner, the Foreign Office’s bloodhound, the outsider, guaranteed to stir things up.  Not only because of his job, but because he is a brute, totally indifferent to the damage he can cause, the feelings of those he interviews.  Not adverse to hitting an interviewee – even if female – to get to the truth.  It’s the only thing that matters to him, and in the process he uncovers lots of dirty secrets.

Because the embassy in Bonn has been rather complacent.  With that background, why was Leo Harting working there in the first place and how did he accumulate responsibilites beyond his security level?  Why are staff at the Embassy so uncooperative? And why does the Head of Security only seem concerned about retrieving the files; Harting’s safety being deemed irrelevant even when it becomes obvious that his disappearance is not what it first seemed.

Because – to put it bluntly – the British are hedging their diplomatic bets.

This is a Le Carré novel and in his universe, based, lest we forget, on his own experiences as a spy, the world of espionage is grubby and mucky. Never honourable. At best morally ambiguous.   This is not the high octane world of Ian Fleming.  There’s no glamour, no gadgets.  And Turner is certainly no Bond.

Neither for that matter is Leo Harting.  But the more Turner hears of Harting’s initially gentle, organ-playing, church-going persona, the more Turner realises how much outward appearances can deceive; that Harting is, in fact, “his untamed half”.  Turner suddenly recognises a fellow outsider, treated as contemptuously as himself, with enemies on both sides of the political fence. Once Turner comes to an understanding of Harting’s motives, it becomes imperative for him to find the man before his enemies can.

A Small Town in Germany isn’t a fast paced novel by any stretch of the imagination.  A goodly portion consists of series of chapters in which Turner interviews, insults amd offends various members of the British Embassy staff, and Le Carré paints cynical portraits of everyone and everything.  He is particularly scathing about British notions of class, exemplified in the embassy setting, and is very unflattering towards Bonn, although I found it quite charming.  (I suppose a spell of good weather helped my impression of the place.) Many pages are spent going nowhere, and the whole is infused with attitudes that have changed so much in the last 50 years.  (Or perhaps not …)  If ever there was a slow burner that repaid readerly patience, this is it.  Another Le Carré masterpiece.


I read this book for the 1968 club hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck In A Book


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The chances are you’ve seen this video by Tribes.  The counter is currently showing 44 million views, but, as it is simply the most powerful message I’ve seen recently about the futility of war, given the current predilection for (what will hopefully be only another round of) sabre-rattling, I’m including it here.

Estimating the number of deaths in all those conflicts is an impossible task, the numbers from World War Two are mind-boggling enough. But each of those 80 million deaths was an individual tragedy, and it’s on the individual level that we feel the pain more acutely.

I left Heinrich Böll as he was leaving high school entering the book trade, seeking ways to avoid becoming another cog in the Nazi machine. In the years between then and the publication of Where were you, Adam? in 1951, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht. He survived 4 wounds and typhoid fever to distill those experiences into this short and powerful novella.


From The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll – Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

With no preamble Böll pitches the reader onto the Eastern Front. Hungary 1944. The war is lost and the German army is retreating from the advance of the Russians. Except the words defeat and retreat are forbidden – all movement must be packaged as redeployment. Call it what they will, the horrors and absurdities of war still prevail.  Generals knowingly send men without enough firepower into battle to buy time.  Amidst the carnage, Nazis still have resource and energy to clear the ghettos.

So much for the big picture. Individual stories break down abstractions and generalisations and this is where Böll’s story excels. He relates the story of the German defeat through a collage of experiences: those of the different ranks in the Wehrmacht together with representatives the civilian population. Each episode is depicted realistically with sufficient detail to engage this civilian reader’s senses and emotions without overdoing it. (Unlike this one.)

The first episode begins  with the general inspecting his battalion shortly before sending them into battle:

First came a face, large, yellow, tragic, moving past their lines; that was the general. The general looked tired. The face with puffy blue shadows under the malaria-yellow eyes, the slack, thin-lipped mouth of a man dogged by bad luck, moved hurriedly past the thousand men. … Each of the three times three hundred and thirty-three men into whose faces he looked was aware of a strange feeling: sorrow, pity, fear, and a secret fury.  Fury at this war, which had already gone on far too long …..

Those emotions were key to my reading because in the course of the 134 pages, I felt all of those (although there’s nothing secret about my fury).  For while the German army is staging its retreat – sorry, redeployment – the body count still rises.  And these men – conscripts, in the main – are destined to fall.  But they aren’t just statistics.  Their backstories render them human and in some cases, more vulnerable because of a chronic health condition.  Another man is a wine merchant, conscripted and sent by the whim of some delusional maniac to source 50 bottles of the finest Hungarian wine.  Amidst the madness there are fine examples of courage: doctors and medical orderlies who remain with patients in post-operative recovery to give them a chance of survival.

Civilian life is represented by the Hungarian landlady who quarters the  German troops. She makes a good living out of the war and is sorry when her time of bounty is over.  Conversely there is the Catholic Jewish teacher, Ilona, who makes an unwise choice to visit her parents in the ghetto.

The episodic structure is held together by the figure of Feinhals, whose movements take us from one story to the next.  Wounded in the opening battle (much to his relief) , he is taken to the medical station, the location of the second and third chapters.  Post recovery he meets Ilona, but their love affair is short-lived as he receives further redeployment orders.  And so it continues with increasing absurdity and meaningless sacrifice until the end of the war when Feinhals is decommissioned and on the threshold of his parent’s home.

I’m struggling to identify the most absurd moment of them all.  Could that be poor Fleck’s death who dies on the battlefield, pierced in the chest by one of those 50 wine bottles.

“In the chest?”

“That’s right – he must have been kneeling over his suitcase.”

“Contrary to regulations”, said the second lieutenant.

How macabre is that?

But there is further absurdity to follow including a bridge that is rebuilt only to be destroyed by the builders the day after completion.  You couldn’t make it up, and I suspect Böll didn’t.  As for meaninglessness, the apex is reached in the last chapter, in the last gasp of the war.  It is an incident that is well-signalled, and has been subtly foreshadowed throughout. Nevertheless it resurrected all those emotions highlighted in the first chapter.   It also made this reader raise a white flag in the face of human stupidity.



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Translated from French by Jean Stewart

When people talk about a policeman’s flair, or his methods, his intuition, I always want to answer:

“What about your shoemaker’s flair, or your baker’s.”

Both of these have gone through years of apprenticeship. Each of them knows his job and everything concerned with it.

The same is true of a man from the Quai des Orfėvres.

This is Maigret speaking, emphasising that his astonishing expertise has been hard won through experience.  These memoirs include the years of his apprenticeship spent transferring from squad to squad learning to recognise the certain signs you cannot mistake that are associated with criminal activity and that make solving a crime so much easier – a matter of process if you will.

To know the milieu in which a crime has been committed, to know the way of life, the habits, morals, reactions of the people involved in it, whether victims, criminals, or merely witnesses.

The point is well made through case studies, and one I would do well to remember, because I have put my reading of Simenon’s series on hold after 10 novels due to frustration at the Inspector’s seeming omniscience.  Not that Maigret has penned his memoirs in response to me.  No, he has taken exception to this chap called Sim (later Simenon), an impertinent individual who showed up one day in 1927 or 1928 at the station with permission to shadow him, promising to use in his novels only what he may see or hear … in a format sufficiently altered to create no difficulties.

Except, of course, there were difficulties. Simenon used Maigret’s name, made him famous and caught him in a mesh from which he never managed to escape.  Did Simenon’s Maigret copy from the “real” Maigret or has the “real” Maigret adopted the mannerisms of Simenon’s creation? It’s enough to make a grown man grumble or  alternatively, resort to the pen in order to set matters straight!

In a hugely enjoyable metafictional conceit, Inspector Maigret takes his creator to task over the depiction of his fictional self! In the course of which he includes the charming story of  his relationship with Madame Maigret – how they met, the first few years of their marriage, and her editorship of these memoirs.  Plus the all important settling of differences between author and Inspector to form the friendship/partnership that produced 75 novels, even if they are according to the Inspector, not entirely accurate. (Best give him the last word today, I think.)

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Phillip Ashley is 24 and his older cousin’s heir. Raised by his adored batchelor cousin, Ambrose, he is old before his time, settled in his ways and requiring nothing other than his home to be content  Yet his world is set to be shaken following Ambrose’s surprise marriage to a widowed Italian contessa and his suspicious death which follows soon after.

Ambrose’s marriage and demise happen off-page.  Phillip only hears news  through increasingly rare and distressed letters from his cousin, accusing his wife, Rachel, of controlling, manipulative behaviour and much worse. Surprisingly following Ambrose’s death, Phillip remains his heir (for reasons that surface much later) and Rachel is an impoverished widow.  When she arrives on English shores, Phillip is set for a confrontation …

..  and yet the woman’s natural charm and grace and elegance disarm him. The question is whether Rachel has ulterior motives. Is she what she seems  – a grieving widow seeking further memories of her beloved – or is the impoverished and somewhat older woman seeking to twist the boy (yes, at 24 Phillip is still a boy) around her little finger to take what she can – including his life – if necessary?

Answering that question here will ruin the novel for those who have not read it. So I won’t – actually I’m not sure that I can, because such are the sleights of the author’s hand that one minute I saw it, the next minute I did not. The  result is a slippery, suggestive text with little hard evidence and an awful lot of interpretation on the part of the characters and the reader.   For instance do Ambrose’s letters tell the whole truth, just a kernel of truth or are they the paranoid delusions of a man suffering from a terminal brain tumour?

The reader is conditioned to dislike Rachel, while her behaviour belies all suspicion. And yet, once or twice her mask slips and the paragon of virtue becomes cold and hostile. Usually when there is some tension between herself and the narrator, Phillip himself.  You see it’s impossible to see Rachel unfiltered as she truly is.  Phillip controls her image, and that corresponds to his emotional state.  When he is besotted, she is an angel of light. When he is angry or thwarted, she is grasping and manipulative.

This isn’t just a gothic,  domestic drama, although it is superb, read as such. These are elemental power games.  Rachel is well aware of her feminine allure and the advantage of her experience. Phillip is well aware of the power of money to control the woman he once hated but now does not wish to lose. This battle of the sexes looks as though it could end in happiness for both until he tips the balance so much in her favour that ….  No, no, that would be telling. What I will say is that he does it on the day he comes into his inheritance – April Fool’s Day. Need I say more? Perhaps just one more thing – it triggers a series of events that mirror those preceeding Ambrose’s death.

My Cousin Rachel is one of Du Maurier’s masterpieces, meticulously plotted and seriously unputdownable  (even on a day when I was feeling under the weather.) Thanks to the #1951club for providing the impetus to pick it up at long last. I now eagerly anticipate the forthcoming film, though I have no idea how it will convey the ambiguity of the text without driving the audience (me) insane.

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Simon and Karen are once more hosting an event based on the books written in one particular year.  This time it’s 1951.   I’ve read a selection of books from that year, though it appears most were pre-blog. For example:

Suspicion – Friedrich Dürrenmatt

The End of the Affair – Graham Greene

Mist over Pendle – Robert Neill (Must read for Lancastrians.)

The Catcher in the Rye – R D Salinger

The Daughter of Time – Josephine Tey

The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

1951 was also the year in which Dennis the Menace made his first appearance!

And yet, I don’t get the impression that it was such a tremendous year for fiction. Only the Wyndham in the list above knocked my socks off.  Many of the authors I’m interested in didn’t publish that year.  Neither have Persephone Books published anything from 1951. Still I have put together a capsule TBR now vying for my attention.  Perhaps these books will change my mind about 1951 in general.

Given the imminent film release, I’ve started with Du Maurier ….

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