Category: England Page 3 of 9

Jonathan Coe: Middle England

The latest addition to my website is Jonathan Coe‘s Middle England. This is his best novel since his superb political satire What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy). It continues the stories of Benjamin Trotter, his family and friends, from The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle, while giving us another brilliant political satire, this time aimed at recent events (2010 onwards), with particular reference to Brexit. Coe skilfully mixes in the political environment, his political satire and the story of several characters from those earlier novels. He does not hide his views – Fuck Brexit! as Benjamin Trotter says – but does show the other side to a certain degree and shows how the generation gap, the class gap and the Brexit gap are alive and well in no longer moderate England.

Pat Barker: The Silence of the Girls

The latest addition to my website is Pat Barker‘s The Silence of the Girls. This is a feminist retelling of the Trojan War, based primarily on The Iliad. It is narrated mainly by Briseis, wife of King Mynes of Lyrnessus, an ally of Troy conquered by the Greeks before they conquer Troy. Briseis is captured and made the concubine of Achilles and we see the events of the Trojan War through her eyes, instead of through the eyes of the (probably male) Homer. She and the other women suffer, as they are used for (usually rough) sex but also as nurses, servants, comforters, washers of the dead and other tasks deemed appropriate for female slaves. Meanwhile, Briseis becomes a pawn in the power struggle between Achilles and Agamemnon. We know how it all ends, with many men dead, but it is the women who suffer – rape, death, abuse, enslavement – without being involved in the war excepts as bystanders and/or victims, while the men joyously kill one another. Barker tells her tale well, with the implication being that men may not have improved much in the intervening three thousand years since the Trojan War.

Aftermath

I recently attended an exhibition at Tate Britain called Aftermath, exploring the impact of World War One on British, German and French art. I have long been fascinated by this period for two reasons.

Knights: Marriage at Cana

Firstly I have long enjoyed the British artists of that period (and up to and including World War II). These include artists, who were in this exhibition, such as Edward Burra, Winifred Knights (whose The Marriage at Cana I was able to see both in Auckland (where it normally lives) and at the Dulwich Picture Gallery), John Nash, his brother Paul Nash, C R W Nevinson, William Roberts and Stanley Spencer. Many of these artists have had something of a rediscovery in the UK in recent years, with exhibitions devoted to them.

The exhibition did, of course, include some interesting French artists, such as Picasso, André Derain, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger and André Masson and German artists such as Max Ernst, Otto Dix and Georg Grosz.

My grandmother who died in the Spanish flu epidemic, with my uncles

My other interest in this period is because World War I changed so much. There were the obvious changes such as the fact that 10 million died and 20 million were injured, large parts of France and Belgium were destroyed, the economies of many European countries were destroyed, it led directly to the Great Depression and the rise of Fascism, various revolutions/civil wars happened (Russia, Ireland, Malta, Hungary, Germany, Egypt, Finland and others) and various countries died/significantly changed their frontiers and/or came into being after the war. Less obvious but still fairly well-known were the Spanish flu epidemic immediately after the war, which took millions of lives, the fact that after the War, the US surpassed Britain and Germany in economic and political power and the fact that after the War, Britain (and other countries, too) moved from being primarily a rural country to being primarily an urban country. In the UK, we have recently celebrated one hundred years of votes for women though, as many pointed out, it was at the same time that all adult men also received the vote. There is no question that the role of women changed after the war, not least because women had to work at men when the men were away fighting and dying.

Many novels and poems were written (and are still being written) about World War I, probably as many if not more than those set in World War II and the American Civil War. I have a long but far from complete list on my main site. Obviously many of those concern the actual conflict as well as life at home. Many of the World War I novels are critical of the conduct of the war. We can read about the terrors of the war, the inefficiency, incompetence and, at times, venality of the powers that be and of the officer class. Some novels show gentlemen declining to be officers and enlisting as other ranks.

The Tate divided its exhibition into eight categories. These are:

  • Remembrance: Battlefield and Ruins
  • Remembrance: War Memorials and Society
  • Traces of War: Wounded Soldiers
  • Traces of War: Dada and Surrealism
  • The Print Portfolio (prints, primarily in France and Germany, widely distributed)
  • Return to Order
  • Imagining Post-War Society: Post-War People
  • Imagining Post-War Society: The New City

While this division is not necessarily terribly helpful in looking at the novel, it does have some relevance. The war-wounded, example, certainly appear in various novels as do ruined battlefields and the idea of a return to order. However, I shall focus on a few novels that are on my website that do look at some of the after-effects of the war. There are, of course, many other novels dealing with this topic that are not on my website. Also, some of these novels will also deal with the war itself before moving on to the after-war period.

It could be argued that many of the great novels of the post-WWI period would not have existed without World War I. Would we have had, for example, Kafka, Joyce, Woolf,Faulkner and many other fine novelists without World War I. The answer is, of course, maybe but they may have been different and we may well have had others who would have revered even more. I shall not, therefore, be looking at those writers and others as regards their writing style and experimentation (Surrealism, Dadaism, etc. probably influenced the novel but were not, on the whole as key as they were in art.)

I shall start with my favourite post-war novel and that is Ford Madox Ford‘s Parade’s End tetralogy. Much of the series – and probably the better part – is set during the war but it is also is very much concerned with what we call world-weariness though other languages have better terms. While researching this issue, this clearly came up as a general issue. Some of it, of course, was post-traumatic stress disorder (then called shell-shock) but a lot of it was a general malaise that affected a lot of people, combatants and others, and Ford deals with it.

One other great English post-World War I novel and one far less known is Henry Williamson‘s The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series. This covers a long period – from the late 1890s to the 1950s. It covers World War I, of course and also the aftermath. The Williamson character and hero of the book, Phillip Maddison, does what Williamson actually did (and what D H Lawrence and others did) – retreat from the world, an aspect of world-weariness. Maddison also remarks on the disappearance of the rural around London.

Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs Dalloway is not the only novel to have a shell-shocked soldier in it but Septimus Smith is memorable, not least because he appears in a first-class novel, but also because he is so well portrayed by Woolf, as he retreats into his own world from which he will never return. Sadly, there were many men like him.

Two key themes for US writers were The Lost Generation and the Depression. The obvious Lost Generation work is Ernest Hemingway‘s The Sun Also Rises (UK: Fiesta) with its epigraph You are all a lost generation. Jake Barnes, the hero/narrator, has been wounded and left impotent and joins the list of literary characters, wounded physically and mentally during the war. William Faulkner‘s Soldier’s Pay is not an obvious Lost Generation novel, not least because it is set in the US and not Paris but it does show the effect of the war on those who do not go to Paris.

Many of the French novels of the period are concerned entirely with the grimness of the war, which is not surprising as much of the war was fought in France. Louis-Ferdinand Céline‘s Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) may be the most miserable book about the post-war period. Ferdinand Bardamu is a deserter and spends much of the book wandering around in a state of misery and encountering the miseries of other people. If you have any doubts as to whether people really were miserable after the war, this book should cure you.

Like other combatants, Germans tended to write about the horrors of the war. The most famous German writer (at least in the English-speaking world) on the war was Erich Maria Remarque. I have not read any of his work. His best-known work – Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) is set during the war. However, he did write a sequel: Der Weg zurück (The Road Back), about the period after the war. His Drei Kameraden (Three Comrades) was about a later period and was made into an excellent US film.

Of the relevant German books I have read, I would mention Ludwig Renn‘s Nachkrieg (After War). His previous book was set during the war while this one deals with the period after the war, with the German Revolution and Kapp Putsch.

Oskar Maria Graf‘s Anton Sittinger (which has not been translated into English) also deals with the post-war period.

Austria was also a combatant. Hermann Broch‘s Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers) was mainly about the war but it ends with the period immediately afterwards, with Austria descending into chaos. Alexander Lernet-Holenia‘s Die Standarte (The Standard; The Glory is Departed) deals with the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the exile of the Kaiser.

The war was not just about the Western front. Events took place elsewhere and World War I influenced them. I mentioned various revolutions and civil wars. The best-known book in English about the Russian Revolution is, of course, Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago). If you have not read the book, you may well have seen one of he films. Nabokov hated it. It does show the horrors of the Revolution which, of course, came about because of the war.

There are quite a few books about the Easter Rising and the Troubles afterwards. The Irish Times has a list. Liam O’Flaherty‘s Insurrection is an obvious Easter Rising novel and Elizabeth Bowen‘s The Last September an obvious one about The Troubles. However, I hope my Irish friends and relatives will not find it amiss if I mention an English writer, J G Farrell‘s Troubles, which mocks the English (though is not too flattering towards the Irish), as their Empire crumbles beneath them and, in this case, above them.

I would mention the German post-war revolution in passing. Alfred Döblin wrote November 1918: A German Revolution, a tetralogy of novels about this revolution, which I have not read. Ludwig Renn‘s Nachkrieg (After War), mentioned above, also deals with this period.

There were other places involved. I would mention Macedonia, not an obvious one. Petre M. Andreevski‘s Пиреј (Pirey) is about the aftermath of the war in Macedonia with the hated Bulgarians being replaced by the hated Serbs.

Only the first volume of Cezar Petrescu‘s Întunecare (Gathering Clouds) has been translated into English and that deals with the war. However, the second and third volumes deal with the post-war period in Romania. They have been translated into French and German and I hope to get round to them sometime.

Louis de Bernières‘s Birds Without Wings deals with the situation following the fall of the Ottoman Empire as does Dido Sotiriou‘s Ματωμενα Χωματα (Farewell, Anatolia). ‘s Նահանջը առանց երգի (Retreat without Song) deals with it from the perspective of the Armenians, the Armenian genocide and their exile to Paris.

I would mention two excellent more modern novels that deal with the aftermath of the war. Sebastian Faulks‘s Birdsong does take place, in part, during the war but also some of it is set in modern times (i.e. late 1970s) and is about the modern memory of the war. This has been quite common recently with the hundredth anniversary but was less so when Faulks wrote his book. There have been several other novels doing this as well.

Robert Edric‘s Desolate Heaven is less well-known but deals with a group of people shortly after the war who are suffering in various ways. It is a first-class novel which should be better-known.

There are many, many other worthwhile novels on this topic but I hope this will give you a flavour to supplement the Tate exhibition. The exhibition continues till 28 September 2018, so do try and see it if you are in London.

J. G. Farrell: The Singapore Grip

The latest addition to my website is J. G. Farrell‘s The Singapore Grip. This is the third, final and by far the longest of Farrell’s Empire trilogy. As the title tells us, it is set in Singapore and we follow events, from a British perspective, leading up to the Japanese invasion in 1942. We particularly follow the Blackett family. Walter Blackett is head of a large trading company which ruthlessly exploits the native population and the markets and Farrell attacks that, their hypocrisy, the way Walter pimps his daughter, trying to get her to marry a suitable man, and their greed. We also follow in considerable detail the events leading up to the Japanese invasion, with the civilian population confident that the Japanese will be repulsed and the military showing spectacular incompetence, as well as being woefully unprepared and not having the appropriate military equipment and support to defend against the Japanese. The novel is both funny but also deadly serious as Farrell mocks and attacks the final throes of British colonialism.

Glen James Brown: Ironopolis

The latest addition to my website is Glen James Brown‘s Ironopolis. This is a superb first novel, set in a sink estate in the North of England. We follow seven main characters (and a host of others) as they struggle with their lives – drugs, failed relationships, the regeneration of the estate, violence. However, Brown is a skilled writer and it is not all the miseries of a sink estate but also about they cope with their environment, with one another and even with Peg Powler, an evil water sprite. There are a few plot lines – abducted girls, an artist who apparently sees Peg Powler and then paints her, characters who fall down a well and those who get caught up in a spiral of violence – which make this much more of a complex and very readable novel.

J. G. Farrell: The Siege of Krishnapur

The latest addition to my website is J. G. Farrell‘s The Siege of Krishnapur, the second novel in Farrell’s post-colonial Empire trilogy. This one is based on the Siege of Lucknow of 1857, part of the Indian Rebellion against British occupation. The British seem intent on bringing civilisation to the Indians but the Indians do not want it. The well-meaning collector, Mr Hopkins, the man in charge, and the other British tend to live in a bubble, seeing the Indians only as servants or, in some cases, as people to be exploited. When the sepoys (Indians who had served in the British army) revolt, the British fight back and, naturally, continue their routines, including afternoon tea, even though there is no tea, but they do realise their civilising mission has not really worked. Farrell mocks everybody – the British, the few Indians we do meet as individuals, religion, capitalism, the idea of progress, art and anything else he can attack. It is still a worthwhile book forty-five years after it was first published.

Virginia Woolf and St Ives

This weekend we eventually got round to visiting St Ives to see Virginia Woolf An Exhibition Inspired by Her Writings at the Tate. Before discussing the exhibition, a few words about Virginia Woolf and St Ives.

Godrevy Lighthouse

The Stephen family (Virginia Woolf’s parents, her brother and sister and herself) spent their summer holidays there, in Talland House, from 1881 to 1895 (Virginia was born in 1882 and she spent her first summer there.) It had a profound influence on her work as well as on the work of her sister, Vanessa Bell, who was a painter. The house has long since been converted into flats (you can read about that here). The house and, in particular Godrevy Lighthouse, were to play a role in her work, particularly in To the Lighthouse. Godrevy Lighthouse was quite some distance – the not very good photo to the left, above is taken from near where Talland House was.

Another famous resident of St Ives was Barbara Hepworth and her house is now a museum. Many of her works are on display in the small garden, like the one to the right. (There is another Hepworth Gallery, in Wakefield, where she was born. It is just a few miles from Leeds and an easy train or bus ride from there. More of her work can be seen at the nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which is accessible by bus).

Getting back to the Woolf exhibition, what made this exhibition so interesting is that it was not particularly about Woolf (though, clearly, in part it was) but that all the works were inspired directly or indirectly by Woolf and all were by female artists. Some of the artists I was familiar with. For example, there were several by Laura Knight who had had an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery a couple of years ago we very much enjoyed. There were quite a few works by Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister, as well as works by Gwen John, Sandra Blow, Dora Carrington and other well-known names. There were also quite a few by artists I had ever heard of, including some very modern ones.

I will particularly mention Ithell Colquhoun. She is not so well-known as her work is surrealist, which was less popular, particular as regards women surrealist artists. She is also interesting as she wrote a strange novel, called Goose of Hermogenes. (I have a copy but I do not plan to read it any time soon.) (She wrote two others, one never completed. I Saw Water was published posthumously.)

The exhibition finishes this week but will be going to the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester in May and then to the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge in October. If you can get to either, you should find it well worth your time.

J. G. Farrell: Troubles

The latest addition to my website is J. G. Farrell‘s Troubles. This novel, which won the Lost Man Booker Prize more than thirty years after the author’s death, is the first in Farrell’s acclaimed Empire Trilogy. It is set in the crumbling Majestic Hotel, a symbol of the decaying British Empire, located in County Wexford in Ireland, at the end of the First World War and during a period when unrest in Ireland is increasing. Major Archer, who had been invalided out of the army for what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder, seems to have accidentally got engaged to Angela, daughter of the owner of the Majestic and goes to stay with the family there, her father, staunchly opposed to any Irish independence, her irresponsible brother and her almost evil twin sisters. He barely sees Angela, who is ill, but watches as both the hotel and British rule in Ireland, crumble in synchronicity. It is a superb novel and deserves the reputation it had when it first came out.

Geoff Nicholson: The Miranda

The latest addition to my website is Geoff Nicholson‘s The Miranda. I have read all of Nicholson’s novels but this one is somewhat different from the others, less quirky, less funny, less English and much darker. Joe Johnson, our narrator, is a retired torturer. He is engaged by a shadowy, presumably US government organisation (the novel is set entirely in the US) to torture those people that are going to serve abroad and risk being captured and tortured, in order to desensitise them. He has now retired, his marriage ended, and moves to a rural area where he plans to walk 25,000 miles around his garden, the equivalent of walking the circumference of the Earth. However, one of his torture victims has gone rogue, he has nasty and violent neighbours behind him and a woman artist wants to make him an art work. However, he also has Miranda, a woman who does his shopping for him and uses him as a guinea pig to create the next great cocktail, to be called The Miranda. All of this and more comes together in a quasi-apocalyptic, Nicholsonian finale. It is a clever story with several twists but very dark, with too much torture and brutality for my taste.

Fiona Mozley: Elmet

The latest addition to my website is Fiona Mozley‘s Elmet. There have been a lot of interesting novels coming out recently from young British women. I recently read Adelle Stripe‘s excellent Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, and here is another first-class novel set in Yorkshire. This novel surprised everybody by being nominated for the Man Booker longlist. It tells the story of a bare knuckle fighter, John, and his two teenage children, Daniel and Cathy, who live in a remote area of Yorkshire and live mainly off the land. However, they come up against an exploitative landowner and John takes the fight to him, leading to one of the most explosive endings in a début novel I have read. It is a wonderfully written novel and well deserving of its nomination and I for one would be very happy if it won.

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