Before Christmas I wrote about EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and it led me to think about our changing attitudes to the classics that used to stir powerful repressive responses. I remember my father, who was a Justice of the Peace, hiding the copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover that he had been asked to read in a cover of brown paper in order to avoid corrupting his children.
Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman was banned for many years in Argentine, his country of origin. It is now recognised to be a classic experimental novel, dealing with the political issue of the repressive dictatorships of Argentina’s dirty war prior to the Alfonsino ‘democratic’ government of 1883 and the issue of homosexuality.
Molina, the homosexual ‘queen’ and Valentin, the Marxist activist are together in a prison cell with Molina expected to earn the confidence of Valentin and betray his political group to the authorities. With no narrative voice but only the voices of the protagonists, interviews with the authorities and real and invented documents in note form, we are allowed to participate in the narrative and become part of the action that moves towards a series of unexpected outcomes.
The Spiderwoman image recalls, in a way, the Scheherazade story where the lovely young girl tells her nightly stories to put off the death threat that hangs over her. Here Molina recalls romantic films he saw in the forties and tells them to Valentin, originally to ‘soften him up’ and to pass the time, but ultimately as part of their shared desire to escape the unpalatable reality of their situation. It is the image of the spider woman who spins her webs but is ultimately consumed herself.
Many years ago I saw the play and I have just re-read the novel, surprising myself by the difference of my own response. This is what reading is all about isn’t it?
Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain comes both after and before his History of Modern Britain (as he puts it in his introduction) since he wrote it later than the volume which dealt with the period after the end of the Second World War, but it covers the fifty years before – from the death of Queen Victoria up to that war.
Those were the first fifty years of my father’s life and I thought I knew all about them but I am constantly surprised by what I learn as I read sections of this superbly researched and beautifully written text. One message that comes across very clearly is that, unless you were one of the rich and a man, life was very hard indeed in the first decade of the century.
As we move through the sections towards appeasement and the second world conflagration, the lot of the working man slowly improves and figures like Churchill, Lloyd George, Mosley, Nye Bevin and Chamberlain fill out and become real personalities for the reader. So too, do some significant ladies, the Pankhursts, Marie Stopes, Marie Lloyd, the Mitfords and Wallis Simpson, for example – and how tough it was to be a woman!
There are just the right proportions of information and opinions (how the century might have been very different had Churchill followed a different course, for example) with welcome photographs to illustrate each aspect of the work. This is far more palatable than any of the history books I studied at university!
A tradition that was suppressed in 2006 was for a British ambassador, quitting his post, to write a valedictory dispatch that was widely circulated to other members of the diplomatic service, to the British Government and to the Prime Minister, even.
This was an opportunity for the retiring diplomat to get some of his grudges off his chest and to tell the unvarnished truth about the people he had been living and working with for the past few years. Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson have ferreted out some of these dispatches which are sometimes very amusing and almost invariably non p.c.
I have found it entertaining just to dip into this book, reading the dispatches of a series of ambassadors to a given country and coming up with spicy comments like that of a retiring ambassador from Tunisia who complained that ‘Even the most educated [Tunisians] are apt to be bewildered over the diffence between right and left … which means hazards on the roads.’
The comments of retiring ambassadors to Switzerland seem amusingly relevant. Way back in 1970 one diplomat commented on the Swiss getting to their offices at 7 a.m. and the rush hour not being until 6.30 in the evening, that people will wish you a pleasant Sunday and not a pleasant weekend and that while it took a week for London packers to pack his effects when he left London, it had taken the Swiss packers just three days to perform the same task. Familiar eh?
This very funny text has much more of the same.
This is the third and last of a gloomy series. Last week I talked of ‘Fear of the Collar’, an account of the misery of small boys in the Artane industrial School in Ireland in the middle of the last century. it wasn’t just the boys!
Frances Reilly was abandoned at the age of two by her mother, together with her sister Loretta and the baby Sinnead outside Nazareth House Convent, an orphanage in Belfast run by nuns, the Poor Sisters of Nazareth. Her account of the misery she suffered, beatings, hard labour, appalling food, abuse and emotional destruction, is harrowing.
In particular, she was the victim of a sadistic nun, Sister Thomas, and the treatment she received at this woman’s hands shocks the reader.
Even the farming family who claimed that they were providing a haven for the child, molested her sexually.
Frances resisted and, when she took to absconding from the convent, was ultimately placed in a remand home which was, if anything, worse than the original convent.
There was no escape for these tortured children as the police had faith in the convent and returned the escapees to yet another beating after each sortie.
Frances Reilly’s spirit never died and years later, she faced the perpetrators of the injustice in court. This is a dramatic account of the dreadful situation of thousands of children.
Last week I wrote about The Auschwitz Violin. The concentration camps of the middle of the last century still have the power to shock. However, I didn’t think that I would be feeling a similar reaction as I write about the Artane Industrial School of Patrick Touher’s account.
In Fear of the Collar, he tells us how, as an orphan, a few days short of his eighth birthday, he was admitted to the Industrial School. He left a country paradise and an adoptive family that he loved, to be incarcerated in one of the immense industrial schools that were set up by the Christian Brothers in Ireland.
It isn’t just the inhumanity of a dormitory with 180 beds, head to toe, lined up, (and that was just one of five, the older boys had 200 in a dormitory), the hard labour and the ferocious discipline that shock, it is the physical and sexual abuse that the small boys suffered at the hands of their ‘carers’.
The boys stayed in the school until their sixteenth birthday and were then launched into the world, ill prepared, with minimal qualifications or education. Touher tells us of his own struggles, despite his skill as a baker, acquired in the school. The horrors recounted in this text have been the subject of a subsequent enquiry. The reader wonders how such inhumanity could have been the norm for orphaned children.
During a recent stay in the Pyrenees, in the gite L’Escolan, at Ustou, which Jean Charles and Pauline (the hosts at the Refuge de la Loge in Crozet for the past few years) have newly taken over, we were given the little booklet that the French government wants tourists to read: Les Pyrenees avec l’ours.
You don’t need a booklet to alert you to the high feelings of the local population about the re-introduction of the almost extinct population of brown bears into the region. Be warned, if you visit the area, you are wise to express no opinion. If you are in favour of the twenty or so bears that now roam the higher meadows and forests, you will be shouted down by the sheep or goat farmers. (There are nearly 700,000 sheep present in the Pyrenees in summer). The farmers have to prove that it was a bear that devoured their lamb or kid before receiving compensation.
Express hostility to the project (four more females and a male bear captured in Slovenia were released as recently as 2006) and you will be howled down by the ecologists who will tell you that the brown bear is part of the cultural heritage of the Pyrenees and that the project has brought employment to the area and the reinforcement of protective measures for the flocks, like the spread of the Pyrenean mountain dogs as shepherd dogs.
Whichever way you feel, it cannot be denied that the issue has caught the imagination of the people of the region and is certainly a tourist attraction.
If you have ever visited Germany and been surprised at the curious mixture of past and present that is around you almost everywhere, then this book will interest you. Germania, A Personal History of Germans Ancient and Modern was published by Picador in 2010.
If you intend to visit Germany, this book will provide an interesting account of at least one thing to eat, look at or visit in the area to which you are going.
The author has distilled his many years of visiting into what might be looked on as a sort of ’travelling companion’, revealing Germany to be a place of extraordinary diversity and eccentricity. His book is sure to surprise you and make you laugh, as well. And if you have never thought of visiting Germany, perhaps thinking of it as a rather dull and over-organised place, this book might well change your mind.
You will be introduced to some of the finer points of German cuisine (‘there’s always a pig or a potato around the next corner, but there is a lot to be done with these two life forms’), as well as some of the country’s culture and history, which is anything but dull!
Carol Topolski’s Monster Love is extremely disturbing from beginning to end. Unfortunately, the central event is all too familiar. A child is abused, neglected and ultimately starved to death. How could this tabloid horror be the subject of a novel? And one of the current 10 best sellers?
Carol Topolski is a practising psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Perhaps that is why each of the narratives in the story rings so true. We hear the voices of the parents, the policeman who found the decaying corpse, the grandparents, a busybody neighbour and a host of others.
Each of them participated in some way in the horror and, for all of them, nothing will ever be the same again.
The picture is slowly fitted together and the horrible truth is that we understand even the evil couple who gave birth to Samantha. This book is gripping but not to be mistaken for an easy read. Don’t give it to your grandmother!
The death of a child is the worst nightmare for most mothers. Oscar has cancer. He has very few days to live and knows it, but his parents are unable to face the truth and share their grief with him. The elderly hospital visitor, the lady in pink helps Oscar come to terms with his death.
The lady in pink suggests that Oscar should write a letter to God each night. Each letter will represent a decade, so that we find Oscar at the age of 110, exclaiming with delight that he is older than his parents now. The letters are a lovely way of coming to terms with harsh reality.
The lady in pink has the very touching final words on the morning Oscar dies.
Oscar and the Lady in Pink, translated from Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s original novel in French, is a world best-seller – understandably! It fits into the category of ‘self-help’ without being patronising or mawkish.
There are copies in the outstanding selection of books in English at the La Combe Migros store in Nyon. What a surprise to find such well-chosen novels, best-selling crime-fiction and factual books at prices that are approachable.
The excerpt from the Guardian review on the front of this book claims that this is a ‘small wonder of a book … A particular historical moment that cannot be told too often’. Clearly thousands agree since The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has reached the bestseller list and has now been made into a movie.
My parents-in-law were deeply involved in military research and the Manhattan Project- at great personal cost – and I remember my mother-in-law stating very clearly that she had heard the story told far too often. It was time to stop writing novels about the Holocaust. The facts do not need fictional re-telling. Reading John Boyne’s novel made me agree strongly with her feeling.
Nine-year-old Bruno remains completely unaware of what he is experiencing when he lives just outside the fence at Auschwitz. His father is the Camp Commandant, a servant of the state who is completely indoctrinated and committed to his task.
Bruno meets Shmuel, a nine-year-old Polish Jew who is an inmate of the camp – the boy in the striped pyjamas. Their relationship leads to the final grotesque twist in the story.
The group of us who read this novel together were all intensely frustrated by the naivety of the narrator. It went beyond belief and removed all verisimilitude from the story. Perhaps the movie will somehow cope with this nasty story and justify the writing of yet one more Holocaust novel.