Sunday, 28 September 2008

What Am I Doing Here? by Bruce Chatwin

Another collection of travel writing, including "stories" whose possibly fictional status Chatwin signposts in his forward. Chatwin the traveller is open and receptive, smiling and chatting with nuns sweeping the convent yard; recognising the conversational value of a fairly unrepentant old Nazi; peering in peoples' windows and waving at them when spotted. This approach bring him many stories - and probably also "stories" - to weave into his tales of places, usually exotic, often dangerous. He's a bit of a name-dropper, although shrewd enough to keep anecdotes of famous friends in check, and a master of the art of telling the reader just enough to whet the appetite for more. A real loss; but at least I have the majority of his work ahead of me.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

This mixture of Stalin-era Moscow, Pontius Pilate and Satan's black arts ought to be disastrous but is enchanting, keeping the reader engaged and entertained for every page. Margarita is a marvellous heroine, her courage redeeming the cowardice shown elsewhere, and the fables spun around her and around Yeshua are resonant but not heavy in their satirical effect, The ambiguity of the end of the lovers' story is undercut by the sense of continuity given by Ivan's memories through the epilogue. Other writers who have used Satan as a character have struggled to balance him against the "good" characters, but Bulgakov's characterisation is never less than fascinating, so no one character dominates the narrative.

Suite Française by Irène Nemirovsky

The genesis of this book, and its incomplete state, may be evidence of immense tragedy, but the two volumes of a projected five are detached and often ironic in their depiction of disasters. Courage and cowardice are viewed equally dispassionately, and are show to lead to the same ends, sometimes: Fr Philippe's courage leads only to his murder. The first part is episodic and contingent; the story arc only begins to form a greater narrative in the second volume, where threads and characters are drawn together. Some of the ironies - the breaking of the porcelain figure after Charlie's head is smashed - seem a little forced, but for work in progress the book is extraordinarily well-achieved, and holds its own against the dramatic narrative of its own deliverance from the Holocaust.

Nomad's Hotel by Cees Noteboom

A collection of travel writing spanning several decades and the exotic and familiar. Noteboom is fascinated by the effect of travel on the experience of time; the evocation of the past, the slowing or quickening of the present depending on the pace of the location. He also reflects on the function of memory, of travel as both maker and destroyer of memories. The idea of a museum as a collection of memories is an enchanting one. He also imbues material objects - statues, buildings, a wastepaper basket - with personality and emotional resonance, but does so with self-awareness, knowing that "we ourselves are the only source of meaning, at least on this little beach of the universe. These inscriptions that we insist on finding on every stone, every sand-grain, are in our own hand". This quote is from Tim Robinson's Stones of Aran, now on my list of books to read. Nomad's Hotel was a wonderful companion during a journey, a prompt for reflection on how my journey was changing me.

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Shifting narrative perspectives and timescales work to great effect in this story of an illicit love affair in 1920s England and France. We meet, through Henrietta - a young girl travelling through Paris - the outcome of this affair: Leopold. The children, and their combative, cruel encounter, are well-drawn and convincing. Bowen's long, central section of the book, "The Past", addresses to Leopold the account of the affair between English Karen and French-Jewish Max; Leopold has been protected from the truth of his origins by his adoptive family. Occasionally Bowen reminds us that the narrative is for Leopold, addressing the reader as "you, Leopold"; this gives the impression of reading a private letter, as Leopold does in the first chapter. Returning to the present, the effect of Leopold's birth and existence on his mother's marriage is shown through a couple of pages of stage dialogue, attributed to He and She; the pronouns depersonalise the difficulties and effects of a very personal and complex story.

In the background are several sinister, ailing women: Mme Fisher, the witch-like, omniscient queen of the eponymous house; she is echoed in the more benign character of Aunt Violet, whose death triggers the events and emotional upheavals that bring us Leopold. Mrs Arbuthnot, Henrietta's grandmother, completes a trio of powerful and sometimes manipulative old ladies, puppet-masters moving the main players around the continent. This sets up a tension between Bowen's presentation of Max and Karen as self-possessed, dynamic lovers in "The Past" and the narrative's emphasis on them as characters, foregrounding their artificiality and continually reminding us that they are stereotypes of romantic fiction. This tension is repeated in other aspects of the book: bonds of affection are stretched and undermined, then reformed with apparently greater strength; and ultimately gives the novel a resonance and a complexity that are deeply rewarding.