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SORRY

It’s been tumbleweed city over here at the moment, mostly due to a combination of flatmates moving, a lot of work on, and Borderlands 2 hitting the shelves (I am quite the renaissance lady). Shame, shame, shame on me.

Despite the best of new school year resolutions, September was a bit of a lost cause, but October will not suffer the same fate!

Anyway, I’m getting back on the book horse, but until then, console yourselves with this terrible cheesy author photo of Proust. Just because.

So you're nonchalant already!

 

Discovered via this Flavorwire article.

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes


Julian Barnes recounts the tale of the real-life Great Wyrley Outrages – where a small town outside Birmingham saw a number of animals gorily murdered and the blame fall at the door of the mild-mannered son of the parson, George Edalji, until Arthur Conan Doyle himself became involved in the case. Two men of very different temperaments and extremely different backgrounds, Arthur and George are quietly but significantly bound together by this mystery.

Coming to this novel without having read any Barnes before, I was slightly apprehensive of finding this unlikely partnership to be a Holmes and Watson double act, and was relieved that this is an entirely different kind of a novel. Meticulously researched, it instead traces how the lives of both men brought them to meeting in such bizarre circumstances, and the unlikely but important effects that they have on one another’s life. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will be frustrated, as Barnes skims lightly over any mention of Doyle’s writing him, apart from to acknowledge his growing antipathy towards his most famous creation.

Doyle is desperate to be the champion of somebody other than his detective, whom he cannot kill off, whether that is his mother, his wife, his lover or poor George Edalji. For his part, George merely wants the world to be a much simpler, more comprehensible place than it is. A stickler for the law and a lover of railway timetables, the atmosphere of quiet racism and official prejudice that he encounters is more perplexing than intimidating.

The novel has a lot to say about Englishness – both what Doyle and Edalji’s notions of it are, and how it is at odds with the England they find themselves pitted against at various stages of their lives. However, the thing I liked most about it was its picture of two very different lives, almost taken at an arbitrary cross-section, and showing the ways two men try to make them mean something. If it is a little slow-moving in parts, thanks to the subject matter and also to the painstaking research that Barnes has obviously done to recreate a faithful portrait of 19th century England, then I found the end an exceptionally moving coda to that stately pace throughout. Sometimes the distanced narrative can feel a little forced – moments of crisis seem to be met with the same steadfast observation as more mundane affairs – but perhaps this is just as truthful a recognition of the way that people often don’t react as they would in a novel – moments of tragedy creep up on us when we are unprepared to recognise them until later.

But there is something about this tone, and Barnes’s extensive research, that made me find it hard to love this book, however much I liked it.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Some mysteries are too big to solve.

Getting into Drugs

Catching up on some of the book blogs I follow, I came across this little gem courtesy of Reading Matters. A word/art installation by Marten Søndergaard that wins all the prizes.

Drool over the website here.

Review: Julian Fellowes – Past Imperfect

So the most recorded TV programme EVER was the Downton Abbey Christmas Special (presumably this is only since the advent of set top boxes etc where they can keep track of these things, which makes me live in hope that ITV’s showing of Red Sonja in 1991 still may have pipped them to the post and remains languishing on VHS in homes up and down the country). Brainchild of serial cliche graverobber Julian Fellowes, it has given rise to a new UK penchant for what’s been called stately home porn. Apparently now we can all take refuge from the hardships of the recession by seeing what a tough (but also lovely!) time they had of it in Edwardian times. Difficult to run a 35-bedroom house, sure, but didn’t the women always look well turned out? But here’s the thing! It wasn’t just a tough time working beneath stairs, trying to maintain your dodgy dealings or upright, stalwart, Protestant morality while scrubbing 3 miles of grates every morning. Oh no, it was tough to be an aristocrat too, what with making sure the inheritance goes to the right chap, finding someone to marry, and keeping oneself out of the tabloids. Nauseating class sentimentality abounds throughout the series, although it makes a great soap opera, and like everybody else now I want to know whether Bates is getting off the hook.

The point! The point is, when I started to feel a little queasy on the apparently unsinkable SS Nostalgia (did I mention Fellowes’s latest project is a TV adaptation of Titanic?), I wondered whether Julian Fellowes could possibly turn his hand to anything other than the same old class stereotypes? Surely his novels couldn’t be exactly the same as his screenplays?

Heavens no! You see, Past Imperfect is set in 1968, where everybody in the upper classes is trying to pretend its the 20s, but thanks to the sepia-coloured narration we can tell that their days are numbered, and what a surprise, you can tell that they kind of know it too. The narrator, now a writer, was a peripheral part of the debutante set who introduced a charming, handsome, distinctly middle-class interloper Damien Baxter into their set. A natural social climber, Damien seems intent on penetrating the upper-class sanctum and soon has plenty of affluent debutantes falling at his feet, but which is put paid to by  *something terrible* which happens one dinner while the whole jolly set vacation in Portugal. Something so terrible that conveniently nobody can speak of it directly, so we’re forced to hang on to the bitter end to find out what it is [spoiler alert: he doesn’t go postal with a WWII service revolver OR reveal he’s slept with everyone’s parents OR take a dump on HRH Princess Dagmar of Moravia’s bed in full view of the assembled company, as much as you wish he would by that stage].

Forty years later, Damien – now a millionaire tycoon – calls our narrator to his deathbed to announce that he thinks he’s fathered a child by one of six of these women, and wants to find out whose his rightful heir is so he can find some meaning in his depressingly affluent, empty life.

And so, this writer faithfully calls up each of these women in turn to solve the mystery, and revisits his memories of their relationship with him, and Damien, in the process. Despite being confessedly unremarkable and unattractive in his youth, he is inexplicably perfectly recalled by each and so amicable that over a lunch or a cup of tea each woman is only too eager to confide certain salient details that conveniently eliminate them from his enquiries. Their husbands don’t understand them, but our narrator does, so that’s okay. Each were so beautiful, and so full of promise, but are now washed up and miserable in their own ways. In fact, he manages to patronise pretty much every single character, doling out the elegies for the lost promise of the waning aristocracy and pity for their dashed hopes and dreams that lucky for him, only his nomadic existance as a writer seems to escape.

Don’t worry though, the lower classes get their spot in the sun too – for example, when he visits a village fete after visiting Damien:

Naturally, it was very old-fashioned, and I am sure that if a New Labour minister could be offended by the Last Night of the Proms, she would be rendered suicidal by the sight of this comic, uniquely English event, but there was goodness here. These people had worked hard at what I would once have judged as such a little thing, yet their efforts were not wasted on me; in fact they almost made me cry.

Well you can fuck off from my tombola stall, Julian Fellowes, that’s for damn sure.

When he’s not making snide asides at the ‘Health and Safety Stasi’ and New Labour of the present day, there are actually some interesting digressions into upper class traditions, although the way that they are condensed into mini-essays suggests a quick shoehorning in of research. But equally, you get doozies like this:

To employ a phrase not actually in use for twenty years after this, I decided to cut to the chase.

…where a diligent proofreader seems to have questioned his choice of cliche, only for him to spectacularly miss the point. Is that more charitable than suggesting someone wrote that first time round? I don’t even know anymore.

Anyway, you’ll be forced to trudge on through this mire of condescension to the bitter end because, I’ll hand it to him, the man makes you want to know whose the bloody baby is, and what happened that night in Portugal. So maybe it is a great novel after all.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Upper or middle-class, rich or poor, you’ll never be as wise or as modest as me, Julian Fellowes.