#20Booksof Summer: Nos. 6 and 7 – Holidays Abroad

Since we cannot holiday abroad for the time being, what better escapism than to travel via a couple of my 20 Books of Summer? These two books seem to work well as a compare and contrast: the first is a portrait of German holidaymakers coming to Britain in summer, while the other is of British holidaymakers going to a German-speaking country (Austria) in winter. The shadow of war hangs over both of these stories, although they are different wars, and never quite make it to the forefront. Still, I cannot help but wonder if there is a bit of political propaganda quietly involved in these books.

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Caravaners

The insufferable, pompous and completely self-absorbed Baron Otto von Ottringel, who is a major in the Prussian army, has decided to make the trip of a lifetime to celebrate his silver wedding anniversary. Actually, his first wife has died and he has only been married to his second wife for five years – but the overall number would be 25 years of married life for him, which is what counts. The plan was to go to Switzerland, but the baron is a bit stingy and cannot resist the temptation to go on a caravanning holiday in Kent instead. He finds the English contingent of his travel companions somewhat puzzling, and even the German ladies in the party seem to be succumbing to the spirit of freedom and frivolity. Otto heartily disapproves, of course, and is quite surprised to find that everyone cuts their month-long holiday short at the end of a week.

The Baron is a caricature of course, and, while some of this was probably a bit of a personal dig against the author’s aristocratic German ex-husband, it needs to be set in context. The novel was first published in 1909, when anti-German sentiment was running rampant in British society, for fear of Prussian militarism on the rise. Otto clearly feels superior to the ‘weak’ English, but soon proves himself incapable of helping out, finding wood, lighting a fire or even leading the horse-drawn caravan, and he very soon tires of the endless diet of boiled potatoes, as they struggle to find or cook anything edible outside, during one of the wettest summers on record.

Anyone who has struggled to enjoy camping or caravanning will delight in the comedy of the situation, perhaps even feel slightly sorry for the Baron. Of course, he will very quickly dispel any modicum of pity with his breathtaking lack of self-awareness and cruelty towards others, particularly his poor wife Edelgard.

Take away annoyances and worry, and I am as good-natured a man as you will find. More, I can enjoy anything, and am ready with a jest about almost anything. It is the knowledge that I am really so good-humoured that upsets me when Edelgard or other circumstances force me into a condition of vexation unnatural to me. I do not wish to be vexed. I do not wish ever to be disagreeable. And it is, I think downright wrong of people to force a human being who does not wish it to be so.

Carol Carnac: Crossed Skis

This book shows two countries that were once at war with each other now trying to repair the scars of the past. The narrative alternates between the ski resort of Lech in Austria and London in the early 1950s. A body is found burnt beyond recognition in a boarding house in London and there seem to be clues linking it to a merry ski party of eight men and eight women holidaying in the Austrian Alps. The Cold War was in full swing and the first of the Cambridge spies had defected to the Soviet Union just before the book was published in 1952. So it’s not surprising that there is a certain level of political paranoia in this book, as well as the brutally honest depiction of London as a city that is still struggling to return to normal after the war.

This contrasts with the beautiful, tranquil landscapes of Arlberg, the good humour of the holidaymakers and their light-hearted skiing and dancing exploits – until their holiday gets somewhat spoilt by some thievery. The author was clearly quite passionate about skiing, as are quite a few of her characters. Needless to say, this was the part of the book that I enjoyed most:

To the west and south the sky was blue behind the snow peaks, and the visibility had an intense quality, so that Kate felt helplessly that here was something you could not express in terms of paint. There was no gradation, no near and far, just a vast, crystalline clarity. To the east the sky was grey and great cloud banks were piling behind the mountains… Once again Kate realised that there was an element of terror in this mountain loveliness: the massing clouds and the snow slopes made the wooden houses seem puny.

So, if it’s escapism, holiday reading and vicarious travel that you are after, both of these books fit the bill: a comedy of manners and a neat little murder mystery, and in both cows and/or horses play a surprising key role. Two lesser known works by authors who were very popular in their time, but very much worth rediscovering.

Summary of May 2020

Reading

Reading has not been going brilliantly this month, but I was reading that epic novel The Eighth Life. Alongside it, I read four other crime novels, all quick and fun reads, and another chunkster, King of the Crows. Harriet Tyce’s Blood Orange was our Virtual Crime Club read for May and we all agreed that while we didn’t ‘enjoy’ it (the subject matter was too grubby and the characters too unpleasant for that), it was well written and kept us turning the pages. Two British Library Classic Crime titles also provided good entertainment: John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull was atmospheric but with somewhat two-dimensional characters, while The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons was much better on the psychology (especially of the main protagonist). Finally, Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo (D’entre les morts) was far more interesting than the Hitchcock film, given the wartime background and a much more sinister ending.

As for Russell Day’s King of the Crows, it’s almost impossible to write about it. Uncannily and uncomfortably accurate about a pandemic that sweeps across Europe, an enforced lockdown and then the gradual breakdown of society, it also brings in elements of horror and zombie apocalypse. Unbearably graphic in parts, with an interesting fragmented style, switching from straightforward narration to interview recordings to witness statements to film scripts and even graffiti and urban dictionaries. It could have been shortened by a good 20% without losing any of the style or plot (or maybe I was just too exhausted after the even longer Eighth Life doorstopper), but it’s certainly memorable.

Still, only 6 books per month – what is the world coming to? At this rate, I won’t do too well in the 20 Books of Summer readalong, will I?

Film Watching

Still from the film Ran by Akira Kurosawa.

On the other hand, I’ve been watching more films than I’ve ever done since the boys were born, virtually all of them on Mubi or the occasional classic on DVD or television. 18 films in total this month, so roughly one every two days. I’ve continued the Hitchock discovery with the boys, watching Vertigo and Rear Window this month – so far, Rear Window seems to be their favourite Hitchcock, but we’ve still got a few good ones to go. I also got them to watch Ran, which was visually even more stunning than I remembered and they agreed with me that the scene of the attack on the second castle, with its sudden transition from balletic choreography and background music to the grunts, clashes and gore of battle was magnificent. I watched another Japanese one by myself: Fireworks by Kitano Takeshi – a surprisingly spare yet lyrical depiction of grief, guilt and revenge from someone I thought of mostly as a comedian and game-show host.

Mubi seems to have a lot of French (or Italian) films on at the moment featuring Alain Delon. So I got to admire his youthful good looks in Plein Soleil (he is absolutely perfect as the charming psychopath Tom Ripley), L’Eclisse with a vulnerable Monica Vitti and Losey’s Mr Klein, a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic error (or is it deliberate?) which I found very moving and frightening. Other French language films included: the noir La Bête Humaine by Jean Renoir (I thought I’d watched it, but it turned out to have been the later American remake by Fritz Lang); two excellent Clouzot films Le Corbeau (which got him accused of collaboration with the Nazis) and Quai des Orfèvres, which start out almost as breezily as Hollywood comedies and then turn very dark; Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid with the sulky, sultry Jeanne Moreau. There was one non-French one in the French language selection – namely Ghost Town Anthology by Quebecois director Denis Côté, which was profoundly creepy and unsettling (and beautifully filmed).

Aside from the French, I was depressed by Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband and Joseph Losey’s Accident, with their cynical portrayals of marriages and flawed ways of loving. I was charmed by two classics which I’ve probably seen many, many times before: Top Hat with the fab duo of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and the crazy trio of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. The dialogues in both films are so witty and sparkling, it’s not just the dancing in the first and Marilyn’s charms and singing  in the second which have made them firm favourites.

But the two wild cards of the month were perhaps the ones that made me think most. Wadjda, a film from Saudi Arabia by a woman director Haifaa al-Mansour, under its playful, charming surface of a story about a schoolgirl dreaming of buying and riding a green bicycle hides a lot of social commentary about the restrictions placed on girls and women in that country. The other one was a documentary by Joost Vandebrug called Bruce Lee and the Outlaw. Filmed over six years on the streets of Bucharest, it is the story of a homeless boy growing up in the infamous underground tunnels near the main railway station, in an underworld where glue-sniffing, prostitution and petty criminality are rife. Bruce Lee is the self-proclaimed King of the Sewers and often in trouble with the police, but to the young boy Nicu, he is a friend and protector, the only person who shows any interest in him. The fragile yet trusting relationship that the film-maker develops with Nicu is incredibly touching yet the ending refuses to be too hopeful or sentimental.

Still from the film Bruce Lee and the Outlaw.

Online Events

There were two major online literary events this month.

First, the Big Book Weekend 8-10 May. I listened to Maggie O’Farrell talk about Hamnet. I realised to my astonishment that Robert Webb has written a novel (and that we overlapped for a year in Cambridge – just as well I didn’t try out for Footlights then!). I succumbed to Neil Gaiman’s recommendations on what to read next by Ray Bradbury. I was moved by the poetry of Hafsah Aneela Bashir and charmed by the funny yet militant Marian Keyes. Bernardine Evaristo was every bit as inspirational as I expected her to be. The whole set-up on the MyVLF platform, aiming to replicate the look and feel of a real festival, was brilliant.

The Hay Festival’s online offering was in a more traditional webinar format via Crowdcast or YouTube, but with a lot of live sessions as well. Although I didn’t do it deliberately, I ended up seeing mostly women and mostly on non-literary subjects: Gloria Steinem, Elif Shafak, Miriam González Durántez and a few of the writers from the Europa 28 anthology about how women see the future of Europe. I listened (in two different panels) to Kapka Kassabova from Bulgaria, Caroline Muscat from Malta, Zsofia Bán from Hungary, Leïla Slimani from France, Lisa Dwan from Ireland and Hilary Cottam from the UK. I also attended two non-literary talks given by men: World without Work by David Susskind and A.C. Grayling on democracy and the need for a constitution. I was hoping that my older son might be interested in this talk as well, but we’ll see if he did actually register to it (he wasn’t with me at the time but with his father).

I also finally made it to a Virtual Noir at the Bar meeting on a Wednesday. These are weekly readings by an excellent and varied selection of crime authors (roughtly 7-9 at a time) organised by Vic [@vpeanuts on Twitter]. I got to hear Peter Rozovsky, the co-founder of Noir at the Bar, Sam Carrington, Adele Parks, Fiona Cummins and many more. I really do recommend you sign up to the newsletter and attend their sessions – and you get access to the recordings too if you can’t stay till the end.

Last but not least, I’ve had the pleasure of both a more structured Crime Book Club organised by Rebecca Bradley (we discussed Harriet Tyce’s Blood Orange this month), regular writing and feedback sessions (and a literary quiz!) with my Royal Borough Writers Group, as well as an impromptu Zoom chat about books and the difficulties of reading during a pandemic with a few Twitter and blogger friends. Despite all the nastiness and opinion-giving-when-unasked on social media platforms, I have to say that I’ve found my happy bubble of … I wouldn’t call it like-minded people exactly, because we can disagree quite vigorously about a certain author or novel or book cover or film, but simply a group of people who care about these things as much as I do. No tedium of small talk but straight onto the interesting discussions in life! I haven’t had that kind of intellectual sparring or fencing, that enjoyable cultural chit-chat since high school and university. It has always been delightful to have these conversations, but under lockdown it has been a real life-saver.

 

 

Two Absolutely Contrasting Crime Novels

Here are two crime novels which have recently helped me regain some joy and focus in my reading. I’m not sure that ‘crime’ is the best way to describe either of them, although crimes do take place (arson, robbery and murder, to name but a few). Neither of them follow the standard crime fiction formula – yet they couldn’t be more different from each other if they tried.

One was written in 1934 while the other has only just come out. One is set at a country house in Surrey, while the other is in a small town in the US. In both we pretty soon get to know ‘whodunit’, but in one the focus is on ‘how will they get out of it?’ and in the other the focus is on the characters. One is light and funny, somewhat throwaway and escapist, while the other is rather grim and gruelling, though beautifully written.

I am talking, of course, of Alan Melville’s Weekend at Thrackley (in the British Library classic crime series) and Chris Whitaker’s We Begin at the End, respectively.

In the former, we have the typical Golden Age mystery novel set-up. Jim Henderson is a remarkably cheerful and stoic good chap, who has returned from war with all his limbs intact but without much work experience, and therefore struggles to find a job and make ends meet. To his great surprise, this underdog is invited to a country house weekend by someone who claims to have known his father, but whom he personally cannot remember at all. He goes there despite his misgivings, because his old school friend is also invited, and discovers a gloomy old house with an odd assortment of guests and a peculiar host obsessed by extravagant jewellery.

Most of the characters are paper thin, and the plot is rather obvious, but it’s all about derring-do and cute ironic observations, in that slightly bemused, self-deprecating style that was so common in the 1920s and 30s. I might argue that Jim and his friend Freddie, both public school boys, do somewhat fall into that cliche of ‘the nice, bumbling but well-intentioned and really quite bright underneath it all chaps’ which has done so much harm in class distinctions in Britain. However, it is encouraging that the hero of the story is the resourceful Jim rather than spoilt Freddie, i.e. the one who was raised by a single mother and who does not have easy access to a family fortune.

By way of contrast, Chris Whitaker’s characters are anything but spoilt. Thirteen year old Duchess Day Radley has to put up with things that no child should have to experience, as she struggles to protect her little brother and veers between pity and resentment at her perpetually depressed and drunk mother. This is life on the breadline, pretty much, and with no hope or escape in sight. Duchess is so used to being ignored, bullied, menaced, tricked, that she no longer can trust anyone or anything. She calls herself an outlaw and refuses to let anyone into her heart. She only half understands what is going on when the man who killed her aunt thirty years ago is released from prison and comes back to their home town, but she gets tragically caught up in the events that follow.

I’ve loved Chris Whitaker’s previous books, which described the same kind of milieu in small-town America, but this one is a shade darker, with far less black humour and fewer quirky characters to lighten the mood. I was afraid at times that the book was laying it too thick with all of the misfortunes that come the children’s way (almost like a Mexican soap), but it manages to avoid bathos. Crimes are just the pretext here for examining morality, how good intentions can lead you astray, how flawed every human being is and why standing idly by is sometimes as unforgivable as jumping in and making mistakes. A book I will not forget easily, although I’d have preferred to read it at a cheerier time. Just as well that I chased it down with the more puerile but easy-going BL classic!