Frank Moorhouse: Grand Days, Picador, 1993.
It seems I am a sucker for long books written by Australian authors – or, rather, that the 512 pages of The Man Who Loved Children did not put me off attacking the 674 pages of Grand Days. And I’ll state up front that I enjoyed this novel far more than its predecessor. It is, quite appropriately, the winner of the Miles Franklin Award, and in some respect its main protagonist reminds me of Sybylla in My Brilliant Career.
For some reason, international organisations don’t seem to be represented very much in fiction, other than very much in the background. Perhaps it is too sensitive a topic? Anyway, I find them endlessly fascinating (both the organisations and the novels about them), so when I heard from my expert in all matters ANZ, Lisa Hill, that there was a novel about the League of Nations, I simply had to acquire it – and read it very soon thereafter.
I did not know that this is the first volume in a trilogy featuring Edith Campbell Berry, a young Australian woman joining the League Secretariat. The first volume covers roughly the period 1926-1930 and is a novel of optimism, youthful enthusiasm and hope (but also growing up and facing reality). The second charts the decline of the League of Nations, disillusionment and the world sinking irrevocably into war. The third is set in Australia, as Edith returns after the war to her home country, to the new capital Canberra.
But it’s not just the subject matter to which I am partial, which made it a far more pleasant reading experience than Christina Stead, nor the fact that it sent me down all sorts of research rabbit holes and made me nostalgic for my life in Geneva. It is also the way Edith grows and develops, at times infuriating or pitiful, at times smart and admirable, but above all, always intensely self-analytical and unpredictable – and shaped by the social and political events of the time.The Edith in this first volume is still quite naive and idealistic, very self-confident and bolshy in some respects (very much a ‘New Woman’) but endearingly or even annoyingly silly in others. Just like people in general then (particularly young ones)!
It is also the most accurate and funny description of the way organisations operate:
Back in Australia, she’d liked astonishing people by saying that she revelled in a good committee meeting. She thought of committes as parlour games where each person’s contribution was their throw of the dice from which followed certain moves around the board… Of course, there should be a place in administration for dashing individualism and for grand leadership, but in her experience it was never a bad thing for lofty plans to be brushed down and combed by the committee.
The book is meticulously researched (Moorhouse lived for several years in France and Geneva while writing it) and full of juicy anecdotes, as well as historical figures perceived with some criticism or irony by the fictional figures, but the author really excels in showing the distancing from one’s one country that most expats, especially those working for international organisations, start to feel (although, to be fair, some of them double down and live in little ‘home country’ enclaves):
There was something unnerving about the idea of a visit from someone she had left behind… The discarded self… Did the visiting person seek to find the person they’d known? Or did they hope to find a new person who’d surprise and dazzle them? Or did they fear meeting some formidable new person who would dismay them?
She wanted to feel that she was absorbing from her world… She knew that French culture… would shape her, not into a French person, but into another sort of person… She had also lost mythical ‘Europe’… of her childhood pictures books… She lived in a real Europe now – and in some minor ways, regretfully.
The book is full of amusing insights and a blend of historical and personal events. It is also the story of Edith’s sexual awakening, as she embarks upon a relationship with the damaged English former military man, Ambrose. The Roaring Twenties were perhaps not quite as roaring if you were an Australian country girl living in Geneva, and some of the scenes of vice are funny while others are squalid. The novel is epic and detailed, but at times gets bogged down in tangentials and repetition. There are perhaps a few too many prurient details: I am not sure I needed quite so much information about different types of poo, for example. Nevertheless, it was good fun to read – and how can you resist observations such as this?
The best political arrangements were those which did not place ordinary people in situations in which they had to make difficult choices, because often they would choose badly and behave badly… When she was younger she’d opposed all red tape. Not any more. Red tape was often just a way of causing a pause in the impatience of things so that everything could be properly checked and considered… She’d come to know, sadly, that idealism did not ensure that things were done well or efficiently.
If, like me, you love reading books about the flaws and idiosyncrasies (but also good intentions) of international organisations, then here are a few more I’ve come across:
Robert Menasse – The Capital (EU) Eurocrats are people who are polyglot, highly-qualified, enlightened and liberated from the irrationalities of national identity – although full of personal fiefdoms and rivalries.
Shirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses (UN) – chaotic, rambling, bureaucratic, stifling creativity – but also very funny, with the occasional bewildered idealist wandering through its corridors.
Dan Brown: Angels and Demons (CERN) – imperfectly understood science and conspiratorial misrepresentation of the way CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) is funded and works (as well as full of clunky prose), so this is not a book I can really recommend, but hey, it’s all entertainment!
Romain Gary: L’Homme à la colombe (UN) – thank you to Emma for drawing my attention to this one, which Gary published under a pseudonym, since he was working as a diplomat at the time (haven’t read this one yet) – not available in English, unfortunately
Mischa Berlinski: Peacekeeping (UN) – this is one I haven’t read yet either, but it sounds compelling: dogooders and misfits on Haiti. I think I may also have to get his first novel, Fieldwork, as it is about anthropologists, another subject I will never knowingly ignore.