One of Us, One of Them

Two unplanned reads, which fit neither into my #WITMonth nor in my #20BooksofSummer. Instead, they were an impulse loan from the library. Although they are very different: one written in 1932, the other in 2020, they both address (indirectly or directly) the issue of class and prejudice, insiders/outsiders in British society.

Graham Greene: Stamboul Train

This was one of Greene’s lighter reads or ‘entertainments’, which he wrote with the stated hope of having it adapted for film (which happened soon after in 1934). In other words, he very cynically set out to write a bestseller, full of action and aventure, plot-heavy, but with enigmatic, beguiling characters. Of course, this being Greene, he couldn’t resist bringing in issues of success and belonging, guilt and failure into the story.

The plot itself is pretty simple: a disparate group of passengers get on the Orient Express from Ostend to Istanbul, a journey which took several days back in the early 1930s. As they collide both physically and metaphorically on the train, some of them will find their lives changed forever, while others end up none the wiser or better. The good do not always get what they deserve, nor do the wicked get punished.

The insider/outsider theme is particularly strong, with constant disparaging references made to ‘the Jew’ Carleton Myatt, the richest man on that train, who is on his way to Istanbul to check into a possible problem of fraud in the family business. I found the frequency of him being singled out slightly distressing, although one might argue that Greene is showing how easily people revert to stereotypes (nowadays he might have included a black man). Other passengers too are outsiders in their own, perhaps less obvious way: the lesbian journalist Mabel Warren and her bisexual, opportunistic companion Janet Pardoe; the Cockney travel writer Quin Savory who likes to drop his aitches ostentatiously and diss the modernist Bloomsbury set; the tight-lipped schoolmaster Richard John, who seems to have a very strong foreign accent (and is in fact a Serbian revolutionary); the fat Austrian burglar who gets on the train in Vienna and is prepared to do anything to avoid being caught by the police. None of them really fit the profile of the quintessential Englishman, except perhaps the melancholy Anglican priest attracted to Catholicism Opie or the lascivious Mr Peters who doesn’t let the small detail of travelling with his wife get in the way of groping other women.

There is a sneer and a sadness about the way the characters are described which makes me think that Greene was both of his era but also critical of it. Let’s not forget that Greene was part of the establisment, from a wealthy brewer’s family, the son of a headmaster of a boarding school, but that he was bullied to the point of having a nervous breakdown. Of course, virtually all of the categories of people he describes on that train journey were soon to be persecuted within the Third Reich.

Musa Okwonga: One of Them

This book is partly a memoir about growing up black in the United Kingdom, but mostly about being one of the few black scholarship students at Eton College. Okwonga’s family were refugees from the civil war in Uganda in the 1970s. His father died during the war, his mother worked very hard as a doctor to support her five children and teaches them to keep their head down, work twice as hard as everyone else and fit right in. She fully supports her son’s decision to go to Eton, even though it will take two years of prep school to get there and it is a struggle for her to pay even the 50% of the tuition fees required.

Although the author proves to be both clever enough and sporty enough to do well at Eton (and is lucky in being assigned to a house with a more diverse student body and a decent house master), his outsider status allows him to see both the advantages and the flaws of private schools like Eton. It was a quick, easy read, but some of the quotes really stuck with me, so I am sharing a few with you:

I think a great deal about the English concept of fair play: the idea that there are some things that are simply not done. The older I get, the more I wonder how much that concept was created to keep people of a certain social class in their place. I look at the most confident people in my year and I realise that the greatest gift that has been bestowed upon them is that of shamelessness. Shamelessness is the superpower of a certain section of the English upper classes. While so many other people in the country are hamstrung by the deference and social embarrassment they have been taught since birth, the upper classes calmly parade on through the streets and boardrooms to claim the spoils. They don’t learn shamelessness at Eton, but this is where they perfect it.

This is why so many people who grow up in environments of such comfort can be so unsympathetic to those who don’t. They simply have no concept of a society where, even if people work their very hardest, everything can still fall apart for the majority of them. They have been raised in a realm where every personal downfall is self-inflicted – a wealthy kid caught with drugs… The idea that you can simply be overhwelmved by your circumstances is utterly alien to them.

Almost every schoolfriend whom I have seen express a political view on social media has been Conservative. And why wouldn’t they be? This world works for them just as it is. It provides them with living standards and a basic level of comfort that are unimaginable to most people. Why the hell would they want to change that… You don’t have to be cruel in your daily life to enact policies with cruel effects…. So why wouldn’t many of my contemporaries vote for austerity? It’s so much easier to deprive your fellow voters if you’ve never paid careful attention to their suffering.

He talks about a certain category of pupils, the most extreme ones, known as ‘the lads’, who defy all social conventions. I think we know that the current PM was part of those.

My school never creates the lads – they arrive there with the core of their egos fully formed – but it frequently seems to end up rewarding them with some of the most senior positions in the student body… The lads have long ago worked out, or been told, that what matters is not being good-natured but achieving high office. In a system where boys are raised to be deferential to those in authority, they know that if they merely gain prestige, then personal popularity will follow.

There is some hand-wringing among his old schoolmates about Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister.

How could he have become the leader? they ask, and that is perhaps the wrong question; the right question, perhaps, is how could he not? In a political system closed to all but a few, with the same few names in constant rotation and with no apparent consequences for grave failure, such an individual was eventually bound to get his change. Many of the same people apparently horrified at his coronation, and who describe him as an anomaly, mostly share his world view; it is just that he is less polite about it. The prime minister may be outlandish in his speech and appearance, but he is not an outlier.

The most devastating chapter is when, years later, a friend from Eton asks the author how he coped with the racism at school. Okwango replies that there were a few people who were racist, but on the whole it wasn’t bad. The friend then disillusions him, letting him know that the racism was constant and that the people whom he considered his friends were often the worst offenders (but simply did not voice those opinions in front of him). His past happiness seems to crumble before his very eyes – this sounds familiar to all of us who suddenly heard our neighbours and friends talking about ‘those bloody foreigners’ after Brexit, but ‘of course we don’t mean you.’

I imagine the many good times I spent with them, laughing along in some of my happiest moments, and I can’t help but feel that so much of that has been shattered… It is no comfort at all to me to think that they probably did not make any of those jokes with me in mind, because to boys like them I was probably the exception that proved the rule: Yes, most black men are big and stupid, but not him: he is different, he is civilised, he is clever. I have learned in the years since that when people’s prejudice is so deep-rooted, I don’t change their minds about black people; I often just end up confirming their view of the majority.

This book should be on a reading list of those seeking to understand the cursed class system in Britain.

#SixDegrees October: Starting with Vanity Fair

‘There is far too much to do around the house!’ I wailed. ‘And who is going to fill up that empty fridge and prepare things for school? There are also many, many blog posts to read, books to review and events to plan…’

And yet, when I heard about Vanity Fair, I had to join in this month’s Six Degrees of Separation meme. Hosted by Kate over at¬†Books Are My Favourite and Best, it works as follows: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and you need to link to six other books to form a chain, each one linking to the next in the chain but not necessarily to the initial book.¬†Vanity Fair was this month’s starting point and it was one of my favourite books as a teenager – all of us women need to be a bit more like Becky Sharp!

The fairground theme is the link to my next book, which has a small but significant scene set in the Prater, Vienna’s fairground and amusement park that was very similar to the Vauxhall Gardens featured in Vanity Fair. I am talking, of course, of The Third Man by Graham Greene, which became one of the most iconic noir films of all time.

Taking the option of Vienna for my next link would be all to easy, as I am such a fool about that city, so instead I will use the link of noir film adaptations. Another book that was beautifully adapted (probably surpassing the original) was The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. The external third person narrative feels a little too cold and impenetrable to me, and I like his Nora and Nick Charles characters far more than Sam Spade.

Another title containing the word ‘falcon‘ is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a travelogue by Rebecca West, giving a rather chilling picture of Yugoslavia on the brink of invasion by the Fascists in 1937. Interestingly, though, she was as staunchly anti-communist as she was anti-fascist, which meant that she was more of a supporter of the Chetniks (which later led to the revival of Serbian nationalism which led to the Yugoslav War in the 1990s) than of Tito’s partisans during the Second World War.

Speaking of partisans and anti-fascist resistance, I’ve not yet read but am fascinated by this book about Primo Levi exploring the reasons why he got sent to a concentration camp in 1943. Primo Levi‚Äôs Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy by Sergio Luzzato (transl. Frederika Randall) examines a lesser-known part of Italian history.

It would be too easy to turn to another Primo Levi book as the next chain in the link, so instead I will look at another period in Italian history. A family that fascinated me as a child, the Borgias are the apogee of ambition and ruthlessness, although I feel that poor Lucrezia Borgia was often a pawn in the machinations of her father and brother. Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty: The Borgias tries to sort out fact from fiction.

Sarah Dunant has also written a novel Sacred Hearts about a young woman being sent away to the convent against her will in 16th century Italy, and it’s nuns forming the final link in the chain. Muriel Spark features the most manipulative and ruthless Mother Superior in literature in The Abbess of Crewe, while constantly portraying herself as a good Catholic. A parody of either Watergate or McCarthyanism – or both. 

So my links this month have taken me from Vienna to the US to Yugoslavia, Italy and England. Where will your associations take you?

Six Degrees of Separation August 2018

Is it that time already? For August’s Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, the starting point is Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Ian McEwan: I have loved some of his books and not been overwhelmed by some of his others, so I have felt no compulsion to read all of them. Atonement is one of my less favoured ones – I like his earlier and darker ones better on the whole. But I also know that the author was accused of plagiarism, that a passage in¬†Atonement¬†closely resembled Lucilla Andrews’ autobiography as a nurse during WW2 (whom he acknowledges as a source of inspiration).

Another book which has been accused of plagiarism on several occasions is Dan Brown’s¬†The Da Vinci Code.¬†I suppose the authors meant that their conspiracy theory ideas were stolen, rather than the style. Because if it were about the style, I would keep very shtum indeed if I were them. Dan Brown’s book ranks as one of the worst-written, most clich√©-ridden piece of work that I’ve ever managed to read to the end (only just).

A much better book about conspiracy theories and historical mysteries and religion is¬†Foucault’s Pendulum¬†by Umberto Eco. My teenage self simply thrilled at the tragic story of the Knights Templar – although my adult self knows that all the blather about world domination and deep secrets is frankly absurd.

The next hop is a very easy one: I rely on the name of Foucault and look at Michel Foucault, influential French thinker (I like that all-encompassing term, because he was a social historian, philosopher, literary theorist and so much more, even influencing social anthropology – but nothing whatsoever to do with the Pendulum). One of his major works is Discipline and Punish which looks at the history of prisons in the Western world, as well as the philosophy of crime and punishment.

I don’t much enjoy books about prisons, but I do admire Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago¬†about his own experience of the harsh conditions in the Soviet gulags. This is more than just an abstract compassion for the horrors,. I have a personal connection, because it is quite likely that my grandfather died in one of those.

But on to something far more cheerful for the next link: archipelago makes me think of islands, of course, and Eva Ibbotson’s Island of the Aunts (aka Monster Mission)¬†sounds like it might fit the bill. I haven’t actually read this one, but I’ve really enjoyed other books by this author. The premise does sound rather weird:¬†When the kindly old aunts decide that they need help caring for creatures who live on their hidden island, they know that only children can be trusted to keep their secret, so they go ahead and kidnap them.

One of the best fictional aunts is Aunt Augusta in Graham Greene’s¬†Travels with My Aunt. Mischievous, amoral, often illegal and slightly barmy, this formidable 70 year old certainly helps her nephew come out of his shell as he embarks upon his adventures with her, travelling around Europe and South America. This is possibly Greene’s cheeriest and funniest creation.

So from England on the verge of war to a whirlwind tour of European sights via the fierceness of Siberia and imaginary secret islands… what a journey we’ve been on this month!

 

The Expat Experience: Hausfrau

HausfrauThere is a quote that does the rounds of expat circles: a man once said that when he dies, he wants to come back as an expat wife. It’s an understandable (if tactless) remark. There is a perception of an expat life of privilege in exotic locations, on a generous salary and benefits package, sitting around sipping cocktails and with nothing else to do except hatch intrigues.

While there may still be some such ‘expat bubbles’ out there, in most cases the reality is quite different. In many cases the so-called trailing spouse (most of them still remain women in this day and age, although there are some men too following the careers of their wives) has had to give up her own career, is lonely, frustrated, resentful and isolated. The expat packages have been reduced, they do not speak the language and they have to adapt to a completely alien culture, where even doing the supermarket shopping or installing a telephone line becomes an epic battle.

This is the case with Anna, the self-destructive protagonist of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel¬†Hausfrau, set in a suburb of Z√ľrich. Anna is an American woman who thought she had chosen order and reliability when she followed her Swiss husband back to his home country. Instead, she feels dead inside. Whether we can empathise with her or not, Essbaum describes Anna’s circumscribed lifestyle, her feeling of entrapment, very clearly. Anna is only just learning the language. She doesn’t have many friends, certainly not among the Swiss, and her banker husband is cold and distant. She doesn’t drive, so she is dependent on trains or on her husband’s or mother-in-law’s willingness to give her a lift.

Anna was a good wife, mostly… It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time… From Pf√§ffikon, the train made sixteen stops before it reached Dietlikon, the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led… the ordinary fact of a train schedule modulated Anna’s daily plans… Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days…

From Fodors.com
From Fodors.com

Visitors to Switzerland revel in the quaint, chocolate-box prettiness, tidiness and order, but, just as there is a malaise beneath the politeness and well-functioning machinery of Japanese society, there is something sinister about the myriad of rules and regulations in this Alpine country. Outwardly, Anna follows her rules: goes to German language classes, picks her children up from school, dutifully goes to see a psychoanalyst to deal with her depression. She is infuriatingly passive and accepting, a passenger in her own life.

Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She followed along. She rode a bus that someone else drove. And Bruno liked driving it. Order upon order. Rule upon Rule. Where the wind blew, she went… it grew even easier with practice.

But of course one will suffocate under all those rules at times. Swiss youths rebel through drug-taking and suicide; Anna rebels by having reckless flings. The book has been compared (even by myself) with those other novels about adulterous women Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, but Anna is much less guided by passion and idealism. If anything, she is far too self-aware, self-critical and analytical. Every phrase she learns in German class, every discussion with her analyst is dissected and applied to her life.

Love’s a sentence. A death sentence… The body would become ravaged. And the heart will become broken… ‘To become’ implies motion. A paradoxical move toward limp surrender. Whatever it is, you do not do it. It is done to you. Passivity and passion begin alike. It’s only how they end that’s different.

From bookpeople.com
Jill Alexander Essbaum, from bookpeople.com

Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, her risk-taking reaches endemic proportions… and then tragedy strikes. I won’t say more, except that Essbaum is a poet and her fragmented prose style may not be to everyone’s taste, while the descriptions of sex are anything but poetic. I was initially sceptical of just how relevant the German class or psychoanalyst discussions were to the main story, but they provide surprising analogies to the banality of marital breakdown and adultery. I personally loved the mix of barbed observational wit, philosophical ruminations and poetic despair. In some ways, it reminded me of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, but I liked this one more, even though it’s longer. It has a well-defined story arc, it’s raw and emotional and very, very honest, with none of the cold detachment of Offill’s book.

I’ve mentioned previously how excited I was to receive this book for review from Penguin Random House. A great addition to my collection of novels about expats – and a timely one, given that I am currently writing a novel about expats. Below is a list of my personal favourites among this type of novels, and the countries in which they are set. The protagonists may feel at first like fish out of water but end up being forever changed by the countries they live in. Word of caution: none of them seem to end well!

Glamorous expat life? From The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Glamorous expat life? From The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Chris Pavone: The Expats (Luxembourg)

Hilary Mantel: Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (Saudia Arabia)

Somerset Maugham: The Painted Vale (China)

Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley (Italy)

Christopher Isherwood: The Berlin Stories (Germany)

Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano (Mexico)

Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet (Egypt)

Graham Greene: The Quiet American (Vietnam)

Joseph Conrad: The Heart of Darkness (Congo)

Henry James: The Ambassadors (France)

Elsa Marpeau: L’Expatri√©e (Singapore)

 

Real Viennese Crime Fiction

This is not really a book review, more of a declaration of love for its setting, and it fits into my Global Reading Challenge, the meme launched by the incomparable Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise.

Ah, Vienna! ¬†City of my heart – no matter how many places I live in, this is the place that feels closest to home, perhaps because I spent most of my childhood there. ¬†Yet it’s not just gold-tinged nostalgia. ¬†I will forever be regarded as an outsider there: no matter how fond how I am of Grinzing and the wooded hills extending beyond it, no matter how familiar I am with every element of the Viennese cuisine, no matter how easily I slip into the lazy lengthened vowels of the Viennese accent.

Viennese Souvenirs
Viennese Souvenirs

Yet still I thrill to the slightest mention of the city, and I cannot resist any novel that is set there. ¬†Yet somehow, until recently, crime fiction set in Vienna seems to have been written largely by foreign authors. The obvious one to mention is Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man’. ¬†Both the book and the film are excellent at conveying the disquieting atmosphere of a city on the very border of the Cold War. Frank Tallis has series of novels featuring a psychonalytical detective in early 20th century Vienna, but I found it a bit too rich, like a Sachertorte. ¬†J. Sydney Jones also addresses the same period in Austrian history, introducing real-life literary celebrities, musicians and artists such as Gustav Klimt and Gustav Mahler with his Viennese Mysteries series.

However, in recent years, there has been a surge of native crime writers telling us of their love/hate relationship with their capital city. ¬†[Because you aren’t a real Viennese until you learn to complain about the city and its inhabitants.] Some of them rather obviously cater for the tourist market, much like the Mozartkugeln confectionery. ¬†Some of them are intended for the domestic market (which includes Germany and Switzerland, of course). ¬†None of them have been translated into English yet, as far as I am aware, but I will keep my eyes open for Wolf Haas (many of his books have been filmed for Austrian TV), ¬†Edith Kneifl’s evocations of the Prater fun fair, Andreas Pittler’s novels set in the tumultuous 1930s, Marcus Rafaelsberger who changed his name to Marc Elsberg and now lives in Hamburg, and Alfred Komarek’s melancholy detective Polt, who lives just outside Vienna amidst beautiful vineyards.

But every now and then you find the genuine thing: a book that conveys all of the contradictory atmosphere of this city, everything that charms and frustrates you about it. This author is Stefan Slupetzky and his crime series is about Poldi Wallisch, a.k.a the Lemming for his tendency to engage in self-destructive behaviour.

LemmingThe book I read, ‘Lemmings Zorn’ (Lemming’s Rage) is the fourth in the series, but I don’t think this is a series you need to read in chronological order. ¬†Not surprisingly, it’s about rage and frustration, about average people trying to make a life for themselves in the city of endless construction sites, unapproachable neighbours and high noise levels. It is also about powerlessness and revenge, about shame and shamelessness.

It starts out as a humorous family saga. It’s a lovely May Day holiday and the streets of Vienna are empty, save for Lemming and his heavily pregnant life partner, Klara. Suddenly, Klara’s waters break, the ambulance fails to arrive and panic sets in. ¬†Until the couple are saved by a stranger, Angela, who helps them with the birth, names the baby and becomes a family friend. ¬†A few months later, however, on Christmas Eve, Lemming has to leave the baby with Angela for a few hours. ¬†When he goes to pick up his son, he makes a gruesome discovery which changes their lives forever.

Macabre humour mixed with slapstick, surrealist dream sequences, philosophical asides and tongue-in-cheek observations, this is a crime novel unlike any other you have read. ¬†I absolutely loved it and laughed out loud throughout. ¬†Whether it would appeal to anyone who doesn’t know Vienna or the black humour of its inhabitants, we won’t know until it’s been translated into English. I do hope someone hurries up and does just that!