#OzFeb: Frank Moorhouse and the League of Nations

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.

Palais Wilson in Geneva, formerly a hotel, then the HQ for the League of Nations until the new Palais des Nations was built.

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.

Womanly Wit, Satire and Compassion

Two books I read in September (but never got around to reviewing) have stayed with me for similar reasons, even though outwardly they couldn’t have been more different. The first was a family saga of sorts, seen through the eyes of three generations of women. The second book was a satire, a series of interconnected short stories set in a nameless (but easily recognisable) international organisation.

The obvious similarity between them is that they might both have been labelled ‘women’s fiction’ – but of course that is a meaningless term. What they both brought to me as a reader was a wit at once fierce and yet tender. So if there is such a thing as women’s fiction, is it possible that women are more prone to sharp observation of character flaws, but also more gentle and forgiving of them?

hadleycoverTessa Hadley: Everything Will Be All Right

Family sagas are so not my thing (although I did go through a brief period in my teens when I enjoyed the Cazalets, Flambards and the Eliots of Damerosehay). But this book is more about exploring what it means to grow up a woman in three (perhaps even four) different eras, each one with its own challenges, opportunities and limitations. Joyce grows up in the early 1950s and wants to break free of the constraints of the housewifely existence she sees in her mother’s and aunt’s generation. Art school seems to be her way out of suburbia, but then she marries her art teacher and has children. Very soon, she learns to content herself with dressmaking, homemaking and a less than perfect marriage.

Her daughter Zoe disdains these compromises and grows up in the more adventurous 1970s, with expectations of gender equality. Yet when she falls in love with fellow student, the scornfully intellectual Simon, and falls pregnant, she too struggles with the ‘tension between motherhood and intelligent life’. Finally, Zoe’s daughter Pearl is still a thoughtless teenager in the late 1980s or early 1990s: the only thing she is sure of is that she doesn’t want to end up either like her cerebral mother or her domesticated grandmother.

In her Q&A session in Morges, Tessa Hadley said that this was the most autobiographical of her novels. She certainly describes all the permutations of female emancipation in a no-nonsense Northern family, with memorable characters and sensitive descriptions of complex mother/daughter relationships. Throughout, she casts a remarkably lucid and critical eye on the shortcomings of each generation – there is none who seems to have got it entirely right. Women are all still chasing after their illusions and learning to live with disillusionment.

The multiple points of view, although the shift is a little jarring at times, allow us to see each character, warts and all. It could be argued that the men are particularly covered in warts in this story – useless, unlikeable and, above all, unreliable. Yet often, in their unsentimental, selfish way, they see things most clearly. Here’s what Simon has to say about studying with babies:

He had not wanted this baby. He had always had a horror of a certain kind of semi-academic domesticity, PhD students turned whey-faced and sour-tempered over their grubby-mouthed and badly-behaved offspring; rented flats filled up with a detritus of toys; typewriter and books pushed resentfully aside to make room for plates of baby pap. It seemed to him self-evident that intelligent women with minds of their own would not make the best mothers: how could they bear, if they liked room to think and breathe and read, to be constrained as the mothers of small children must be to the sticky and endlessly repetitive routines of domestic life?

I don’t know if it’s a sad indication of things not having moved on very much, that women nowadays still have to make those restrictive choices of hearth and career, life of the mind or domesticating the body, that motherhood still reverts us back to gender stereotypes.

glasshousesShirley Hazzard: People in Glass Houses

Shirly Hazzard worked for the UN Secretariat in New York for a number of years, but was also familiar with diplomatic service and British Intelligence, so she had quite a choice of ‘organisations’ and ‘corporate nonsense’ to ridicule. This was probably the first book to lampoon organisational man (and woman) and the absurdities of the bureaucratic world. Yet the author reserves her sharpest arrows for the stultifying, soul-crushing organisation itself, its odd rules and procedures, the way it forces people to pretend and cheat. So many great insights into how organisations with their pretensions and doublespeak grind down and dehumanise people, how only the mediocre and ‘well-adapted’ or sycophantic survive.

The people themselves are mocked with compassion, perceived perhaps as victims. We see erudite, gentlemanly but rather slapdash Algie Wyatt being given the boot. Geeky researcher Ashmole-Brown is made fun of but then publishes his results and hits the bestseller lists; Swoboda, a Slav refugee during the war, has made up for lost educational opportunities through sheer hard work – yet is denied the promotion he feels he deserves and loses all respect for his bosses. Idealistic Clelia Kingslake flies out to Rhodes to deal with a crisis – but finds that no one seems to care about or rate her peace-keeping abilities.

All this in an elegant, uncluttered prose. The anger is toned down, yet with sly asides – a very British irony which reminds me of Barbara Pym.

Clelia Kingslake was happy because, first of all, she was a Canadian. Fished out of the Annual Reports Pool at Headquarters… flown to Rhodes at one day’s notice, arriving there to sunlight and sea, to trees in leaf, flowers in bloom, to the luxury of finding herself beside the Mediterranean – all this by itself might not have been thoroughly enjoyable to her strict northern soul had she not come to assist in a noble undertaking. She had been sent to serve the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean in their hour of need, and it was this that sanctioned her almost sensual pleasure in her surroundings…

Have you read these books or other books by these authors? I will certainly be seeking out more of their work.