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Archive for the ‘A Century of Books’ Category

Reading The Truth About Blayds by A.A. Milne, I had no difficultly understanding why it was one of Milne’s favourites of his many plays.  Written in 1920, during his most productive period, it is devoted to the thing he loved to write about most: middle class struggles with morality.  And, for once, that struggle doesn’t take the form of bigamy, something we can only be thankful for (see Mr Pim Passes By, Michael and Mary, and, to some extent, Belinda for Milne’s delight in that subject).

We open on the household of Blayds, the great Victorian poet, the (as some call him) “Supreme Songster of an Earlier Epoch”.  His family is gathering to celebrate his birthday, which is delightful because it gives Milne a chance to introduce them all one at a time.  Milne excels at character descriptions in his stage directions and he surpasses his usual genius here.  Those gathering include Blayds’ two adult daughters, his grandson and granddaughter, and his overly attentive son-in-law.  It is for this son-in-law that Milne truly shines:

William Blayds-Conway was obviously meant for the Civil Service.  His prim neatness, his gold pince-nez, his fussiness would be invaluable in almost any Department.  However, running Blayds is the next best thing to running the Empire.

Can’t you just picture him?  A man who not only added his wife’s name to his own upon marriage but who has made it his life’s work to serve as secretary to his great father-in-law, curating every slip of paper that has passed through Blayds’ blessed hands, recording every word he utters in order to capture the brilliance for posterity.  Blayds, old but no fool, can see exactly what his son-in-law is doing and what the future will bring, as he explains to a birthday visitor, Mr Royce:

Blayds: My son-in-law, Mr Royce, meditates after my death a little book called “Blaydsiana.”  He hasn’t said so, but I see it written all over him.  In addition, you understand, to the official life in two volumes.  There may be another one called “On the Track of Blayds in the Cotswolds” but I am not certain of this yet.

While Mr Blayds-Conway is happy to have his life’s direction set by his relationship to Blayds, his children are not.  Both daughter and son feel that they are held slightly captive, particularly twenty-something Oliver who has found himself working in politics despite his love of mechanics:

Oliver: Do you think I want to be a private secretary to a dashed politician?  What’s a private secretary at his best but a superior sort of valet?  I wanted to be a motor engineer.  Not allowed.  Why not?  Because the Blayds in Blayds-Conway wouldn’t have been any use.  But politicians simply live on that sort of thing.

They need to live up to the Blayds name and find that takes quite a lot of work.

But then the critical discovery is made that Blayds’ fame is based on a grand deception.  This comes after his death so there are many things for the family consider.  Money, legacy, and the value of their own name all weigh heavily as they try to decide what to do.  Perhaps the Blayds name wasn’t such a curse, not really, not when it came with respect and a healthy income, and served to open so many doors into the best places.  As the Blayds-Conway family members rationalise their selfish instincts into a protective cocoon of moral comfort, Blayds’ younger daughter and the journalist Conway can only look on in amazement and repulsion.

It’s all very neatly done, with excellent dialogue throughout and a tidy ending, but it doesn’t have as much heart as Milne’s best plays.  Here it seems the concept was very much the thing, not the characters.  He carries it off very well but I still longed for the world of The Great Broxopp or, bigamy and all, Michael and Mary, with real-feeling characters.

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After reading Anne of Green Gables in July, I was reminded of an eternal truth about books in a series: you can never read just one.  Or at least I can’t, particularly when it is this series which so dominated my childhood reading.  How could I leave Anne after just one book?  So I read on, quickly progressing through first Anne of Avonlea and then Anne of the Island.

Anne of Avonlea is an odd book or perhaps it is just a very typical second book, written in a rush to capitalise on the extraordinary success of Anne of Green Gables.  Published in 1909, only a year after Anne’s debut, Montgomery seems to have lost her sense of humour – and her sense of characterization.  When the first book ended, Anne was maturing and recognizing (with humour) her tendency towards indulging in overly dramatic flights of fancy.  In this book, she embraces those melodramatic tendencies wholeheartedly, becomes dreamier than ever without ever really coming back down to earth, and is insufferably condescending to her more prosaic friends.  She has relapsed to a stage which readers of the first book thought she had outgrown and no one benefits from it.  (There is a very good discussion of this in The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly.)

The book still has its moments but Montgomery, desperately short of plot ideas, covers by introducing new characters at every turn.  We meet Mr Harrison, a grouchy farmer with a foul-mouthed parrot; Davy and Dora, twin relatives who Marilla takes in after they are orphaned; Paul Irving, the most sickeningly sweet child ever written; and Miss Lavendar, who is even more prone to silly fantasies than Anne.  None of these count as improvements to Avonlea society, as far as I’m concerned.

As usual, it is Anne’s humblest adventures that are the most entertaining.  Montgomery writing about ethereal fantasies and really anything involving Paul Irving is insufferable.  Montgomery writing about village gossip is delightful.  The disastrous repainting of the church is one of the book’s greatest moments and Anne’s horror at having to strap one of her misbehaving students – and then find he respects her more for it, thereby crushing all her high ideals – is marvellous.  And these moments are made better because they offer not just Anne’s perspective but a whole array of them, from besotted but still level-headed Gilbert Blythe, from sharp tongued Rachel Lynde, and from quietly amused Marilla.

If Anne of Avonlea is both frustrating and disappointing, Anne of the Island, happily, is an entirely different experience.

Published in 1915, Montgomery has several years to figure out how to next approach Anne’s story (and to write many sentimental stories and novels to expunge her overly dramatic tendencies).  The result is the 2nd best book in the series and one of the most important books of my childhood.

The novel covers Anne’s four years of college, which takes her away from Avonlea and from Prince Edward Island entirely, over to Redmond College in Kingsport, Nova Scotia (a fictionalised version of Dalhousie University in Halifax, where Montgomery studied).  She is accompanied by some familiar faces, Charlie Sloane and Gilbert Blythe, and joins up with friends Priscilla Grant and Stella Maynard, who she met at teacher’s school in Anne of Green Gables.  And, most importantly, she makes two very important new friends over her four years: Philippa Gordon and Roy Gardner.

Roy Gardner enters Anne’s life during her third year of college, an answer to all of her romantic fantasies.  Having by this point survived – and rebuffed – multiple marriage proposals (most very easily, with due horror, but one with great pain) since none of the men matched her vision of a future husband, it is almost too perfect when Roy appears in the midst of a rainstorm, perfection made flesh:

Tall and handsome and distinguished-looking – dark, melancholy, inscrutable eyes – melting, musical, sympathetic voice – yes, the very hero of her dreams stood before her in the flesh. He could not have more closely resembled her ideal if he had been made to order.

But ideal men aren’t very interesting – a fact the reader recognizes long before Anne.  Roy is clearly a red herring but it is easy to understand why a wealthy, worldly, handsome man who adores her has so much appeal.  He is so far removed from the Avonlea boys she’s grown up with, although the Redmond girls seem to think the Avonlea boys have a certain appeal, especially handsome, intelligent, and determined Gilbert Blythe, now studying to become a doctor.  Really, there is no doubt that Anne and Gilbert will end up together but my god does Montgomery put her readers through an emotional rollercoaster before that happy ending comes.

The other character of note is the marvellous Philippa Gordon.  I loved everything about this book as a child but it has only been on rereading it as an adult that I’ve recognized how much Philippa enriches the story.  Philippa is a contradiction from her very first introduction: a beauty from a wealthy Nova Scotian family, she could have married well (to her choice of suitor – both Alec and Alonzo are waiting for her still) but chose instead to come and study mathematics at university.  Despite an active social schedule through all four years, Philippa handles her academics with aplomb and sits at the top of the class.  And, perhaps most importantly, she can do what Anne cannot do: acknowledge when she is wrong, recognize a chance at happiness, and go after it with all her considerable energy and determination.

Phil and Anne approach their romances from very different perspectives.  Anne has dreamed of her ideal man for years.  She knows just what he will look like, has devoted considerable time to composing his perfect speeches, and can envision an idyllic future spent staring into one another’s eyes.  For her, the idea that Roy Gardner, her fantasy made flesh, won’t be as satisfying a life partner as Gilbert Blythe, her intellectual equal who would rather work beside her than worship her, is one she fights against.  She has a fixed vision and it is one that she sticks to.  When she finally consults her heart, it is almost too late.

Phil, on the other hand, never believed in romance.  She believed in marriage, certainly, and expected that one day she would marry one of the rich young men from her social circle and settle down to a life like the one she’d always lived.  Her time at Redmond is her way of postponing – at least for four years – having to decide which of the interchangeable eligible young men she will accept.  She throws herself into university life and has a marvellous time.  But then something changes.  She meets Jonas Blake, an awkward young minister, and that’s it.  Jonas is exactly the sort of man Phil has always joked about not being tempted by – ugly, poor, and far from at ease in company – but she falls in love almost immediately.  And when Jonas doesn’t dare to think she could be interested in him, she makes it very clear that she is.  Phil, knowing what she wants, is not going to let her chance at happiness slip away.

Nor is she about to let Anne do the same.  Marilla and Rachel Lynde may want to tell Anne that she is making a mistake by rejecting Gilbert, but they don’t.  Phil, on the other hand, is more than ready to do so.  Repeatedly.  For years.  Phil is not afraid of a little blunt talking and I love her for it.  As a child who found Anne too whimsical and Diana too timid, Phil was the first Montgomery character – and one of the first literary characters – I ever truly identified with.  And that hasn’t change remotely in the 23 years that have passed since I first encountered her.

Anne of the Island isn’t quite as good as Anne of Green Gables but it is close.  I could write about it endlessly but I’ll save that for another day.  I’ve read it countless times already and I shall certainly return to it again.  And again.  And again…

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The Great Broxopp by A.A. Milne is often referred to as prophetic.  Written in 1921, it features a man who feels his life has been blighted by his father’s commercial success with the baby food he used his infant son to advertise.  Milne’s own son was still an infant when this was written – years away from being immortalized as Christopher Robin – but the parallels are very clear.  But, sadly for Milne, the fictional son is much more forgiving than his real one would one day be.

The play opens, perfectly, on young Mrs Broxopp conferring with her maid of all work, giving instant insight into the family finances:

Nancy: Yes, Mary?

Mary: It’s about the dinner, ma’am.

Nancy: (With a sigh.) Yes, I was afraid it was.  It isn’t a very nice subject to talk about, is it, Mary?

Mary: Well, ma’am, it has its awkwardness like.

Nancy: (After a pause, but not very hopefully.) How is the joint looking?

Mary: Well, it’s past looking like anything very much.

Nancy: Well, there’s the bone.

Mary: Yes, there’s the bone.

Nancy: (Gaily.) Well, there we are, Mary.  Soup.

Mary: If you remember, ma’am, we had soup yesterday.

Nancy: (Wistfully.) Couldn’t you – couldn’t you squeeze it again, Mary?

Mary: It’s past squeezing, ma’am – in this world.

Broxopp, you see, is not yet great.  But the first act is brief and by the time we meet him again twenty odd years later, greatness has been achieved.  A born salesman, he has built a successful business and established a comfortable life.  He and his wife live in a large home in the best part of town.  They have a butler who used to work for a duke.  Their son, Jack, went through Eton and Oxford and is now pursuing his dream of becoming an artist (heavily subsidized by his father).  They have the success they dreamed of and are proud of it, with the Great Broxopp still excited each day to look for ways to make the business – and the name of Broxopp – even greater.

Young Jack, on the other hand, wants to abandon the name entirely.  He has fallen in love and plans to marry the lovely, eminently sensible Iris.  But Iris – and even more importantly Iris’s father, the masterful Sir Roger Tenterden – can’t stomach the name of Broxopp and the commercial activities that it is associated with.  Jack, for his part, is more than happy to abandon a name that has plagued him all his life:

Jack: I’m simply fed up with Broxopp’s Beans.

Broxopp: (Surprised.) But – but you haven’t had them since you were a baby.

Jack: (Seeing the opening.) Haven’t had them?  Have I ever stopped having them?  Weren’t they rammed down my throat at school till I was sick of them?  Did they ever stop pulling my leg about them at Oxford?  Can I go anywhere without seeing that beastly poster – a poster of me – me, if you please – practically naked – telling everybody that I love my Beans.  (Bitterly.)  Love them!  Don’t I see my name – Broxopp, Broxopp, Broxopp – everywhere in every size of lettering – on every omnibus, on every hoarding; spelt out in three colours at night – B-R-O-X-O-P-P – until I can hardly bear the sight of it.  Free bottles given away on my birthday, free holidays for Broxopp mothers to celebrate my coming of age!  I’m not a man at all.  I’m just a living advertisement of Beans.

Broxopp shows his greatness in what he does next.  He accepts his son’s point of view and, to smooth his son’s way into a respectable future with no taint of business, he sells the business and changes the family name to Chillingham, his wife’s maiden name.  And then they retire to the country to live sedate, unexceptional lives in beautiful surroundings.

When we meet them again, all seems to be going well enough but the Great Broxopp is not so great anymore.  Country life does not suit him and he yearns to be back at work, to have something to strive for every day.  Jack is married but still living off his parents, not making much of an effort at his art, and Iris’s father, Sir Roger, has been left in charge of everyone’s money but will tell no one about any of it.  And then the inevitable happens: the money disappears.  Mismanaged by Sir Roger (with a final, artful push from Mrs Broxopp), the Broxopp fortune is lost.  But the loss brings a new beginning for everyone and no one could be happier than the Great Broxopp, now facing a challenge worthy of his ambitions.

Milne’s dialogue is not up to his snappiest best but I loved this play.  It had a huge amount of heart and the central relationship between Mr and Mrs Broxopp was wonderful, a true and supportive partnership.  They worked together to build Broxopp’s Beans and we have no doubt as the play ends that they will work together again to make the name of Chillingham just as great.

Knowing Milne’s life, it’s not difficult to see the factors from his own life at play here.  From all I know of Daphne Milne, I suspect her family would have shared Sir Roger’s prejudices about being too closely associated with business.  And I know for certain Milne himself felt that work and success were something to be proud of and celebrated, not looked down upon.  But the one thing he couldn’t foresee was that he would put his own son under a spotlight many, many times greater than the one Jack Broxopp grew up in.  And his son, unlike Jack Broxopp, would never quite forgive him for it.

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia.  It was the day the Czech and Slovak people gained their independence after hundreds of years of Hapsburg rule, ushering in a new era of democracy, liberalism, and tolerance.  It was a brief era (twenty years later the Nazis invaded) but a glorious one.  And no one epitomised the spirit of the new nation like its first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

Masaryk was 68 years old when he became president.  Born to estate workers in Moravia, he’d followed a long path to the presidency and had been tireless in his quest for reform and freedom.  And he was loved for it.  He served as president for 17 years, until 1935, and in the early years conducted a series of extraordinary interviews with the much-loved author, Karel Čapek.  The result of these interviews – although interview is hardly the right word for it, really it is musings that Čapek was around to capture – were several books that in 1995 were condensed into a single translated volume for English-speakers called simply Talks with T.G. Masaryk by Karel Čapek.  The book is in Masaryk voice, which is a wonderful way of getting a sense of the man himself.

The collection has been laid out to follow the chronology of Masaryk’s life, beginning with his childhood in Moravia.  His father was Slovak and his mother a German-speaking Moravian and those were the languages Masaryk grew up speaking.  German was spoken all through school (as was typical throughout Austria-Hungary), making it easy to progress to university in Vienna, but when Masaryk moved to Prague years later to take up a teaching post he was uncomfortably conscious of his poor Czech.

He had fond memories of his parents and somewhat rural upbringing but also acknowledged the limitations of such a life:

A boy in an out-of-the-way village has few living examples of anything beyond his circle of farmers and artisans: the teacher, the chaplain and dean, the owners of the estate and their servants, and a merchant perhaps.  What a boy becomes is determined not so much by his gifts as by the opportunities closest at hand.

A passion for helping young people runs throughout the interviews.  Masaryk had founded a social democracy that firmly believed in helping people make the most of themselves.  He thought about education and infrastructure and, constantly, health.  He believed deeply that the nation’s systems and institutions had to be crafted in a way that benefited the people.  They are ideas that sound very familiar to political discussions going on in certain supposedly developed countries even today:

…take health.  I can’t understand why we’ve thought so little about playgrounds, swimming pools, and parks for children.  The poorer the district, the more such facilities are needed: poor districts have more children.  With the proper watering we can have the same grassy playgrounds as England.  Here again it’s a question of money, yet putting money into children is the best investment there is.

But perhaps his most modern-seeming views were on the equality of the sexes.  Masaryk was an unapologetic feminist.  He was devoted to his American wife, Charlotte, and took her maiden name (Garrigue) as part of his.  Guided by logic and reason as always, he could see no reason to treat women differently than men:

How can people ask, I wonder, whether woman is man’s equal?  How can the mother who bears a child not be equal to the father?  And if a man truly loves, how can he love someone beneath him?  I see no difference between the endowments of men and women…

He believed firmly in marriage but was progressive as well, recognizing that divorce had its place in the society he envisioned:

The greatest argument for monogamy is love.  True love – love without reservation, the love of one whole being for another – does not pass with the passing years or even death.  One man and one woman for life, fidelity till death – that is how I see it.  Happy is the man or woman who has lived a rigorously monogamous life.  Yes, I am for divorce; I am for divorce because I want marriage to be love and not commerce or convention, not a senseless or thoughtless union.

Always a modest man, Masaryk believed in simple living.  His dictates in aid of this occur throughout the book and make clear that he probably wasn’t a huge amount of fun on a Friday night.  He gave up even modest drinking at 50, did not smoke, ate simply and sparingly (his details his menu at one point), and was devoted to his daily exercise regime (Sokol exercises and horseback riding).  When living in exile in London, he lived cheaply and would travel by bus to meetings with government officials and world leaders and then dine at a Lyons café, where he appreciated that you could “get a decent meal for ten or fifteen pence.”

In the end, his prescription for a long life was simple:

It shouldn’t be a feat to live to a hundred, but no tricks or gimmicks will get us there, that’s for sure.  Fresh air and sunshine; moderate food and drink; a moral life and a job involving muscles, heart, and brain; people to care for and a goal to strive for – that’s the macrobiotic recipe of success.  Oh, and a keen interest in life, because an interest in life is tantamount to life itself, and without it and without love, life ceases to exist.

Reading these passages felt eerie, in a way.  It was like hearing my great-grandfather speak, a man whose edicts for how to live were passed down from his children to their children to their children and now they are being passed again to the newest generation.  It is no surprise that he was a huge fan of Masaryk.

But, helpful as such guidance is, health tips are not what made Masaryk so beloved.  As staunch as he was in his personal habits, he was stauncher still in his beliefs.  His devotion to democracy was absolute and he was that rare man who did not change with power, whose beliefs held strong and fast for decades and guided first him and then an entire nation forward.  It was something he was rightly very proud of:

Should I be asked what I consider the high point of my life I would not say it was being elected president…It comes from having relinquished nothing as head of state that I believed in and loved as a penniless student, a teacher of youth, a nagging critic, and a political reformer, from having found no need in my position of power for any moral law or relationship to my fellow man, my nation, and the world but those which guided me before…I have not had to change one item of my faith in humanity and democracy, in my search for truth, or in my reliance on the supreme moral and religious commandment to “love they neighbour.”

My great-grandmother’s proudest story was of how Masaryk, whose estate shared a wall with her garden, used to ride past on his morning constitutional and admire her roses.  The roses were already the pride of her life (her four children were modestly appreciated, too) but to have the great man stop and tell her of their beauty made both them and him even more precious to her.  He was that sort of man – he appreciated small things and was thoughtful enough to show that appreciation.

Masaryk served as president until 1935 and died two years later at the age of 87.  He left behind a robust democracy with a thriving economy.  Thank god he did not live to see what came next.  Would things have been different if “the Grand Old Man of Europe” had survived a few years more?  Would Czechoslovakia’s allies have been so quick to desert them in 1938 if he had been there?  Who knows.

Masaryk believed in human progress and that “The future is with us now.  If we choose the best of what we have now, we’ll be on the right road; we’ll have extended our lives with a piece of the future.”  He was an extraordinary politician and statesman then and, sadly, is no less extraordinary today.  He is a reminder of what we all can and should be.  And, thankfully, he has not yet been forgotten.  In fact, a film has just been released dramatizing these conversations between Masaryk and Čapek.  It seems unlikely to make its way into the English-speaking world but one can hope.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Five years ago in the late and lamented Slightly Foxed bookshop in Gloucester Road, I picked up Rosabelle Shaw by D.E. Stevenson (alongside a handful of other books).  I’d discovered D.E.S. a few years before but had never heard of this title.  I assumed it was obscure for good reason (already recognizing the varied quality of D.E.S.’s output) but for a meager £4 wanted to find out for myself.  So home it came with me only to languish for five years unread until I picked it up this August when I was home sick with a cold.

Unusually for D.E.S., this is a historical piece.  Opening in Edinburgh in the 1890s, we meet vivacious young Fanny who has caught the eye of the steady, determined farmer John Shaw.  The two are soon wed and Fanny finds herself living on John’s well-managed farm in East Lothian, unsure how to handle both rural life and marriage.  So far familiar stuff for fans of D.E.S.  Fanny is sweet and charming and finds a friend in the old local doctor and amusing – but useful – guidance in an old book.  The marriage is off to happy start and a daughter, Rosabelle, arrives followed a few years later by a son.

But the Shaw’s calm family life is disrupted by the arrival of a young boy, the only survivor of a mysterious shipwreck.  Saved by John Shaw, Fanny takes the orphaned child into her home and it is not long before the two are closely bonded.  Jay, the boy, grows into a jealous, calculating child and Fanny’s championing of him causes an understandable rift with John.  Her own children try to accept Jay as a sibling and playmate but his moody, brooding ways make it difficult.

The book then jumps forward to the eve of WWI.  Jay, uncharacteristically affable and forging a strong bond with his adopted father, is as dangerous as ever – especially to Rosabelle, who finds herself deeply attracted to him despite knowing how untrustworthy he is.  Meanwhile, her neighbour Tom watches with concern…

D.E.S. is hardly a known for her consistency but this is an unusually uneven novel, with abrupt mood changes and an embarrassingly loose plot with far too many cardboard characters.  And yet, that said, it was the perfect undemanding read for my sick day.  I loved the end of the book, with Rosabelle forging a friendly and loving partnership with Tom, having married him to provide a barrier from the alluring Jay but truly coming to love him.  It is the exact opposite of the highly dramatic scenes with Jay and far more in keeping with D.E.S.’s usual style, which she was still developing in 1937 when this was first published.  She’d only written a handful of books then and hadn’t yet settled into the light romances she would do so capably for the next three decades.  She still had a bit of melodrama left to get out of her system – Rochester’s Wife was published in 1940 – but it’s clear her lighter side was trying to break through while writing this.  The result is messy but a very interesting read for any D.E.S. fan.

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I try to be a broadminded reader.  I like to try new authors, read topics I know nothing about, and sample different genres.  But the one genre I’ve never been able to take much interest in is crime. This could be because a) I have no idea what distinguishes crime novels from mysteries so am happy to lump them both together under the heading of “Things I Do Not Much Like” and b) I have absolutely no appetite for anything violent.   I don’t find it difficult to read, I just don’t see the point.  My desire for cliffhangers and uncertainty is nil.  So, while I’ve admired the stylish British Library Crime Classics that have been released over the last few years, I’ve never felt tempted to pick one up.  Never, that is, until I heard about Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville.

So what made this one different?  The premise sounded mildly interesting – a young man, our hero Jim Henderson, is invited to a house party hosted by Mr. Carson, a mysterious and decidedly shady jewel expert.  But Jim doesn’t know the host and he and the other guests have nothing in common.  Why are they there and what is in store for them?  When I do dabble in the genre, I enjoy a good country house mystery so the omens seemed good.  But what was even more promising was the book’s introduction, which stresses Melville’s admiration of A.A. Milne’s work, particularly The Red House Mystery, and the strong influence of Milne’s style on this work.  After that, I had to read it. (And I also had to muse about Melville’s chosen penname.  Did he chose Alan in homage to Alan Milne?)

The story was published in 1934, when Melville was in his mid-twenties.  His hero, Jim Henderson, feels about that age but is actually a decade older and, after having served in the war, has spent several years struggling to find work.  When we meet him, he is unemployed but optimistic despite his lack of marketable skills, as noted in his frank self-assessment:

Pleasant and extremely good-looking young man, aged thirty-four, possessing no talents or accomplishments beyond being able to give an imitation of Gracie Fields giving an imitation of Galli-Curci, with no relations and practically no money, seeks job

Though lacking in resources, Jim possesses that which is most important for the hero of any sort of mystery/thriller: an entertaining side-kick, in this case his old school friend, Freddie Usher.  Freddie is a well-heeled chap, in possession of a sporty car, family heirlooms, and a great deal of leisure time.  But his main value to us is as someone for Jim to exchange Milne-esque dialogue with, as when Jim asks for the loan of Freddie’s evening clothes:

“Sorry, old man.  It’s impossible.”

“But, Freddie…”

“Impossible.  Quite imposs.”

“Remember we were at school together.”

“Which merely shows a lack of discretion on the part of my parents, and has nothing whatever to do with the present question.”

Freddie, like all of Carson’s guests except the penniless and decidedly jewel-less Jim, is encouraged to bring his jewels along with him – in this case, the Usher diamonds.  Not fishy at all.  Alongside the two young men, the party is made up of a varied and mostly forgettable mix of people – the only exceptions being Lady Stone, a redoubtable doyen of charitable causes, and Carson’s lovely daughter Mary.  And lurking in the background are Carson’s household staff, bruisers all of them.  The weekend promises to be interesting.

And it is, mildly.  I had fun reading this – the effortless pacing and snappy dialogue made it a quick read.  But the plot itself is rather silly and a bit all over the place and the ending is marred by an overly dramatic reveal that serves no value at all.  All in all, a pleasant but unmemorable foray into the unknown.  It hasn’t made me one jot more interested in crime or mystery books but that would have been too much to expect from such a slight book.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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The wars we are proud of we don’t forget.  We write books and films and televisions shows about them, study them for years, and never tire of discussing them.  We do not let ourselves forget.  We remember because we are proud of what we fought for, what we accomplished, and, even if we lost the war, we can still be proud of how we survived and came to terms with loss.

But there are other wars we cannot forget quickly enough, so urgent is our need to wipe the shame and futility and waste of them from our memories.  Sometimes this begins even as the war is still being fought.

The Soviet-Afghan War, which lasted nine messy and fruitless years from late 1979 to early 1989, falls into the latter category.  Only a few years after its start, the Soviet Union was already trying to reshape the narrative and doing its best to hide the true conditions and casualties.  There was anger and frustration among the soldiers, among the families of those whose children had died and were not being honoured, and among the general citizens who felt the truth was being hidden from them.  It was in this atmosphere that Zinky Boys by Svetlana Alexievich was born.

First published in 1990 (and translated to English in 1992 and then again more recently), Alexievich began work on this oral history while the war was still on.  It came from her frustration – one shared by many others – that:

All we know about this war, which has already lasted twice as long as World War I, is what “they” consider safe for us to know.  We have been protected from seeing ourselves as we really are, and from the fear that such understanding would bring.

Through countless interviews with soldiers, civilian employees, grass widows, bereaved parents, and regular citizens, she gathers all perspectives and presents them in her typically straightforward manner, allowing each subject to speak for him- or herself.  It’s an approach I love and which Alexievich wields powerfully to compose her portrait of a weary, stubborn, distrustful nation and an increasingly weak government, desperate to retain authority and control.

Her title comes from one of the war’s most enduring symbols: the zinc coffins the bodies were shipped home in.  Like so much else about the war, efforts were made to keep these repatriations quiet but they fooled no one:

In those days [1981] no one had seen the zinc coffins.  Later we found out that coffins were already arriving in the town, with the burials being carried out in secret, at night.  The gravestones had ‘died’ rather than ‘killed in action’ engraved on them, but no one asked why all these eighteen-year-olds were dying all of a sudden.  From too much vodka, was it, or flu?  Too many oranges, perhaps?  Their loved ones wept and the rest just carried on until they were affected by it themselves.  (Private, Grenadier Battalion)

For parents who lost children, the collective choice to ignore what was going on or to condemn it was wrenching.  To have your child come home in a coffin is bad enough but to have the death ignored, to be treated as though it had no value, made it even worse.  The days of brave soldiers (men and women, as Alexievich reminded the world in her extraordinary first book, The Unwomanly Face of War) being honoured for their bravery and sacrifice were done.  This was nothing like the communal spirit of the Great Patriotic War – those who suffered were left to do it alone:

…I was sitting near the grave and a mother came by with her children.  ‘What kind of a mother would let her only daughter go off to war at a time like this?’ I heard her tell them.  ‘Just give away her daughter?’  The gravestone had ‘To My Only Daughter’ carved on it.

How dare they.  How can they? She took the Hippocratic Oath.  She was a nurse whose hands were kissed by a surgeon.  She went to save their sons’ lives.

‘People!’ I cry inside me.  ‘Don’t turn away from me!  Stand by the grave with me for a little while.  Don’t leave me alone…’ (A Mother)

But there has never been a war without some soldiers enjoying it and Alexievich includes their stories as well, reminding us that war brings with it travel and excitement, the chance to see new things and challenge yourself daily:

I tell you straight – they were the best years of my life.  Life here is rather grey and petty: work – home, home – work.  There we had to work everything out for ourselves and test our mettle as men.

So much of it was exotic, too: the way the morning mist swirled in the ravines like a smokescreen, even those burubukhaiki, the high-sided, brightly decorated Afghan trucks, and the red buses with sheep and cows and people all crammed together inside, and the yellow taxis…There are places there which remind you of the moon with their fantastic, cosmic landscapes.  You get the feeling that there’s nothing alive in those unchanging mountains, that it’s nothing but rocks – until the rocks start shooting at you!  You sense that even nature is your enemy. (Artillery Captain)

Once home, life could be difficult for those who believed in what they had done in Afghanistan.  The injured and sick struggled to get treatment and respect from civilians.  For soldiers who came back to public apathy and, worse, disapproval of a war they had spent years of their lives fighting, the public debate that eventually emerged was pointless:

Nowadays they say we were an occupying force.  But what did we take away with us, except our comrades’ coffins?  What did we get out of it, apart from hepatitis and cholera, injuries and lives crippled in all sense of the word?  I’ve got nothing to apologize for: I came to the aid of our brothers, the Afghan people.  And I mean that.  The lads out there with me were sincere and honest.  They believed they’d gone to do good – they didn’t see themselves as ‘misguided fighters in a misguided war’, as I saw it described recently.  And what good does it do, trying to make out we were simply naïve idiots and cannon-fodder?  Who does that help?  (Private, Artillery Regiment)

While I enjoyed the entire book, I found the perspectives of the women who went to Afghanistan particularly fascinating.  Alexievich interviewed female medical personnel and civilian employees, who had not just war stories to share but nasty comments thrown at them by soldiers who preferred their women to stay on pedestals back home apparently:

…we couldn’t walk past a group of soldiers without sneering comments like ‘Well, Bochkarevka!  How’s our little heroine today?  Doing our international duty in bed, are we?’  The name ‘Bochkarevka’ comes from the little houses (they look a bit like railway carriages) known as ‘bochki’ reserved for senior officers – majors and above, so the girls who, well, ‘serviced’ them were known as ‘Bochkarevki’.  You’ll often hear soldiers who’ve served here say things like this: ‘If I hear that a certain girl’s been in Afghanistan she just doesn’t exist for me.’  We got the same diseases as they did, all the girls got hepatitis and malaria, we were shot at too, but if I meet a boy back home he won’t let me give him a friendly hug.  For them we’re all either whores or crazy. (Civilian Employee)

I could go on and on with these quotes.  The book is full of fascinating insights from all different perspectives.  But Alexievich’s genius lies in not just interviewing her subjects and obtaining powerful and emotional stories from them; she is wise enough to know how to set them out in a way that builds her narrative.  Through all these voices she tells a full and complete story of a messy conflict and an even messier home front.

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