So maybe it’s not a formula. Maybe it’s a recipe, which implies, to me at least (cook rather than chemist), more latitude. Ingredients include likable melancholy hero, redoubtable Nazi villain(s), a modest dose of spycraft, several discreet but circumstantial sex scenes, lousy Central European weather, and a scene at the Brasserie Heininger. It’s time to drop the last — kind of like the sun-dried tomatoes of spy fiction, a good idea for a while but we’ve seen enough. Now Furst has to produce so much exposition to get his characters in position at the Brasserie (to see the bullet-hole in the mirror from a gun battle many books back) that it’s tiresome.
He writes well, and atmosphere’s always been the strong suit. I can never tell from the title or the cover if I’ve read any given volume; covers tend to feature fog and titles to include dark or shadows. Easy enough to confuse. In this go-round the hero, Jean-Francois Mercier, is an aristocratic WWI veteran whose old leg wound requires him to carry an ebony stick with which in one scene he cracks a thug across the face. Nice: the accessory that provides both vulnerability and defense. Mercier is stationed in Warsaw and the McGuffin, if I followed the plot, is access to the German invasion plans for France. (We’re in 1937-8.) The part I remember best, though, is the section set in his ancestral house in rural France, all cool damp winter mist and well-trained hunting dogs.
Which is not really as it should be. Pleasant as it was to spend mental time in Furstworld, I was primed for a little more suspense and action. The ebony stick got deployed only in a subplot involving some resentful Nazi underlings — a subplot that didn’t seem ever to resolve. The height of tension in the main spying plot point of the novel was a series of tense border crossings. OK, the narrator gets anxious when the mean kontrol guy with the German shepherd thumbs his counterfeit documents and examines the valise with the false bottom, but it’s not exactly nail-biting, is it?
Furst also signals a sequel involving Mercier and his Polish girlfriend, much the way Thomas Perry signals a sequel in Runner. Is this now required of thrillers?
I love that the Duchess of Devonshire is reduced to “Deborah Devonshire” in her capacity as an author. It’s a kind of leveling perhaps — only not really. One of the many, many pleasures in this volume is the grandeur of the lives depicted. Deborah, of course, is the youngest and only surviving Mitford sister, widely known as “Debo.” Leigh-Fermor is a much-decorated travel writer. The two became friends in the 1950s and are still, at the respective ages of 93 and 96, volleying back and forth these sparkly entertaining missives.
Debo always posed as illiterate and pretended that she’d never read a book but her letters are pithy and vivid. Self-deprecation (probably a useful strategy among those Mitfords) is a constant as is her keen sense of fun. Which she shared with “Paddy,” who had more tools in his writerly paintbox. He wields them sometimes self-consciously but writers will do that.
And, oh! the people and the places! The Chatsworth trajectory is fascinating, from the massive white elephant the Devonshires take on in the 1950s to the formidably grand (that word again) enterprise it is by the end of the book. Yet throughout Debo is opening drawers and finding, for example “Andrew’s grandfather’s garter thing, been there ever since I suppose…” Translation: Order of the Garter awarded to the 9th Duke probably early in the 20th century. Wouldn’t you have thought they would have missed it?
The arc of their lives is poignant. Lots of brave chatter in late letters about “Dr. Oblivion” who removes all one’s memories, and rueful reminiscence about friends and spouses as they die off.
Still, it’s the energy and sense of humor that kept me turning the pages. In 2005 Debo was in the hospital in Bakewell and, after praising the hospital, added: “But the lunch was yak, I think, certainly no known meat. Perhaps the patients are all from Nepal.” As Debo says, “Do admit…” Do admit it’s a great read.
I kept wondering, as I read this, why I was enjoying it so much. Nothing happens. A man goes on a trip to Verona, and gets nervous in a train station. Then he goes to a sinister pizzeria and is so disturbed by the demeanor of the owner that he is compelled to leave… I can’t summarize. You either get the whole shaggy non-narrative in all its miscellaneous glory, or you don’t bother to open the book. Every fact is as important as every other fact: all are enumerated dispassionately and reduced to mere detail. A death, a birth, the presence of a fly on the ceiling are equally significant.
What Sebald knows, it seems, he shares with you. Describing his parents’ living room, he mentions “the bone china tea service which, as far as I can remember, was never brought out on a single occasion.” That seems definitive, doesn’t it?
But — “The more images I gathered from the past,… the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling.”
Well, Germans have trouble with the issue of memory, don’t they? Sebald has made this particularly his territory and though the back cover tells me this was his first novel, his preoccupations don’t change much through his other novels. Vertigo is structured in four sections, each bearing on a voyage: Stendhal’s through the Alps, Casanova’s escape from prison, Kafka’s visit to the Italian lakes and the narrator’s return to his native Bavarian village. The last is the strongest, the weirdest, the most authoritative. In the end, I think what I enjoy most about Sebald is that reading him is oddly restful. Yes, I could be paying more attention, tracing the thematic doubling (sinister twins, for instance) or the persistence of storm imagery. But there is so much pleasure to be had simply drifting along this river of prose.
How do you decide when you’re not going to finish a book? Sometimes you get to a certain point and think, “Ugh!” (Bridges of Madison County, for instance.) More often for me, it just gets a little slow-going and the book drifts to the bottom of the pile by my bed, with the bookmark near the back cover. (That would be The Volcano Lover.) Eventually I move it to the shelf or to the recycling pile. I guess that’s the definitive moment.
So: Mark Kurlansky’s Salt is going on the shelf. It was just a little dry and predictable. Trade history may not be my favorite thing, though I’m willing to acknowledge how fascinating it is – in theory.
Think I’m going to give up on the Penny Vincenzi books, too, which is a pity since I bought a bunch of them. I suppose I could keep them for an air trip – going to California on Feb 11 – but what if they’re as mediocre as I suspect? Then I’d be stuck in a tube hurtling west at 25,000 feet with nothing to read! Not to be contemplated.
And here’s another question. Rick read the entirety of Remembrance of Things Past except for the last 20 pages. Can he be said to have “finished” it? Is “finishing” a question of proportional consumption? Or do you have to
Man, that was fun. I love Thomas Perry. I have this theory that the really good thriller or mystery writers are the really smart ones: sometimes you get a little growl, like the engine of a Lamborghini in a traffic jam. It’s not a question of frustration, but more a sense of power reined in, and it makes books by these people incredibly effective. Think of the brilliant Dorothy Sayers, whose other job besides creating Lord Peter Wimsey was translating Dante. Or, for heaven’s sake, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
OK, Perry isn’t Tolkien. But he’s very sharp and all of his thrillers show it. (Metzger’s Dog perhaps the most insolently.) The Jane Whitefield novels are probably his most enjoyable for me. Jane is a Seneca who makes people disappear from terrible lives or risks. So you get all the fun of introduction to an alternate universe besides ours, and you get the technical fun of how it all works. Beyond that, Perry has also explored the complications, ethical and emotional, of Jane’s way of life. The books are always, reliably, excellent plot-driven narratives. At their best, they even give you something to think about.
I’m not sure Runner is one of the best, but I was reading in the car so I might have been distracted. It seemed as if Perry was skimping on some opportunities for character development, since Jane has now been married for five years and her husband, naturally enough, hates it when she takes people on the run. She stopped for a while when she married and started up again for this book. It involves, as they all do, a vulnerable person on the run from real baddies. Christine, the runner, is less interesting than some have been, and the bad guy doesn’t quite ring true. Perry’s psychology is usually keener than this and the book ends with a bloodbath. I don’t know how Jane’s going to feel about that in the long run, but Perry makes it clear on the last page that she’ll be back.
As a comparative literature major in college I was assigned this book at least three times. It’s funny that I never read it, because I tend to be pretty conscientious. I do remember, though, finding it excruciatingly dull the first time, and just not bothering thereafter.
Well! There’s a lot to be said for encountering a big-time classic like this freshly. OMG! It’s all here: clean simple prose, adultery, dull village life, outsize expectations, provincial bores! The edition I read compares it to “Desperate Housewives” but I’ve also heard that Richard Yates had Madame Bovary in mind when he wrote Revolutionary Road. Certainly Flaubert’s characterization of Emma allows the 21st century reader to engage in the kind of casual diagnosis we all perform on our under-performing acquaintances: narcissistic, depressive, subject to mood swings…
Flippancy aside, reading this book now was like watching a Courbet canvas come to life. It’s hard for us to grasp how startling this work was in its frankness and resolute insistence on depicting the everyday. This is such a staple of our aesthetic, but it was so new and so alarming in 1857, when the novels of George Sand and Rousseau were still current. It’s as if Flaubert took hold of a big red velvet curtain and tore it aside with a rattling of brass rings and a cloud of dust. And there was real life, in its banality and its glory.
A few years ago a friend sent me the syllabus for a Harvard literature course entitled something like, “A Life Ruined by Reading.” Emma kicked it off. I suppose Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s riposte to all those fatuous novels and fantasies. If Emma hadn’t grown up on romances she might have made poor Charles a suitable wife rather than gone chasing after Leon and Rodolphe and gratifying her every desire. But at the same time, if I hadn’t grown up on Georgette Heyer I wouldn’t be reading Flaubert now.
Long silence. Long books. Also in process, because I need something lighter, a reread of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History which I may not stick with. It seems both creepy and jejune. But maybe I’m not giving it a chance — so much of the reading experience depends on how much time you can spend with a book at one time. The good news is that I’m finding poor Emma B. fascinating, which sometimes happens when you finally get around to reading A Great Classic. You find there are real characters in there.
Anyway, I’ve got a couple of hundred pages left on each of the above so a real post is going to be a couple of days down the road.