Category Archives: Fiction

Pilfering

There had been one other letter in Mr Crouchback’s post, which saddened him though it presented no problem. His wine merchants wrote to say that their cellars had been partly destroyed by enemy action. They hoped to maintain diminished supplies to their regular customers but could no longer fulfil specific orders. Monthly parcels would be made up from whatever stock was available. Pilfering and breakages were becoming frequent on the railways. Customers were requested to report all losses immediately.

—Guy Crouchback’s father in Sword of Honour by Evelyn Waugh, afflicted by the pilfering of British railway workers during the second world war. To hear about their French counterparts at the same time, come along to our seminar tonight with Ludivine Broch.

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Many Storks

Number 13, image from MR James podcast

Among the towns of Jutland, Viborg justly holds a high place. It is the seat of a bishopric; it has a handsome but almost entirely new cathedral, a charming garden, a lake of great beauty, and many storks. Near it is Hald, accounted one of the prettiest things in Denmark; and hard by is Finderup, where Marsk Stig murdered King Erik Glipping on St Cecilia’s Day, in the year 1286. Fifty-six blows of square-headed iron maces were counted on Erik’s skull when his tomb was opened in the seventeenth century. But I am not writing a guide book.

It is my ambition to write a history book with an opening paragraph as good as that one, from the MR James story Number 13.

Click image for source, which is the relevant episode of the MR James podcast, A podcast to the curious, whose existence I’ve just discovered while doing an image search for a suitably creepy number 13.

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Pure

Here’s another post about a book that’s not a history book, but that historians might be interested in: Andrew Miller’s novel Pure, published in 2011 to considerable acclaim and the Costa book prize. (Beware: this post contains spoilers.)

Andrew Miller Pure coverPure is set in Paris in the 1780s, a few years before the Revolution, where the young engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte comes from the provinces in search of advancement and is charged with the nauseating task of clearing out the ancient cemetery of les Innocents, burying-ground for the city since medieval times, recently closed but still stinking the place out: “Some days I believe I can smell it from here”, the minister tells him, in an office at Versailles, twelve miles away. Soon Baratte is lodging with the Monnards, a family whose dwelling overlooks the cemetery; they carry the reek of the place on their breath, and the food they eat tastes off even though it’s not.

The novel follows Baratte as he prepares the ground, literally, for his task, identifying and staking out the overgrown common pits with the assistance of the sexton and his granddaughter, hiring workers from his former job in the mines at Valenciennes (along with a fellow-engineer and friend, Lecœur, as a supervisor), laying in supplies and negotiating his tricky position in a neighbourhood which, however little it likes having platoons of corpses burst through its cellar walls after heavy rain, is suspicious of outsiders and superstitious about the stinking boneyard at its heart. Baratte also makes friends with Armand de Saint-Méard, the organist at the decaying church of les Innocents, a one-time foundling child who is an avowed member of the ‘party of the future’. Armand takes Baratte to the Palais-Royal, pleasure centre of Europe, and gets him pissed; he also gets him fitted out in a pistachio-green silk suit at Charvet the tailor’s, daringly moderne, to contrast with the respectable, provincial brown suit he had been given by his dead father in Bellême. In line with his philosophical disposition but against his better judgment, Baratte tentatively and briefly joins Armand in his anti-royal activities, under the nickname Bêche or ‘Spade’—a pseudonym all too easy to match to his job, especially when someone paints grafitti on the cemetery wall warning ‘FAT KING SLUT QUEEN BEWARE! BÊCHE IS DIGGING A HOLE BIG ENOUGH TO BURY ALL VERSAILLES!’

Anyone wanting to get a sense of what Paris felt—and smelt—like on the cusp of the Revolution could do a lot worse than read Pure: its crisp present-tense narrative carries you easily down the rue aux Fers, along endless corridors at Versailles, or down with the redeployed miners to the bottom of a common grave pit seventeen metres deep, its sides supported by wooden box-cribs—the miners happy to build them because Baratte pays them a wage, whereas in the mines they would never take the time to shore up their tunnels because they were only paid for the coal they brought up. The interweaving of historical fact and literary fiction is smooth, and fun. Two physicians of enquiring mind join the excavations: their names are Guillotin and Thouret, both real people. You don’t need me to tell you what Guillotin’s contribution to the revolution was (here he’s a genial, kindly character); his colleague may be less familiar, but the real Auguste Thouret had a brother who made a distinctive contribution to the revolution—and to the shape of modern France—before he himself went to the guillotine. The sense of France’s class, regional, and capital/provincial distinctions is sure-footed, and the personal and precarious connections Baratte must rely on in his slow climb out of provincial obscurity are delicately and unobtrusively etched out, and we can easily extrapolate from what we know of his trajectory to see what this new and rational kind of man will become. Baratte must prove that he is, as the minister puts it at the outset, ‘a man unafraid of a little unpleasantness’; by the second half of the book, even the minister’s grim-faced bagman, Lafosse (‘the pit’ or ‘the grave’, a gag that’s a little too obvious), starts to recognize that Baratte could handle a lot of unpleasantness. Mocked by a man on the street, Baratte responds with unexpected swiftness and violence. ‘In the time to come’, the narrator tells us, ‘the man will say he saw bloody murder in those grey eyes, will insist on it and be listened to.’ Before his task is done, Baratte has had to bury a couple of fresh corpses as well as exhuming thousands of old ones. He’s ditched his pistachio silk suit, too, for a sober black, ‘like a Geneva parson’.

Les Saints Innocents around 1550, Hoffbauer

The problems with the book, notwithstanding the praise showered on it by the critics, aren’t historical: they’re literary. Even when it isn’t explicit, the foreshadowing of the coming upheaval is heavy-handed. The main plot has a rationalist clearing out the stink of old corruption (to borrow a term from a different ancien régime), and finding that superstition and irrationality may be more powerful forces than reason—may do his job for him faster and more thoroughly, but are impossible to control. As workers knock holes in the roof of the cavernous old church, shafts of daylight penetrate into the grand interior, to reveal that it is dirty and moth-eaten. ‘How filthy eveything below now appears! How much the place depended on its darkness!’. This is hardly subtle. ‘Beams are rotten to the heart!’, the mason Sagnac yells down, ‘Another twenty years it would have come down on its own!’ There’s an even stagier, more unlikely episode in the coda, when Baratte returns to Versailles with his carefully edited report on the completed task, a year older, considerably wiser, and altogether scarier in his own right. Getting lost on the way out precisely as he did on his first visit, he comes upon a garden where servants are attempting to shift ‘something grey and vast and lonely’, the corpse of an alcoholic elephant.

Beyond this clumsy symbolism, you can’t help but notice that several of the characters aren’t really characters. The depiction of an unbridgeable distinction between a labouring collective of workmen and their lonely, educated superior is surely accurate, but it’s undermined by Miller’s halfhearted attempts to give a couple of the miners individual voices: Jan Block, survivor of an early injury, and above all the supposedly mysterious—but actually just vacant—‘miner with the violet eyes’ who steps forward from the plot equivalent of nowhere to be their decisive leader at the crisis point. Nor did literature need another male novelist to write about a beautiful prostitute whose human dignity is intact despite her trade, and who proves herself more humane than the ‘respectable’ folk who surround (and fuck) her: here the character of Héloïse, who becomes Baratte’s partner, and who isn’t saved from cliché by the fact that she reads books and has a bit of explanatory family background.

The parts of the plot that rest on what these characters do, therefore, don’t work. We can believe that the miners working to demolish the church might decide to torch the place after one of them is killed in an accident, but not that a mysterious miner with violet eyes and a missing half-finger would make them do it. Ziguette, the voluptuous daughter of Baratte’s landlord, gets a couple of pages of the narrator’s attention near the start of the novel, but not nearly enough to explain why, midway through, she should go mad upon learning that the true purpose of Baratte’s work at les Innocents is to expunge it—let alone attempt to stave his head in with his own brass engineer’s ruler as he sleeps, nearly killing him. (She’s naked when she does this, so Miller can describe ‘the tight blond curls over her sex’.) I don’t mind characters behaving in ways that don’t make sense to me, but I do prefer it when I can see why they’re behaving in a way that makes sense to them. Women aren’t very well served generally: Armand’s common-law wife Lisa Saget does some cooking, but the main reason we know she’s a competent and likable person is because that’s what Baratte thinks of her, not because the narrator provides us with any free-standing evidence from her point of view.

Then there’s the sexton’s fourteen-year-old granddaughter, Jeanne: when she first appears, and has the role of showing the young engineer—and us—round the graveyard, she’s a proper character, with thoughts and a perspective of her own. But she thins out drastically in the rest of the book, when her other main plot function is to be raped, battered, and impregnated by the disappointed utopian, Lecœur. Then again, the only reason the miner Jan Block gets a name, and a life-threatening injury early on in the show, is so he can recuperate in the sexton’s house, allowing him to fall in love with Jeanne and take care of her after the attack—so all’s well that ends well, or at least it is for the now bovine Jeanne. (‘She has visibly thickened about the waist; her breasts are swelling. She looks younger. Young, shy, dreamy. Not unhappy.’) Less so for the plot of the novel, which falls apart towards the end. Miller seems to get bored of the patient reconstruction of a painstaking and stomach-turning task, and whips things on to a hasty and unconvincing climax.

Un gros livre est un grand malheur, the saying goes in French: a thick book is a great misfortune. That usually holds true for history books, but with novels you can argue it both ways. This one is too short. In the first half of the book, the pace is slow—the miners don’t arrive to start digging until a hundred and twenty pages in—but the narrative is lightfooted. When it abandons this steady work and starts hurrying things along, the novel becomes less convincing and less original. If it had held its nerve, it would have been two or three times longer, and much better.

Update: I deliberately didn’t check FFFH (or any other sites) for reviews of Pure before I wrote this, but it turns out FFFH does indeed have a rather good article on the novel, by Clare Crowston of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She takes a contrasting view, finding the novel good as fiction and more problematic as history. Read her piece here.

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Ein eisig kalt Büro

But he had never in his life—nor had anyone he knew—worked or slept in a room that was not exceedingly cold.

—Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower. The person described is Fritz von Hardenberg, in a cold room at Tennstedt in Saxony one day in the 1790s. I thought of him as I sat in my exceedingly cold office today, watching thick flurries of wind-blown snow alternate with brilliant sunshine.

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Beer in the snooker club

Beer in the Snooker Club front coverA few years ago, an Egyptian friend who was about to get British citizenship told me about a book called Beer in the snooker club, by Waguih Ghali—she said it was one of her favourite books about Egypt (and favourite books, full stop). She lent me a copy which I started but never got round to finishing, and she asked for it back when she moved cities to start a PhD in literary translation. That copy was from the 1987 reissue of a book originally published in 1964. In December 2010 the book was once again reissued, by Serpent’s Tail (click the image for a link), with eerily good timing, as we’ll see.

Yesterday I was in Oxford, after giving a seminar on Friday night, and I made my usual pilgrimage to Blackwell’s. They had a display table of ‘Translated Arabic fiction’—a slightly misleading title, since Beer in the snooker club was written in English (by an Egyptian whose first language was French and whose Arabic was ‘deplorable’), and a couple of other books on the table were translated into English from originals written in French: Tahar Ben Jelloun’s This blinding absence of light, the latest Amin Maalouf. Translated Arab fiction would have been more accurate. Still: there I was, and there was Beer in the snooker club, so I bought it. I knew I’d have a longish train journey home that afternoon, and last week I had confirmation that I’ll be teaching my second-year option module on Middle Eastern cities again in the autumn term—I’d already put the novel on the reading list on the strength of my friend’s recommendation. It’s quite a short novel; I read the first half on the train home, and the second half yesterday evening before I went to bed.

My module on Middle Eastern cities covers the period from the mid-nineteenth century to around 1960, as the centre of gravity of urban life in the region took a long, traumatic pendulum-swing away from the cosmopolitan port cities that thrived at the intersection of late Ottoman rule and expanding European imperialisms, and towards the monoethnic national capitals of the postcolonial nation-states. Beer in the snooker club catches the tail end of that pendulum swing, as a glittering Cairo elite faces up to a new order in the 1950s—as the Free Officers’ revolt overthrows the monarchy, in 1952, and the Suez Crisis leads to Britain’s withdrawal and the reinforcement of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalist, increasingly authoritarian regime. The narrator of the novel, Ram, is a young man who speaks French with his mother and English with his friends from school; he’s penniless, but a friend will always lend him a car or pick up the tab for his drinks, an aunt or uncle will always cover his gambling debts—or his shoulders:

There is a tailor in old Cairo who has been cutting suits for our family for years. I go to him, choose a cloth, have it tailored, and somehow the bill is mysteriously paid.

Ram is funny, ambivalent, and unhappy. Entirely of his class, he also despises it—especially after his time in England makes him increasingly conscious of, precisely, class. He feels Egyptian, as does his (richer, but more politically radical) lover Edna—but he is a Copt, she is a Jew, and both of them belong to an elite that has little in common, not even the Arabic language, with the ordinary Egyptians whose exploitation funds its glittering lifestyle. By the book’s own argument, it isn’t about Egypt at all: Ram knows little of Egypt except Cairo and Alexandria, and as Edna tells him, Cairo and Alexandria aren’t Egypt. But what she means is that his Cairo, and for that matter hers, are not Egypt: the Cairo of the Gezirah Sporting Club (“where middle-aged people play croquet. Imagine being a member of a place where middle-aged people play croquet”). The only member of Ram’s family who speaks Arabic and dresses like an Egyptian is the uncle who lives in upper Egypt and manages their collective estates: he is much closer to the fellaheen, the peasants, even though he is the one who is directly responsible for exploiting them.

Edna and Ram are sympathetic to the revolution, but the revolution has no place for them—Edna is disfigured by an officer’s whip, her family’s possessions sequestered—and they are increasingly disillusioned with it. As Ram notes of the Gezireh Sporting Club:

The strange thing about this club is that in the early days of the revolution, it was condemned as a symbol of exploitation and was taken over by a committee or something like that. Well, all the members are still members, with a few additional military members. I repeat the word ‘members’ à propos the military newcomers, because they too have acquired this floating, breeze-like, ethereal quality.

Ram’s tragedy is his detachment: he’s always able to observe critically, even when what he is observing is the artificiality of his own supposedly critical detachment. There’s no way out for him. Alongside his alcohol-soaked life as a privileged drifter, he is engaged in dangerous political activities, collecting evidence of torture and murder in the new regime’s prisons and camps—but the novel’s ending offers neither heroism, nor acceptance, nor redemption.

So the book is a beautiful, funny, profoundly sad and even more profoundly ambivalent portrait of Cairo in a period of revolutionary change: that’s why I’ll be recommending it to students in the autumn, and that’s why the most recent reissue, weeks before the Tahrir demonstrations started, was so timely. The novel deserves a readership on its own literary merits, which are abundant; but, precisely because it doesn’t offer easy interpretations, it is also an excellent place to get historical perspective on the current revolution in Egypt. Whether many Egyptians (other than my friend) are reading it, I don’t know: certainly I doubt that most members of the Muslim Brotherhood would go looking for lessons in an anglophone novel by a francophone Egyptian about a semi-alcoholic Copt who is unfaithful to his married Jewish lover—or recognize the claim both these characters make to be Egyptian, which they are in their own minds but probably aren’t in the minds of the new regime or the supporters it is seeking among the Egyptian masses.

The novel is also as much about London as about Cairo: the London experienced by Ram (and the author) in the 1950s, and the London he half imagines, half remembers, after his return to Egypt—there’s a piece about it on London Fictions. The 1987 reissue was spurred by the publication in 1986 of the publisher Diana Athill’s memoir After a funeral, which is about her relationship with Waguih Ghali, who committed suicide in her flat. This is still in print—an extract from it forms the introduction to the new reissue—and I was planning to buy it until I read Ahdaf Soueif’s review of it (behind a pay-wall, sorry). Soueif offers a warm appreciation of Beer in the snooker club, but finds Athill’s book horribly patronizing. I may read it anyway.

I wrote in a post about Jim Crace’s Harvest the other day that historical novels are often a better way of getting a feel for the past than history books; that goes even more so for novels that belong to their era—especially one like Beer in the snooker club, which communicates a powerful sense of what’s changing by concentrating on one unhappy life.

Incidentally, I picked up a copy of Harvest at the same time. There may be another post about it before too long.

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