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Go Set A Watchman

by Harper Lee

A Review

watchman

‘It had never occurred to Jean Louise that she was a girl: her life had been one of reckless pummeling activity . . . she must now go into a world of femininity, a world she despised.’

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a black woman in Montgomery, Alabama refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. The event sparked a year-long boycott of the city’s buses and led the way towards fairer civil rights.

I am often confused by American politics  – and sometmes irritated too, I have to confess – yet surely only the most ostrich-headed of my fellow Britons can have failed to hear the story of Rosa Parks.

Racial tension had simmered in the Southern United States for a long time. An organisation called the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colo[u]red people) had been active in the US for nearly half a century and were responsible for bringing several cases of injustice to the attention of the Supreme Court, which had ruled against Southern States’ laws in some landmark actions. In 1944, it had ruled in Smith v Albright that ‘white primaries’, voting arrangements that excluded black people, were illegal and in 1954 it ruled against racial segregation in primary schools. In 1956, Alabama banned the NAACP from operating within its borders, a state of affairs which prevailed for a further two years

It must have been around the time of the Rosa Parks incident that Harper Lee began writing Go Set A Watchman, and it seems to me some understanding of  the historical background is essential to a full appreciation of the novel.

Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch returns home to Maycomb, Alabama, on vacation. It is her fifth such visit since moving to New York but we already suspect this visit is going to be different. Whereas she has previously travelled by air, this time she takes the train, which gives a whole new perspective to the isolation of her home town.

‘Maycomb County was so cut off from the rest of the nation that some of its citizens, unaware of the South’s political predilections over the past ninety years, still voted Republican.’

Maycomb may not truly have changed so much but Jean Louise begins to see it with fresh eyes. People are different. Her lawyer father, Atticus, whom she has always looked up to and adored, has become chairman of the Maycomb Citizen’s Council, an apparently racist organisation devoted to preserving segregation. Calpurnia, the black housekeeper who brought her up when her mother died young, appears to be treating her more as a stranger. Even her childhood sweetheart, Henry Clinton, Jean Louise no longer sees in quite the same way as before. Bitter about her father’s apparent transformation from champion of justice to racist, she pours out her feelings of disgust and betrayal to her uncle, who does his best to set the record straight.

‘There was nothing whatever wrong with [the Rev.] Mr Stone, except that he possessed all the necessary qualifications for an accountant: he did not like people, he was quick with numbers; he had no sense of humour and he was butt-headed.’

watchmanJean Louise’s childhood and youthful memories of how things were, both charming and funny, form a considerable part of the book, as Harper Lee portrays her as tomboy, embarrassed teenager on her first date,  still mischievous undergraduate, and as a woman coming of age to realise the world is as it is – not as she would like it to be. Though life and love will never be the same again, Jean Louise reaches an understanding, an acceptance and a realisation that real change only comes about by real effort, not by wishful thinking.

‘ “Jean Louise,” [Dr Finch] said dryly, “not much more than five per cent of the South’s population ever saw a slave, much less owned one. Now, something must have irritated the other ninety-five per cent.” ‘

Go Set A Watchman is a bitter-sweet novel about race and class, one that has as much relevance today as when it was written sixty years ago. There are some minor discontinuities in the narrative – the divisions between the NOW and the THEN are not always clearly defined, – nevertheless I think the work establishes Harper Lee as one of the outstanding writers of last century. I feel sure that Jean Louise’s life journey is Harper Lee’s journey too, one that most of us make at one time or another in our lives. It is not always a comfortable experience to discover that, perhaps, we are all bigots, each in our own way, and it’s not always a matter of skin colour.

I know that critics have compared Go Set A Watchman with Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill A Mockingbird, not always favourably. However, I was determined to pay the critics no attention and to read no reviews until I had read (and reviewed) the novel for myself. Having now done so, I regard such comparisons as contrived and pointless, as much about lingering doubts over the worth of the latter novel as about the quality of the former. One might as well compare apples and oranges.

The other day, someone who has not read To Kill A Mockingbird asked me which novel they ought to read first. Honestly, I have no idea – why not toss a coin?

I’ll now go and read some of those other reviews.

*****

 

The Devil Rides Out . . . Again

 

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In 2013, Bloomsbury Publishers announced that they intended to reissue the novels of Dennis Wheatley as e-books. As an avid reader of Wheatley’s stories – many years ago! – I was excited at the prospect of their being on the market again, and indeed at possibly seeing some of them again in print. Out of ‘fashion’ for so long, I had wondered if they would ever make a comeback.

But would I want to read the books again? And if I did, would I enjoy them as much as I had done in the 1960s? Going back to the reading pleasures of our youth is not always a good idea. Our tastes change and evolve; what was enjoyable and thrilling in our teens can sometimes seem bland and ordinary – or utter drivel – a decade or two later.

However, as the new e-books are not expensive I decided to make a small investment and buy a few to reread. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post the results, interspersed with my other reviews.

One of Wheatley’s most popular novels was certainly The Devil Rides Out, from  1934. It was only the second to be published (the first was The Forbidden Territory) and the second to feature the Duke de Richleau, probably Wheatley’s most enduring main protagonist.

‘I feel it is only right to urge [my readers], most strongly, to refrain from being drawn into the practise of the Secret Art in any way. My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would bring them into dangers of a very real and concrete nature.’ (Dennis Wheatley)

De Richleau’s friend Simon Aaron has become involved with a bunch of satanists, headed by the evil Mocata, who intend to use him to help find the powerful Talisman of Set. With his young American friend Rex van Ryn, de Richleau attempts to rescue Simon from their clutches. Rex meantime falls in love with the psychic neophyte Tanith, whom Mocata uses as a medium in his nefarious scheme.

With Simon rescued from initiation on Walpurgis Night, the three retreat to the house of their friends Richard and Marie Lou Eaton, where they prepare to defend themselves from the dark forces Mocata sends against them.

‘The blue flames of the black candles set upon the hellish altar went out as though quenched by some invisible hand . . . as the crucifix, shining white in the glow of the headlights, passed through the face of the Goat.’

In case you haven’t read the book or seen the 1960s film, I’ll reveal no more of the plot. Suffice to say the the story climaxes in a satanic temple where the forces of light are pitted against those of darkness to destroy the talisman and prevent a human sacrifice. But the question is, will good prevail over evil, or is the Devil to have his way?

‘Horrified but powerless, they watched the swinging of the censer, the chanting of the blasphemous prayers, and the blessing of the dagger by the Goat, knowing that at the conclusion of the awful ceremony, the perverted maniac . . . would rip the child open  . . . while offering her soul to Hell.’

I should confess right away that I don’t believe in black magic. I have witnessed some pretty impressive demonstrations of hypnosis, which I realise may be used for mischief as well as a therapy, but that does not mean there is anything supernatural about it. However, Wheatley’s intermingling of ancient eastern cults with astrology, Voodooism, Christianity and Hinduism carries the reader along and is almost persuasive. That is because he is such a great storyteller.

Politically correct The Devil Rides Out is not; none of Wheatley’s novels are. Many of his ideas and attitudes are formed by his own experience in World War I and in Intelligence during the interwar years. The baddies are all foreign, ie neither British nor American! However, that was a feature of many genre works until the late 20th century.

Did I enjoy The Devil Rides Out this time round? Well, it’s a cracking good story, the sort in which you have to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. And the nostalgia was there too, yet it wasn’t the same. Of course, I knew the ending in advance but I think that 1968 film was a powerful negative to my reading pleasure. Though the late Charles Gray as Mocata gave me the shivers, otherwise the movie spoiled the story, as so often happens. It was just an ordinary horror. Christopher Lee was miscast as De Richleau (he was always much better as a villain) and much of the chilling detail that gave the book its excitement and expectation was missing.

Next up will be Strange Conflict. Let’s see how I get on with that one!

***

The End of an Age

Hotel Savoy

by Joseph Roth

A Review

savoyIt is 1919 or 1920. World War I has only recently ended. After three years in a prisoner-of-war camp in Siberia, Gabriel Dan makes his way to the West across Russia, taking casual work as he goes. However, he needs money and breaks his journey in an Eastern European town where he has family, including a wealthy uncle. He takes a room on the sixth floor of the Savoy Hotel, once splendid but now falling apart and decaying, like everything else. The hotel is a sort of microcosm of the world outside – a world disrupted by war and poverty, and threatened by labour strikes and communism. The wealthy live on the lower floors, the poor on the upper. Those  who can’t pay have their luggage sealed and pawned by the management, or rather by the ageing liftboy, Ignatz.

Gabriel befriends Stasia,  a girl who dances in the cabaret, and meets a host of other characters, colourfully portrayed in Roth’s witty irony. There is Santschin the clown, stabbing at the bowl of his long pipe with his wife’s knitting needle; Fisch, who is always asleep, dreaming of lottery winners;  the mysterious Kaleguropoulos, hotel owner, whom everyone talks about but never sees; and Abel Glanz, with his red sticking-out ears, thin neck and restless Adam’s Apple whose movement resembles that of a concertina. Others include the army doctor, and Zlotogor, the hypnotherapist. In the Variety theatre, naked girls dance or socialise for the lewd pleasure of industrialists and factory owners. ‘Sie tanzen schlecht,’ Gabriel narrates, ‘winden sich nach der Melodie, jedes, wie ihn gefällt.’ [They dance badly, twirl to the music, all of them just as they please.]

This is the time of the ‘homecoming’, when thousands of Germans and Austrians are coming back out of Russia looking for work or handouts, begging or stealing as they go. The word in the hotel and on the street that any day Henry Bloomfield will arrive. Bloomfield, originally Blumenfeld, is a Jewish lad from a local family who has made good in America. In his wake come more visitors, businessmen and others, hoping for investment – or maybe largesse. Henry engages Gabriel to write reports on them. As it turns out, he is not coming to open a factory or make a film as many speculate, but to visit the grave of his father and dispense charity to the needy of the town.

Life at the Savoy is briefly enlivened by Bloomfields presence while, outside, Gabriel tells us ein dauerhafter Regen . . . hing über der Welt wie ein ewiger Vorhang’. [a lasting rain hung over the world like an eternal curtain.] ‘Die Stadt, die keine Kanäle hatte, stank ja ohnehin . . . sah man am Rand des hölzernen Bürgersteig . . . schwarze, gelbe, lehmdicke Flüssigkeit.’ [The town, which had no drains, stank for sure . . . at the edge of the wooden pavement you could see a black and yellow fluid, thick with mud.]

Hotel Savoy, for all its witty prose, has a dark, surreal feel. It is prophetic too (we now know) and is a novel of contrast and hidden metaphor. The world is changing and not for the better. One can feel it in the rain, in the grey dampness of the hotel’s upper storeys, in the broken, stinking streets, the endless streams of returning combattants and POWS who fill the soup kitchens and barracks, the hopelessness of life and the inevitable disease.

And Bloomfield has gone – ‘ . . . auf lautlosen Rädern, ohne Hupenschrei, im Dunkel der Nacht floh Bloomfield vor dem Typhus, vor dem Revolution’. [. . . on soundless wheels, without honking horn, in the darkness of the night Bloomfield fled Typhus and Revolution.]

Eventually, the strikes turn nasty, riots spread from neighbouring towns and the police and military are called in to ruthlessly put down the revolution.

Hotel Savoy was one of Roth’s earliest novels. It first appeared in 1924 in the Frankfurter Zeitung, where he worked as a correspondent from 1923 until 1932. It is not a novel I would have bothered to read in English – as far as I know, there is only one translation from the 1980s – but, having a reasonable if imperfect grasp of the German language, I found it interesting as satire, and quite enjoyable as an example of the writer’s style and as a reflection of the period.

***

The Woman in White

by Wilkie Collins

A Review

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Published in 1860, The Woman in White, in its language and style, is very much a novel of its time, adopting first person multiple narratives, melodrama and bizarre coincidences in its telling. It is a mystery thriller, almost gothic in tone, combining themes that resonate even today: the equality of women (or rather absence of equality), and their treatment in Victorian society; attitudes to marriage, to mental illness, illegitimacy and, above all, the hypocrisy of Virtue.

For all its nineteenth century ‘feel’, The Woman in White is nevertheless a page-turner of a story that belongs in any century, a story of love, betrayal, corruption and ultimately natural justice. Many of its elements have been copied in modern literature, giving twists to the original that would have been incomprehensible to an 1860s readership. I am thinking here, for example, of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, with its near-Dickensian plotline.

Walter Hartright meets Anne Catherick for the first time in London, on the eve of his journey to Cumbria to take up an appointment as drawing master to two young ladies. Anne has escaped from a private asylum and is being pursued by two men with the objective of unjustly reconfining her there. Walter helps her escape.

Arriving at Limmeridge, the country home of Frederick Fairlie, Walter begins teaching his two nieces, Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian Halcombe. He falls in love with Laura. However, she is betrothed by her late father’s wish to Sir Percival Glyde and despite her feelings for Walter refuses to withdraw from the match. It is clear from early on that Glyde is a villain, cares nothing for Laura and is only interested in her inheritance – which will come to him if she dies childless.

‘I hate Sir Percival! I flatly deny his good looks. I consider him to be eminently ill-tempered and disagreeable’ [Marian Halcombe]

The sinister scheme devised by Glyde’s equally grasping associate Count Fosco (related by marriage to the Fairlies and having thereby a financial interest himself) is brilliant in conception and execution. It has only one flaw, one that Walter, with Marian’s help, must discover if he is to save Laura.

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Wrapped up in the main plot is a second mystery, a secret shared by Glyde, Anne Catherick’s mother and (possibly) by Anne herself. Glyde will go to any lengths to protect it. This element, along with the unusual physical resemblance between Laura and Anne, provides additional suspense throughout.

Collins does his best to give his characters individuality in their narratives but only partly succeeds. Many of their names are wonderfully onomatopoetic in a Dickensian sense. However, some of the players in The Woman in White, even the main ones, may be seen as types rather than true individuals. Despite this, the author succeeds in engaging his reader with his hero and heroine(s). We want to know what happens to them, that they get out of their predicament and are united in the end. And Glyde, Fosco and Eleanor (Fosco) are suitably despicable and villainous.

The one true original among the cast is Count Fosco with his corpulence, striking wardrobe and menagerie of exotic birds and mice. Despite his scheming he is not without good qualities.

‘There sat the Count, filling out the largest easy-chair in the house, smoking and reading calmly, with his feet on an ottoman, his cravat across his knees, and his shirt collar wide open.’

‘… he is immensely fat.’ [Marian Halcombe]

‘The same livid leaden change passed over his face … The deadly glitter in his eyes shone steady and straight into mine. He said nothing. But his left hand opened the table drawer, and softly slipped into it.’ [Walter Hartright]

‘Deplorable and uncharacteristic fault! Behold the cause, in my heart – behold in the image of Marian Halcombe, the first and last weakness of Fosco’s life!’ [Count Fosco]

One cannot admire Fosco; he is not a lovable rogue like Fagan. But there are few more unique, more colourful, and more scary villains in all fiction.

*****

 

 

Tempus Fugit!

Second Anniversary

It seems I’ve just passed the second anniversary of my blog here on WordPress.  I’ve written 51 posts in the past year, but have fallen behind my Classics Club reading, managing only 5 classics book reviews against a target of 10. There are so many other interesting and compelling books to read and to write about, from detective thrillers to historical fiction, biographies and other non-fiction (and even two books about economics!) that I don’t feel at all guilty at the lapse.

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Of course, I can’t predict where fancy will take me in the next twelve months so, meantime, a grateful thank you to all my readers out there. Thanks for reading, for liking or for following – or indeed for all three.

And a happy Independence Day tomorrow to friends in the United States!

******

Lucky Strike

silkwmThe Silkworm

by Robert Galbraith

In her second novel in the persona of Galbraith, JK Rowling’s war hero detective Cormoran Strike takes on a case involving missing writer Owen Quine. Quine has written a novel entitled Bombyx Mori in which he seems to have maligned and slandered most of his colleagues in the book industry. In one particular section, the novel describes a particularly brutal and gruesome murder and when Quine turns up dead in the exact same circumstances, the ‘disappearance’ takes on a more sinister aspect.

[Incidentally, for the benefit of friends untrained in Latin, Bombyx Mori is the zoological term for the silkworm!]

‘The stench of decay grew stronger with every step Strike took. It reminded him of the time they stuck long sticks into the ground in Bosnia and pulled them out to sniff the ends, the one fail-safe way of finding the mass graves. ….He had expected death, but not this.’

Strike and his enthusiastic assistant Robin Ellacott set out to solve the murder and to catch a sadistic, twisted killer. Their efforts sometimes bring them into conflict with the law in the shape of Inspector Anstis, a former army buddy of Strike in Afghanistan, who suspects Quine’s wife of the crime. After interviews with a host of colourful characters and an eventful journey with Robin to Devon, Strike puts together a solution that seems so incredible that even he can’t believe it. However, with the help of Robin’s investigative skills and a few close friends, he eventually unearths the proof he needs to catch the murderer.

As I wrote a few months ago in my review of the first Galbraith novel The Cuckoo’s Calling [https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2015/03/01/the-cuckoos-calling/ ], after disappointment with Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy [https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/its-not-harry-potter/ ], I was looking forward to read about Cormoran Strike again. I wasn’t disappointed. Peopled with exotic characters from the literary world – authors, agents, publishers, The Silkworm is set mainly in London, the cold, snow-bound London of 2010’s Big Freeze. Both are subjects one presumes Galbraith/Rowling knows well, and her descriptive scene-setting as well as the manners and speech of the literati and pseudo-literati seem to confim the presumption.

The novel has a few subplots too. In addition to the developing professional relationship between Strike and Robin, we get a further glimpse of the romantic one between the latter and her disapproving fiancé. We see Strike in his family circle and get an insight into his dealings with his half siblings. No longer the rather sorry figure of the early chapters of the previous book, he is a man with a first rate analytical mind and one who can call in favours at the most unexpected moments.

I have the feeling that JK Rowling in her incarnation as Robert Galbraith has found a new world of wizardry and another outlet for her talents. I hope she writes more Strike novels.

*****

A Thoughtful, Studious Man

A Fathers’ Day Tribute

John Lockhart Junior, February 1905- July 1987

(adapted and abridged from my family history book Tapestry)

My father, John Lockhart Junior, was born in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, in 1905, the third son of John and Georgina Greenfield Lockhart. My grandfather had grown up in London but, with his parents, emigrated to the Garden State in his teens. Georgina, related through common great-grandparents Andrew and Georgina Scott, left Edinburgh and sailed for Cape Town when she was orphaned at the age of seventeen. They married in 1901.

dad2When my father was still a child, the family decided to return to Great Britain and settle in Scotland. John Senior and Georgina had made a life for themselves in the colony. They were not without kin in their new country. The climate in Natal is pleasant; the summers are hot and sunny, the winters warm. Why would they give it all up for the uncertainty and relative poverty of cold, damp Scotland? Yet, had they not done so, I probably would not exist.

My father had almost no memories of South Africa. I cannot recall him ever speaking of life there. He was a thoughtful, studious man, not prone to emotional outburst. I can remember him giving way to anger only twice and, on both occasions, the provocation was extreme. However, I also remember seeing him many times reduced to helpless laughter to the point of tears as he joined in family games. He enjoyed a glass of wine but had an aversion to Scotch, not I think because of a temperance upbringing but because he disliked the taste. His formal schooling ended when he was fourteen but he went on to study at night school, as it was then called, gaining qualifications in business and accounting.

In middle age, he went back to night school to learn French and took singing lessons. In his spare time, he wrote poetry, plays and pantomime, some of it performed. He was fond of literature and would read anything from history, travel and the classics to detective thrillers. He also loved music and had a patient talent for passing on his knowledge and experience.

My father’s tastes and wide range of his interests are reflected in some of the books in my own library. A translation of Homer’s Odyssey in the original Greek metre, published in 1911, is still in  my possession. I now know that he inherited it from his father. It is a large, heavy book, with uncut pages and hard leather binding, now sadly showing its age. Another volume is a little-known work by Charles Dickens, The Life of our Lord, bound in blue leather with marbled end papers and having a foreword by the author’s daughter-in-law. Other books include Shaw’s Plays, leather-bound copies of Shelley’s Poems, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and works by Hardy, Stevenson and Scott. (My sister owns his Dickens novels.)

Religion was a subject on which my father and I often disagreed. His certainty over matters of faith was disturbing to a teenage boy intent on changing the world, yet he was a moderate Christian, even a progressive one compared with others of his generation. I must say however that he did not approve the more vigorous diversions of the local church youth club nor some of its extramural activities that were rites of passage into the adult world.

My father died in 1987 at Broxburn, West Lothian, Scotland. I’m sure he would have smiled at the coincidence which took him there, had he but known it. Broxburn is less than five miles from the Hopetoun Estate of Abercorn, where his maternal ancestors had lived and worked.

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Happy Fathers’ Day, Dad!

 

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