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Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

October 22, 2017 28 comments

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. (April 1938) French title: Hommage à la Catalogne.

It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.

I started to read Homage to Catalonia when I was in Barcelona in July, so before the terrorist attack on the Ramblas and before the current conflict between Catalonia and Madrid. I was just curious about the Spanish Civil War and after my disastrous attempt at reading Georges Bernanos’s pamphlet about it, I turned to another George, one I knew would be a better writer.

George Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 and upon recommendation of the ILP (Indepedant Labour Party), enrolled in the POUM, the revolutionary militia from Catalonia who had joined forces with the PSUC (Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya), a party linked to the Spanish Communist Party and the government from Catalonia to fight against Franco’s coup d’état. Orwell fled from Spain in June 1937 and went back to England through France.

Homage to Catalonia relates his time in Spain and aims at setting the record straight about events in Catalonia. It’s a short book but it covers a lot of things, from Orwell’s personal experience on the front and on leave to a clear summary of the political situation and analysis of the events.

On the personal side of the book, I enjoyed Orwell’s candid tone. He never tries to turn himself into a hero. He describes how cold it was on the front during the winter, how bored he was, how frightened he was when he had to fight.

It was the first time that I had been properly speaking under fire, and to my humiliation I found that I was horribly frightened. You always, I notice, feel the same when you are under heavy fire – not so much afraid of being hit as afraid because you don’t know where you will be hit. You are wondering all the while just where the bullet will nip you, and it gives your whole body a most unpleasant sensitiveness.

He got wounded and shows how weak it made him. He doesn’t picture himself as a great warrior but mostly as a humble soldier who had boots problems, was covered with lice and mud and who had to live with poor food supplies. He tries to make light of the harassing moments of the most important battle he was in:

Now that we had finished wrestling with those beastly sandbags it was not bad fun in a way; the noise, the darkness, the flashes approaching, our own men blazing back at the flashes. One even had time to think a little.

You almost expect him come out with a portable tea set and take a four o’clock break for a cup of tea and crumpets. His wife could even have provided for them as he reminds us By this time my wife was in Barcelona and used to send me tea, chocolate, and even cigars when such things were procurable.

He talks about her regularly but never says her name. She’s always “my wife” as if she was nothing else than a spouse and had no existence as a person. I’m a bit upset on her behalf, so I’ll say that her name was Eileen O’Shaughnessy and she must have been more than a homemaker. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have followed him to a war zone and I can’t imagine him married to a wallflower. I think she deserves more than this treatment in his work; he sounds like Maigret with his blanquette-cooking wife.

Along the way, Orwell also makes observation about Spain and he describes a country backward compared to France and England. We need to remember that the Republic who was fighting against Franco was only 5 years old when the Civil War started. An agrarian reform was in full swing. Catalonia was very modern but Orwell explains that very few Andalusian soldiers could read. I was shocked by this as we’re in 1936 and in France, school had been mandatory since 1882. He writes a bit about Spanish ways and customs, the use of goat skin bottles, the olive oil cooking and the streets of Barcelona.

On the war side, he exposes how ill prepared the POUM militia was. They were amateur soldiers, with no real uniforms and weapons were scarce.

Obviously if you have only a few days in which to train a soldier, you must teach him the things he will most need; how to take cover, how to advance across open ground, how to mount guards and build a parapet – above all, how to use his weapons. Yet this mob of eager children, who were going to be thrown into the front line in a few days’ time, were not even taught how to fire a rifle or pull the pin out of a bomb. At the time I did not grasp that this was because there were no weapons to be had. In the POUM militia the shortage of rifles was so desperate that fresh troops reaching the front always had to take their rifles from the troops they relieved in the line.

He writes about the lack of organization and knowledge of the art of war. Foreign soldiers were welcome for their military experience. As the army of a Marxist party, the militia had flattened the usual military hierarchy and Orwell was quite enthusiastic at this disappearance of class distinction.

Incidentally, Orwell was in Spain during a major shift on the Republican side of the war. Upheavals occurred in Barcelona in May 1937 and the POUM was declared illegal. The PSUC and the government of Catalonia got rid of the POUM because they didn’t share the same political view.

In Catalonia, for the first few months, most of the actual power was in the hands of the Anarcho-Syndicalists, who controlled most of the key industries. The thing that had happened in Spain was, in fact, not merely a civil war, but the beginning of a revolution. It is this fact that the anti-Fascist press outside Spain has made it its special business to obscure. The issue has been narrowed down to ‘Fascism versus democracy’ and the revolutionary aspect concealed as much as possible.

Orwell explains that the POUM aimed at a Marxist revolution while the PSUC aimed at a bourgeois democracy and were backed up by Moscow, as strange as it seems. I will let you read Homage to Catalonia yourself if you want to explore this side of the book. I found it fascinating on several accounts. I knew there had been internal fights among the Republican front and that it did them a disservice to fight against Franco. Orwell put things in perspective with simple words. It struck me that the Republican front was a swarm of political parties and ideas and that they lost time fighting against each other. Orwell argues:

As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names – PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, AIT – they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. (…) I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties.

While the Republican front is divided and fails at delivering a simple and efficient message to our brains, the Fascist side bulldozes everything with simple ideas aimed at our basest instincts. Doesn’t that remind you of something?

Orwell is partial to Socialism and he was quite enthralled by the atmosphere in Barcelona in December 1936.

I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.

And

One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.

After the POUM was declared illegal, a witch hunt was organized to imprison POUM members and soldiers of the militia. Orwell and Eileen had to flee the country and Orwell deplores:

No one who was in Barcelona then, or for months later, will forget the horrible atmosphere produced by fear, suspicion, hatred, censored newspapers, crammed jails, enormous food queues and prowling gangs of armed men.

This episode made him lose faith in the future of democracy in Spain but he still thinks that beating Franco is possible.

No one in his senses supposed that there was any hope of democracy, even as we understand it in England or France, in a country so divided and exhausted as Spain would be when the war was over. It would have to be a dictatorship, and it was clear that the chance of a working-class dictatorship had passed. That meant that the general movement would be in the direction of some kind of Fascism. Fascism called, no doubt, by some politer name, and – because this was Spain – more human and less efficient than the German or Italian varieties. The only alternatives were an infinitely worse dictatorship by Franco, or (always a possibility) that the war would end with Spain divided up, either by actual frontiers or into economic zones.

Homage to Catalonia was written in April 1938 and the Spanish Civil War ended on April 1st, 1939. The poignant part of reading Orwell’s thoughts is that he doesn’t know that Franco will win but we do. We know that this will end up in a long-lasting dictatorship. And reading Orwell’s lucid recollection of the events, we can only wish that short-term political battles had been put on the back burner for a greater good.

Highly recommended reading, as are all reads about the 1930s in these desolate times. Orwell is a writer I would have loved to meet. His Down and Out in Paris and London is well worth reading too.

Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon

October 1, 2017 18 comments

Lady Audley’s Secret by M.E. Braddon (1862) French title: Le secret de Lady Audley.

The first time I heard from Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Sensation Novels was on Guy’s blog when he published his review of Lady Audley’s Secret. (See his review here: Part I & Part II)  I knew this would be my kind of book and I’m glad our book club picked it for our August read. (Yes, I’m late again with my billet.)

When the book opens, Lady Audley has been married to Sir Michael for a few months. She was a governess at a nearby house and Sir Michael fell in love with her. She’s a beautiful blonde with stunning ringlets and captivating blue eyes. She’s an enchantress who bewitches everyone around her and poor Sir Michael stood no chance against her charms. So, against all odds, at the sober age of fifty-five, Sir Michael Audley had fallen ill of the terrible fever called love. Sir Michael has a daughter, Alicia who is almost as old as his new wife. While Lady Audley delights in girlish activities, Alicia is more outdoorsy. The two women have nothing in common and Lady Audley’s arrival made Alicia lose her power over her father and the housekeeping. Needless to say, the two hate each other with fierce British cordiality.

Sir Michael has also a nephew, Robert Audley. Aged of twenty-seven, he’s an idle barrister in London. Alicia is in love with him but he doesn’t pay attention to many things around him.

Indolent, handsome, and indifferent, the young barrister took life as altogether too absurd a mistake for any one event in its foolish course to be for a moment considered seriously by a sensible man.

Fickle as he seems, Robert Audley is genuinely fond of his uncle and enjoys staying at Audley Court regularly.

In parallel to the new microcosm at Audley Court, ME Braddon introduces us to George Talboys. He’s on his way back from Australia where he took part to the Gold Rush and became rich. He left his young wife with their baby son back in England and he’s dying to go back to her and resume their family life now that he’s settled financially.

He’s just arrived in London when he stumbles upon his old classmate, Robert Audley. Alas, he quickly discovers that his wife just died and Robert accompanies him to see her father and go to her grave. George is devastated by grief and Robert takes care of him, inviting him to share his lodgings in London. The two men are great friends and Robert would like to cheer him up. He eventually takes him to Audley Court to meet his uncle’s new wife.

Several events in the story make the reader understand that Lady Audley hides something and that this something might be that she was George Talboys’s wife. She seems to make sure to never meet him and when he suddenly disappears from Audley Court’s grounds, Robert is instantly worried and fears the worst. He finds this disappearance very odd and turns into a detective to find out what happened to his dear friend.

Bocca Baciata by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1859)

Nothing in this story stands against the question “Is it plausible?” It is full of coincidences, chance meetings, trains that arrive just at the right time to push the plot forward, little clues scattered here and there. It explores the ideas of murder in cold blood, bigamy and greed. For once, the villain is a beautiful blonde, an evil spirit hidden by her beauty but revealed in her portrait.

No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have painted, hair by hair, those feathery masses of ringlets, with every glimmer of gold, and every shadow of pale brown. No one but a pre-Raphaelite would have so exaggerated every attribute of that delicate face as to give a lurid brightness to the blonde complexion, and a strange, sinister light to the deep blue eyes. No one but a pre-Raphaelite could have given to that pretty pouting mouth the hard and almost wicked look it had in the portrait.

Robert, first described as lazy and fickle becomes obsessed with finding George and protecting his uncle from his wife. For an idle fellow, he sure deploys a lot of energy investigating his friend’s disappearance. The way ME Braddon described his grief over the loss of his friend, I wondered if there wasn’t a little bromance under all this friendship. (But he seemed to have lost all taste for companionship, all sympathy with the pleasures and occupations of his class, since the disappearance of George Talboys.)

What makes the trip the most enjoyable is ME Braddon’s buoyant and bouncy style. She writes like a French writer paid by the page with lots of commas, strings of adjectives and long sentences.

Mr. Harcourt Talboys lived in a prim, square, red-brick mansion, within a mile of a little village called Grange Heath, in Dorsetshire. The prim, square, red-brick mansion stood in the center of prim, square grounds, scarcely large enough to be called a park, too large to be called anything else—so neither the house nor the grounds had any name, and the estate was simply designated Squire Talboys’.

She’s very cinematographic in her descriptions, a gift that transports the reader on the action’s premises. She doesn’t think that a straight line is the shortest way to arrive somewhere and takes us into the detours of her delightful paragraphs.

His pretty, gipsy-faced cousin might have been over head and ears in love with him; and she might have told him so, in some charming, roundabout, womanly fashion, a hundred times a day for all the three hundred and sixty-five days in the year; but unless she had waited for some privileged 29th of February, and walked straight up to him, saying, “Robert, please will you marry me?” I very much doubt if he would ever have discovered the state of her feelings.

She also uses French references, mostly to describes flaws in a character.

Robert Audley’s main flaw is his love for French novels. He’s so addicted to them that he always carries six of them when he travels and they’re his main source of entertainment in London. Braddon talks about them with the same disdain as Flaubert when he describes Emma Bovary’s readings. They seemed to be what we call in French romans de gare (railway station novels) or airport novels in English but I have trouble using the term airport novels for 19th century books as it sounds a tiny bit anachronic. I kept wondering what kind of infamous novels Robert was reading until ME Braddon mentioned Balzac and Dumas fils. (You have no sentimental nonsense, no silly infatuation, borrowed from Balzac or Dumas fils, to fear from me.) Ahem. Can’t say I classify them in railway station authors but who knows how these masterpieces were received in their time by the Victorian bourgeoisie. And of course, it’s ironic for ME Braddon to write this about Balzac and Dumas fils, given the kind of literature she wrote.

But Robert is not the only one whose character is marred by French influence. Lady Audley’s quarters are adorned by medallion miniatures of Louis the Great and Louis the Well-beloved, Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan, and Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier. In other words, she is surrounded by king Louis XIV and his lovers (Louise de la Vallière, Athenais de Montespan) and Louis XV, the libertine king and his mistress Madame du Barry (Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier) Basically, her role models are adulterer kings and their conniving mistresses. Please note that there is no reference to the pious Madame de Maintenon.

Like a lot of 19th century British writers, ME Braddon peppers her prose with French expressions. Some were accurate and some were more imaginative. I couldn’t figure out what she meant with bonne bouche in this sentence The two young men looked at the paintings on the walls first, leaving this unfinished portrait for a bonne boucheOut of context it could means gourmet, although the usual expression is fine bouche but I don’t see how this meaning fits in the sentence. I had the same trouble with mauvaise honte in the young man’s mauvaise honte alone had delayed the offer of his hand. I suppose that the young man was shy.

Of course I couldn’t help smiling at this reference to my beloved Molière: “What the devil am I doing in this galere?” he asked. This is a direct reference to the play, Les Fourberies de Scapin where a character keeps saying What the devil was he doing in this galley?

This mix of effective descriptions, irony, bombast and improbable twists and turns makes of Lady Audley’s Secret a highly enjoyable ride. It’s well-written fun and it must be taken as it is, with a good-humored dose of suspension of belief. That’s comfort literature, good Beach and Public Transport reading, which is my non-debasing way to call the romans de gare.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

January 28, 2017 21 comments

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. (1938) French title: Cette sacrée vertu.

watson_englishI bought Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson after reading Jacqui’s enthusiastic review confirmed by Max’s review, both excellent, as always.

I was drawn to this story of a mousy spinster who gets shaken up in her life after a serendipitous mix up. Miss Pettigrew works as a governess not by choice but out of obligation. She needs to work for a living and it’s the only profession she knows. It’s not a calling and she’s not very skilled at it. With the years, the family she works for are getting worse and she’s been ill-treated by her employers. Miss Pettigrew is poor, she’s lonely and she doesn’t have any other option than taking another job as a governess. The last family you hired her bullied her and she dreads starting anew somewhere else. Her resistance to harship is getting low and her work agency has sent her to an address to start a new position. She feels like she’s going to the gallows.

Outside on the pavement Miss Pettigrew shivered slightly. It was a cold, grey, foggy November day with a drizzle of rain in the air. Her coat, of a nondescript, ugly brown, was not very thick. It was five years old. London traffic roared about her. Pedestrians hastened to reach their destinations and get out of the depressing atmosphere as quickly as possible. Miss Pettigrew joined the throng, a middle-aged, rather angular lady, of medium height, thin through lack of good food, with a timid, defeated expression and terror quite discernible in her eyes, if any one cared to look. But there was no personal friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether Miss Pettigrew was alive or dead.

watson_frenchShe musters the courage to knock at the door of her new employer and she’s immediately welcomed by Miss LaFosse who thinks that Miss Pettigrew is her new maid. They don’t have time to exchange a word before Miss Lafosse begs for Miss Pettigrew’s help. Indeed, Miss Lafosse has a lover at home (Nick) and her other lover (Michael) is coming soon. She wants Miss Pettigrew to make Nick leave before Michael arrives. Without thinking, Miss Pettigrew obeys and successfully pushes Nick out the door. Miss LaFosse is convinced she’s got a new best friend and takes Miss Pettigrew under her wing.

Miss LaFosse is young and pretty. She’s an actress and a flirt. She runs in totally different circles than the ones Miss Pettigrew is used to. Worse than that, she lives a life Miss Pettigrew has been taught to consider sinful and dissipated. But Miss Pettigrew is at the end of her rope, she decides she’s not in a position to judge Miss LaFosse and she quite enjoys the attention she gets from her.

Miss Pettigrew now forgot all about her original errand. For the first time for twenty years some one really wanted her for herself alone, not for her meagre scholarly qualifications. For the first time for twenty years she was herself, a woman, not a paid automaton. She was so intoxicated with pride she would have condoned far worse sins than Miss LaFosse having two young men in love with her. She put it like that. She became at once judicial, admonitory and questioning.

She’s swept off her feet and dizzy with the whirlwind of Miss LaFosse’s love life. And as the day goes on, Miss Pettigrew questions the values she was taught and that she respected all her life. The French title of the book is Cette sacrée vertu, or in English This bloody virtue and it sums it all. What good did it bring her to be good and virtuous? What joy did it bring in her life?

In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify, harry her every waking hour.

Is that all that she can hope for? A life where her only happy place is a two-hour visit to the cinema? She starts thinking that she might deserve more than being a bullied and poor governess. As the story unfolds, we see a character coming out of her safety shell to dare living. This kind of plot could be mawkish but it’s not. It’s served by Watson’s witty prose and she turns this late blooming into a light and bittersweet comedy. Her sense of humour is fantastic, as you can see in these passing lines:

Miss LaFosse sat in front of the mirror in preparation for the greatest rite of all, the face decoration.

Miss Pettigrew, completely submerged in unknown waters, did her best to surmount the waves.

It is also vivid thanks to energetic dialogues that reminded me of vaudeville and comics.

‘???…!!!…???…!!!’exploded Nick again.

Totally Captain Haddock, no?

Reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was a real delight. It’s funny as hell, lovely and still thought-provoking. Of course, there’s the condition of women and the difficulty to work for a living. Miss Pettigrew also shows that living as a saint might be commendable but not that enjoyable and Miss LaFosse demonstrates that living as she wants, duty be damned, is a lot more pleasant and that in the end, it doesn’t hurt anybody.

Kim at Reader Matters, listed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in her list of five uplifting reads. I think she’s onto something there.

Highly recommended.

 

 

A New-York Christmas by Anne Perry

January 17, 2017 6 comments

A New York Christmas by Anne Perry (2014) French title: Un Noël à New York. Translated by Pascale Haas.

perry_christmasSomething strange happens with recurring characters of crime fiction series. They become like long term colleagues or distant relatives. You see them getting married or divorced, become parents, have their children grow up and sometimes become grand-parents. You hear or see of their family. All this procures a sense of closeness, as if these characters were real, as if reading a new volume of the series was a mean to keep in touch with them. Isn’t that powerful of a writer to create such a bond between their readers and their characters?

That’s exactly how I feel about the characters of Anne Perry’s two series, the William Monk one and the Thomas Pitt one. A New York Christmas is a side volume of the Thomas Pitt series. It features his daughter Jemima, whose birth I remember from an early volume of the series. And my thought was “Wow, Jemima is already 23, I remember of her when she was born and when she was a child.” See? Exactly like friends or relatives you don’t see very often and it seems like their children grew up overnight when in truth you’re just getting older.

perry_noelWell, we’re in 1904 and Jemima Pitt is now 23. She’s chaperoning a young bride, Delphinia on her trip from London to New York, where her fiancé is waiting for them. Delphinia will marry Brent Albright, a rich young man who belongs to a powerful family from New York. Delphinia’s father couldn’t accompany her for health reasons and her mother left them when she was a little girl. When Jemima and Delphinia arrive to New York, Brent’s older brother Harley embarks Jemima in an odd mission. He has heard that Delphinia’s mother was in town and they need to find her before she crashes the wedding ceremony and embarrasses her daughter and her future in-laws. But Jemima senses there’s more to the story of Delphinia’s mother than just someone who abandoned her child. Where is she and what were her reasons to leave everything behind?

For those who’s never read the Pitt series, you need to know that Thomas Pitt is a policeman who was educated as a gentleman and who married in a higher social class than his. Charlotte married him against her parents’ wishes. She was a feisty young woman who wouldn’t play by good society’s rules and wanted to use her brains. She is fascinated by her husband’s job and she always gets involved in her husband’s investigations, going to places a policeman couldn’t go. Jemima is her parents’ daughter, ie, she’s thrilled to help solving a little mystery.

Unfortunately, she’s not as savvy as she thinks and Harley might have ulterior motives…And that’s all I will tell you about the plot.

Let’s face it, it’s not the novella of the century but I still enjoyed it. I read it as quickly as you watch an entertaining film. It was what I was looking for when I picked it up and it met my expectations. Given the ending, I wonder if there will be a third series with a spinoff of the Pitt branch in New York. It might be nice to have a new source of comfort read.

PS: I put the two covers from the English and the French editions. They are not the same but look alike.

Acceptable Loss by Anne Perry

December 6, 2016 6 comments

Acceptable Loss by Anne Perry (2011) French title : La fin justifie les moyens. Translated by Florence Bertrand

perry_acceptable_lossAcceptable Loss is the eighteenth volume of the Monk series created by Anne Perry. I’ve read them all, they’re part of my comfort reading diet. Set in London in the second part of the 19th century, the main characters are Monk, his wife Hester and their friend Sir Oliver Rathbone. Monk has lost part of his memory in a cab accident years before. Hester used to be a nurse in the Crimea war and she now manages a clinic that helps prostitutes. Sir Rathbone is a famous barrister.

In the previous volume, they had solved an ugly case of children prostitution. Monk is now commander of the River Police. He’s called to the banks of the river Thames when Orrie Jones finds the body of Mickey Parfitt in the water. Monk thinks he’s been murdered, which is confirmed by the legist. Worse: Parfitt was strangled with a knotted expensive silk scarf. The murder was premeditated. Parfitt owned a ship moored nearby on the river Thames and it was used as a secret club for members of the good society. Parfitt provided these gentlemen with sex shows involving little boys.

Monk is horrified by this traffic. On the one hand, he’s not keen on finding the murdered as he thinks Parfitt deserved his fate. On the other hand, this is the second case involving children trade and the last one was somehow unfinished. He wants to find out who financed Parfitt, helped him set up the boat and brought new clients. Parfitt didn’t have the means or the connections to start this business on his own.

Monk investigates, Hester meddles and Rathbone is in a difficult position as his father-in-law might be involved in this nasty business.

Acceptable Loss met my expectations. I picked it to be entertained the way you watch a film. Mission accomplished. Anne Perry manages to renew herself and to keep things interesting for her long time readers. I’ll read the next one when I need comfort read.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

December 4, 2016 16 comments

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915) French title : Les trente-neuf marches.

Here was I, thirty-seven years old, sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning my head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and get back to the velt, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.

buchan_39Boredom is a dangerous feeling for it can lead you to rash decisions and that’s exactly what happens to Richard Hannay. He’s at home one night when one of his neighbours drops by and starts telling him a farfetched tale about spies and war conspiracy. His visitor whose alleged name is Scudder has just staged his own death to vanish from the sight of his enemies. Hannay finds him entertaining and only half listens to him. He doesn’t pay attention to details and doesn’t quite believes him. Hannay accepts to hide Scudder even if he thinks he might be slightly unbalanced.

Four days later, Hannay comes home to a corpse: Scudder has been murdered in his flat. Hannay is between a rock and a hard place: Scudder’s murderers might find him and the police might not believe his story or in his innocence. He eventually makes a decision:

It took me an hour or two to think this out, and by that time I had come to a decision. I must vanish somehow, and keep vanished till the end of the second week in June. Then I must somehow find a way to get in touch with the Government people and tell them what Scudder had told me. I wished to heaven he had told me more, and that I had listened more carefully to the little he had told me. I knew nothing but the barest facts. There was a big risk that, even if I weathered the other dangers, I would not be believed in the end. I must take my chance of that, and hope that something might happen which would confirm my tale in the eyes of the Government.

The rest of the novel is about his flight and I won’t go further into the plot, a lot of readers have probably read this or seen the film by Hitchcock.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a page turner, a wonderful chase across the country. The suspenseful storyline is enough to keep reading but Buchan’s style amplifies the pleasure. His sense of humour lightens the atmosphere and makes the reader smile even when the hero is in a delicate position with his foes on his heels.

That was one of the hardest job I ever took on. My shoulder and arm ached like hell, and I was so sick and giddy that I was always on the verge of falling. But I managed it somehow. By the use of out-jutting stones and gaps in the masonry and a tough ivy root I got to the top in the end. There was a little parapet behind which I found space to lie down. Then I proceeded to go off into an old-fashioned swoon.

This is the essence of the book: adventure mixed with humour. Written in 1915, The Thirty-Nine Steps is a seminal work for crime fiction. Hannay is a man who’s at the wrong place at the wrong time. A bad decision –to welcome Scudder in his flat—throws him in the middle of a dangerous game, one he’s not armed for, one that could be fatal. He’s a character with a strong moral compass. His patriotism pushes him to try to save the world and risk his life. He could be Charlie Hardie’s great-grand father. It would be too long to point out all the details that show how significant it is for the history of crime fiction. I’m sure there are excellent thesis about that. Instead, I’ll finish this post with a question. I read The Thirty-Nine Steps in English and came across this passage:

The trouble is that I’m not sober. Last nicht my dochter Merran was waddit, and they danced till fower in the byre. Me and some ither chiels sat down to the drinkin’, and here I am. Peety that I ever lookit on the wine when ist was red!

So puzzling that my note was “Is it Scottish language or drunk language?” If someone could enlighten me…

The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

October 6, 2016 20 comments

The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling (1888) French title: L’homme qui voulait être roi.

book_club_2Timing is important in reading books and what happened to me with Kipling’s novella The Man Who Would Be King is a good illustration of that principle. This was our Book Club choice for September and I wasn’t quite in the mood to read it but it was September and well, a schedule is a schedule. So I started it anyway. I have it in a bilingual edition. At first, I thought I’d read it in English and glimpse at the French if need be. I ended up reading the French translation without much enthusiasm. I gave it a one star on Goodreads and left it aside. Then I realized it was high time to write my billet about it. Blank mind, I couldn’t remember a coherent thing about the story. Since it’s only 70 pages, I decided to read it again in a ebook version and in English. And this time, I really enjoyed it tremendously and moved it from one to four stars on Goodreads. Timing and mood are key factors in my appreciation of books. I’m glad I didn’t study literature in school, reading on demand for classes would have been difficult. But back to The Man Who Would Be King.

 kipling2This novella published in 1888 is set in India and relates the story of two loafers who decide to become kings of Kafiristan, a part of Afghanistan. These two adventurers/kings are Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot. The narrator is a journalist who met Carnehan on a train and passed a message from him to Daniel Dravot. After he was back publishing the newspaper he works for, the two loafers come and see him to explain how they’re on their way to become kings of Kafiristan. The narrator is skeptical about their chances to succeed in their crazy scheme as Afghanistan is a dangerous country and a war zone.

A couple of years later, Peachy comes back, worn out and scarred, and relates his and Davrot’s adventures in Kafiristan. He describes how they managed to take control of the area, submitted the natives to their rule and became kings. Davrot was the actual leader in this adventure but he didn’t survive.

On the second reading, several things caught my attention.

Kipling’s tale depicts a classic case of colonization: the whites arrive, they take advantage of the natives’ belief that they are some god. (Think of Cortes and the fall of the Aztec empire). They pacify the country with superior or at least unknown weapons (rifles) and train the people to use firearms. Eventually, they convert the natives into farmers to keep them under control and to develop the land. The colonizers are adventurers who aren’t very educated but bold and power-thirsty. Davrot and Carnehan don’t even speak proper English. They barely know how to read. Yet they attach some of the local chiefs to their cause. And as long as the priests support them, things run smoothly. As soon as they lose the priests’ support, everything goes awry. In the end, the military that Carnehan had created and trained turns their back on them overthrows them with the assistance of the priests. The three powers don’t always have aligned goals. And as a good Judaeo-Christian writer would have it, the fall of the new kings will be caused by a woman.

But there’s more to The Man Who Would Be King than the moral tale of men who decide to be kings and dominate other humans out of greed and thirst for power. It is also strangely premonitory of the decolonization that would occur 60 years later in India and Kipling is critical of both the colonialist administration and the local power. The British administration chooses to turn a blind eye to corruption and violence in the Indian rulers.

The Native States have a wholesome horror of English newspapers, which may throw light on their peculiar methods of government, and do their best to choke correspondents with champagne, or drive them out of their mind with four-in-hand barouches. They do not understand that nobody cares a straw for the internal administration of Native States so long as oppression and crime are kept within decent limits, and the ruler is not drugged, drunk, or diseased from one end of the year to the other. Native States were created by Providence in order to supply picturesque scenery, tigers and tall-writing.

I wonder how this paragraph was received in 1888. Perhaps the readers of the time thought he was joking since he had a dry sense of humour. It shows here in his interaction with Carnehan:

“I am hoping that you will give him the message on the Square — for the sake of my Mother as well as your own.” Englishmen are not usually softened by appeals to the memory of their mothers, but for certain reasons, which will be fully apparent, I saw fit to agree.

It also appears in his description of his job at the newspaper where he stays up as long as possible before starting to print the paper, just to be able to insert a last hot piece of news that would arrive through a late telegram. It is a serious responsibility but he paints his obligation with irony.

I drowsed, and wondered whether the telegraph was a blessing, and whether this dying man, or struggling people, was aware of the inconvenience the delay was causing.

In a few sentences, Kipling manages to describe the atmosphere on the train or the climate in India. Here, our narrator is in the train from Ajmir to Mhow in Intermediate class:

There had been a deficit in the Budget, which necessitated travelling, not Second-class, which is only half as dear as First-class, but by Intermediate, which is very awful indeed. There are no cushions in the Intermediate class, and the population are either Intermediate, which is Eurasian, or native, which for a long night journey is nasty; or Loafer, which is amusing though intoxicated. Intermediates do not patronize refreshment-rooms. They carry their food in bundles and pots, and buy sweets from the native sweetmeat-sellers, and drink the roadside water. That is why in the hot weather Intermediates are taken out of the carriages dead, and in all weathers are most properly looked down upon.

We try to imagine the colourful crowd, the noise, the smell but also the poverty of these travellers thrown together in this Intermediate class.

Scrutiny of human nature, vision on colonisation and politics, glimpses of a country and its inhabitants, there’s a lot in these mere 70 pages. This was my first Kipling and I expected a stuffy colonialist writer. In the end, I discovered an author with a good sense of humour, a lucid vision of colonisation in India and affectionate descriptions of the land. Most of all, Kipling describes the madness that overcomes Daniel Davrot when he gets drunk on power. The French playwright Alfred Jarry wrote Ubu Roi in 1896, twelve years after Kipling published The Man Who Would Be King. Despite the very different settings, I can’t help wondering if Kipling inspired Jarry.

Anyway I’m glad my blogging habits pushed me to read it a second time because otherwise I would have missed something.

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