Day 1213: A Country Road, A Tree

Cover for A Country Road, A TreeBest of Five!
I know little about Samuel Beckett except that he was Irish, and I have the most basic knowledge of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape. (“A country road, a tree” is his setting for Godot.) So, I would not be able to say whether the novel at all conveys a true sense of what Becket was like. I can say, though, that I’ve read other works of biographical fiction that felt as if they gave a false or poor sense of their main character. A Country Road, A Tree is much more plausible in depicting Beckett.

The novel does not cover his entire life but concentrates on the war years, 1939-1945. Beckett is already a published writer, although probably not to much attention. He is friends with James Joyce and other writers and artists in Paris.

At the beginning of the war, Beckett is in Ireland. He feels stifled there, though, and chooses to return to Paris despite the instability. There he lives an increasingly stressful and straitened existence with his lover, Suzanne. At first, he has no papers, which complicates things when he and Suzanne are forced to evacuate Paris with the German invasion. Later, he decides to work with the French underground, which makes their lives even more precarious. Finally, they must flee to the countryside again.

Although this novel does not concentrate on the literary side of Beckett’s life—in fact, during much of it he is unable to write—it grabs your attention and keeps it. It also provides some insight into the man who produced his later works. I loved Jo Baker’s Longbourne and have been waiting for her to produce a work equal to it. This is that work, which I read for both my Walter Scott Prize and my James Tait Black projects.

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Day 1147: The Light of Paris

Cover for The Light of ParisEleanor Brown’s first novel, The Weird Sisters, was just original enough to keep it interesting. Sadly, The Light of Paris is all too predictable.

Madeleine has never felt comfortable in her privileged life of debutantes and charity committees. When she was in high school, all she wanted to do was paint, but her mother considered her painting trivial. She finally married Phillip to please her mother and lives in a cold, sterile Chicago condo with a husband who insists on having everything his way.

Madeleine decides to take a break from Phillip, so she goes to visit her disapproving mother in Magnolia, her home town. She finds her mother preparing to sell the house. In helping her, Madeleine discovers her grandmother Margie’s diaries from her youth.

Margie is a naive, romantic young woman who is also a failed debutante in 1924. Her family considers her an old maid, and when she refuses the unromantic proposal of her father’s middle-aged business partner, they send her off to Paris to chaperone a difficult acquaintance, Evelyn. Evelyn almost immediately abandons her to go off on her own, but after some hesitation, Margie decides to get a job and stay in Paris.

While reading her grandmother’s story, Madeleine begins to work through her own issues, all the while wondering how the Margie from her diary became the distant woman she remembers.

Madeleine’s family secrets are fairly guessable, as is the resolution to the novel. That didn’t bother me so much as some other issues. A small point, perhaps, but in those days no one would have sent a 23-year-old unmarried girl to chaperone an 18-year-old. If Margie was 40, maybe.

A larger issue is my utter lack of sympathy with Madeleine’s problems. Many people seek the approval of their parents, but to think that Madeleine could see no alternative but her Junior League upbringing and marriage to Phillip is ridiculous in this day. I’m sure there are a few women in pearls and twinsets still around, but Brown has set this portion of the novel in the 1990’s, not the 1950’s. I had no patience with this heroine. She needed to grow a backbone when she was 16, not when she was in her 30’s.

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Day 1074: Pure

Cover for PureThe subject matter of Pure is unusual, and at times the events within the novel seem almost dreamlike in nature. It is an imaginative novel that evokes a real sense of place and period.

In pre-revolutionary France, Jean-Baptiste Baratte awaits a minister in Versailles to ask for employment. He is a young engineer and is hopeful to be given an interesting project.

He does get a job, but he is disappointed in its nature. The cemetery of les Innocents in Paris is so stuffed with remains that the nearby neighborhoods are being polluted. Jean-Baptiste is to oversee the removal of the remains and eventually the church. For the sake of discretion, he is not supposed to reveal his mission until he must.

The novel follows the provincial Jean-Baptiste for a year as he explores Paris and pursues his project. It conveys a strong sense of the city and of the effect of the cemetery on nearby residents.

This is another novel that I probably wouldn’t have read if it hadn’t been on my Walter Scott prize list. It is an interesting novel, reminding me a bit of Viper Wine.

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Day 1008: An Officer and a Spy

Cover for An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and a Spy is about the Dreyfus Affair. Of course, we know how the Dreyfus affair turned out, but in writing about it, Robert Harris has managed to infuse the story with suspense. He accomplishes this by concentrating not on what happens to Dreyfus himself but on the man who exposed the sham.

At the beginning of the novel, Georges Picquart is only peripherally involved in the Dreyfus affair, but the generals in charge see him as helpful and he is rewarded by being put in charge of the Statistical Section, the army’s intelligence department. Picquart does not want the post, but he soon finds he is good at his job.

His staff seems distrustful of him, while he believes that some of their methods are sloppy. He receives intelligence that indicates that there is still a traitor in the French army, and it is not long before he figures out that the army has found Dreyfus guilty for crimes committed by a Major Esterhazy.

When Picquart notifies his superiors of what he believes is a mistake, his investigation is shut down. Soon, he is sent on a mission out of the country and begins to believe that his own staff is working to discredit him. It becomes clear to him that Dreyfus was actually framed for Esterhazy’s crimes in a climate of antisemitism.

Soon, Picquart is striving to save his own career and reputation. But he also refuses to give up on his campaign to right a wrong.

This novel is deeply involving and at times truly exciting. I have not read Harris before, but picked this up because of my project to read finalists for the Walter Scott prize and since I have read it, have read most of Harris’s Cicero trilogy. This novel is a masterful historical novel that is full of suspense.

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Day 1004: Half-Blood Blues

Cover for Half-Blood BluesIn 1939 Paris after the German occupation, Sid Griffiths and the members of the Hot Time Swinger’s American Band have just finished cutting a record when Hiero Falk, German but black, is picked up by the Gestapo and never seen again. In 1992, Falk, now considered a jazz legend on the basis of that one recording of the “Half-Blood Blues,” is being honored with the opening of a documentary in Berlin. Sid quit playing years ago, but Chip Jones, another member of the band, talks him into attending.

Chip has been Sid’s frenemy since childhood. He’s a great musician, but he’s also a liar. When he and Sid get up at the opening to talk about Hiero, Chip blindsides Sid with terrible lies about him and Hiero to the audience. The problem is, Sid did do something shameful to Hiero, just not what Chip accuses him of.

After the presentation, Chip talks the reluctant Sid into traveling to Poland. He has found out Hiero is alive and has even corresponded with him. As the two travel by bus into Poland, Sid thinks back to the events of 1939.

This novel is written in African-American vernacular that sounds fairly modern, even for the part from World War II. It takes a little getting used to, although I am not sure if it is accurate for the time. Certainly, the novel effective re-creates the feeling of the time and place, and the precarious existence of these young musicians.

This novel was on both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize lists. It was another book that I may not have chosen on my own but that I enjoyed reading.

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Day 967: The Danish Girl

Cover for The Danish GirlThe Danish Girl is another example of how untrustworthy book blurbs are for conveying the sense and feel of a novel. The blurb talks about “the glitz and glamour of 1920’s Copenhagen, Paris, and Dresden.” Yes, there is a bit of going about to bistros in Paris, but this novel is not about glitz and glamour. It is mostly about the tender relationship between two people, Greta and her husband Einar, who becomes the first man to undergo a sex change operation. Ebershoff lightly based this fictional book on the lives of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, both artists, but he says the details of their lives are wholly invented.

It is Greta who realizes something first. She is a portrait painter with a deadline. When an opera singer can’t make her sitting, Greta asks Einar to put on a stocking so she can use his leg as a model. Later, she has him put on a dress. Einar is a delicate man who is not self-aware. From the time he begins dressing up as Lily, he becomes more and more abstracted from his painting and his former life. Greta sees him drifting vaguely away from Einar, becoming Lily.

I wondered if Ebershoff’s description of Lily’s state of mind really reflected how a transexual person would feel, as Lily seems barely able to remember anything about Einar and vice versa. It almost seemed more like a description of a person with multiple personalities. But I don’t know much about this subject.

This is not a novel of action or plot. It is more about the states of mind of the people involved. It is sympathetic and touching. I didn’t think it would be my subject matter, but I found it affecting.

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Day 937: Suite Française

Cover for Suite FrancaiseI tried to read Suite Française when it first came out in the early 2000’s, but I was completely turned off by its characters, whom I found petty and vicious. But that’s exactly the point, I find, picking up the book again because of a book club. Although a well-known writer who had lived in France for half her life, Némirovsky was denied French citizenship presumably because she was Jewish. She was inspired to write the novel because of the behavior she witnessed during the evacuation of Paris in World War II. She never finished this ambitious novel because she was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 by the French government and died there a month later.

Suite Française consists of the first two parts of what was to be a five-part novel. “Storm in June” follows various Parisians as they evacuate Paris with the rumor of the German advance. They have left it very late, but even so, Mrs. Péricard delays, waiting for her linen to be returned from the launderer. Later, she scours a small village trying to find sweets to refill her supply that she has passed out to starving fellow evacuees, but when she learns that everyone is out of everything, she snatches back some of her treats to save them for her family. Even later, in a rush to catch a train to safety, she actually forgets her ailing father-in-law, who dies alone in a hospice.

Charles Langelet abandons Paris in his car filled with his collection of porcelain. When he runs out of gas, he persuades a young couple that they can rest and he will watch their car, which he steals.

Gabriel Corte is a famous writer who evacuates with his mistress, Florence. Throughout the chaos, he behaves with extreme selfishness and expects special treatment.

The only sympathetic characters are the Michauds, who work in a bank. They have been instructed by their boss, Corbin, to meet him with their things in front of the bank, where employees who are needed in Tours can share rides. He himself has promised a ride to the Michauds, but when they get to his car, his mistress is there with her dog, even though he has already told her he can’t take her. After an argument, the Michauds are abandoned, with no recourse except to walk to Tours. All the while, they are worried about their son Jean-Marie, a soldier at the front. When they are forced to return to Paris because the road to Tours is closed, Corbin fires them.

The spiteful, satiric tone of “Storm in June” subsides a bit for “Dolce.” This volume examines the fate of two families in the village and countryside nearby where many of the evacuees ended up stranded before they returned to Paris. It is now months later.

One family is the Sabaries, the country folk who tended Jean-Marie when he was wounded. Although their foster daughter Madeleine fell in love with Jean-Marie, she has married the son of the family, Benoît, and has had a baby. A young German officer has been billeted on the family and pays attention to her. Although she is afraid of the German, Benoît is jealous.

In the village, Lucile Angellier is shut up in the dark house with her mother-in-law, who dislikes her. (The Angelliers briefly took in the Péricard family during the evacuation.) Lucile was pushed into her marriage by her father and found out soon afterwards that her husband has a mistress. In her loneliness, she becomes attracted to the German lieutenant billeted in their house.

My strongest reaction was to the first book, which I found a bit shocking. Despite a review comment on the back of the book about its “indictment of French manners and morals,” I wasn’t sure if the social commentary was meant to be more general or specifically against the French. According to Némirovsky’s own notes, it was against the French.

As to the second book, it seemed as if it was intended to build toward ramifications later in the novel, which, of course, was never finished.

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