Day 1111: The Gustav Sonata

Cover for The Gustav SonataUntil the very end of The Gustav Sonata I wondered what its point was. It is a novel detached from its characters even as it puts them through events that should make us sympathetic. Further, although it is set in a specific time and place, there is little feel for what it was like then and there. This effect is in strong contrast to Tremain’s two novels about Merivel, set in Restoration England.

The novel begins in 1947, when its main character, Gustav Perle, is five years old. Although Gustav is Rose Tremain’s exact contemporary, parts of the novel are set earlier, before Gustav was born.

Gustav’s father died when he was a baby. He was a member of the police force for their small town in Switzerland, but he lost his job before Gustav was born, under circumstances that Gustav’s mother does not fully understand. All she knows is that Erich died “helping the Jews.”

Gustav’s mother Emilie has raised him without a shred of affection but only with criticism. The lack of affection is tempered somewhat by his lifelong friendship with Anton, whom he meets the first day of Kindergarten. Emilie does not like Gustav’s friendship with Anton, because Anton is Jewish. But Anton and Anton’s family are all Gustav has, really.

Anton is always a self-absorbed person. He is nervous and highly strung, a musical prodigy. Anton’s mother thinks he will become a famous musician, but he is terrified in competition and performs badly.

An important theme in this novel is Swiss neutrality and its correspondence with personal neutrality. Gustav, although faithful to his friends, is always concerned with self-mastery and holds back from his own life events. But so does this novel hold back from its characters, as if observing them through a glass.

I found this novel interesting but not involving. I think it took too long to get to its point. It is another novel for my Walter Scott prize project.

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Day 966: Last Post

Cover for Last PostBest Book of the Week!
This last volume of Ford Madox Ford’s modernist work Parade’s End is unique in that its main character, Christopher Tietjens, barely appears, even though the book continues to be about him. It may be my imagination, but it seems as if he has been less of a presence with each book.

This volume is narrated from the point of view of four characters during a single day. Mark Tietjens, Christopher’s older brother, begins and ends it. Mark has been overcome by a stroke and is not speaking. He and his wife, Marie-Léonie, are living in a country cottage with Christopher and Valentine Wannop. They have built Mark a hut with no walls from which he watches and listens to the events of the countryside.

It is some time after the events of volume 3, but Mark remembers Armistice Day and the days following that brought them to the cottage. The peace of the cottage is about to be disturbed, though, because the vengeance of Christopher’s wife, Sylvia Tietjens, has provoked a number of people to descend upon it.

Sylvia has incited the eccentric tenant of Groby, the Tietjen’s ancestral home, to fell the great tree of Groby, and it has taken part of the house with it. Mrs. de Bray Pape has been egged on by Sylvia to belatedly ask permission from Mark. Accompanied by Christopher’s son, Mark, who keeps trying to draw her away, Mrs. de Bray Pape subjects the older Mark to an inaccurate lecture on history. Since Sylvia has hinted to everyone that Mark is ill from syphilis, they can’t understand why he won’t speak to them.

Subsequent sections of the volume are from the points of view of Marie-Léonie, Valentine, and Sylvia. As the cottage environment descends into chaos with the arrival of more visitors urged on by Sylvia, Sylvia makes a momentous decision.

Although I have not read much about Ford’s life, some of the notes in my annotated edition by Carcanet lead me to believe the novels are at least partially autobiographical, both in the portrayal of the war and in the personal relationships. I have really enjoyed this novel about a man who is completely misunderstood because his name has been blackened by his ex-wife and the wife of a woman whose husband owed him money. Some of the novel deals with the idiocy behind World War I, but it is mainly about the end of an era. Christopher thinks of himself as a man who belongs in the 18th century, and he is a symbol for the destruction of a way of life, with of a kind of outlook that others think must be dragged into modern times. I will be looking for more by Ford.

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Day 952: My Brilliant Friend

Cover for My Brilliant FriendI think my reaction to My Brilliant Friend must be affected by all the hype it has received. That is, I put off reading it because I am often disappointed by novels that are wildly popular. Nothing can live up to the hype, and this novel doesn’t either, but it almost does. It is merciless in its clear-eyed look at the relationship between two frenemies.

The novel begins in the present, where Elena Greco looks back at her relationship with Lila Cerullo. Elena and Lila know each other from childhood. They are neighbors in a rough, poor neighborhood on the outskirts of post-war Naples. From the beginning they are wary, competitive friends. Elena admires Lila’s courage and in school grows to admire her fearless intelligence. But, as the second best in class, Elena finds herself competing with Lila and disliking her secondary position.

Both Lila and Elena are encouraged by their teacher, Maestra Oliviero, but when Lila’s parents won’t allow her to take the exam to enter the equivalent of middle school (I guess) because she has to work, Maestra Oliviero spurns Lila. She continues to study on her own for a while, even helping Elena with her Latin, but eventually, as she gets older, she avoids discussing Elena’s studies as it is too painful. Elena for her part finds herself increasingly isolated from most of her community, because there is no one with whom she can discuss the ideas she is interested in. Only Lila is capable of understanding them, and she begins avoiding these subjects.

Something else Lila and Elena would like to avoid are the Solara brothers, whose father is part of the Camorra crime syndicate. When Elena is a young teenager, the boys attempt to drag her into their car, but Lila stops them by pulling a knife. This action apparently endears her to Marcello Solara, who begins hanging around Lila’s house with the cooperation of her parents.

I can only guess that the effect of this series builds as the reader continues on with it. Certainly, the novel has a climactic ending that makes me wonder what’s coming next.

I felt that the emotions Elena expressed during the novel were immature, but then I had to keep reminding myself that the girls are only 16 at the end of the novel. Elena seems to be totally oblivious of how painful it must be for Lila to hear about her intellectual achievements, and Elena still continues to try to compete with her. Although Lila seems abrupt and dismissive at times, at other times she lets Elena know how she appreciates her.

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Day 934: One Fine Day

Cover for One Fine DayBest Book of the Week!
It is shortly after World War II, and Laura Marshall and her family are trying to return to normal life during the privations of post-war England. With only one part-time housekeeper, Laura is struggling with unaccustomed chores. The house and garden are beginning to look shabby, which bothers Laura’s husband Stephan, who struggles with the lawn every weekend.

The family is also having to accustom itself to living together again. Through the war, Laura and her daughter Victoria shared the house in a relaxed way of life with various female friends and children. Stephan is inclined to be more fastidious, while Laura is dreamy and untidy.

This novel takes place over the course of a fine summer’s day as Laura does her chores and thinks about a way of life that is disappearing. It is beautifully written, with evocative descriptions of nature. Barrow Down, which looms over the landscape, is an important feature of this novel.

This is a lovely short novel.

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Day 831: Fresh from the Country

Cover for Fresh from the CountryOne of the pleasures I have not had for years is to read a novel by Miss Read, who wrote quite a few books over the course of 50 years, beginning in the 1950’s. Many of these novels are gentle stories about village life, but Fresh from the Country is about living in town.

Anna Lacey is a country girl who has recently finished training as a teacher and has taken a position as a primary school teacher in a new suburb of London. The school and the town are suffering the results of the post-war baby boom. Shoddy houses are going up quickly, and lodging is scarce. In the first scene of the novel, Anna inspects the grim quarters that will be her new home and is clearly cheated in her rent by her miserly landlady, who also underfeeds her throughout the novel.

The school, too, is crowded, as 48 children are crammed into her class in space meant for 20. The numbers in her class are a constant worry as she learns how to control the children, work in limited space, and keep the class productive. She also has to cope with the peculiarities of the various inspectors, since as a new teacher she is on probation.

Anna flees joyfully home on the weekends and holidays, to the large old farmhouse, her cheerful parents, and the beauties of the countryside. She finds the ugly scenery and the noise of the suburb hard to take.

Although Anna is a nice person, she at first tends to look askance at some of the foibles of her coworkers. It is her friendship with another teacher, Joan Berry, that teaches her not to be so hard on people who haven’t had the advantages of loving parents and a stable upbringing.

This is a gentle novel about the difficulties of being away from home for the first time, about learning new skills and learning to understand others, about the problems of the teaching profession. It has a tinge of light romance as well. It is mildly humorous, especially in the details of Anna’s life as a teacher.

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