Day 1128: C

Cover for CC is a novel that is as enigmatic as its title, which I assumed at first was a reference to the main character’s name, Serge Carrefax. But late in the novel we learn that the Egyptians had a symbol that looks like a C, representing life.

The novel follow’s Carrefax’s life from the age of two until he is in his twenties. Serge seems to view objects as intersections of shapes and angles, but we’re told repeatedly that he can’t see or draw perspective. As a child, he has a strong, competitive relationship with his older, brilliant sister, Sophie. After a tragedy, though, he doesn’t seem to care. Although the book blurb says he is haunted by this relationship, I saw little evidence of that.

The Carrefaxes run a school for the deaf and a silk manufactory. Simeon Carrefax is a micromanager of the school while letting his children virtually run wild. Serge’s mother runs the silk factory. Because of this upbringing among deaf children, I suppose, Serge often misunderstands what is said to him.

The novel is not without humor, including some hilarious descriptions of the school’s yearly pageant, which sounds both impressive and ridiculously pompous. However, Serge’s distance from everything lends the novel a kind of heaviness.

The novel moves through Serge’s fascination with messages, an adolescent obsession with the wireless, to his air force work in World War I, and finally ends with a seemingly pointless posting to Egypt. Throughout the novel, there are many unanswered questions.

This was another novel from my Walter Scott Prize list that was also on my Man Booker Prize list. Although I found the novel interesting, I also found it too detached and perplexing, and the main character not that fascinating, to like very much.

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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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If I Gave the Award

Cover for An Officer and a SpyI’m continuing my tradition of commenting on the award projects I have taken on by giving my opinion about whether the judges got it right. Yesterday, with An Officer and a SpyI finished reviewing the short listed books for the 2014 Walter Scott Prize for Historical FictionAn Officer and a Spy was the winner for that year.

I have to say that there were some excellent historical novels on the list for that year. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was my best book for one year, and since I read it during a different year, The Luminaries was my best book for another year. I also loved Fair HelenIn fact, I enjoyed all of the nominees for 2014. Of the three named above, Life After Life and The Luminaries are most inventive in structure.

Cover for Life After LifeSo, for this article, I was forced to consider the idea of giving a historical fiction prize. I think that the prize must partly depend upon how successfully the novel depicts the feel of the period or the historical events being described. Here, The Luminaries is not as strong as some of the others in its sense of time and place. An Officer and a Spy may not be as inventive in structure, but it tells a strong historical story. So, too, though, does Life After Life. So, because it combines an inventive structure with a strong historical background, I pick Life After Life, with the caveat that all of the nominees for this year were good ones.

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 995: The Promise

Cover for The PromiseSeveral years ago, I read Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, a nonfiction account of the terrible Galveston hurricane and flood of 1900. So, when one of the books on my Walter Scott Prize list turned out to be set in that time and place, I really wanted to read it. It did not disappoint.

Catherine Wainwright has behaved badly, and the result is a scandal that has resulted in her ostracism from her home town of Dayton, Ohio, and cost her livelihood as a performing pianist. In desperation, she writes to an old friend, Oscar Williams, who is a dairy farmer on Galveston Island. Although she has always considered herself his social superior, years ago he proposed to her. She did not accept him, but he is now a widower with a young son. He proposes again and she accepts. She has barely enough money to get to Galveston.

Nan Ogden is a much less sophisticated woman. She was the best friend of Bernadette, Oscar’s wife, and promised her she would take care of Andre, Oscar and Bernadette’s son. Truth be told, she has her own feelings for Oscar. Until Catherine appears, she has hopes that some day she might be Oscar’s wife. Instead, she finds herself a housekeeper for a woman who can barely boil an egg.

We don’t like Catherine at first, but she quickly grows on us as she develops more empathy for other people. As Catherine, Oscar, Andre, and Nan try to sort out their various feelings and relationships, the tension in the novel builds toward the storm. Then the novel becomes truly riveting.

The Promise is especially strong in its sense of place. I’ve been to Galveston when it was so hot I wondered how anyone could live there before air conditioning, let alone wearing corsets and tight clothes. Weisgarber really makes you feel the heat and stickiness.

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Day 958: Merivel: A Man of His Time

Cover for MerivelIt wasn’t until I started reading Merivel for my Walter Scott prize project that I realized it was a sequel to Rose Tremain’s better-known novel Restoration. I hadn’t read Restoration in 20 years, but I decided not to reread it first. I only remembered that it was about a doctor who got caught up in the debaucheries of the court of Charles II.

Merivel is a picaresque novel, like its predecessor. In its bawdy exuberance, it reminds me a bit of Tom Jones or Tristam Shandy. It begins in 1683, when Robert Merivel is living alone on his estate, an older man suffering from melancholy. His young daughter Margaret spends much of her time with the neighbors, who have four daughters. He is lonely and feels his life has had little purpose. He discovers his original manuscript (presumably the text of Restoration), which he refers to as the Wedge, but he doesn’t have the energy to read it.

On a whim, he decides that since Margaret is going on a trip with her friends to Cornwall, he will journey to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles and offer his services as a physician. To do this, he gets a letter of introduction from Charles II.

It is difficult to describe the plot of this novel. It doesn’t have a central concern except the feeling of its hero of having accomplished nothing. Merivel has many adventures, including falling in love with a woman he meets at Versailles and dueling with her husband, but they are all related in a semi-comic, mocking manner. Merivel, who seems ready to fall into every folly, is a sort of hapless anti-hero who hasn’t grown up much from the first novel.

Behind the scenes, we see that England is faltering. The poor are getting poorer as the court indulges itself. Merivel, who remains aware of the plight of others, can’t help observing that Charles II seems to feel no responsibility for this. Although this novel is not one of my favorites on the Walter Scott Prize short list, it certainly seems to reflect the time period in which it is set.

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