For Two Thousand Years (1934) by Mihail Sebastian

2000years

“Exactly the same thing happens with that age-old call for death which is always present somewhere on Romanian streets but audible only at certain moments. Year after year it resounds in the ear of the common man, who is indifferent, in a hurry, with other things on his mind. Year after year it rumbles and echoes in street and byway and nobody hears it. And one day, out of nowhere, behold how it suddenly pierces the wall of deafness around it and issues from every crack and from under every stone.”

My last stopover on the Around the World in 80 Books tour was in the West Indies for Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea. For my latest trip I’ve made a completely impractical (but metaphorical) leap over the ocean back to Europe to enjoy a brief stay in Romania – thankfully cost and carbon footprint aren’t a worry here or I might have planned the whole trip better and found a more efficient route 🙂

For Two Thousand Years has only recently appeared in English and I didn’t know much about it before it caught my eye in Waterstones a few months ago. Sebastian’s semi-autobiographical novel takes the very loose form of a diary covering about ten years in the life of a young Jewish man who, when the novel opens in 1923, is an impressionable student at the university in Bucharest. I found the opening passages unsettling, mainly because these were, of course, times of great political and social upheaval and the narrator suffers a great deal at the hands of anti-Semitic mobs on his way to lectures each day. It provokes much argument amongst his friends about what the future holds for the Jews in Europe but the narrator is much more introspective; he wonders what being Jewish means to him personally and whether he will ever really be accepted on his own terms in a Romania which repeatedly rejects and threatens those like him.

The book becomes less brooding – but no less intense – as he moves away from the university and I found it interesting to observe the ways in which his views evolve as he embarks on new ventures and makes new friends. He’s much less self-conscious from here on and there’s less soul searching so I’m sorry to say that I enjoyed these chapters a little more. I hope it isn’t spoiling things too much if I say that the novel takes a quietly sinister turn in the final pages. I was in a noisy hairdresser’s salon at this point in my reading, with a head full of foils, and I wondered later whether the incongruous setting might have made these chapters more shocking than they really were. I’d be interested to know whether anyone else found them as gut-wrenchingly painful to read as I did, much more alarming even than the violence displayed by the racist mobs in previous chapters.

My engagement with this novel went in fits and starts. We didn’t get off to the best beginning but there were several long passages that I loved, I mean really loved. I was so taken with some of Sebastian’s language and imagery that I ended up underlining several long passages in pencil, more than I have with any other novel I’ve read recently. On the other hand there’s no escaping the fact that on some occasions I had a hard time staying focussed. At times I was desperate to finish this novel; at others I wanted to savour every word. My feelings switched from one extreme to the other almost continually until the final few chapters when they suddenly fell very much in the books favour. I didn’t always find this an easy read – for several reasons – but it was beautifully written and haunted me long after I finished.

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Vile Bodies (1930) by Evelyn Waugh

vilebodies

“Nina, there’s one thing – I don’t think I shall be able to marry you after all.” 

“Oh Adam, you are a bore.” 

I think Vile Bodies is possibly the most attractive looking book I’ve bought myself in a long time. It cost £3 In a little secondhand bookshop in Ironbridge (just opposite the iron bridge, in fact) where we stopped on our way to Wales last February. The shop had shelves and shelves of orange Penguin Classics and this one caught my eye because of the glamorously 1980s faux Art Deco cover. I love it. At the time I didn’t have a particular wish to read Vile Bodies but I always feel well disposed towards Waugh, partly because I enjoyed Brideshead Revisited but also because I read somewhere that he and his second(?) wife, also called Evelyn, used to refer to each other as Hevelyn and Shevelyn in company. If that’s not inducement to buy a book I don’t know what is.

It’s not an easy book to get into, Vile Bodies, but it’s a fun one. The narrative jumps about all over the place, throwing in a hundred characters at once with no introduction and telling large chunks of the story in sparse conversation. It’s hectic and a bit indistinct but I soon settled into it and quite enjoyed myself. This is Waugh’s satirical take on the ‘bright young things’ of the 1920s, among them young Adam Fenwyck Symes. Adam returns to London at the start of the novel and is quickly drawn into a heady whirlwind of parties, hangovers, prosperity, poverty, engagements and un-engagements. He and his friends stumble from one party to the next, drinking too much and sleeping too little, always accompanied by a reporter from the Daily Excess and leaving a wake of destruction wherever they go.

I love the dialogue in Vile Bodies; it’s rapid and bitterly funny and so easy to read you almost don’t notice it. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for that jolly-ho Bertie Wooster style and you can find tons of completely ridiculous examples here.

“Well!” they said. “Well! How too, too shaming,  Agatha darling,” they said. “How devastating, how unpoliceman-like, how goat-like, how sick-making, how too, too awful.” And then they began talking about Archie Schwert’s party that night. 

This could end up being a very quote heavy post if I had my way.

For a book in which nothing much really happens it’s surprisingly busy and Waugh whisks you through at such a pace that there’s almost no time to consider what the point of it all is, which I realise now is actually probably the point. It soon becomes apparent that in spite of appearances no one is really having any fun at all, not the party goers and certainly not the onlookers. It’s all curiously empty and kind of sad. For me Waugh seems to be suggesting that his generation’s endless pursuit of fun is a response to the traumas of the previous years; unlike their parents, they were almost born knowing that the good times don’t last. He couldn’t have seen that another war was looming around the corner but even without hindsight the final scenes of the novel are touching in a strangely frivolous and surreal kind of way. I liked this book very much indeed.

After finishing Vile Bodies I fully intended to continue wading through my unread pile but I bought His Bloody Project on Saturday, in a rare moment of my own kind of frivolity, and got hooked on it straight away. I’m finished now so there’ll be another post here soon.

Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort

After another minute Reuben brought forth the following sentence,

‘I ha’ scranleted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down i’ the bute.’

It was a difficult remark, Flora felt, to which to reply. Was it a complaint? If so one might say, ‘My dear, how too sickening for you!’ But then it might be a boast, in which case the correct reply would be ‘Attaboy!’ or more simply, ‘Come, that’s capital.’ Weakly she fell back on the comparatively safe remark, ‘Did you?’ in a bright, interested voice.

She saw at once that she had said the wrong thing…

This is my second time reading Cold Comfort Farm. The first was way, way back in 2003, shortly after I’d decided to read all the books on the BBC’s Big Read top 100 (it didn’t happen, in case you were wondering; I got to about 80 and gave up). It’s a shortish book so I thought it’d be a quick read and then I could cross it off the list and move on to the next one, which is exactly what I did – so quickly, in fact, that I now remember almost nothing about it (except, of course, that something nasty happened in the woodshed). I don’t remember being all that smitten by it but that could be because I was in such a hurry to get it out of the way. I probably didn’t take any of it in.

At the start of the novel young Flora Poste, recently orphaned, decides to cast herself on the mercy of her distant cousins, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex. She finds the farm to be a gloomy sort of place and the Starkadders a brooding and emotional bunch, much prone to violent outbursts and hurling themselves down wells at the slightest provocation. They have names like Elfine, Urk and Harkaway and say things like:

Women are all alike – ay fussin’ over their fal-lals and bedazin’ a man’s eyes, when all they really want is a man’s blood and his heart out of his body and his soul and his pride…

Flora, in contrast, is a neat and rather modern young lady and, as you might expect, they all struggle to find some common ground. Thankfully she isn’t fazed by any of this. She views it all as an adventure, an opportunity to neaten up the Farm and bring those pesky Starkadders into line.

It’s actually a very silly novel but quite funny, funnier than I remember in fact. I read somewhere that it’s a parody of all those idealised rural romances made popular by the Victorians; I can see that there’s something deliberately Hardyish in those made up colloquialisms, the descriptions of the sunlight on the wet grass and in all that Starkadder sin and misery. It’s not supposed to be particularly subtle – the characters are pretty one-dimensional and some of the more dramatic scenes are deliberately ham-fisted – but it’s not supposed to be taken too seriously either. In fact, Gibbons kindly draws your attention to the more impressive examples with some neat asterisks. It’s a bit like she’s watching you read and doing that annoying nudge-nudge-wink-wink thing, just to check that you’re in on the joke. It would wear thin in a longer novel but Cold Comfort Farm is short enough for it to be funny, I think.

I enjoyed it much more this time round so I’m glad I took the time to read it properly. I imagine it’d be the sort of light hearted book you’d fancy at the end of a long, hard day, one that you’d return to again and again. It’s full of so many witticisms and prim common sense that it was difficult to choose the best quotes for this post (hence it being unusually quote heavy). Is it the comic masterpiece everyone says it is? I’m not sure but it’s funny and kind of charming and I love the Starkadders.

The Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers

Graveyard

“…What’s that? It mayn’t be the right letter? Rot! It is the right letter. It’s damn well got to be the right letter, and we’re going to go straight along to the Cat And Fiddle, where the port is remarkable and the claret not to be despised, to celebrate our deed of darkness and derring do!”

I finished The Wombles on Wednesday lunchtime, which left me short of reading material for the train journey home. Usually when this happens (it’s pretty common) I end up making a mad dash to the library for an Agatha Christie or P.G. Wodehouse to tide me over for a few days. Alas, both were a bit thin on the ground this time so I came away with this instead, my first Dorothy L. Sayers book. I know she has a bit of a cult following so I was intrigued…

The Nine Tailors is in the Lord Peter Wimsey series but that really didn’t mean anything to me. I quickly discovered that Wimsey (it’s a silly name) is a sort of gentleman detective who solves crimes as a hobby with the aid of his loyal valet Bunter. On paper it sounds almost like a cross between Christie and Wodehouse but, not having read any of the other books in the series, I’m not sure I can do him justice here. There isn’t much of an introduction to Lord Peter in this novel so I had a quick look at Wikipedia for some context. It wasn’t strictly necessary though; The Nine Tailors works as a standalone novel without a backstory.

In this novel Lord Peter is summoned to the damp East Anglian fens to investigate a death in the isolated village of Fenchurch St Paul. The parish sexton has uncovered a handless, disfigured corpse hidden in someone else’s grave and no one seems to know who he is or how he came to be there. It becomes a surprisingly complicated case involving a twenty year old jewel theft, a cryptic cypher and a wartime case of mistaken identity. Much of the action takes place around the parish church and the title is a reference to change ringing, a system of bell ringing that was apparently quite popular at the time.

I liked this book… but then, of course I would do; it’s almost as if Sayers wrote it with some of my favouritest things in mind:

Golden Age murder mystery? Check.

Posh chaps who say ‘My dear sir…’ and ‘Jolly ho!’? Check.

Set in the Fens? Check.

Excessive research and attention to detail? Check.

Maps, plans and drawings included? Check.

In fact, it’s almost like Sayers happily complied with all my requests and then (knowing how much of a geek I am) chucked in a bit of medieval church architecture for an extra treat. Bloody brilliant.

It’s an odd sort of book really. I worked out the identity of the victim pretty quickly – before Lord Peter even – but I was having such a good time that this didn’t really matter. In fact, I don’t think the crime is the most interesting thing about this novel. I know that sounds weird but Sayers does such a good job of setting the scene that you can almost forget that this is a whodunit.  She lets the murder and the investigation fade into the background so the bleakness of the fenland landscape can take over. Her descriptions of the church and village are detailed and she captures the desolate, brooding atmosphere of the fens beautifully. There aren’t that many novels set in my part of the country so to me this novel felt a bit like home. There’s a kind of haunting eeriness to it that I would have loved even if it hadn’t been set on my home patch.

And then there are the bells. I wonder if Sayers just wanted to show off her research here or if she was just really, really enthusiastic about bell ringing? I also wonder how many readers have been chased away by all those long passages devoted to the bells?

“The change ringer does, indeed, distinguish musical differences between one method of producing his permutations and another; he avers, for instance, that where the hinder bells run 7, 5, 6 or 5, 6, 7 or 5, 7, 6 the music is always prettier, and can detect and approve, where they occur, the consecutive fifths of Tittums and the cascading thirds of the Queen’s change.”

Er…. pardon? A bit of an introduction to change ringing might have been nice before she jumped on in but I don’t think knowledge of how it works is really necessary. My enjoyment certainly wasn’t hindered by not knowing anything about bell ringing beforehand. It sounded quite interesting. Besides, I quite liked the bells; they’re almost characters in their own rights. There’s something a bit dark and malevolent about them.

It took me a little bit by surprise, this book. I was hoping for something simple to keep me entertained for a few days… but this was much better than that. I like the fact that Sayers makes you work quite hard – harder than Christie – and it’s more than worth the effort when you reach those final apocalyptic flood scenes at the end. If you take away the crime novel label you’re left with something that’s actually a good piece of literature in itself. I’ll definitely look out for other Dorothy L. Sayers books.