The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus

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There have been as many plagues as wars in history ; yet plagues and wars take people equally by surprise… 

I picked this up in a charity shop after reading a great online article (that I now can’t find) about the life of Albert Camus and how his experiences in the French resistance helped shape this particular novel. It struck a chord with me at the time, partly because the resistance story was incredible but also because, and I’m aware this might sound a bit grim, I’m kind of fascinated by the history of the plague. It’s obviously not the death and the suffering that do it for me; rather, as an ex-history student, I find it quite interesting to consider how plague epidemics changed the world around them. I’ve read a couple of non-fiction books on the subject but never any fictionalised accounts until the article on Camus encouraged me to give this one a try. And I’m very pleased I did.

The genius of Camus here is that this isn’t really a book about plague. Well, actually it is, but rather than dwelling on all the gory details just for the sake of it he uses his tale of a fictional plague epidemic in his home town of Oran in Algeria to draw subtle comparisons with the experiences of those living under Fascist rule. For the citizens of Oran it begins quietly enough, with the death of a few rats, but it’s not long before the city is overwhelmed and the populace is in a state of panic. The unnamed narrator’s account of the epidemic describes Oran’s year in enforced quarantine in minute detail; he describes the mounting death count, the daily struggle to survive, the fear of being forgotten by the outside world, the dwindling power of hope and the eventual abandonment of all those things that used to give life meaning.

Much of the novel is focused on Dr Rieux and the men who join him in trying to prevent the further spread of the disease. Their stories are told partly through diaries, letters and sermons, so they’re a welcome contrast to the hard, cold precision of the report style used elsewhere. In focusing on the efforts of these men in particular, and in switching the format every now and again, Camus ensures that occasional moments of friendship and kindness shine through every now and again. In fact, Camus often stresses how it is love alone that brings Oran’s inhabitants through these darkest days and keeps them fighting.

The Plague is a powerful novel and a genuinely moving one at that. The writing is simple but commanding; at times I felt so immersed in this novel it was like living in the quarantine zone myself. I shared in Rieux’s despair. I found it completely absorbing and quite disconcerting at times.

 

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I Capture The Castle (1949) by Dodie Smith

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My love affair with this book goes back nearly twenty years and I’ve long since lost sight of precisely what it is that binds me to it. If you were to press me on the subject I’d probably say something vague and noncommittal about how much I love Cassandra’s narration and her witty portraits of her mad family. I might also mumble something about the fact that their dilapidated Suffolk castle provided a romantic fictional escape from my own teenage home on a dismal fenland council estate. In truth, however, I really have no idea why I have loved this book for so long. I just know that I have and that it makes it really hard to write an objective review now that I’ve just reread it. I suspect anything I write will sound either a bit too gushy or (worse?) just a bit stale. Instead, in lieu of my usual review style post, here are some of my favourite quotes from I Capture the Castle… 

The opening scene contains some of my favourite descriptions but I particularly love this exchange between Cassandra, her desperate sister Rose and stepmother Topaz at the height of their genteel poverty:

“…It may interest you both to know that for some time now I’ve been considering selling myself. If necessary, I shall go on the streets.” 

I told her she couldn’t go on the streets in the depths of Suffolk. 

“But if Topaz will kindly lend me the fare to London and give me a few hints-” 

Topaz said she had never been on the streets and rather regretted it, ‘because one must sink to the depths in order to rise to the heights,’ which is the kind of Topazism it requires much affection to tolerate. 

It makes me think of this later comment:

“Topaz was wonderfully patient – but sometimes I wonder if it is not only patience but also a faint resemblance to cows…” 

God bless Topaz.

Two profound truths that I couldn’t agree with more:

“I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea.” 

“Rose doesn’t like the flat country but I always did – flat country seems to give the sky such a chance.” 

I’m not lying when I say that I think of this passage almost every time I enter the eerie silence of a really old church:

I could hear rain still pouring from the gutters and a thin branch scraping against one of the windows; but the church seemed completely cut off from the restless day outside  – just as I felt cut off from the church. I thought: I am a restlessness inside a stillness inside a restlessness. 

That might be my favourite one of all I also love the slow evolution from this:

“I know all about the facts of life and I don’t think much of them.” 

To this:

“No bathroom on earth will make up for marrying a bearded man you hate.”

To this:

“Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you.” 

Forgive the departure from my normal style – this just seemed the easiest way to approach this particular topic but my usual posts will resume very soon. I just read Tove Jannson’s Summer Book and adored it so there’ll be more in a day or two…

 

Sparkling Cyanide (1945) by Agatha Christie

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It should be a literary crime to give rather ordinary mysteries such evocative titles as this, especially when there’s already a particularly intriguing blurb on the back to hook the reader in. I was decidedly underwhelmed by this book – unusually so for an Agatha Christie – and now I can’t decide whether it’s the fault of the book, the title or just the fact that I was pretty spaced out on Lemsip at the time of reading. Probably the latter. I’d already been in bed sick for two looong days by the time I reached for this; I was cranky, bored and lacking both the energy and the will to read anything too demanding on the old grey cells. Usually Christie is ideal at times like these but she didn’t really do the trick on this occasion. I suspect I’m being a trifle unfair.

Sparkling Cyanide reunites several acquaintances for a rather tense dinner party at the Hotel Luxembourg. Gathered together are staid businessman George Barton and his young ward Iris, George’s doting secretary, a mysterious American businessman, a devious politician and his dutiful but very posh trophy wife. They’re all there to mark the passing of George’s late wife Rosemary who very publicly committed suicide at this table in this restaurant in front of these very same guests a year previously. It’s a macabre excuse for a gathering and of course, of course one of the guests is poisoned during dinner in an almost exact recreation of Rosemary’s death. Of course.  

“I’d like to give these detective story writers a course of routine work. They’d soon learn how most things are untraceable and nobody ever notices anything anywhere!”

There’s no Poirot or Marple in this one and I missed them both. It’s down to George’s old friend Colonel Race to identify the killer and determine whether Rosemary may also have fallen foul of a sinister plot. He does a fair job, Colonel Race, but without the flair or humour I might have expected from his more regular counterparts. Overall this felt like a fairly formulaic mystery: the set up was quite laboured and there was less of the wit and double bluffing that Christie usually employs to liven up the more mundane stories. I did fall prey to one red herring for a time but in the end I’d more or less guessed the killer anyway and instead of feeling triumphant I was left with the flat, dissatisfied feeling I always get when I’ve been proven right. Ho hum.

In my headachey, fuzzy haze I took Christie’s failure to keep me sufficiently entertained too personally. I decided that if she couldn’t offer me something decent to read at this difficult time then I would just have to resort to something more reliably cheering. I reached for I Capture The Castle which appears to be my go-to book when I’m sick. I’m so predictable.

The Hollow (1946) by Agatha Christie

This book was ringing alarm bells in my memory from the start. It was only when I got to this scene…

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…that I remembered having watched the TV adaptation a few years ago. Bummer. I very nearly gave up right then – who wants to read a murder mystery when you already know who committed the dirty deed? – but I decided to continue and, with hindsight, it was absolutely the right decision. This isn’t a bad book at all.

At first glance, The Hollow is a pretty typical country house murder mystery; a group of friends gather at the home of a mutual acquaintance only for one of the party, the dazzling Doctor John Christow, to get bumped off near the swimming pool just before lunch. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? When famous detective Hercule Poirot stumbles on the murder scene moments after the shot rings out he’s immediately convinced that things are not all they appear. Is this a carefully staged scene arranged by the guests as part of the afternoon’s amusements? Or is there something more sinister at play here?

What I haven’t yet said, of course, is that by the time Poirot arrives on the scene the story has really been underway for quite some time already. It’s unusual for Christie to leave the arrival of the famous detective to such a late stage in the novel. I think I’d almost expect it of Miss Marple but for Poirot it seems quite out of character. Apparently – according to Wiki – Christie herself was irritated by Poirot’s tardiness and felt that his sudden appearance out of nowhere was jarring for the reader and spoiled the flow of the plot. I can’t say I agree but it did have the odd effect of making Poirot seem almost superfluous to his own story.

In spite of this, I have to say that I think this is one of the best Agatha Christie novels I’ve read in a little while. All the usual ingredients are here – the red herrings, the witty dialogue, the double bluff – but this time there seems to be an extra layer of character development and a more careful set up. The philandering Doctor Christow who, I suspect, would usually be condemned to only the briefest of introductions, is given a good few chapters of background story and there’s a reasonably thorough analysis of his relationships with some of the other characters. When they describe the late doctor as the most ‘alive’ man they ever knew, you can almost believe them.

The character development isn’t limited to just the victim and I was surprised to find that I really quite liked a few of the suspects. Usually Christie peppers her stories with some thoroughly nasty characters; people you can easily believe would be capable of committing the crime. But she doesn’t really do that here; on the whole they appear pretty harmless. I was particularly pleased with the victim’s mistress, the sculptress Henrietta Severnake, and the scatter-brained hostess, Lady Angkatell. They made me almost hope that there wouldn’t be a murderer after all, that whoever it was would somehow end up getting away with it.

It’s all very odd and not what I was expecting at all. But I enjoyed the twists and turns of this novel and wish there were more like it.

Death Comes As The End (1945) by Agatha Christie

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I have a little pile of old Agatha Christie paperbacks that I turn to every now and again when I’m stuck for ideas or just want something quick and easy to read. I don’t tend to hang on to them afterwards, most get returned to the Oxfam shop when I’m done, but I’m tempted to keep this one, just because it’s a little bit weird. And that makes me like it.

Some of Christie’s standalone novels have ended up becoming fast favourites so I was all geared up to like this one from the start. As an added bonus, this one is set in the Middle East and has a bit of a historic bent, just like Murder in Mesopotamia which I have very tender memories of. As far as I’m aware Death Comes as the End is the only one with a non-contemporary setting and in fact I thought that made it sound pretty interesting in itself. Plus, it’s Agatha Christie and I am yet to ever find myself bored by one of her mysteries. It’s just never going to happen.

This strange little book is set in Egypt in 2000BC and centres on a bickering family who are thrown into turmoil when the patriarch takes a new wife. The beautiful Nofret makes herself unpopular from the start so when her body is discovered at the bottom of a cliff she’s not mourned by her step-children. Soon, however, the bodies are piling up and it’s clear that there’s a murderer in their midst. I’m always reassured when there’s a high death count as I sometimes think that Christie is at her best when she’s extreme, when everyone dies or everyone is guilty.

In some respects this is probably quite an ordinary mystery. You could play these events out in an English country house in the 1920s and you’d just need to remove some references to pyramids, hieroglyphs and gods for it all to make perfect sense. But it’s well constructed, as you would expect: the plot is tight, there’s an interesting cast of wicked and unlikeable suspects, some clever misdirection and a nice little reveal at the end. I never quite shook off the expectation that Poirot would waddle in to solve the murder but in the end the mystery was solved by the very character I had pegged as the murderer….. Ha.

If I had to find something to criticise about this one I’d say that the Egyptianness sometimes felt a little forced, a bit like she’d shoehorned in some stuff about pyramids and the Nile to make it feel more authentic. I enjoyed this book too much to dwell on it very much though.

To finish, here’s a photo from the inside cover of my copy of this book:

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I hope Rose had a nice time wherever she went (Egypt maybe?).

The Moving Finger (1943) by Agatha Christie

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After my recent Dumas-a-thon I thought I’d reward myself with a few weeks of easy, short reads. As much as I enjoyed The Count Of Monte Cristo, it can be kind of knackering reading the same mammoth book day after day. I’m not sure why that is; it’s not like I was reading any more than I would normally do. But in any case, I fancied something unchallenging and when it comes to gripping, easy-to-read books Agatha Christie is my go-to gal.

The Moving Finger is narrated by Jerry Burton, an injured airman sent to recuperate in the countryside after a nasty plane crash. He and his sister Joanna choose the quiet village of Lymstock and settle down in a little cottage for some peace and tranquillity while Jerry regains his strength. It soon transpires, however, that Lymstock is not the rural idyll they’d imagined and they’re intrigued to hear that over the past few months an anonymous letter writer has been terrorising its residents. It isn’t long before Jerry receives one of these poison pen letters himself. When a neighbour commits suicide after receiving a similarly vicious note it becomes vitally important that the writer is caught. Who is writing the letters? And will they resort to murder to cover their tracks?

It’s pretty lucky for the residents of Lymstock that the vicar’s wife knows a lovely old lady who’s got a good eye for solving crimes. I must say, however, that Miss Marple takes her own sweet time getting there. It’s the weird thing about Marple novels; half the time she’s not even in them. Maybe Christie was worried the old dear would get tired from too much exertion? Or maybe the whole point is that she succeeds only after everyone else has failed? Good old Marps.

This book was pretty much exactly what I was hoping it would be: entertaining, neatly, plotted, full of sneaky red herrings and clever twists. There isn’t ever a great deal of description or character development of course but I always love the dialogue, particularly gems like this little exchange between Jerry and the aforementioned vicar’s wife about the anonymous letters:

“Have you – er – had any yourself?” 

“Oh yes, two – no three. I forget exactly what they said. Something very silly about Caleb and the schoolmistress, I think. Quite absurd because Caleb has absolutely no taste for fornication. He never has had. So lucky, being a clergyman.” 

“Quite,” I said, “Oh quite.” 

I’ve seen the TV adaptation of this particular novel but I have no long term memory and I couldn’t quite remember the identity of the culprit. I’m always rubbish at guessing anyway; I’d make a terrible detective.

My only real criticism of this book is that I didn’t like the romantic aspect of the story at all. I know it’s a mystery and the romance is just an annoying sideline but still, there was something just a little weird about it. It was making me uncomfortable. I’m sure to readers of the time it would’ve been perfectly lovely but I’m so glad that these sentiments aren’t quite as common as they used to be:

What a nice child she was, I thought. So pleased with everything, so unquestioning, accepting all my suggestions without fuss or bother…. 

[And later:]

But I was not giving up. Oh no! She was my woman and I was going to have her. 

Wowzers. I’m pretty good at filtering out this sort of stuff (a book is a product of its time after all, right?) but that doesn’t make it any nicer to read.

Besides Jerry’s casual misogyny there isn’t a great deal to complain about with this book. I’m not sure it’ll become my favourite Agatha Christie mystery but it was a nice enough way of passing my lunch break and a couple of train journeys.

The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“Littleprince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia.

When it is midday in the United States, the sun, as everyone knows, is setting in France. One would just have to travel in one minute to France to be able to watch the sun setting there. Unfortunately, France is too far away for that. But on your tiny little planet all you needed to do was to move your chair a few steps. And you could watch the twilight falling whenever you felt like it…

‘One day, I watched the sun setting forty-four times,’ you told me. And a little later you added: ‘You know… when one is terribly sad, one loves sunsets…’

I’m quite late to The Little Prince party, despite often having heard it referred to as a masterpiece of children’s literature. It’s high praise indeed and I was worried that, as so often happens, the product wouldn’t match the hype. It might, I thought, be one of those books that children find magical but which are difficult to appreciate as an adult. I always feel a little sad when this happens.

Thankfully I needn’t have worried; The Little Prince is kind of magical if you’re an adult too, possibly even more so. In fact I suspect that, however much children might enjoy the story, it’s the adults it really speaks to most. I’m not sure whether that was deliberate on Saint-Exupery’s part; I imagine he probably knew exactly what he was doing here.

The story is a very simple one, involving an airman whose plane crashes in the desert, miles from civilisation. Here he meets a little prince who has fallen to earth from a tiny asteroid. While the airman fixes his plane the prince tells him about his home, the planets he’s visited and the strange folk he’s met on the way.

My feelings about this book were a little conflicted at first. I thought it was beautifully written and beautifully illustrated (even in my cheap black and white paperback) but I wondered if maybe there were too many messages here, too many lessons for the prince to learn at once. I wasn’t sure if there was a bigger theme uniting it all that I’d somehow missed. It just felt a bit incoherent and I was disappointed.

After a couple of days thinking about it I decided that actually my feelings were much more positive than I’d first realised. I like the fact that this was such a personal book for Saint-Exupery, one that drew directly on his own experiences in the desert and his own personal relationships. It’s really not a happy story; it’s about loneliness, growing up, friendship and longing for home when you’re far away. It’s a revealing portrait of how its author must have been feeling at the time.

Going back to the adult/children debate; I’m sure the feelings evoked by this book are more potent if you’re old enough to have experience of them, if you can look at yourself and realise that you’re more like the geographer or the rose than the little prince. I’d like to read it again, I think, in a year or two to see if I take anything else away from it. I think it’s probably one that gets better with each reread.