We’ve been in our second lockdown here in Melbourne since the 7th of July. It’s been harder than the first time in March-April, I suppose because we’d already done it once. As well, this time, the news has been terrible with lots of cases every day and lots of deaths, especially from aged care homes. So it’s been pretty grim. We’ve now had the longest lockdown in the world. I’ve had plenty of time for reading.
Nightingale, Marina Kemp
This little novel was recommended by Lynn Barber (she of An Education fame) on Twitter. While I enjoyed reading it, there were a number of plot deficiencies that gradually came to the fore. We’re in a village in France. A young woman is fleeing a traumatic past, that is pretty easy to guess (if I can get it, anyone can!) She’s nursing a wealthy, irascible old man who she seems to get on with easily despite his bullying of previous nurses. He’s estranged from his three sons who visit for a week-end but nothing comes of it. The problem is that the old man doesn’t seem as mean as portrayed, and the boys are not very nice characters. Meanwhile in the village, the golden boy of his generation, a peer of the brothers, has to the surprise of all and sundry married the least likely woman, the village gossip, and has seemingly settled for a boring life devoid of both love and sex! He’s a very sympathetic character. Eventually the nurse and olden boy come together, and the ending is quite satisfactory. Although upon reflection, the whole edifice pf the story collapses. But nicely written and good for a rainy day read.
Last Days In Old Europe, Richard Bassett
I enjoyed this very much having read a lot about the milieu and places portrayed. We travel through Trieste, Vienna and Prague where the author has worked as a journalist; having originally started out as a musician, a horn player no less, working in an orchestra near Trieste. He mingles with former aristocrats from the old Hapsburg Empire while reporting as foreign correspondent for the Times. He’s something of an old style aristocrat himself, swanning around in white suits and panama hats. It’s a very personal perspective; he’s in Prague during the start of the Velvet Revolution and has his own take on the impetus behind it; suggesting the Communists gave tacit support which doesn’t seem historically accurate. He was in Germany during the lead up to the fall of the Berlin Wall; but far from Berlin; wining and dining with a British Regiment and enjoying the quality of their mess room. He was also in Gdansk at the start of the Solidarity strikes. But his real interest is in the old ruling classes of these places; their relationships and the rituals associated with the old regime. If you’re interested in this part of the world, as I am having read lots of books about the region including Patrick Leigh Fermur’s trilogy about walking from Holland to Constantinople (as it then was), Claudio Magris’ Danube, and Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, you’ll enjoy what is a relatively quiet meander through mitteleuropa.
Sunday, Georges Simenon
Penguin has recently re-published the whole seventy five Maigret novels by Simenon. I’ve always liked his books and have always looked out for them in second hand book shops – where you rarely find them. A sure sign that they are appreciated by readers. I’ve read about half a dozen of the newly released ones over the last couple of years. This is one of his so-called psychological novels, what the French call romans durs. Appropriate because while the people are all awful the psychology is riveting. And so it was with this one. We’re in the south of France, near Nice; a holiday town. Our protagonist runs a hotel that has come to him through marriage. On this Sunday, he’s preparing to kill his wife. We follow him over the course of the day, going about his usual activities, getting flashbacks explaining why he has come to this point and details of the meticulous planning that has led up to the actions he’s about to take. The tension builds so completely you are driven to find out what happens. And of course things don’t go to plan. I had a sneaking suspicion while reading, that I’d read it all before, but even now I’m not sure it was this book or another. They’re all very similar. Incredible really, how he describes the characters and situations so that they are completely believable and you are desperate to know what happens to them, although as I said, they’re mostly horrible people. As they are here. A quick and enjoyable (doesn’t seem quite the right word) read.
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
To read this book was one of my New Year’s Resolutions and I’m very pleased to have done so. Finally! I bought it after seeing a wonderful film, I think at the 2009 MIFF; before I was blogging at any rate, which started in 2010. It’s a 2009 Czech film called Karamozovi. A Prague based theatrical troupe, including a number of international actors, go to Krakow in Poland to a disused steelworks. The film follows their rehearsals for a play based on the book – scenes and relationships from the book intersect with what’s taking place between the actors. characters. I loved the film but unfortunately haven’t been able to find a sub-titled version, not even of the trailer but, to give you a feel for it, here’s the Czech (non-subtitled) trailer. I’d really like to see it again, having now read the book, which I enjoyed enormously. I loved the descriptions of people and places, the characters, the debates about religion, about life, about love. Overall I loved the whole Russianness of it all. Wonderful.
Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption, Roger Scruton
Yet more about Wagner and his operas! This was Roger Scruton’s last book; he was working on it when he died at the start of this year. He writes very clearly about the all aspects of Wagner’s operas including detailed descriptions of the music. But it is his insights into the psychology of the story and the characters that particularly attracts me. Originally, whilst appreciating the beauty of the music, I couldn’t abide this opera because it reminded me too much of the Catholic Mass. Scruton really teases out why this is a complete misreading of the action and of the characters. I’ve read others who have explained that it’s not a religious work but they have not been as clear. It’s an opera, like all of Wagner’s works, about personal development. If anything, it is anti-religious, in particular the closed in world of a cloistered, religious community. Kundry’s character is not simply that of an enslaved or even serf like person. She is pivotal to the whole theme of redemption. This book makes everything perfectly clear. At least while you’re reading it! Sometimes it’s hard to provide a précis of the argument afterwards. I’m sure I’ll come back to it every time I get to see a Parsifal production. This one is for Wagner devotees.
The Golem, Gustav Meyrink
Ever since writing about Mr Tersch who introduced me to so many great writers, which I’ve done here, I’ve been interested in re-reading some of them. I was always fascinated by The Golem which he gave me early on. I was very taken with the final page which took you back to the very first page of the book – to an image that you had glossed over in your haste to read on. But which was now revealed to be critical – in showing that the whole tale was but a dream. I’ve been looking on and off for that original book for a while. But there are apparently lots of versions of the Golem story and I’ve never been sure which was the one I’ve read. I found this one, purportedly the classic version, via Amazon, and it seemed familiar, but I’m not sure that it’s the right one. I think mine may have been by Isaac Bashevic Singer. In any event I enjoyed this immersion into the old Jewish quarter of Prague. Apparently Gustav Mayrink didn’t like the city! Which may explain why he concentrated on its least beautiful aspect. We’re deep in the slums here and following some very dubious characters as their lives intersect. Our protagonist has a mysterious past that he can’t quite remember. There’s a beautiful woman, star-crossed lovers, mysterious rooms and hidden passages between buildings. And finally, our hero discovers he’s picked up another’s hat by mistake. It’s all in the hat!