The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by G.B. Edwards

This is another lost book, not because the notebooks were hidden away after the death of the author as with Suite Francaise but because after its publication in 1981, it seems to have sunk into the obscurity that awaits most books. As a writer, I find it rather depressing the way most books are read for a season and then disappear, no longer available from the publisher. I also have my doubts about which books make up the canon, the ones that live on in literature courses, but that’s another discussion.

Although I read a lot and widely, I had never heard of this book until its reissue last year from New York Review. What a treasure! I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a book so much. Each time I picked it up, I started by going back a few chapters for the joy of reading them again before going on.

This is Ebenezer’s first-person narrative of his life on Guernsey, the island he left only once, to go to Jersey to play in a football match. It covers a period of great change in the life of the island, from the early days when everyone knew—and gossiped about—everyone else to modern days when Guernsey has become a tax haven and tourist destination. Ebenezer quarries granite with his father, watches his friends go off to fight in World War I (which ended just as he was about to be called up), suffers under the German Occupation during World War II and what he calls the English Occupation that follows.

What makes the book so great is Ebenezer’s voice. His sentences are calm and straightforward, but often with a wicked dig at the end. “My father was killed in the Boer War. He went off and joined the Irish Brigade and fought for the Boers.” “There was a mystery about Princess Zubeska. She had red hair like Eugene, but it was grey when she came to Guernsey.” I sometimes had to read such lines a couple of times over to be sure. Other times I just had to laugh out loud: “I thought they might make it up the day they went to Sark, since Raymond said Sark was heaven on earth; but it was rough coming back and she was seasick all over him.”

I usually loathe books written in dialect, but here it is handled so well that I loved the way it added to Ebenezer’s distinctive voice. It’s not overwhelming, but comes out sometimes in the syntax: “That’s why I have never left Guernsey, me.” Then, too, there are a few words and phrases in the Guernsey patois, a version of French, but never enough to be intrusive and always easy to understand from the context.

There is something I always find rather sad in a story—fictional or not—of an entire life, something about the early promises unfulfilled, the inevitable compromises with grief, the abilities lost or abandoned in old age. Yet my sadness here was tempered by an appreciation of this acerbic and entertaining personality, whose prejudices are balanced by his capacity for love and great friendship.

Edwards completed this, his only book shortly before his death in 1976. It was the first of a planned trilogy about life on Guernsey, and I can only mourn the unwritten books, as I do the last three books in Nemirovsky’s suite.

Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky

Several people recommended this wonderful book to me, for which I’m grateful. As most people know by now, the story behind this book about the German occupation of France during World War II is almost as interesting as the book itself. Nemirovsky, an established writer of Ukrainian origins living in France, wrote the two novellas making up Suite Francaise almost as the events depicted in them were unfolding. They are part of Nemirovsky’s projected five-book series about the war. Ironically, the third book was to be Captivity but Nemirovsky herself was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where she died, followed shortly by her husband. Her daughter preserved the notebooks containing these two novellas but did not read them until the late 1990s.

As a writer, I am mightily impressed with Nemirovsky’s ability to write about what was even then occurring, without the leisure for reflection and analysis. Her grasp of the larger issues stunned me, as did her detailed observations of people’s reactions to events and her recognition of what they said about France as a whole. And I can’t say enough about her evocative language, her use of dialogue, her ability to see into the hearts of so many different sorts of people.

For all I have read about both world wars, this is the first time I’ve read an account of what it was like for ordinary, middle-class folks when the Germans descended on Paris. “Storm in June” follows several families and individuals engulfed by the panic and chaos as they try to flee. Sometimes funny, sometimes sardonic, sometimes sweetly sympathetic, Nemirovsky allows us to experience their uncertainty as they struggle with the practical details of leaving town. Do you take the cat? Linens? Artworks? Where do you get gas for the car? Are the trains still running?

What I found most interesting was how long it took some people to understand the extent and ramifications of what was happening, like the mother who tells her children that as good Christians they should share their cookies and chocolates with other refugees until she realises that she cannot buy more because the stores are empty. I was also fascinated by how the panic affected the social structure and norms, what broke down and what remained.

“Dolce,” the second novella, takes place in a small rural town where some of the refugees have come to rest. Unlike the usual tales of the Resistance and collaborators, these extraordinarily realistic characters struggle to balance their patriotism and pride against the obvious humanity of the German soldiers who occupy the town. Throughout both novellas, Nemirovsky’s characters are minutely observed and insightfully depicted. One reviewer compared her to Flaubert in her realism which I think is true.

And it is the characters who drive her themes of greed and betrayal. The upper middle-class and aristocracy seem concerned only with themselves, like the bank manager who callously abandons two of his elderly employees whom he’d promised to drive out of Paris, simply because his mistress wants the car. At the same time, he demands that they meet him in Tours in two days or lose their jobs, without seeming to recognise that they have no way to get there other than walking. Or the rich aesthete who loads his car with his precious artifacts and, when he runs out of gas, tricks two young lovers in order to steal their gas. Yet Nemirovsky manages to balance the egotistical pettiness of her characters with humane sympathy for their limitations.

Some reviewers have complained that she did not address the issue of anti-semitism and the fate of the Jews, particularly since she herself was Jewish. Similarly, some reviewers complained about McEwan’s Saturday because he didn’t write about the anti-war march itself. However, I believe writers should be allowed to write what they want, what they are compelled to write. Even though I’m often guilty of criticising a book because it doesn’t tell the story I wanted or expected it to, I at least recognise that I’m the one at fault. I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys having a slice of history come to life, or meeting unforgettable characters, or simply reveling in gorgeous language.

Watch with Me, by Wendell Berry

I had been reading some of Wendell Berry’s essays about his Kentucky farm, so was delighted when a friend loaned me this book of short stories. The stories center on Ptolemy Proudfoot, a farmer, a large man, the last of what was once a large clan of Proudfoots in and near the town of Port William. Details of farm life enrich these deceptively simple tales of Tol and his wife, Miss Minnie. Hard work is leavened by the social occasions that Tol loves: visits to town, neighbors dropping by the house, family gatherings, a harvest festival at the school.

The affectionate depictions of Tol’s eccentric neighbors and the unspoken ties that bind them together reminded me of Mohawk especially in the way they assumed a certain responsibility for each other. Just as the owner of the bar and grill in Russo’s book gave Wild Bill a job and watched out for him, just as Dallas’s friends continued to loan him money and tolerate his feckless way with a timeclock, so Tol and his friends watch out for each other.

In the novella from which the book takes its title, Tol is visited by a neighbor known as Nightlife who was prone to spells where he became confused and angry, even dangerous. Occasionally he was sent to the asylum “where they would file him down and reset his teeth.” On this day, Nightlife picks up Tol’s shotgun, says something about how a man might as well shoot himself, and walks off. Tol follows him, reluctant to confront him and be shot himself, but unwilling to just let the man go. Tol is eventually joined by other neighbors, and they follow the man through woods and fields for the entire day and night and into the next day. They didn’t have to. They could have gone home to their wives and their dinners and their neglected fields, but their sense of responsibility for their neighbor wouldn’t let them.

The long walk is enlivened by stories brought to mind by places they pass and people they encounter. Tol also likes to tell stories about his grandfather, as in “Turn Back the Bed” where the men at a church picnic beg him to tell the story of his grandfather, a chamberpot, and a Proudfoot family gathering long ago. The past is present in all of these tales, Tol’s constant awareness of those who worked these fields and lived in these houses lending a depth and perspective to the simplest everyday action.

Tolkien called it “shimmer”, this sense of looking at things and seeing the past like a shadow behind it, and another past beyond that, and another. He deliberately included it in The Hobbit and The Lord of Rings trilogy, with their references to half-remembered legends, ruins whose stories had been lost, great statues left from long-gone civilizations.

In one of his essays, “The Long-Legged House”, published in a collectin with the same name, Berry talks about this awareness of the past in his own life. The essay focuses on a cabin on the river built by Curran Matthews, his grandmother’s brother, and what it has meant to Berry throughout his life, from a teenager’s camp to the place where he took his wife after their wedding to a weekend get-away. Even though there is nothing left of it at the present but the chimney and well, some locust trees, and the little white flowers in the grass, Berry looking at it sees the shades of the past: his great-uncle building it, himself as a young man. He sees the sycamore warbler of the present, echoed by the phoebes that used to build nests under the eaves. He says that “. . . where most American writers—and even most Americans—of my time are displaced persons, I am a placed person.” He goes on to say that it is not so much that we can possess a place but that a place can possess us.

I understand this. It’s the way I feel about the camp in Plymouth. The first time I went there, I felt that I had discovered my own place, the place in the world where I belonged. It took a while for me to understand that instead, I belong to the place, as so many others have in the past and do today.

Mohawk, by Richard Russo

This is the first Russo book I’ve read and, as promised, it depicts life in small, failing New England mill town with such immediacy and accurancy that anyone who has ever lived in one will recognise the town and its people. By putting other names to these characters, they would become true portraits of people I’ve known: a daughter held in thrall to an over-controlling mother, a feckless man who doesn’t understand why none of his schemes succeeds, an overly honest man who is rejected by his co-workers yet is only too aware of his own failings, a too-smart young man who unnerves those who prefer the comfort of mediocrity in their fellows, a couple who—married to others—do not act on their feelings.

Yet Russo manages to depict these people in all their complexity, avoiding the easy stereotypes. I particularly liked the way he captured the subtle ties and dependencies between these people. There is something deeply human going on here, something that stands against the greed and selfishness that often seem to me to make up the foundation of human nature. Even Neolithic societies, it has been argued (see On Deep History and the Brain by Daniel Lord Smail), were structured as dominance hierarchies where those on top kept subordinates in line by random acts of violence. While this rule of terror seemed to occur only in the settlements (the hunter-gatherers being more egalitarian) it is still disconcerting to think that an amoral greed for power is so deeply engrained in us.

I’ve wandered a bit from the town of Mohawk, New York, but my point is that Russo brings out the curious way we tolerate each other’s failings and sometimes show a rare and remarkable generosity. It is unusual to find, outside of war stories, something that captures the companionships of men, the way they are with each other in times of boredom and times of stress. By placing them in an unremarkable backwater like Mohawk, Russo presents these characters’ ordinary interactions and highlights their moments of transcendent connection.

Some of the places, such as the bar and grill, are characters in themselves. The old hospital, which is in the process of being torn down, plays an important role in the story. Its emergency room was a place to see your neighbors on Saturday nights after the bars closed and victims of bar fights and domestic abuse began to trickle in. It is a fitting symbol for these people, all of whom have been damaged: some physically, such as Dan who is tied to a wheelchair after an auto accident and Wild Bill who has been left mentally deficient after a mysterious incident in his youth; some financially, such as Anne who gives up opportunity after opportunity to care for the parents with whom she cannot connect; and some emotionally, such as Dallas who cannot get past the death of the brother who was his ballast and keel.

The story unfolds naturally out of these characters—none of McEwan’s diaboli ex machina here—and brings their intertwined fates to a stunning climax. Russo does a great job of maintaining suspense by revealing some secrets and withholding others. The pacing here is excellent. There are several different story threads that in equal measure make up the pattern of the book. While this kind of tapestry approach to plotting certainly reinforces the sense of a varied community, I usually prefer novels with a single main narrative and main character, enriched with many subplots and minor characters. Still, I enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

Saturday, by Ian McEwan

I’ve written before about McEwan’s books. I think he’s a brilliant writer, though I don’t much like his characters; they seem cold and impersonal to me. In this book, unfortunately, they also seemed completely unreal. I simply did not believe that such people existed, making the story an intellectual exercise rather than a world I could enter.

The action all takes place in London on a single day, a Saturday. Henry Perowne wakes early to see a burning plane heading into Heathrow, a sight which fans his post-9/11 fears. It is the day of a huge march to protest the Iraq War, but the march is simply an inconvenience for Perowne as he runs his errands, plays squash, and prepares for a family reunion dinner at his luxurious London home. However, the march is partially responsible for his being in a minor accident, a road rage encounter that drives the rest of the story.

Perowne is a busy, successful neurosurgeon who still has oodles of time to cook for his family and attend the activities of his fabulously talented, brilliant, successful and never surly adolescent and post-adolescent children. Through decades of marriage, he has never once desired any woman but his wife, a brilliant and successful lawyer, and they have lovely sex not once but twice on this particular day. You see the difficulty.

I understand that McEwan wanted this family to stand in for the privileged west, fattened on the world’s resources. He points out how we take luxuries such as grapes in winter and running hot water for granted, which of course is true. Yet, as one member of my book club remarked, the nails of the story's structure are too obvious. Some reviewers have noted that Perowne’s political views reflect those of McEwan himself expressed in various articles. Without arguing one way or the other about the politics of protest marches and the war in Iraq, I’ll just say that this book is a good example of the danger of setting out to write a political treatise in the form of a novel.

Where McEwan does succeed, in my opinion, is in capturing a certain mindset common today. There’s the compulsion to listen to news stories while not trusting their source. “He suspects he's becoming a dupe, the willing, febrile consumer of news fodder.” There’s the way people argue fiercely over such things as the war when they have no first-hand information on which to base their opinions. And of course there's the free-floating anxiety and the aggression that comes out in road rage, sports, and even casual conversation. I loved his notion that “A race of extraterrestrial grown-ups is needed to set right the general disorder, then put everyone to bed for an early night.”

However, I don’t think this mindset is the result of 9/11. It started long before. And I don’t see how the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon are all that different from other terrorist attacks—from a bomb in a London market, a plane brought down in Lockerbie, sarin gas in a subway in Tokyo, or a bomb on a Spanish train—except that they happened in the U.S. and on television. Therefore, for me at least, the basis of this story—that the world changed irrevocably and uniquely on that September morning—simply doesn't hold.