The Spoilt City by Olivia Manning

The Spoilt City was first published in 1962, published by Arrow Books in 2004. 295 pages.

It is the second in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. (I wrote about the first book The Great Fortune here.) It continues the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle’s life in Bucharest during 1940. The ‘Phoney War’ is now over and the invasion by the Germans is ominously threatened causing much unrest and uncertainty.

Harriet and Guy’s ideas clash; with Harriet longing to return to England and Guy determined to stay in Bucharest. The difference in their characters is also developed. Harriet is more critical of people than Guy, who prefers to like people, knowing this is the basis of his influence over them. Her criticism troubles him, but he recognises that she is stronger than him in some ways and he is influenced by her. Harriet takes a more general view than Guy and has ‘rejected the faith which gave his own life purpose.’

Guy is however, pragmatic and sees religion as ‘part of the conspiracy to keep the rich powerful and the poor docile’. He is not interested in ‘fantasy’ but in‘practical improvement in mankind’s condition.’ Harriet is not so practical, but she comes to appreciate that Guy is right: ‘Wonders were born of ignorance and superstition. Do away with ignorance and superstition and there would be no more wonders, only a universe of unresponsive matter in which Guy was at home, though she was not. Even if she could not accept this diminution of her horizon, she had to feel a bleak appreciation of Guy, who was often proved right.’

Guy’s generosity to everyone frustrates Harriet in her attempts to survive and indeed to leave the country. They are ordered to leave but he persists in staying put as the escape routes were being blocked. As Guy argues the case for staying ‘we represent all that is left of western culture and democratic ideas”, Harriet begins to think that even though they have only been married for one year that the bonds between them are loosening.

Once again Yakimov comes to the fore, providing some comic relief. He is one of the people that Guy tries to help. He visits Von Flugel, a Nazi and an old friend in Cluj. Von Flugel thinks Yaki is a British spy, but even so he gives him 25,000 lei to return to Bucharest to buy an Ottoman rug for him. When he gets to Bucharest he finds everything has changed for the worse, the army has been called out and an attack on the palace is expected. He quickly packs up and leaves on the Orient Express for Istanbul using the money from Von Flugel.

As the blitz on London begins Harriet increases her efforts to leave the country but Guy still wants to stay. They go for a short ‘holiday’ in Predeal in the mountains and Harriet becomes increasingly critical of Guy and feels bored in his company. As both their relationship and the situation in Rumania deteriorate Guy persuades Harriet to leave without him after their flat is raided and ransacked.

This is a bleak story and as I was reading it I thought it was not as good as the first book in the trilogy, The Great Fortune, but thinking about it now, that maybe because it is set in such an adverse situation set against the backdrop of war. I became increasingly critical of Guy and impatient for him to agree with Harriet. Perhaps that is the measure by which I should consider the book – it certainly seemed real to me and conveyed the tension and fears of living in Rumania at that time as well as chronicling the Pringles’ marriage. As with The Great Fortune there is a great deal of information about the political situation, which was new to me and at times I did find that difficult to follow, which didn’t help with my enjoyment of the book. What I did enjoy was the character development and their relationships. I also enjoyed Olivia Manning’s descriptive writing eg:

‘The air was furred with heat. On the pavement the Guardist youths with their banners and pamphlets, were still trying to rouse revolt. Although a sense of revolt agitated the nerves like an electric storm that would not break, the city was lethargic, the palace dormant, its white blinds drawn down against the tedium of the afternoon. … The height of summer was past. The dahlias were ablaze in the Cismigiu. Up the Chaussee, the trees were parched, their few leaves dangling like burnt paper, as they had been the first time she saw them. The brilliant months had gone down in fear and expectation of departure.’

The story is continued in Friends and Heroes, the third book in the trilogy. The Outmoded Authors Challenge finishes at the end of this month and it’s not looking as though I’ll read the third book before then, but I will definitely read it before long.

All Passion Spent

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (originally published in 1931, my copy is published by the Virago Press in 1983. 297 pages).

It’s about time that I wrote about this book. I read it in December as part of Cornflower’s book group, but only made a brief comment at the time. I was pleased to find it’s one of those books that you wish you’d read before. You can read what everyone else thought about it here.

This is what I wrote:

I wasn’t sure what to expect as this is the first book by Vita Sackville-West that I’ve read and I was surprised that she could pack so much in to the story.

I think it’s a novel of opposites: male/female, achievement opposed to desires, wealth or poverty in both material and spiritual matters, passive/aggressive, extroverts/introverts, marriage or independence.

I enjoyed it very much and would like to reread it some time. The names interest me: “Lady Slane”, suggests she was, well “killed” or maybe stifled in her life by marriage and family life etc.

Someone else has commented on the parallel between Edith and her mother and I wish it had been developed more as well – Edith’s character seems to have been partly defined and then abandoned.

There’s not a lot of plot: Lady Slane is an ageing British aristocrat. Her husband has recently died at the age of 94, leaving his family with the problem of ‘What was to be done about Mother?’ The family are four sons and two daughters; the oldest is Herbert, then there are Charles, William, Kay, and the two sisters Carrie and Edith. Lady Slane at 88 is still a beautiful woman and quickly but quietly asserts her independence. She ignores her children and decides to live, with her maid Genoux, in a house in Hampstead that she had first seen thirty years previously.

She reflects on her life – she followed Henry, her husband ‘like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent thoughts, darting and dancing.’

She thinks back to her youth when she was full of hopes, she had determined to become a painter, but lived life within herself, not showing outwardly her intensity and longings. She was ‘slain’ by her marriage and family life, although it becomes clear that her ambitions were never more than dreams. As you would expect there are many reflections on the nature of old age and the contrast with youth; Lady Slane prefers to “wallow in old age. No grandchildren. They are too young. Not one of them has reached forty-five. No great grandchildren either; that would be worse. I want no strenuous young people, who are not content with doing a thing, but must needs know why they do it.”

As I wrote in my comments above this is a novel of contrasts, beautifully written, and expressing so many emotions in a quiet unassuming manner. A gentle book, but highly critical of the way society inhibits the individual and women in particular. There is the contrast between the different attitudes towards men and women. A woman was to be “the wife of a man to whose career she might be a help and an ornament”. A man would continue with his career with the addition of a wife, whereas a woman had to forego “the whole of her separate existence”.

Another theme in the novel that interested me is that of the nature of the “self”. Lady Slane asks herself:

“Who was the she, the “I”, that had loved? And Henry who and what was he? A physical presence, threatened by time and death,, and therefore dearer for that factual menace? Or was his physical presence merely the palpable projection, the symbol, of something which might justly be called himself? … But that self was hard to get at; obscured by the too familiar trappings of voice, name, appearance, occupation, circumstance, even the fleeting perception of self became blunted or confused. And there were many selves.”

How true!

Murder Mysteries

When I wrote about the choices for the free book from newbooks magazine Nan asked if the Oscar Wilde book is a mystery, and if so is it the first in a series? She also asked about The Oxford Murders – is that a mystery or a true account?

Oscar Wilde and The Candlelight Murders by Gyles Brandreth features, as you would expect, Oscar Wilde, the celebrated playwright, poet and wit. It’s set in London, Paris and Edinburgh at the end of the nineteenth century. When a series of brutal murders takes place Wilde is determined to solve the murders. Newbooks reports that it is ‘the first in a series of classic English murder mysteries in the tradition of Conan Doyle and Dorothy L Sayers. The reviewer writes: ‘This book is fun; it is a literary confection with a chewy centre.’ That makes it sound like a sweet – a caramel maybe. Well, the first chapter is inviting enough for me to decide this is the one I want to read first.

The Oxford Murders is by Guillermo Martinez. This is also a mystery novel set in Oxford concerning the murder first of an old lady who once helped to decipher the Enigma Code, then of other seemingly unconnected murders, accompanied by cryptic notes and coded messages. They are investigated by Arthur Seldom, a leading mathematician, who has written a best seller about serial killers and the parallels between investigation into their crimes and certain mathematical theorems. This sounds complicated but intriguing. It’s my second choice and one I’ll look at in future.

As Nan said The Coroner’s Lunch is an intriguing title. She wonders how do those folks face a meal after doing their work? I can’t imagine it despite watching so many post mortems on TV shows like ‘Silent Witness’and ‘Waking the Dead’. I certainly don’t have the stomach for the job! Well, The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill is also a crime mystery novel. It is set in Laos in 1976 when the Communists have just taken over. Dr Siri Paiboun, a Paris-trained doctor remains in the country after others have fled and he is appointed state coroner, even though he has no training, experience, and equipment and doesn’t want the job. The wife of a party leader is found dead and then the bodies of tortured Vietnamese soldiers start coming to the surface of a lake. Siri has to investigate. The reviewer in newbooks writes: ‘the doctor enlists old friends, village shamans, forest spirits, dream visits from the dead – and even the occasional bit of medical deduction – to solve the crimes.’ I can”t see why it’s called The Coroner’s Lunch from the extract in the magazine, but it did make me want to read more; another book to add to the list of books to read, based on what I’ve read so far, for example this is part of the conversation between the Judge and the Coroner:

‘And what do you put the loss of blood down to?’ Judge Haeng asked.

Siri wondered more than once whether he was deliberately being asked trick questions to establish the state of his mind. ‘Well. He considered it for a moment. ‘The body’s inability to keep it in?’ The little judge hemmed and looked back down at the report. He wasn’t bright enough for sarcasm. ‘Of course, the fact that the poor man’s legs had been cut off above the knees might have had something to do with it. It’s all in the report.’

Chunkster Challenge

I’™ve decided to sign up for another challenge to help me get through my TBR list. It’s to read big, fat books ‘“ or as the Challenge calls them ‘˜chunksters‘™. The books have to have 450+ pages and mine are well over that. The ones I have picked ‘“ but this may change as I like to read as the fancy takes me – are:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusack (584 pages)
The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox (598 pages)
The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower (575 pages)
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (529 pages)

It is hosted by So Many Books, So Little Time – so true!

Reading and my Favourite Books in 2007

I thought I’d see how many different types of books I’d read this year, so here are a few figures:

Total number of books read: 98

  • Fiction: 88
  • Non-Fiction: 10
  • Books re-read: 2 (I was surprised as I thought I’d read more re-reads)
  • Different books by authors whose books I’ve read before: 14
  • Books borrowed from the library: 52 (thank goodness for libraries)
  • Books borrowed from family/friends: 4 (and for family and friends)

Favourite books 2007

I read so many good books last year that it’™s very difficult to decide which are my favourites. I tried to rate them as I read them but even so I gave nearly half of them the highest rating. I suppose that’™s not so surprising as I don’™t carry on reading a book that I don’™t enjoy.

My favourite book has to be Jenny Diski’™s On Trying to Keep Still. I wrote about it here.

As for the rest I don’™t really like to single any out one more than others but the following books stand out in my mind. I can’™t limit them to 10 and I’™ve listed them in alphabetical author order, as I can’™t decide between them:

Margaret Atwood ‘“ Moral Disorder
Alan Bennett ‘“ Four Stories
Ariana Franklin ‘“ Mistress of the Art of Death
Jane Gardam ‘“ Old Filth
Joanne Harris ‘“ Gentlemen and Players
Mary Lawson ‘“ Crow Lake
Linda Olsson ‘“ Astrid and Veronika
Mollie Panter-Downes ‘“ One Fine Day
Philip Pullman ‘“ His Dark Materials (three books)
Philip Reeve ‘“ Here Lies Arthur
C J Sansom – Sovereign
Wallace Stegner ‘“ The Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety

I must mention D H Lawrence too. I read two of his books as part of the Outmoded Authors Challenge. He shouldn’t be considered “outmoded” – Sons and Lovers and The Man Who Died are great stories.

All in all a fantastic year of reading.

Anticipation – Booking Through Thursday

        • Last week we talked about the books you liked best from 2007. So this week, what with it being a new year, and all, we’™re looking forward’¦.
        • What new books are you looking forward to most in 2008? Something new being published this year? Something you got as a gift for the holidays? Anything in particular that you’™re planning to read in 2008 that you’™re looking forward to? A classic, or maybe a best-seller from 2007 that you’™re waiting to appear in paperback?

        This is my first post in 2008 – Happy New Year everyone.

        I’m looking forward to reading C J Sansom’s new book Revelation, which will be published in April. This is the fourth book featuring Matthew Shardlake and is set in Spring, 1543, when King Henry VIII is wooing Lady Catherine Parr, whom he wants for his sixth wife. It’s a time of religious mania when the insane are considered as heretics, imprisoned in Bedlam and burnt at the stake. When an old friend is horrifically murdered Shardlake, a lawer-cum-detective, promises to bring the killer to justice. His search leads him to connections not only with a boy in Bedlam but with Cranmer and Catherine Parr and with the dark prophecies of the Book of Revelation. I’ve loved the other Matthew Shardlake books and expect this one will be just as good.

        I’m also looking forward to reading another book not yet published – Nothing to be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes. I read about it in the paper at the weekend. It’s a meditation and memoir, about God, death and art, which sounds fascinating. It’s out in March.

        Then I have lots of books on my wish list and loads on my ‘to be read’ list – plenty to keep me going. Some of these I’ve included in the ‘What’s in a Name’ and ‘Celebrate the Author’ Challenges. I’ve already read two of the books I had for Christmas Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve and The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill, both of which I’ve been looking forward to reading and both were compelling and very enjoyable – worth waiting for. I am now reading a third Christmas present, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I first read this as a teenager, but after all that time it’s like reading it for the first time.

        Books Read in 2007

        So far this year I’ve read 98 books. I didn’t make a century, but then it’s not about numbers, but is about reading and enjoying books. I don’t think I’ll finish any more by the end of this year. The first 30 (or so) books on the list I read before I started to write this blog, so there are no posts about them. I’ve written about most of the books I’d read up to the end of November and I hope to write about some of the ones read in December next year.

        Clicking on the titles that are underlined takes you to my posts on the books.

        98.Here Lies Arthur, Philip Reeve
        97.Four Stories, Alan Bennett
        96.The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam, Chris Ewan
        95.Solstice, Joyce Carol Oates
        94.Old Filth, Jane Gardam
        93.The Owl Service, Alan Garner
        92. The Spoilt City, Olivia Manning
        91.The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
        90.All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville-West
        89.My Cleaner, Maggie Gee
        88.The Testament of Gideon Mack, James Robertson
        87.The Great Fortune, Olivia Manning
        86.Surveillance, Jonathan Raban
        85.Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell
        84.Remainder, Tom McCarthy
        83.Lewis Carroll: a biography, Morton Cohen
        82.The Sidmouth Letters, Jane Gardam
        81.Crossing To Safety, Wallace Stegner
        80.Playing with the Moon, Eliza Graham
        79.One Fine Day, Mollie Panter-Downes
        78.Ladies of Grace Adieu, Susanna Clarke
        77.The Verneys, Adrian Tinniswood
        76.Christine Kringle, Lynn Brittany
        75.Set in Darkness, Ian Rankin
        74.Sons and Lovers, D H Lawrence
        73.The Man Who Died, D H Lawrence
        72.The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett
        71.Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott
        70.Astrid and Veronika, Linda Olsson
        69.The Alchemist, Paul Coelho
        68.Ghostwalk, Rebecca Stott
        67.Crow Lake, Mary Lawson
        66.Speaking of Love, Angela Young
        65.Letters to Malcolm, C S Lewis
        64.Season of the Witch, Natasha Mostert
        63.The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman
        62.The House at Riverton, Kate Morton
        61.The Secret History, Donna Tartt
        60.Made in Heaven, Adele Geras
        59.Crooked House, Agatha Christie
        58.Arlington Park, Rachel Cusk
        57.The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman
        56.Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J K Rowling
        55.Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
        54.Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
        53.Mistress of the Art of Death, Ariana Franklin
        52.Theft, Peter Carey
        51.King of the Streets, John Baker
        50.The Poe Shadow, Matthew Pearl
        49.Digging to America, Anne Tyler
        48.Wilberforce, John Pollock
        47.On Trying To Keep Still, Jenny Diski
        46.Death’s Jest-Book, Reginald Hill
        45.The Woodlanders, Thomas Hardy
        44.Body Surfing, Anita Shreve
        43.The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
        42.Daphne, Margaret Forster
        41.Blessings, Anna Quindlen
        40.The Dawkin’s Delusion, Alistair McGrath
        39.The Giant’s House, Elizabeth McCracken
        38.Pictures of Perfection, Reginald Hill
        37.Keeping Faith, Jodie Picoult
        36.Over, Margaret Forster
        35.Master Georgie, Beryl Bainbridge
        34.On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan
        33.Gentlemen & Players, Joanne Harris
        32.Hallucinating Foucault, Patricia Duncker
        31.Emotional Geology, Linda Gillard
        30.The Secret of the Last Temple, Peter Sussman
        29.When I Grow Up, Bernice Rubens
        28.Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy
        27.Death Minus Zero, John Baker
        26.The Conjuror’™s Bird, Martin Davies
        25.Nights of Rain and Stars, Maeve Binchy
        24.The Devil wears Prada, Lauren Weisberger
        23.Stranger on a Train, Jenny Diski
        22.Instances of the Number 3, Salley Vickers
        21.Sovereign, C J Sansom
        20.The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey
        19.The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope
        18.Only Say the Word, Niall Williams
        17.Learning to Swim, Clare Chambers
        16.A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka
        15.Mother’™s Milk, Edward St Aubyn
        14.The Dark Shore, Susan Howatch
        13.Mr Golightly’™s Holiday, Salley Vickers
        12.What Good are the Arts?, John Carey
        11.Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
        10.The Falls, Joyce Carol Oates
        9.The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
        8.Moral Disorder, Margaret Atwood
        7.Shadows in the Mirror, Frances Fyfield
        6.But Nobody Lives in Bloomsbury, Gillian Freeman
        5.The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
        4.Miss Garnet’™s Angel, Salley Vickers
        3.The Christmas Mystery, Jostein Gaarder
        2.The Water Babies, Charles Kingsley
        1.The Waiting Sands