Outmoded Authors Challenge final thoughts

I have really enjoyed the Outmoded Authors Challenge. The Challenge was to read however many books by however many authors you liked. I have read books that I wouldn’t have read otherwise and have learnt about others from the reviews by other people. Thanks to Imani, who hosted this challenge.

My initial list is here.

I read:

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. I’d never read anything by Scott before and had an idea that his books would be difficult to read. I didn’t find Ivanhoe difficult at all and enjoyed reading it. My thoughts on this book are here.

The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham, another author whose work I’d never read before. I wrote about this here.

The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. I know nothing about Manning’s books. I only managed to read two books in the trilogy – The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City. Friends and Heroes, the third book was listed in the library catalogue but when I tried to borrow it I found that it was no longer available because the branch library which holds it had been closed due to the library cost-saving cuts. I’ve been listening on Radio 4 to the trilogy so I now know what happens in Friends and Heroes, but I will read the book as soon as I can get a copy.

Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence. I had previously read Women in Love and The Virgin and the Gypsy, but not Sons and Lovers. I loved it – see here. I also read The Man Who Died – see here.

The only book I started and didn’t finish was As a Man Grows Older by Italo Svevo. I knew nothing about this author. The library has a copy of this book which I borrowed. I don’t often abandon a book but soon after I started to read it I thought it was tedious and I took it back unread. I did read the Introduction after I’d decided not to read the book and was dismayed when I read that he had been encouraged by James Joyce in his writing. I think I’d like to read Ulysses sometime, but if it’s anything like Svevo’s book that will be another book I’ll abandon.

I’m looking forward to joining in again when the second challenge starts later this year.

Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy

I have just discovered that The Balkan Trilogy is being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as Fortunes of War. Today was the third in a series of three programmes, two programmes allotted to each book in the trilogy. It seems that Olivia Manning is no longer an outmoded author. The dramatisation is good, with Joanna Lumley taking the part of Harriet, looking back on events and Honeysuckle Weeks as young Harriet. Both are just right for the part.

I’™ve read the first two books The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City, but not yet read the third book Friends and Heroes. I am waiting for it to be delivered, so in the meantime this is just perfect. I’™ll be able to listen to it in the next two episodes before I get to the book.

W. Somerset Maugham

After I’™d finished writing the previous post I went to the library and found a Book Club Associates’™ volume containing six stories by W. Somerset Maugham, which includes The Moon and Sixpence. This has an interesting Preface written by Maugham in 1933.

Maugham wrote that he had been living in London, working hard but not earning much money. He had written four or five novels, two of which had not been very successful and he was unknown to the general public. In 1904 he set out for Paris, where he was born, and it was there that he became aware of Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin. He met men who had known and worked with him and he read the only life of him that existed at that time. It occurred to him that here was the subject of a novel and he kept that in mind for over ten years.

When he went to Tahiti it was with the idea of finding out what he could about Gauguin’™s life and again he came across people who had been more or less connected with him. The Moon and Sixpence was written in 1918 in Surrey whilst he was recovering from the tuberculosis he had contracted earlier in the war.

For the experiences of Charles Strickland in Marseilles he had used a travel book, A Vagabond Journey round the World by Harry Franck and as he had not acknowledged the source in the novel he was condemned by an angry gentleman in an article in a magazine. This did not bother Maugham, who gladly acknowledged his debt to Franck, but pointed out that he thought it is an absurd notion that a writer should pretend to invent everything he writes out of his own head. He considered

‘œThe novelist cannot know everything. A great deal of the information necessary to him must be got from other people or from books. ‘¦ The writers of the past took from one another want they wanted. Many went further and without a sense of shame copied whole passages. This would be reprehensible now that to write books is a commercial proposition, but to make a fuss because one author uses an incident that he has found in another’™s is nonsense. By turning it to good account he makes it his own. Books of facts are legitimate quarry for the imaginative writer.’

He then referred to an article a young man had written in which he had copied almost word for word from a chapter in The Moon and Sixpence. He continued:

‘œIt contained not only all the passages I myself had used from Mr Harry Franck’™s book, but others that I had written from my own observation in the less reputable quarters (now alas, owing to the economic situation deprived of their garish vivacity) of the ancient city of Marseilles. I calmed the editor’™s fears (he saw me bringing an action for infringement of copyright) and begged him to congratulate the writer of the article on his ingenuity.’

Thinking of copyright law (which I confess I don’™t really understand) I wonder if there are there many authors who would have the same attitude today?

The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham

I’d read one short story, Honolulu by W. Somerset Maugham before, which I had enjoyed, but I knew very little about him or his work and when I started to read The Moon and Sixpence I thought I could understand why Maugham is considered an ‘outmoded’ author. I don’t think it has a good beginning; at first it didn’t grab my interest and make me want to read on. The first chapter introduces the main character, Charles Strickland, an artist, giving details of other articles and biographies that had been written about him, philosophising on the nature of art criticism. I nearly abandoned it to look for something else to read. But I’m glad I persevered because by the time I got to the second chapter I had got into the rhythm of Maugham’s style – long and sometimes convoluted sentences in long paragraphs – and found he had a sense of humour. This passage amused me:

‘I forget who it was that recommended men for their soul’s good to do each day two things they disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed. But there is in my nature a strain of asceticism, and I have subjected my flesh each week to a severe mortification. I have never failed to read the Literary Supplement of The Times. It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate that awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its way among that multitude? The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thoughts; and indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.’

Whilst this doesn’t progress the story at all, I began to warm to Somerset Maugham. Eventually he gets onto his subject – Charles Strickland, who was a stockbroker, a boring, commonplace man who was large and clumsy looking, ‘just a good, dull, honest, plain man’. This boring man then left his wife and family after seventeen years of marriage and fled to Paris, because he wanted to paint. His wife and friends would have found it more acceptable if he had left her for another woman.

I couldn’t think from the story why it was called The Moon and Sixpence but apparently the reason is that he took the title for it from an excerpt of a review of the earlier novel in the TLS in which the earlier novel’s main character is described as “so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet.” Strickland yearns and lives to paint so much that I don’t think he sees anything around him at all. He’s a character who lives purely for himself and, obsessed with the desire to paint, just couldn’t care less about anyone or anything else.

After some years of living in Paris painting, living on bread and milk, in poverty and nearly dying he eventually moves to Marseille and then on to Tahiti. In Tahiti his painting flourishes. In contrast to his life in Europe Strickland is accepted for what he is, ‘a queer fish’. In Tahiti they took him for granted: ‘In England and France he was the square peg in the round hole, but here the holes were any sort of shape, and no sort of peg was quite amiss.’

After the First World War Maugham had travelled to the South Seas. His description of Tahiti paints a beautiful picture of the island:

‘Tahiti is a lofty green island, with deep folds of a darker green, in which you divine silent valleys; there is mystery in their sombre depths, down which murmur and plash cool streams, and you feel in those umbrageous places life from immemorial times has been led according to immemorial ways.’ 

This book is roughly based on the life of Gauguin, which led me to look at Gauguin By Himself, a massive book that contains copies of his paintings, drawings, ceramic, sculpture and prints together with his written words. This is a beautiful book which I had almost forgotten was sitting on the bottom of the bookshelves, largely unread.

The photograph is of his painting The Thatched Hut Under Palm Trees (1896-7) and as Maugham had visited the place where Gauguin lived I suppose that his description of Strickland’s hut was based on this hut. In the novel Strickland paints the inside walls of his hut with beautiful and mysterious paintings, giving the impression of being in a ‘great primeval forest and of naked people walking beneath the trees.’ Looking at Gauguin’s paintings one has the same impression.

I wondered how the book had been reviewed in 1919 and found this article in The Guardian 2 May 1919, which concludes:

‘Technically the whole thing has great interest. But as an illumination of the nature of bizarre and uncompromising genius, ready to sacrifice every person and every association that stands in the way of its fulfilment, “The Moon and Sixpence” fails through its literary accomplishment and its lack of true creative inspiration.’

I disagree. After its unpromising start I think the book succeeds. Maugham has conveyed to me the passion to create beauty behind Strickland’s (Gauguin’s) life. It has revived my interest in Gauguin’ work and makes me want to read more of Maugham’s novels and short stories. In my opinion he is not an outmoded author.

 

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.

The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning


The Great Fortune is the first in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. It tells the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle’s marriage set against the background of Bucharest during the ‘Phoney War’ period of 1939/40. Guy teaches in the English Department of the University and Harriet has to find her place in Guy’s friends’ and colleagues’ university circles in the multicultural city. England and Germany are already at war and tensions are high, as the Rumanians fear a German invasion.

Throughout the novel there are contrasts between the rich ruling classes and the peasantry; between life as it was pre-war and the uncertainties and fears that the war is bringing; between the British community in Bucharest and the Rumanians; and between Guy and Harriet as they both adjust to married life, with Harriet making most of the adjustments.

It’s a richly descriptive book of both characters and place. Olivia Manning vividly depicts pre-war Bucharest. In the following scene Guy and Harriet hire a coach to take them out one evening :

When the trasura stopped at Pavel’s, one of the largest of the open-air restaurants, there could be heard above the traffic the shrill squeak of a gypsy violin. Within the shrub hedge of the garden all was uproar.

The place was crowded. The silver-gilt glow from the globes set in the trees lit in detail the wrinkled tree-trunks, the pebbled ground, and blanched the faces of the dinners, that damp with excitement of food, gazed about them with deranged looks, demanding to be served. Some rapped with knives on wine-glasses, some clapped their hands, some made kissing noises at the waiters, whilst others clutched at every passing coat-tail crying: ‘Domnule, domnule!’ for in this country even the meanest was addressed as ‘˜lord.’

Of all the characters Harriet and Prince Yakimov, or as he refers to himself ‘poor old Yaki’, a Russian emigre, half Irish and half White Russian, are the most memorable to me. Harriet is finding it difficult living in a foreign country amongst people she doesn’t know, feeling isolated among strangers, both British and Rumanian, jealous of Guy’s friends and his relationship with Sophie (who had hoped he would marry her) and his allegiance to other people seemingly over his marriage.

Harriet eventually realises that Guy is ‘a comfortable-looking man of an un-harming largeness of body and mind. His size gave her an illusion of security – for it was she was coming to believe, no more than an illusion. He was one of those harbours that prove to be shallow: there was no getting into it. For him, personal relationships were incidental. His fulfilment came from the outside world.’

Yaki, a raconteur and joker, who is said to ‘have a peculiarly English sense of humour’ uses every opportunity to sponge off anyone who will ‘lend’ him money, give him a meal or a bed for the night. He is forever ‘waiting for m’remittance from m’™poor old ma’, promising to repay the loan when it arrives, only to spend it as soon as it does without repaying anyone.

Guy decides to put on a play, Troilus and Cressida, using the students, friends and the ‘chaps at the Legation’ to act the 28 speaking parts. Whilst seeming at first to be over-ambitious and divisive the play is the means of consolidating the Pringles’ relationship and it is a success. However this coincides with fall of Paris and the despondency and fear that this brings. The book ends with the realisation that Rumania will also fall and that the Pringles’ survival depends upon their leaving:

“We’ll get away because we must. The great fortune is life. We must preserve it.”

I found the book interesting and informative about the start of the Second World War. It is also an entertaining book working on different levels, exploring the nature of marriage, friendship, patriotism and the attitudes and beliefs of the pre-war period. It’s written in a style that is slightly detached yet energetic and sympathetic. I think I’ll re-read it, as I’m sure there is much that I missed at this first reading. The next book in the trilogy is The Spoilt City. I’ve reserved it at the library and hope it won’t be too long before it arrives.

October’s Feast of Books

The books I have read this last month have been varied in style and subject matter, including a number of short stories, mainly about ghosts; a murder mystery; a Christmas fantasy; and one non-fiction book. They are all very entertaining and as I read one good book after another I began to think my luck could not last and that I was bound to start one I did not like. But no, I enjoyed them all.

  • The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  • The Man Who Died by D H Lawrence (short story)
  • Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence
  • Set in Darkness by Ian Rankin, the11th Rebus novel (and the first that I have read)
  • Christine Kringle by Lynn Brittney
  • The Verneys by Adrian Tinniswood
  • The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
  • One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
  • Crossing To Safety by Wallace Stegner

Five short stories from Great Ghost Stories
1. Berenice by Edgar Allan Poe
2. Keeping his Promise by Algernon Blackwood
3. Honolulu by Somerset Maugham
4. The Hostelry by Guy de Maupassant
5. The Murder of the Mandarin by Arnold Bennett
and The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe in Tales of Mystery and
Imagination

I have already written about Sons and Lovers, Christine Kringle, The Verneys, The Ladies of Grace, Crossing to Safety, the Ghost Stories and The Pit and the Pendulum. Clicking on the titles links to my posts on these books.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and The Man Who Died by D H Lawrence.

The Alchemist is a short novel, the story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who travels from his home in search of treasure. It’s a symbolic book about following our hearts and dreams, and reading the omens we encounter in our lives. Santiago sells his sheep and travels to Tangiers on his journey to the Pyramids following his dream that he will find hidden treasure there. On his travels in the Egyptian desert he meets an Englishman who introduces him to alchemy and together they search for the alchemist.

Eventually Santiago, guided by the alchemist, learns that alchemy is about ‘penetrating to the Soul of the World and discovering the treasure that has been reserved for you.‘ He also learns that

‘Love is the force that transforms and improves the Soul of the World.  It is we who nourish the Soul of the World, and the world we live in will either be better or worse, depending on whether we become better or worse. And that’s where the power of love comes in. Because when we love, we always strive to become better than we are.’

I found The Alchemist to be an entertaining tale of how to live our dreams. It appears to be a simplistic tale on the surface but it is a meditation on the question of fate versus free will, love, luck and spiritual enlightenment.

I was surprised by The Man Who Died by D H Lawrence, published in 1929, less than a year before Lawrence’s death and originally called The Escaped Cock. It is the last story in my copy of D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and other novels. Wikipedia recounts that Lawrence himself summarized The Escaped Cock in a letter to Brewster (a friend):

I wrote a story of the Resurrection, where Jesus gets up and feels very sick bout everything, and can’t stand the old crowd any more – so cuts out – and as he heals up, he begins to find what an astonishing place the phenomenal world is, far more marvellous than any salvation or heaven – and thanks his stars he needn’t have a mission any more.

It starts with an account of a cock, held captive by a string tied to its leg, breaking free from the cord with a wild strange squawk. At the same time a man, who is not named, awoke from a long sleep, numb and cold. The cock is a symbolic representation of the man who died. His agonising return to life and his remembrance of what happened to him filled him with nausea and pain. Bandages fell off as he moved and seeing his hurt feet he moved painfully out of the carved hole in the rock in which he was entombed and ‘filled with the sickness of disillusion’ he walked away passing the sleeping soldiers, away from the town. ‘He was alone; and having died, was even beyond loneliness.’

In the garden where he had been betrayed and buried he met Madeleine and forbidding her to touch him because he was not yet healed and in touch with men he told her not to be afraid because ‘I am alive. They took me down too soon, so I came back to life’, implying to me that he had not actually died. But, there is ambiguity here as at another time he said: ‘I have not risen from the dead in order to seek death again.’ Whatever the truth is, his mission has changed and he cannot return to his friends, ‘Now I belong to no one and have no connection, and mission or gospel is gone from me.’

He must learn to be alone. The story has clear references to Biblical characters and events but it departs from the Christian version as the man travelled on and found rest in a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess, Isis. There he fell in love with the temple’s priestess, whose mother, a widow, owned the shrine. He showed the priestess, who believes him to be Osiris, the wounds in his hands, feet and side. She anointed them with oil and he felt he was made whole again. They made love and she conceived. He knew then that the time had come for him to leave:

In the name of property, the widow and her slaves would seek to be revenged on him for the bread he had eaten, and the living touch he had established, the woman he had delighted in.  He went on, alone with his destiny, and laughed to himself: ‘I have sowed the seed of my life and my resurrection, and put my touch for ever upon the choice woman of this day – Tomorrow is another day.

I was surprised because despite its title I didn’t expect it to be about the death and resurrection of Christ. My reaction on realising that it is was mixed and I have wondered whether or not to write about it. I thought it was well written and that the concept was an interesting version of the resurrection. It is just that, a story and it gave me food for thought. There are two more stories in the book – St Mawr, which I have never read before and The Virgin and the Gypsy, which I read a few years ago, but is very vague in my memory. I’m looking forward to reading these and wonder if Lawrence has yet another surprise in store for me.

The other books I finished reading in October are Set in Darkness by Ian Rankin, One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, which I’ll write about in another post.