Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Books I Read In May

'Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (Memoirs Part 1)' by Thomas Mann
I was careless when buying this book.  I had thought that it was set in the early 20th century and expected a story about a confidence trickster; something a little like 'Berlin Alexanderplatz' (1929) by Alfred Döblin.  However, this book is set in some unnamed years in the late 19th century and is whimsical rather than gritty.  Though the protagonist does steal some jewellery in fact he spends most of his time working as a lift attendant and waiter.  He is then employed by a Luxembourgish marquis to pretend to be him on a world tour so that the marquis can remain in Paris.  The 'Memoirs Part 1' element only appears on one of the interior pages of the book, not on the cover so I was disappointed when the book stopped abruptly when the hero was about to leave Portugal and I have no idea what happens next.  However, I have no desire to find the second part of the book.

Despite Krull having many skills that would make him appropriate to be a criminal, he carries out little crime, so it is a very different book to what I expected.  It is light-hearted.  It is heavily overwritten there are sections which go on for pages simply talking about Krull being assessed for military service, touring the natural history museum in Lisbon and a letter to the marquis's parents.  They go on and on adding nothing to the story.  In many ways this made me feel it was a pastiche of novels of the period that this story covers.  However, being published in 1954, it has sensibilities of the mid-20th century so features more sexual references, including homosexual, than would ever have been seen in a novel published 60 years earlier.  The writing is engaging for the most part, but the book does not really go anywhere and because these are supposed memoirs the character fails to develop.  Overall it was unsatisfactory and it shows me to be more careful in judging a book by what is written on the cover.

'Great Tales of Detection. Nineteen stories chosen by Dorothy L. Sayers', ed. Dorothy L. Sayers
This collection of short crime fiction does what it says in the title.  Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) was herself a leading crime novelist as well as religious work, feminist essays, translations and poetry.  This book was published in 1936. A worthwhile essay at the start reflects over the development of crime fiction which was almost a century old by the time Sayers was writing.  She highlights aspects such as the 'fair play' rule, i.e. that no evidence on which the solution is based has not been signalled to the reader previously, even though deus ex machina remains permitted.  The stories selected reach from 'The Purloined Letter' by Edgar Allen Poe (1844) to 'The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem' by C. Daly King (1935).  I do wonder if the latter was part of the inspiration for the Inspector Clouseau character in the 'Pink Panther' movies.  'Clou' is the French word for nail ['seau' means bucket], the detective in the story, Trevis Tarrant, has a Japanese  manservant called Katoh; Clouseau has a Chinese manservant called Kato/Cato [the spelling changed after the first movie featuring the character].

What becomes apparent from this collection is why the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie written in this time period has remained popular, it is of far better quality than a lot of the competitor books/stories out there.  There are some crime authors featured who remain renowned today, notably Poe, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson, G.K. Chesterton of the Father Brown stories; to a lesser extent Ernest Bramah as well as one each from Christie and Sayers themselves.  The others featured are largely unknown today.  What is largely lacking is any sense of drama even when the reader sees from the perspective of the murderer.  Perhaps at best, 'The Avenging Chance' by Anthony Berkeley or 'Superfluous Murder' by Milward Kennedy could have featured in a collection of 'Tales of the Unexpected' kind collected by Roald Dahl.  However, in large part they are presented as intellectual exercises.

Sayers herself was criticised for having stories too dependent on specialist technical details and characters that were simply a series of stereotypes. The stories from the mid-19th century in the collection even seem like philosophical tracts rather than even the kind of puzzle crime stories that are still familiar, these days categorised as 'cozy' by Amazon.  Many of the stories have very contorted set-ups to allow the 'impossible' murder and weaponry which even when you know it, seems incredible.  There are a few highlights such as Collins portrayal of an arrogant junior detective in 'The Biter Bit' set out as a series of letters between three police detectives.  However, in general this book simply reassures you that you are not missing out much if you stick to Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot/Miss Jane Marple.  Overall, a curiosity but with little to engage the reader certainly one from the 21st century.  Sayers's essay is probably the highlight.

'The Great War' by John Terraine
This is a book published in 1965 at the last peak in publications about the First World War.  The edition I read came out in 1983.  Terraine was heavily involved in the BBC television 26-part series also called 'The Great War' (1964) but as he makes clear this is not the book of the series.  It is very short, only 195 pages in the edition I read.  Thus, it could make a useful book for someone who wants a quick, adult-orientated coverage of the war.  However, I am reluctant to recommend it even for that because of how partisan it is.  Terraine rightly adheres to the view that the war was largely the result of German aggression, a view that was being reinforced in the early 1960s and which he adhered to twenty years later.  However, he neglects the enthusiasm among the British elites for going to war and ironically the hostility to it both in Parliament and among the public.

Terraine says that he excusing the generals from the undeserved blame that they had received. Alan Clark's 'The Donkeys' on this issue had been published in 1961 and Terraine is known to have argued with the makers of the BBC series about this focus. Ironically, in this book Terraine is uncomplimentary and at times condemnatory of almost every general he writes about. The only ones who are spared his harsh criticism are the Russian General Adjutant Aleksei Brusilov (1853-1926), the Australian General Sir John Monash (1865-1931) and above all, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, (1861–1928). In fact, his support of Haig, leads him to utterly dismiss his predecessor Field Marshal John French 1st Earl of Ypres, (1852–1925) and to portray the forces of France as poor throughout in not bowing to British objectives at all stages.

Terraine fails to portray the Gallipoli Campaign as the utter fiasco that it was which ironically means he is more condemnatory of the Allies efforts at Salonika in Greece.  He rightly notes that the Dominion troops notably the Canadians and the Australians were both the spearhead and the backbone of the 'British' forces in the last two years of the war and also how many troops fighting the Ottoman Empire took up.  Like many commentators of his time he over-emphasises the role played by American forces, perhaps with an eye to the US readership.  He also neglects to note that the period of greatest British success, 1918 was when its casualty rate reached new highs.

Overall, though not apparently inaccurate, this is very imbalanced book with Terraine's prejudices being all too apparent throughout and shaping, indeed distorting his recounting of the war.  He goes against what he says he is going to do and condemns the generals the way many others would only sparing Haig and less than an handful of others from being derided.  He also shows the kind of Western prejudices prevalent in histories of the time in behaving as if the Russians were all ignorant and lazy and the Ottomans utterly incompetent from a racial basis despite how difficult they made British advances on all fronts they were engaged with them.  This was not a good book in its time and is not required now.

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