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I was drawn to this book on the strength of Anthony Doerr’s previous work, the Pulitzer prize winning “All the Light We Cannot See“, which I enjoyed very much. Cloud Cuckoo Land is another complex labyrinth of a novel. It is intricate, puzzling, occasionally infuriating, but also compulsive and deeply rewarding.

It jumps back and forth between the siege of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, the Korean War in the 1950s, the USA in the 40s and the present day, then also to a near future onboard a spaceship, the Argos, containing a volunteer crew from a climate ravaged earth. The crew are travelling to an exo-planet that may support human life, a journey that will take almost six hundred years, and of course which none alive at the time will ever see.

What links each of these threads is another story, the titular Cloud Cuckoo Land, an imagined “lost” text by the ancient Greek philosopher, Diogenes. The story tells of a humble shepherd who is tired of his lot but has heard of a utopian land in the sky, built by the birds. Since only a bird can get there, he visits a witch who promises to turn him into a bird, but things go wrong, and he ends up as a donkey, then a fish. He suffers every hardship imaginable, but refuses to give up on his desire to reach Cloud Cuckoo Land. Finally, he becomes a bird, but must face one last test before being admitted,…

Diogenes’ fictional book is first rediscovered in a fragile state by one of our earliest protagonists Anna, in Constantinople, who escapes the siege, and smuggles the book out with her. Eventually, her husband, a humble ox-herder takes the book to Italy, so it might be preserved, but it’s essentially lost again in the archives, only to be rediscovered by researchers in contemporary times. But by now it’s in such poor condition it takes modern technology to reconstruct its pages, though sadly with many words missing, and the pages jumbled up. Posted online as an international treasure of public interest, its cause is taken up by the humble octogenarian, Zeno Ninis, who attempts a translation and a reconstruction of the plot. To this end he enlists the help of a group of schoolchildren who work the story into a play. But on the night of its performance, they are disturbed by the young, autistic Seymour, who is intent on making an explosive statement regarding our mistreatment of nature. Although the main story jumps about in time, the ancient text is revealed in linear fashion as it passes through the hands of the various protagnists, so acting as a kind of temporal compass, preventing us from getting lost.

It’s onboard the Argos, through the eyes of a young girl, Konstance, we learn of the global catastrophe she and her fellows are escaping. The Argos is controlled by an A.I. called Sybil, whose memory contains a record of everything ever written, and which is accessible through a virtual reality experience akin to entering the ultimate library. There’s also a kind of 3D Google Earth one can visit to see what life was like back home, just prior to the calamity. Konstance is aware of the story of Diogenes’ Cloud Cuckoo Land through her father, who has been telling it to her, but she can find no copy of it in Sybil’s memory. As she searches for it, she pieces together the mystery of the translation by Zeno Ninis, and closes in on a final startling revelation regarding the voyage of the Argos itself.

For all the complexity of its structure, I found the story accessible. As with his previous novel, I found the prose beautiful, while maintaining a page turning urgency. There’s a clear warning about the climate emergency here, about the vacuity of the materialism that’s driving us to ruin, about our almost wilful blindness to everything we are risking by our inaction, but there’s also a dig at the techno-utopians who see a solution for us in the stars, instead of trying to solve the problems of a dying earth by righting our own wrongs here and now.

The story of the shepherd ends with him dissatisfied, even amid the luxurious perfection of Cloud Cuckoo Land. He discovers at last that what he wants more than anything is to return to the life he had as a humble shepherd, with all its vexations and imperfections. The moral of that one is that what we already have is always so much better than what we are forever, and so desperately, seeking elsewhere.

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The Razor’s Edge mostly concerns Larry Darrel, an American youth who has returned home from the first war. He’s expected to pick up where he left off, marry Isabel, his childhood sweetheart, and take up a position in business with his best friend’s father. His future looks set, and he’s well-placed to move into monied, and fashionable society, partly also by virtue of Isabel’s well-connected socialite uncle, Elliott Templeton.

But Larry’s experience in the war has changed him, and he sets off instead on a journey of self discovery that takes him through Europe and India, leaving Isabel to marry his best friend, the lovable but ultimately dull “Gray”. Maugham plays himself, popping in and out of the various characters lives, and thereby updating us on their progress, as the years pass.

On the surface, it sounds a bit dull, but Maugham draws his characters well and has us believe in them. Although a major thread of the story, Larry’s gradual path to a kind of enlightenment is delivered with a light brush, especially when compared with the lavishness heaped upon Elliot Templeton, who’s outrageous snobbery, tempered by his kindness and devotion to his family, nearly captures the entire book. Templeton’s highly strung obsession with the socialite scene, with matters of taste and position, are however, the perfect contrast to Larry’s gradual, happy impoverishment.

As for Isabel, although superficially happy with her marriage, money and the trimmings of her social position, she has never stopped wanting Larry. She simply couldn’t bring herself to be a part of the humble life he’d chosen, and when Larry resurfaces after many years looking set to marry Sophie, a broken drunk of a girl from his and Isabel’s past, no matter how reformed Larry claims Sophie to be, Isabel is determined to thwart the match by fair means or foul.

There’s a lot going on in this story, and it’s one that lingers for a long time afterwards. We realise by the end we’ve become part of Maugham’s world, sat with him at the pavement café’s of inter-war Paris, attended Templeton’s fastidiously crafted society parties, and hobnobbed with the continental aristocracy. What the main characters all have in common is they are seeking happiness, Isabel through a good marriage, Gray through the making of money, Templeton through the recognition of his social prowess, and his exquisite tastes in fashion and art. And then there’s Larry. Larry’s path is the hardest of them all, unlike the others, not even knowing exactly what it is he’s looking for. He walks the Razor’s Edge, the title coming from a line in the Kathe Upanishad:

Sharp like a razor’s edge is the path, the sages say, difficult to traverse.

But as we follow Larry’s path, we see him grow, become grounded and at ease with life and himself. By contrast Isabel, still bound up with the material trappings, grows brittle for the choices she has made, and ever desperate for the man she loves, while Templeton, ageing yet forever striving to keep up with the times, fears being sidelined by the high society of which he believes himself to be king.

A little daring for its time, sexually frank, Maugham even ventures so far as profanity, though delicately, and in French. But what we also have here is the portrait of a lost world, the story taking place mostly in Europe of the 20s and 30s, a world that was swept away, even as Maugham was writing about it, and so lucidly.

It was the subject of two film adaptations, the first in 1946 starring Tyrone Power, the second in 1984 with Bill Murray, but I can recommend neither. I’ve not read Maugham before, and I’m told this isn’t the best place to be starting, it being rather towards the end of his canon, but I found him nevertheless good company, and an engaging storyteller. A bestseller in its day, I thought it was a terrific read, its message as fresh now as ever, which only goes to show how little we’ve advanced, that while the wise know full well the material life is a dead end, most of us simply can’t help ourselves. Besides, anything else is a path so hard, and so narrow, few have the mettle, or the balance for it.

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In dark and uncertain times, it’s a pleasure to find a book as unremittingly positive, and as (literally) energising as this one. Wim Hof is famous for his feats of extreme endurance, like running up Everest wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, climbing Kilimanjaro in record time, without the normal acclimatisation to avoid altitude sickness, and for sitting encased in ice for periods that would kill a lesser mortal. Not surprisingly, he is also known as the “Ice man”.

Wim Hof claims no special physiology. Medical tests confirm he is not a freak of nature, and he tells us anyone equipped with his methods can achieve the same thing. Moreover, his methods are simple, and they are not “secret”. Any search of the Internet will reveal them. They are based upon his own life experiences, and his researches of ancient eastern techniques. For example, there are stories of Tibetan monks who sit in the freezing cold, and dry out wet cloths upon their backs by the generation of internal heat. It’s a phenomenon that’s been documented, but has left researchers stumped. It’s that sort of thing, Wim has taken on board, honed it to its essentials, demystified it, and applied it to astonishing effect in his own life. While few of us would feel the need to emulate Wim Hofs feats of extreme endurance, the implications for general health and well-being are equally profound.

The method does not require years of seclusion in a Tibetan Monastery. Rather, it involves a daily regime of breathing exercises, followed by exposure to cold water – say a cold shower every morning. The book outlines the exercises, its applications, and some testimonies from satisfied practitioners, but in the main this is Wim Hof’s personal story, and writes like a force of nature, is inspirational, and comes across as infinitely compassionate. He speaks of his early childhood in Holland, and his drop-out culture youth, among communities of squatters. He speaks of adult tragedy, his love of family, and his mission, which is to pass on this same infectious passion for life.

But is he too good to be true? Inevitably, perhaps, many have thought so. Journalists have sought him out with the aim of exposing him, but have ended up becoming converts. His collaboration with various scientific institutions also adds rigour to his claims, and has further silenced cynical naysayers, though his feats still defy conventional wisdom on how the body works, and what it should be capable of.

The difficulty most of us have with any “method”, however, is making the time, or having the motivation, or just the sheer courage, and I for one have yet to take the cold water challenge. That said, my own studies and practice of Qigong lead me to have no trouble endorsing at least the breathing techniques, which seem like an effective précis of the many methods I have encountered over the years.

The aim of breath work, like this, is to dramatically increase the oxygen content of the blood. Breath is, literally, the stuff of life, it is oxygen, it is the Qi of the Chinese, the Prana of the Hindu, but the western lifestyle means we are often living under stress, which interferes with the breath, restricts it, which results in a permanent state of hypoxia, and a resulting chemical imbalance, which leads to inflammation, to immuno-deficiency, and to all manner of sickness. We gradually acidify. Attention to the breath redresses the balance, boosting oxygen intake, and gradually resetting the dial so to speak. Reading this book has reinforced the answers to the questions my own practice of Qigong posed over the years.

Whilst at pains to provide a rigorous backing for its claims, there is an undoubted hippy, new age vibe to the narrative, and Wim’s language is never far away from the mystical – at least in a secular, new age kind of way. Some readers may find this off-putting, but this is not written as a sterile medical textbook, it is the document of a man’s life, his achievements and his passions, told in his own words, which makes his story all the more readable, and I warmed to it at once.

Wim Hoff: I’ll tell you what I do. I follow my inner voice and listen to what it tells me. I trust my soul sense and let it guide me. I ignore, as best as I can my ego. I know it’s going to be cold in the morning and that those first few seconds in the cold water are going to be unpleasant because my ego tells me so. But my inner voice tells me to bloody get into that cold water,…

We’ve all heard that voice. For now mine’s not urging me under a cold shower in the mornings, though with electricity currently at nearly 30p per Kilowatt hour, I can see the benefits to my pocket, if not also my health. It once happened by accident, a guest house shower suddenly running ice-cold, and the shock of that was so great I gasped for breath, staggered out, and nearly fainted. Wim does suggest, therefore, you go easy on yourself to begin with.

Altogether, a very engaging and informative read. I gained such a lot of knowledge from it, answering questions I’ve had for a long time about breath-work, and it effects on physiology. And yes, I’m sure a cold shower would wake me up in more ways than one, but at the risk of sounding cosseted, I’m happy to take it one day at a time.

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The Jimmy Saville scandal broke shortly after his death in 2011. He was one of several icons of popular British culture I grew up with, revealed as false. These dubious characters commanded a great deal of trust. Indeed, we were continually fed their images, even when those who knew them, or worse, fell victim, knew their darker side. They kept quiet out of fear, perhaps, or shame.

So we don’t come from a good place, we British. We have learned to be cautious around icons of virtue. There are many, of course, who pass without notoriety. John Noakes comes to mind; Morecambe and Wise; Les Dawson; Dave Allen. These names, all popular entertainers from my youth, did not ruin my memory with parting scandal. Others did, and soured the Zeitgeist. They had us think all saints harboured dark secrets. It almost felt as if we were being taught to expect it, that goodness was always badness in disguise. It had merely yet to be exposed.

An icon I was unaware of, on my side of the Atlantic, was Fred Roberts. He came to me only recently in the biopic “A beautiful day in the neighbourhood”. This was the last film I watched in 2021. Roberts was an inspiration for a generation of American children. Featured on the cover of Esquire magazine in 1998, he was the subject of a major piece by journalist Tom Junod,

But as I watched the movie, a tainted Englishman, the spectre of Saville hung over me. Thus, I expected Roberts to be revealed as less than the thoroughly decent and Godly man he seemed. After all, is that not the way of our times? We set them up, then pull them down. But that wasn’t the direction the movie took at all. I’m not sure exactly when the redeeming moment first came for me, but I was a convert by the time we arrived at the scene in the restaurant.

Here the fictional, hard-bitten journalist, tasked with doing a piece on Roberts, and determined to find the cracks in him, is asked by Roberts to pause for a minute, and to reflect on all those in his life who had “loved” him into being. The restaurant falls quiet as everyone, casually eavesdropping, reflects, as I too reflected. Images of parents, aunts, uncles, friends, floated up from the depths of memory. They left me feeling bigger and more impermeable to life’s abrasions than before. It was a personal thing, but one we can all relate to. The movie concludes, as Tom Junod concludes in his article, that Fred Roberts was a remarkable, Godly man, who tried to make a difference.

The final scene is interesting, and mysterious. Roberts would finish his TV broadcasts at a piano, as things were being packed up for the day, and he’d play. He’d been asked, earlier in the movie, how do you deal with your own anger, your own darkness? He’d replied by saying, among other things, you can bang down on the lower notes of the piano. So we knew he was not claiming to be immune from doubts. But there are ways we can subvert the darker currents of human emotion, and rise above them. In this final scene, after he’s spent the entire movie redeeming others, he bangs down hard on those lower notes. We feel his discord, before he picks up again on a lighter refrain.

For the answer to this mystery, we turn to Junod’s 1998 essay. Portraying such a decent character as this, in film runs the risk of sinking into something sentimental. But Junod, writing in those pre-millennium times, also recognises something crucial about the times. Those were pre social media, proto Internet days. But the savvy were already joining the dots into the near future. They could see the decency of Roberts’ mission was growing ever more futile. Perhaps he sensed it, too, we don’t know, but that’s what’s hinted at in that final discordant bang on the piano.

We are left with the image of Roberts as a man, not perfect, but a good, Godly, and enlightened man, what other cultures might even call a bodhisattva. He approached life, and people, in a way that is alien to most of us. To what extent the movie accurately reflects the person of Fred Roberts, only Mr Roberts, can tell us. But I believe we do glimpse him in spirit, played as he is, with respect and reverence, by the actor, Tom Hanks.

Roberts died in 2003. The millennium was touted as a great turning point, and, in a sense, it was. I certainly didn’t see what was coming, at least not the extent of it. I did not imagine how unwholesome, how destructive of innocence, the direction of travel would be. It’s hard to watch this story of the life of Fred Roberts and not lament the way things might have been. Or was it inevitable, that his short TV slices of gentle wisdom, beamed at the young and the impressionable, would not be eclipsed by the mind-numbing, mind-bending weaponry levelled against the youngsters of today?

I don’t know. Had it not been for the Internet and the then unheard of technology of movie streaming, I would never have watched this film. I would not have learned about this man. What we’ve discovered then, in these first decades of the twenty-first century, is a way of connecting and amplifying everything that’s human, both the good and the bad of it, rather than something that is intrinsically and entirely bad. We’re just not very good at using it yet, and the cracks we see in it need to be healed somehow. If we’re wise, that’s what we’ll do, even if it takes the work of generations.

There will always be Savilles, as there will always be the likes of Fred Roberts. While it can be impossible, these days, to know who is worthy of our trust, what we can do is make a start by avoiding the trap of letting the one poison our faith in the redeeming nature of the other.

Welcome to 2022. Happy New Year.

Thanks for listening.

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The penultimate movie I watched, in 2021, was a darkly satirical offering called “Don’t Look Up”. Astronomers discover an asteroid on collision course with earth, a mass extinction event. But it coincides with another mass extinction event already well under way, which is the state of our political and media culture, and where it’s leading us. So far, from what I’ve read, it’s being called a sci-fi movie. It’s not. It’s very much of the moment, and what happens is eerily plausible, but then my span of life on earth includes the phenomenon that was Trump’s presidency, and the spectacle of the incumbent British administration. After that, anything will seem plausible.

The message I took from the movie, is those who can still relate to one another as human beings, still look up at the sky and know it’s real, and who value love and fellowship – well – you’d better cling to that, because it’s no small thing, even if your phone is telling you something else entirely. It’s also all you’ve got. It won’t stop you getting mown down with the rest of humanity in its stampede for the material, but you’ll be able to look back on your life, and feel it was worth something. The only other thing there is is this “culture”, for want of a better word, that we’ve built, lets say over the last twenty years, and which can have us look up at an incoming asteroid, and deny its existence, sneer knowingly at the science that’s telling us it’s coming, right up to the moment it strikes, then whimper uselessly, that we were lied to. What we’ve built, then, aspires to something stupid, and which crushes the life out of, well,… life itself.

It’s had mixed reviews, but I thought it was pretty much on the button. It was a sobering note to end the year on, but not altogether negative.

Individually, we’re all facing our own incoming asteroid, our own extinction event. There’s a line in the Chinese Book of Changes, that describes how some of us will approach this by denying its existence, by endless partying, pursuing surgery, drugs, botox and hair dye, all to maintain the illusion of eternal youth. Others will spend their lives crushed under the weight of it, bemoaning the harshness, and the futility of life, weeping over their lot at every chance they get. But to live as we should is to find another way, one that’s becoming harder, like a whisper in a room of noise, and it’s rarely taught, how to tune in how to age gracefully, how to mature as a human being. Part of it at least is to treasure the ineffable in what can be the all too transient and minuscule glimpses of a greater reality.

The movie ends with family and friends breaking bread around the dinner table, and asking the question: what was the best moment of your life? I took my cue from this and asked the question at our family Christmas lunch, not what was the best moment of your life, but of the past year. It’s tempting to see this past year, and the year before it, in purely negative terms, on account of Covid. But in spite of that, each of us could indeed pin-point a special moment, several in fact, and in that light, its not been a bad year at all, just different.

One of my special moments would be reaching the top of Pendle, in September, and having it to myself for a bit. There was something in the fall of light, in the colours of the sky, and the movement of clouds that day. We’re not always aware of it at the time. It’s only when we think back, we realise there was a special quality, a connection with something deeper than the surface of the everyday.

These are the times that give life meaning, their promise pulling us forwards, into life, though we have no idea when they will come again. They’re special because they’re reflective of something timeless, something of the immortal, a memory we are born with, and they don’t cost anything. It’s a glimpse, perhaps, of what the Hindu would call Brahman, the transcendent, or rather the divine consciousness, and that we are, each of us, “it”. What we’re seeing then, in moments like that, is a reflection of our own face in the crowd, and recognising it, even if we cannot name it.

But our vision, our ability to naturally transcend, is mostly hampered by the shallowness and the surrounding noise, and especially now, with the infernal din that is our “social” media, this thing that showed some early promise as a means of remotely connecting us, but which was captured by the big bucks machinery, and is now gamed simply to big us up with its false promises, persuade us the persona we project into it is the real “us”, but which ultimately makes an insulting zero of us all. Then there’s the unwholesome churn of our politics and news media, perpetually beamed into our heads, unsettling us, and purporting to be the only reality there is. But it’s not.

Just look up.

Here’s to 2022

And, as always, thanks for listening.

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On the face of it this is a simple story. But at three hundred and eighty pages there has to be more than that. And sure enough, for our setting we have a lovingly painted, highly detailed, and very broad canvas of life. This is rural Ireland, a place that began to emerge from the nineteenth century sometime in the late fifties with the arrival of the telephone, then electricity. But its embrace of the modern led in many ways to its demise, for this is an Ireland that no longer exists. The location is vague – County Kerry, a fictional village called Faha, somewhere on the Shannon river. It’s quiet, remote, and it rains,… and rains and rains, until one day, around the miracle of Easter, the sun comes out, and stays out,…

Our narrator is Noe, now an elderly man, looking back on his time in Faha, when he was seventeen. He had been sent away to train for the priesthood, but abandoned it. Now he’s gone to live with his grandparents Doady and Ganga while he decides on his future, or rather while his future reveals itself to him. The electricity company has also arrived and its men are erecting poles to bring the wires for electrification. They bring with them Christy McMahon, a mysterious, charismatic and well travelled man. He lodges with Noe’s grandparents, and he and Noe form a bond. But Christy has another reason for coming to Faha. He confesses to Noe that he wronged a woman, long ago, and has come to find her, and now, in the autumn of his life, make amends. Haunted by the idea Noe finds himself an accomplice to Christy’s vague plans. Then Noe himself falls beautifully, chastely and intensely in love,…

This is a novel to be read slowly, to be savoured for its depth, it’s wisdom and its richness. If you think reading a half a page describing the different kinds of rain blowing in off the Atlantic will irritate you, then I advise against it. But then again I’d sooner say that to enter the world of Niall Williams is to enter a world so richly layered the ordinary becomes magical. And, with a lyrical prose such as this, that half a page of rain is no bother at all.

There are a bewildering number of characters, as there are in life. Many are passing vignettes, but they linger in the memory, and it’s hard to convince yourself afterwards you never actually met them. As for the central characters, they will grow as close to your heart as your own family. Doady and Ganga, become your own grandparents. Faha is your own fondly remembered place of retreat and healing from tragedy. But it’s a place already under threat from a crass modernity, as symbolized by the coming of electricity, and the promises of “convenience” that threatens to eclipse a slower way of life, one led closer to nature, and to God.

There’s a danger in writing nostalgic accounts of places on the edge of time, like Faha, that we gloss over the terrible hardships and the poverty that underlies the bucolic sheen. This was clearly a tough place to live, and it bred a tough, resilient people. But there is also a wry humour in them, and Williams brings this out beautifully. Doady and Ganga’s house, Ganga says was built in a puddle. This explains the mushrooms sprouting along the line of the dresser. And at the slightest hint of sun, belongings are hauled outside to dry from their exposure to near perpetual damp. But then all memory is selective. It is sentimental and forgiving of hardship when its quest is for the metaphysical origins of love, and the nature of happiness.

It is Christy who nails it one evening as he and Noe are setting out by bicycle along the quiet lanes, in search of pubs and music. Both are trailing their respective tragedies. Noe is looking ahead into what he sees as the abyss of his future. Christy is looking back into the abyss of his past, both men caught also in grip of a possibly doomed love:

“This is happiness,” says Christy. And Noe understands the meaning in it, that it’s true simply by virtue of the fact both of them are alive in the world to say it. Reading this story was a sublime and deeply moving experience and I shall remember it for a long time.

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atlwcsOccasionally you come across a novel that makes you realize you’ve been tolerating some dreadful rubbish in your reading of late. Such novels light you up from the first paragraph, the first line even. And so it was for me with this one. They are like a breath of fresh air after a long incarceration.

All the light we cannot see has great depth and intricacy, both in its subject and in the telling of it. The chapters are short, sometimes just a page or two, but there’s an intensity to them, and they shift about from beginning to end, illuminating meaning, lighting the way as Doerr leads us through a labyrinth of place and time and love – the love between people, and of life itself.  

I’m describing a work of lyrical and literary merit here, to say nothing of being the winner of the 2015 Pulizer prize, yet it also has the quality of a compulsive page-turner. At times you want to rush at it, to find out what happens next, instead of lingering in the silkenness of the words and the power of the ideas. So, those short chapters really save you, punctuating your way through the complexity and the magic.

It sounds like I’m describing a fairy story, not a story of war, yet there are elements here that ring with a mythological resonance.

The story opens in the early 1930s and follows the lives of two orphans. First, there is Werner Pfennig, a young German boy with a genius for building and repairing radios. Through his first radio-set he hears an enigmatic transmission from France, something that lights his passion for the romance of science and discovery. The memory of it is to captivate and haunt him throughout his life. But the war is looming and, longing to avoid his dead father’s fate in the mines, he allows himself to be enlisted in the Hitler youth movement, and from there into the army. There, his expertise with radios sees him as part of a unit that roves the battle lines in a truck, using radio direction methods to locate partisan transmissions. It is a hunt with inevitably brutal conclusions.  

The other orphan is Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, living with her father in Paris. When Paris is over-run by the Germans, they flee to St. Malo, to the house of her uncle Étienne, an other-worldy man, badly shell-shocked from the first war. Unknown to Marie-Laure, her father, a master-locksmith from the museum, has been entrusted with the safekeeping of a magnificent diamond the Nazis would dearly like to catch up with.

Étienne’s house is the source of the mysterious radio transmissions Werner listened to as a boy. The transmitter has lain unused for many years. But as St Malo too is overrun, Étienne is reluctantly caught up in the partisan effort, and begins using it again to transmit coded messages to the allies.

That Werner is destined to meet Marie-Laure we are never in any doubt. But this is far from a simple love story. The events of Werner’s war in particular raise questions of courage, morality and pragmatism. But contrasted with this, we have the love between Marie-Laure and her father, and later her uncle Étienne. Then there is Étienne’s companionship with his housekeeper, the energetically practical Madame Manec,… And then there is St Malo, so beautifully described, almost as a living thing.

Werner’s war takes him first to the eastern front, but gradually, as things go badly for Germany, he and his comrades find themselves travelling westward to St Malo, and the imminent D-Day landings, still on the hunt for enemy radio transmissions,…

You can see all this coming from some way out, but rest assured the writer has seen you seeing it, and is lying in wait for you with a twist that is as beautiful and emotional as it is unexpected. As I grow older I become less patient with writers, and it’s a rare one who can break down the barricades and lance my heart as this story does.

Some critics didn’t like it. They didn’t like the pellucid prose. They didn’t like the genre motifs, the page-turning urgency. So maybe I’m just thick and it appealed to my uncritical and semiliterate tastes. But from a random pick on a charity shop bookshelf ‘All the light we cannot see’ lands easily in my all-time top-ten, and a small list of books to be read again and again. 

 

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Sweet_Tooth_(novel)By a process that is both conscious and subliminal we form a picture and an opinion of the world from the images presented to us, and from the stories we are told. We pick them up from culture, both popular and highbrow, from the print media, and from the movies we see. Whilst inevitable and obvious, it also renders us vulnerable to manipulation, because what if the world isn’t really like that? And how do we form a truly independent opinion of reality anyway? Is it even possible?

We accept that oppressive regimes will censor the media in order to control a population and to manage its image abroad, but what if we in the west are also subject to a subversive manipulation of the media so that everything we see, read and hear possesses a slant that tips our thoughts in a particular direction? What if, say, even certain authors of high-brow fiction gain prominence and publication for having political views considered favourable, while others are forced to languish in obscurity? What if the very bedrock of intellectual thought itself is tilted by design to enourage a certain line of thinking?

This is the plot of McEwans “Sweet Tooth”, so named after the security operation to recruit unwitting authors into a propaganda machine, to fund them through an apparently bona-fide arts foundation so they might quit their day-jobs and focus on their writing, unaware they are in fact serving other interests.

Our writer Tom Haley, struggling literary author and lecturer at the University of Sussex, is duped by low-level secret service minion Serena Frome into signing up, and the pair become lovers. Set in the early 1970’s McEwan plunges us into a world of power cuts, fuel shortages, the three day week, striking miners and hunger-striking IRA prisoners, all of which serves to remind us that while we think we live in politically perilous times, they are as nothing to what has gone before. But that’s just something else I took from the book, probably because I’m a little late coming to the postmodern party and realising that, as a cultural movement, it’s not completely bonkers – that it’s never wise to accept uncritically the prevailing Zeitgeist as being the only truth there is.

Serena is herself subject to scrutiny by the “service”, result of a past affair with a disgraced officer, and this lends further intrigue, as does the tension caused when operation “Sweet Tooth” begins to fall apart. Worse, Serena is no cold-hearted career-spy; her love for Haley is genuine, but this can only mean two things: the future of their relationship is doomed when she’s finally exposed, as are her prospects for advancement within the service due to her percieved incompetence by her mysoginistic male colleagues. But then all is not quite as it seems,…

Written in the first person, from Serena’s viewpoint, McEwan is convincing as a woman, but is this story really McEwan writing as Serena Frome? Or is he writing as someone else, writing as Serena, and if so, how did this “someone else” come by all the material of Serena’s life including her recruitment to the secret service?

Although ostensibly a spy story, the spy stuff and the political shenanigans of the times, provide only the background music to Serena’s otherwise unglamorous and poorly paid life as a low-ranking officer in what could have been any other drably routine Civil Service department. Instead McEwan steers us into a different territory and tells us something interesting about the times, about the nature and the power of fictional narratives, and the world of the literary intelligentsia. On top of that, he weaves us a cunning love-story while the spies themselves, as drab as they are sinister, display the same petty jealousies and banal office-intrigues as the rest of us.

To finish, he pulls off a satisfyingly crafty twist when we finally get to know just whose story this really is.

 

 

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Themagus_cover.jpgNick Urfe – young, middle class, self-loathing, classically educated prig and womanising misogynist finds escape, and half hearted employment teaching on a remote Greek Island. Here, he meets the wealthy recluse and aesthete Maurice Conchis who befriends him. Also living under Conchis’ protection is the mysterious and ever so winsome Lilly, with whom Nick falls in love. So far, so predictable then. But that’s your first mistake, and there will be many more if you try to second guess this outrageous labyrinth of a novel.

In short, Nick finds himself way over his head at the centre of a dark psychodrama in which he seems to be acting a part among a cast of other baffling, shape-shifting characters, with Conchis as director, manipulating him at every turn. Meanwhile Lilly transforms from one role to the next, becomes Julie, or her twin sister June, all of them leading Nick on, drawing him into deeper intimacy, then pushing him away. Does she really have feelings for him, or is she always simply acting the part Conchis has written for her? Who is the real Lilly/Julie/June anyway? Who is Conchis? Just when Nick begins to think he’s worked things out, and us with him, Conchis changes the narrative again,… reveals all that went before was a lie.

To what end are we playing this game is, of course, the question. Perhaps there is no end in the normal sense, and if we cannot trust the narrative why should there be a reliable end anyway?

As we, the reader, like the hapless Nick, are drawn ever more deeply into Conchis’s web we begin to wonder if the story is actually a psychological metaphor of the state of our own selves. Although at times inscrutable, like Conchis himself, this makes for an unsettling, disorientating and at times disturbing read. Hailed as an example of post-modern literature, The Magus shatters the accepted norms of story-writing where a protagonist works towards some goal and, in voyeuristic fashion, the reader simply follows along in the background to be gratified by a conclusion, neat or otherwise. Reading the Magus, Fowles drags us in with him, cautions us at every turn against trusting the story. Indeed, its occasionally ad-hoc nature has us wondering if he’s not just making it up as he goes along, that, like the Magus, he’s bamboozling us, with smoke and mirrors and none of it means anything other than what we project into it ourselves.

Peppered with psychological and mythological references, the story shifts from present to historical flashback, at times dramatic, erotic, horrific, and all of it quite possibly absurd. There is always the feeling here that if only I was as intelligent as the writer, and the critics who have lauded the story, I would know the difference; I would know, like Nick wants to know, if I was merely being taken for a ride, or if there was some point to the experience, that Conchis is more than simply a fraud at best, and at worst a dangerous psychopath.

Nick returns to England, penniless, disturbed by his experience, but seemingly also deepened by it. He’s more self-reflective, kinder to others, but like him we’re left wondering, waiting for a conclusion that never really comes, which suggest that if the story is indeed some kind of psychological experiment and we’ve come some way along the road to recovering our potential as a decent, self-aware human being, the final step is up to us. Nick is not the first young man to experience The Magus, and he won’t be the last,.. but who truly benefits? The subject, or Conchis?

Read as a straight novel, the main problem with the plot as “psychological experiment” is that nobody warrants that much elaborate attention, and former victims (or subjects) having been so abused and humiliated by Conchis in the process would probably be inclined to return to his island with a machine gun. Except angry loathing and a desire for revenge appear not to be a side effect of Conchis’ methods, just as the reader is left feeling disorientated, breathless and none the wiser, but rather more thoughtful and certainly not resentful of the time spent on this compelling, but ultimately bewildering labyrinth of a novel.

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The story of Dylan Thomas’ life provokes as much discussion as his poetical works. Subject of much myth-making, and many a biography by those who knew him, and others who claimed to know him but did not, his oft-times stormy character certainly left its mark on the poetry-world of the mid twentieth century. But for me his story is also a cautionary tale, granting insight to the near impossibility of making a dignified living by the arts, and worse, that sometimes to be blessed by a prodigious talent can also be a curse, one that more or less guarantees a premature and ignominious end after an all too brief a life of tortured insecurity.

Director Andrew Davies here picks up the story in the last year of the poet’s life, with Thomas, played by Tom Hollander, having been invited to New York by fellow poet, critic and admirer, John Brinnin, played by Ewen Bremner. He’d been to New York before, but seemed to have earned little from it, and was tempted back on this occasion with promises of a more lucrative collaboration with the composer Stravinsky.

Background biographical details are penciled in for us by flashback, though slanted overly towards a bucolic penury in rural Camarthenshire, centred around the famous boathouse at Laugharne. That Thomas also had a property in London, where he lived and worked extensively, especially during the war years, is blurred out in order to focus on this final, fateful, and largely self destructive episode, contrasting the beauty of this part of Wales, with the boozy squalor of New York .

His many biographies reveal a complex and, at times, disagreeable character, prone to drink and philandering, a man who could treat those around him appallingly. Yet he was also capable of great kindness and possessed of a certain sweetness, exuding an air of vulnerability and helplessness that the women he encountered found irresistible. It seemed he had only to be away from home for a moment to pick up another lover.

For all of his philandering though, the one true and somewhat stormy love of his life, was his wife, Caitlin, a woman possessed of a wild and fiery temperament, here plaid by Essie Davies. Sadly, they were not well matched, and in their later years she became for Thomas a woman he could neither live with nor without.

So, it’s November 1953 and he arrives in New York, a chain-smoking alcoholic, vulnerable, and burnt out. He sweats and vomits though readings of his work, suffers blackouts during rehearsals. He attends parties, celebrations, presses the hands of New York’s literati, regales them with his bonhomie, woos his audiences with dramatic readings of his work, but underneath he’s a man adrift, stricken by the recent death of his father, and unable to return home to his chaotic marriage. We have the impression he’s taking refuge, deliberately courting death, and indeed not so slowly killing himself with drink.

By turns dramatic, deeply moving but also funny, I felt the film did a fine job of presenting us with as dignified a portrait as possible of such a complex and difficult man, a man who’s flaws seemed very much on the surface of his being. I’m sure there’s nothing here that would disappoint even the most critical Dylan Thomas admirer.

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