You Will be Safe Here – Damian Barr

Damian Barr’s first fiction novel, was suggested  by someone who had been gripped by hearing some radio excerpts from the book about the Boer concentration camps.

  • People who are oppressed becoming the oppressor
  • The General who ran the summer camp was a great grandson of the woman at the centre of the concentration camp story
  • There was some confusion about whether Willem had died or whether it was his friend. The end was rushed, perhaps to meet a deadline or the money running out.
  • “An important book”
  • Gave the impression that the British had upset the Boer’s calm idyll, but in fact the church has been instilling racism in the Boers and this was for from peaceful. There was no recognition of what the Boers had already done to the black population. “Little House on the Prairie”
  • British rule was document by British historians and was overly sympathetic
  • Missed a backstory: e.g. about the first Boer war and the move to the Transvaal to escape the British. The book presumed, or didn’t require, knowledge about the political history of the country.
  • The book was focused at a domestic level
  • Good at highlighting the link between the Boer concentration camps and the rise of the far right.
  • An easy read: easier than the subject matter and cover suggested
  • Description of the concentration camp was harrowing in a quiet way: people dying constantly
  • The concentration camp section was flat and didn’t work
  • Would rather have been reading a history book
  • Sarah’s diary was a device that didn’t work for some, but worked for others
  • The lightness of touch and level detachment reminded us of Primo Levi
  • There was a lot of research cited in the book, but it read as a drama documentary.
  • Took Barr five years to write this – he could have been overfunded for the research.
  • Adrian referred us to an article in The Guardian. that explains that Barr was inspired by the modern-day story of the boys in the summer camp.
  • Barr seemed more at home with the summer camp section, writing about the two boys. Worked better than the diary section in the concentration camp.
  • Barr could be a wonderful describer of dysfunctional families (see Maggie and Me)
  • Barr didn’t have the weight and maturity to do the subject justice
  • The books was rather too neatly tied up; the Sarah’s diary on display at the museum, Willem getting the card for Sarah’s son, the burred family silver, the General being the great grandson of Sarah etc. Not very subtle.
  • The first 2/3 of the book were camp in tone and were concerned about social niceties when there were other horrific things going on. Then the remaining 1/3 was very dark, but theatrical: not convincing
  • We were asked to sympathise with the Boers. Barr didn’t explore the racial issues with the power base. The black servants were portrayed as not being of any consequence, and the book focused on white-on-white violence.
  • This was a white story, fought on the back of the black nation.
  • Perhaps the lack of black voices was a reflection of the lack of voice they had at the time under the Boers.

GM

The Master – Colm Tóibín

  • Colm Tóibín is a master of queer sensibility.
  • Amazing amount of detailed research to flesh out the story and the characters for this novelised biography. A tour de force.
  • Henry James is portrayed as having English sensibilities; came through particularly when we he was planning the conversation to have with his parents about studying law at Harvard.
  • It’s the first Tóibín book I’ve truly enjoyed.
  • The slow pace seemed British, a did the family schisms and the family’s inability to talk about emotions.
  • In 2003-4 there were about four authors writing about Henry James: Lodge, Hollinghurst, Tóibín and another. Tóibín’s is the best.
  • William and Henry James were both great thinkers: and it’s amazing they were brothers and it ran in the family.
  • Colm Tóibín is a writer himself: he’s also not a very open about himself, so there could have been a connection.
  • Henry is a weak person, influenced by everyone around him.
  • Alongside regret, Henry experiences guilt about the deaths of his sister and friends.
  • Colm Tóibín brought all these amazing characters throughout the book to life: lesbians, feminists, gay guys etc.
  • Hard to gauge what is truth and what is fiction in a novelised biography: irrespective, Tóibín has done a great job.
  • The confidence apparent in the work is a result of a lot of research.
  • The cuddle in bed was portrayed as a gay thing: at the time it would not have been seen as such.
  • Liked they was that we learned as the book progressed, that the main character in ‘Portrait of a Lady’ was based on his close friend.
  • Interesting tension in the book: James was an outsider to English society, but living in England.
  • Henry James was portrayed as not being reflective or aware of his own emotions or motives. Would have been more interesting to have had some development here. However, the emptiness here could be a reality, or the limits to what Tóibín was willing to invent. James may also be afraid of what truths self-analysis may uncover.
  • Tóibín was writing a version of James that he wanted to exist.
  • James was aware of both Symonds and Wilde, both of whom were ‘out’ in society. If James had been more accepting of his sexuality would he have felt hypocritical if that hadn’t been reflected in his writing?
  • Characterisation of Burgess Noakes was amazing
  • Suggestions of Henry James books to read next:
    • The Jolly Corner
    • The Aspen Papers
    • Pattern in the Carpet
    • Daisy Miller
    • In the Cage

GM

Rings of Saturn – WG Sebald

‘A walking tour through the landscapes of the past, in the company of the exiled and the departed’ might have seemed an unusual choice for the bookgroup but this curious mix of memoir, fiction and meditation on writing also becomes ‘an essay for the dispossessed’ which would resonate with many gay readers. Added to that, Helen Finch in her groundbreaking book ‘Sebald’s Bachelors’ points to the queer themes within Sebald’s writing and is most obvious here in the preponderance of homosexual and homosocial histories of lives lived on the margins, on the edge of things.

The reading group certainly picked up on these themes often tied up with the concept of the single man, and, anti-semitism. However, responses form the group were as varied and the subjects covered in the book itself; ‘the book reminded me of fractals’, ‘left me feeling wistful’, ‘unsure of the motive for the writing’, ‘ sense of decay and transience’, ‘I felt hope as if in anticipation of something’. A few readers did not like the blurring of truth and fiction in this way and suspected of him of using this technique to tie things up too neatly.

Like many reviewers, the group also saw some common ground with the writings of Bruce Chatwin, indeed, the two writers, when alive, were often asked to comment on each other’s writing concerns.

There were moments of humour, high camp almost, e.g. the fish and chip supper taken by the narrator in his hotel in Lowestoft. But again and again the group came back to theme of the outsider, be that the Jewish experience or the gay experience in Europe in recent centuries.

The majority of the group did find much of the book mournful but others found it’s sense of transience and entropy strangely uplifting,

PB-C

On the Move, A Life, by Oliver Sacks

Everyone generally enjoyed On the Move. It was good to read a biography of someone who lived life to the full, with an added fascination that the stories were all true. Some comments:

  • Sacks was a one-off — an important man in his field.
  • Admiration for range of his interests and experiences: made me think ‘what have I done with my life!’
  • Driven by compulsions, and this was overwhelming. He was obsessive about many things: e.g. body building and drugs
  • Amazing that he met so many famous people: that was kick-started by his time at Cambridge, and he has a good head start in life from his impressive parents.
  • Good to read a book about a positive experience of a man coming out in the ’50s, and he was brave to do that — meeting his first partner from an ad in a phone box.
  • He’s somewhere on the Asperger’s scale – he found it hard to empathise with people unless he was in his white doctors’ uniform.
  • Also,  disinhibited about introducing himself to people and maximising any opportunity.
  • Struck by his recall and the amount of detail in the novel. Was that from memory or his compulsive note taking?
  • Sacks didn’t discuss informed consent. He used video  of his patients which would not be allowed today.
  • He was more of a describer than an analyst in his medical career, which may be a reason why he was rejected by the establishment
  • He had lots of brushes with death, but kept on escaping with his life.
  • Didn’t talk down to the reader
  • Is it physically possible to drink 70 cups of coffee in 30 hours?
  • It was a pity he introduced Billy in only a few pages at the end of the book

GM

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

Views of Less from the group were quite polarised: on balance not finding much of note in the book, and a questioning of why it won a Pulitzer Prize. Similarly to Patrick Gale writing in the Guardian, several members drew similarities in style with Armistead Maupin, but felt that Maupin had the edge over Greer. Some quotes:

  • Quite un-American — written in a British tradition
  • Not engaging
  • Good to see a book covering the identity of middle-aged men
  • Bland, boring, dire…
  • Whimsical
  • Very funny
  • A proud assertion of intergenerational love
  • Poor character development — didn’t know anything about the characters other than Arthur Less
  • Refreshing lightness of touch
  • There was not enough emotional heft to make people care about Less or his relationships
  • Implausible that the narrator would know the level of detail revealed
  • An affectionate portrait of Less
  • Victimhood make Less not particularly likeable
  • Wanted the novel to be so much more
  • Get a feeling of the boy within the man:many of us feel we are not doing a good job of growing up
  • Superficial
  • An Odyssey for the modern age
  • Greer is great at one liners
  • Expectations were high because the book had won a Pulitzer Prize.

GM

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Colm Toibin

On 23 April 24, 2019 we discussed ‘Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know’ by Colm Toibin. Three essays about the fathers of Oscar Wilde, W.B.Yeats and James Joyce; these were first given as lectures when Toibin was invited to give the Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in 2017. They were subsequently adapted and heard on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week.  Ten members attended the meeting.

This is a well researched somewhat academic work, with a lengthy Bibliography, by an author who is a joy to read in both fiction and non-fiction.

It is fair to say that all members who had read this book found it fascinating and enjoyed the many links which Toibin established between each of the subjects and their fathers, including ways in which they surface in their works.

Toibin lives in Dublin, as did each of his subjects during the same period in the late  19th Century. The Introduction is a joyful and sensitive walk around  modern day Dublin, in which the author links each of his subjects to streets, buildings, hotels, churches, libraries, homes and even particular rooms.  

A modern day tourist, armed with these twenty pages of the Introduction as a guide book,  will discover statues, monuments, plaques and many homes and studios where the three authors are commemorated, lived and worked.

It is a literary love letter to Dublin which brings the city vividly to life.

Each of the three authors was, in their different ways, the son of an influential and successful father, but each very different characters.

Sir William Wilde was a famous doctor with many medical papers to his name, as well as procedures named after him. However, he was also a travel writer, historian, biographer and antiquarian.  At age twenty six, he was already a member of the Royal Irish Academy and the British Association and was appointed Census Commissioner for the censuses of 1851,1861 and 1871. Sir William and Lady Wilde were established members respectable Dublin society. In spite of his having fathered three illegitimate children before his marriage, all of who he acknowledged and provided for. Quite an act to follow.

Being more familiar with the works of Oscar Wilde, may partly explain why several members found this the most interesting of the essays. Certainly the alleged misbehaviour of Sir William Wilde and the court case he faced was a fascinating foretaste of the court case which subsequently landed his son Oscar in Reading Gaol.

Yeats’s father was a brilliant and prolific letter writer as well as an impoverished artist who seemed unable to ever actually finish a painting. The story of his self portrait makes fascinating reading. For the last 15 years of his life he lived in New York and was supported by his son.

Opinions varied on this essay which contains long extracts from his letters. One member found it the most interesting, whilst others found the essays on Wilde and Joyce the most fascinating. Several members lamented our lack of knowledge of Yeats’s works.

The final essay, on Joyce’s father demonstrated how Joyce had modelled Simon Dedalus in Ulysses on his father who was a singer, a drinker and a storyteller unable or unwilling to provide for his large family.

Inevitable discussion turned to Oedipus complex.  Each of the three authors despised their fathers is some ways. Did they feel constrained by their them ?    To what extent did each feel the need to compete ? to be different ? to deny or to support ? Clearly each needed to make his own mark in a different way than the father.

Against the background of Dublin society at the turn of the century, issues such as Home Rule, the Anglo-Irish, the behaviour of powerful members of the establishment and the  links between influential families are threads which are constantly present and which help bind these three essays together.

It is a tribute to Toibin’s beautiful writing that following our discussion of this fascinating book, the group then chose another of Toibin’s novels as a future read.

GJB.

 

Breaking the Code, Hugh Whitemore

The member who chose the book did so having not read the play; he had however seen the play on it’s original run in 1986. He noted that this was in a grim period of time for theatre, and pretty much everything else, due to the onset of the AIDS epidemic, adding that the play was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise conservative time. Having read the play, he felt it was a very sympathetic portrait of Turing at a very poignant moment (I presume for both Turing and the time when the play came out).
The group agreed that the play ‘stands up’ still, with one member commenting that it scores on three levels: portraying Turing as a strange, but attractive character; providing an interesting and, as one other member added, accessible presentation of electro-mechanical facts, and how tragic the outcome of Turing’s life was.
A member who found the play to be enjoyable, emotional and funny compared it to the recent film, The Imitation Game; feeling that there was less focus on the war in the play, but that it discussed the real life impact of Turing’s work, which the film focused less on.
The naivety of Turing’s character, when in discussion with the police officer, was highlighted and his admission was thought of as unnecessary.  However; the member who raised this had read the play twice and, on second reading, considered the feelings he had himself towards the police when he was younger, which was implicit trust . He therefore sympathised with Turing’s naivety. The same member humourously referred to Turing as the ‘classic’ engineer; excellent with hands-on work, but incapable of managing an engineering department.
There was interest in how faithful the play was to Turing’s life, with one member stating that, whilst they appreciated the artistry of the play, they would have liked to have got to the facts of the matter, rather than any potential fiction. The member who chose the book pointed out that the play had been based on a novel, which some expressed interest in reading.
In addition to these points, how the character of Turing was presented was of significant interest, with people feeling he was personable, flirty on occasions, although exhibiting a touch of Asperger’s; especially with regard to his confession of his supposed crime to the police officer.
One member felt that the way in which the character was presented was very much as an expression of Turing’s work and theories; in opposition, almost. Where as the character is at times blunt, ordered and controlled (chaining his mug to the radiator being a prime example), like numbers (which he calls his friends), he is also rebellious (being unashamedly recognised as homosexual in his work place), questioning and disregarding of traditional rules (for example, when he bypasses the usual hierarchical steps and writes to Churchill directly to request the equipment needed for his work).  Turing challenged mathematical order and laws using a similarly anarchic approach.
This led on to a conversation about Turing’s mechanical brain and how it could learn from the results of innumerable binary computations; how essential electronics was to the advancement of mechanics and how this mechanical device could potentially write sonnets and compose symphonies with all the feeling of a human being. Before long, however, the discussion had branched off in to the realms of chaos theory…
Although Turing was the clear focus of the play, the other characters were not overlooked. Particular sympathy was voiced over Pat, who appeared at various times as an esteemed colleague, potential paramour and career-up-the-spout wife and mother, with particular emphasis on Turing’s imaginings of how his life would have panned out had he married Pat; there appears to be no question that Pat would have consented to such a proposal.
The exchanges between Turing and the policeman were, as one member pointed out, reminiscent of Orton and appeared farcical at times. Another member likened the policeman to the character of Truscott from Loot.
Turing’s mother divided the group, with some considering her reaction to the announcement of his homosexuality as liberal and accepting and others feeling it was dismissed as a nonsensical eccentricity. Similarly, her explanation of his death was considered both brushed under the carpet, due the shame she felt about his homosexuality, and dismissed out of hand as an accident resulting from his harebrained experimenting. Regardless, the parallel between the supposed cause of Turing’s death and Snow White’s momentary demise was duly noted.
Knox’s numerous references to his failing memory interested one member, who felt it was in reference to the superiority of the mechanical brain over the human brain; whereas the human mind grows old and withers, the mechanical brain, in theory, is not subject to such limitations and continues to learn and amass knowledge exponentially.
Despite being but a hundred pages of dialogue, the play provoked a hearty and interesting discussion which we came close to cutting short (there were M&S mini beef Wellingtons to be had…)