Notes from under the lemon tree

 

2014-05-19 08.44.11

They were olive trees really but I only have a lemon tree picture.   Sometimes you can’t have everything.

Books I read were:

The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes (Vintage, 2016)

We are not Ourselves, Matthew Thomas (Fourth Estate, 2014)

In the Light of What we Know, Zia Haider Rahman (Picador, 2014)

Crete: The Battle and the Resistance , Antony Beevor (John Murray, 1991)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Vintage, 2013)

An all guys list but those were the books that were there.   A lady up next.

***

  1. The Noise of Time   Julian Barnes,

This is a book about the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, the Russian composer, crafted into life by this most able of authors.  The composer’s music was loved round the world but he had an unhappy relationship with Stalin’s regime (was there any other kind?), was feted and honoured at one moment, hounded and threatened the next.

At a  performance of ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ Shostakovich watched white faced and horrified as Stalin shuddered everytime the brass section played too loudly.  This debacle was quickly followed by a tirade in Pravda–thought to be written by Stalin himself –  calling the opera dissonant and muddled.

Stephen Johnson’s excellent little book How Shostakovich Changed my Mind(Notting Hill Editions, 2018) states:

Many composers have experienced key premieres as ‘a matter of life and death’ but in the case of Shostakovich Fifth Symphony that was nothing less than the truth.   Life in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Communist utopia could be very cheap indeed.

As Osip Mandelstam (whose memoir gave rise to Barnes title), Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva and  numerous poets, writers and musicians could ably testify.

Shostakovich received a telephone call from Stalin himself asking the composer to attend a prestigious event in America representing the Soviet state.  Shostakovich refused (brave man) firstly because he had no suit to wear and secondly because he didn’t know how to explain in the US why his music was so popular there but banned in his home country.   A suit was found and his music unbanned.  Shostakovich went to the USA, but didn’t give in to the temptation to ‘jump out of the window’ (a euphemism for seeking asylum) and returned to the Soviet Union.

  1. We are not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

Eileen an Irish American born of hard drinking parents finds herself, aged 10,  becoming a carer for her mother after the latter’s slide into alcoholism.  Eileen – like many young people –  wants to avoid the fate of relative poverty and underachievement that has blighted the lives of her parents.  She is bright enough to train as a Doctor – but this being the ‘60s when women were not expected to train much for anything –  she follows instead a nursing career.

She marries Ed,  a scientist,  who appears at first devoted to her and she gives birth to a son.   But, hey, this is life.  And it’s a novel.  Worse, its an epic novel so nothing can go smoothly.  And sure enough it doesn’t.  Eileen’s quietly desperate attempts to move to a ‘better’ neighbourhood, to somehow raise herself and her family up from where they are (Jackson Heights) to where she feels they ought to be (not Jackson Heights) encompass the American Dream writ large, and like all dreams, doomed to fray at the edges.

A tragic illness turns everything Eileen thinks she knows and wants upside down, but this is a credible and empathetic lead character and a highly enjoyable read.

3          In the Light of What We Knowby Zia Haider Rahman

‘All novels are autobiographical’ says the lead character and this one certainly feels as though it is. This is Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel written in 2014 which earned its author the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

The book concerns Bangladeshi born Zafar a mathematics prodigy and polymath, graduate of  Oxford, linguist,  who may or may not be part of the British Secret Services.  Part philosophy, part adventure story, part scientific enquiry, part meditation on class –   ranging over the Afghan war and the financial meltdown of 2008,   the story is narrated sometimes by Zafar himself in the first person,  and sometimes in the third person by a Charles-Ryder-of-Brideshead style narrator who is a friend from Oxford.

Interestingly, the full title of Evelyn Waugh’s novel is Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryderwhich is something I didn’t know until I read Rahman’s book.  In memory, what is sacred, what is profane?  There are no disquisitions on Catholicism here – the world has moved on from Sebastian Flyte and his teddy.  But there are some parallels, particularly in the character of  Zafar’s ‘best friend’ from Oxford, whose own career in investment banking at Morgan Stanley (or some such) has fallen victim to the American sub-prime mortgage debacle,  therefore affording him plenty of time to reflect on the emptiness at the heart of his own life.

The book is too complex to attempt a resume of the narrative but I found it compelling and probably will re-read it at some point, as well as look out for other work by this author.

  • Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, Anthony Beevor

Fascinating and extremely readable account of how Hitler’s forces advanced through mainland Greece beating both the Brits and the Greek forces,  and how Crete originally considered to be a bit of a side story in the WW2, became horribly strategic.  Although there were British forces present on Crete during the German occupation, it seems that many advances against the enemy were facilitated by the Cretan resistance, a group  largely composed of shepherds and farmers armed with whatever lay to hand.

One of the great romantic heroes of the resistance in Crete was Patrick Leigh Fermor, an aristocratic young Englishman,  who enlisted in the army at the start of WW2 and – being a fluent Greek speaker –  was sent to Crete as part of the newly formed Special Operations Executive to train and organise rebels.  Beevor recounts how Leigh Fermor was also sent to Cairo to be in charge of weapons training at the SOE base there, despite having experienced only one type of gun.    He later took part in the kidnap of a German General on Crete,  the story of which is recounted on Leigh-Fermor’s own books A Time of Giftsand Between the Woods and the Wateras well as in Stanley Moss’ ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’ which became a film with Dirk Bogarde as Leigh-Fermor.

One of the things that struck me in Beevor’s account of the early years of the war is how all the officers were either from Eton or Winchester (or Harrow) and all seemed to know each other from school and had conversations about who wore what at the Coronation, even while fleeing German bombs and bullets.     It all felt very Boys Own.

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthRichard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan’s Booker prizewinning novel about the Japanese use of POW  slave labour to build the ‘death’ railway in Burma. Narrated by Dorrigo Evans, a young man from a rural and forgotten part of Tasmania who rises through invisible societal ranks to become a surgeon in the Aussie armed forces and who is captured and sent to work on the railway. The story follows him through this hellish horror into a kind of post war survival and fame, married to a woman whose name he can barely remember after he is freed from ‘the line’.   His whole life, he says,  has become a duty.

Interestingly the narrative follows Namakura, the Japanese commander of the Thai railway camp, as he tries to evade capture for war crimes in post holocaust Japan.   Namakura too is a victim of a lethal philosophy too deeply ingrained to question.

The author’s father was a survivor of the death railway, who died the day the book was finished.

 

 

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