Monday, 21 May 2007

Recent West Hampstead Book Group Books

I've been thinking about writing this for a while. The book I suggested, Of Love and Hunger by Julian McLaren-Ross, was discussed at last Thursday's meeting, and went down well. It is always good when something you like and suggest to others goes down well with them. I feared someone would say that it was the worst book they had ever read, and everyone else agreeing, but instead...phew!

Anyway, just a very quick guide to the books I've read so far with the Book Group (which meets at the Czech & Slovak bar/restaurant on West End Lane, West Hampstead, the 3rd Thursday of every month at 7.30pm. I think if you live or work anywhere in North West London you are free to come along. I can send further details if you are interested!)

Back in November we had Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro of Remains of the Day fame. I was rather disappointed, although I read it at breakneck speed, hoping to find the mystery behind the boarding school the main characters started at, and what their "donations" (which I think were personalities, not organs) really were. It wasn't revealed really, so I felt swindled. Plus if you not immensely irritated by the style of the narrator by the end, you are a better person than me.

December's book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (who, I've been told by someone female in the group, is a handsome blighter) I really liked, my favourite so far. I blasted through it in about three days, really wanting to know what happened next. I would say it was a pastiche of 1940s pulp fiction, but it goes much further, as any book about World War II, the destruction of European Jewry, McCarthyism and the history of American comic books should be. One I could easily read again.

January's book was Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which is a classic of African literature. I liked it, particularly as a portrait of West African tribal society as Western, particularly British, imperialism encroached. The problem I had was I had very little sympathy with the central character Okonkwo. I know it was a different time and a different culture, but basically his answer to everything was to hit the problem first, ask questions later. One thing I must say about the books we have read in the group since I joined last Autumn is that most of the central characters are deeply unsympathetic individuals!

The above comment applies especially well to David Lurie, the central character of J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, February's book. Lurie seems to get his entire sense of worth from sleeping with women, the younger the better. You're in your fifties man, grow up! However, it is a decent novel, and can be seen as a commentary on post-Apartheid South Africa. One strong point is that throughout Disgrace everyone hides behind not communicating, or using euphemisms and evasive language. Issues are not addressed, if at all possible, which may be seen as a comment on a South Africa not able to address its history and differences which arise from them.

March's book, Ivo Andric's The Bridge Over The Drina was very popular with the group. It's a novel based on the bridge built at Visegrad in Bosnia by the Turks in the 17th Century, until its destruction during World War One. I must admit I found it hard going at first, but it got better after the Austrians seize Visegrad in 1878. The short stories that follow, based on the lives of the people of various ethnicities who live in Visegrad, are superb. One, involving a gambler and a mysterious man from out of town, reminds me of the hunt for death in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale. Most are quite tragic- Andric seems to know his methods of suicide- and it all ends with the war wrecking the Bridge.

April's book, Voss by Patrick White, I hated, to be honest. Story is: mad German explorer sets out to cross Australia in the mid-19th Century. Meets repressed young woman, Laura, before he sets off, hardly speak to each other. He goes off with his followers, writes to her to ask for marriage, she says no, then changes her mind, a load of aborigines kills them, she can't stop thinking about him, blah blah blah, skip skip skip, has it finished yet?

It portrays a good picture of 19th Century upper-class Victorian society, where people don't like each other but they need to be "friends", but you only wish the aborigines had killed the lot of them in Chapter One.

So that's it, apart from my own book, Of Love and Hunger. This is what I said, more or less, to the book group's discussion forum:

The general consensus was that it was a good novel to read. It was
commented that the book really caught well the atmosphere of squalor
(and dampness) of 1930s depression Britain, particularly in the south
coast English seaside resort most of the novel takes place in.
Perhaps, it was suggested, that the novel was the first real
expression of "Britain is rubbish" in its cultural life. "Of Love and
Hunger" also caught well, through the sales tactics of the vacuum
cleaner companies Fanshawe works for, the first moves towards the
cultural Americanisation of Britain in the 1930s.

The novel was also praised at the meeting for MacLaren-Ross' ability
to captire dialogue, the subtle way that he is able to catch the build-
up to WW2 in the text without lettting it swamp it. There is some
politics in "Of Love and Hunger", but it does not dominate.

Of the main characters, Fanshawe was seen as a realistic character,
but not an particularly likeable one. He was criticised as someone who
felt no real qualms about taking advantage of others, such as his
landlady Mrs Fellows and tobacconist Mr Timms, by wriggling out of
paying his long-standing debts to them. His self-pity in such
circumstances- that people born lower down the social ladder expected
such trifles as money off him- was not one of Fanshawe's admirable
traits. There was a disappointment expressed that Fanshawe's
flashbacks to India and his father did not lead to an explosive
denouement at the end of the novel. Perhaps, it was suggested,
Fanshawe had deep feelings, and great hurt, that he kept suppressed.
It was suggested that the novel can be seen, through Fanshawe's
character, as a confessional statement by MacLaren-Ross, in the style
of Graham Greene.

Sukie was seen as a frustrating character, as we never really see the
emotions and motivations behind the games she plays with Fanshawe
during their relationship. As for her husband Roper, it appears that
he had a calm ability as a victim to take humiliation after
humiliation, from being sacked as a salesman to being cuckolded by
Fanshawe, which some people in real life are able to take.

As for the more minor characters, there was an appreciation of the
humour provided by the likes of Smiler and Heliotrope, who all treat
the vacuum selling business as one big swindle to be taken advantage
of. The one character some people like most of all was Jackie Mowbray,
Fanshawe's other love interest, who appears to be Fanshawe's means of
escape from the squalid life he leads. This offers the biggest contrast
between the trajectories in WW2 of Captain Fanshawe and the real-life
army AWOLer MacLaren-Ross.

That's just a brief summary of what people at the meeting thought
about "Of Love and Hunger". I'm sure I've missed bits out, and I hope
this summary corresponds at least in part to what people remember of
the discussion! Please add more thoughts, whether you were there or

For more info about Julian McLaren-Ross, there is a website.


Stuart Coster said...

Noel, have you been to any of Marc Glendening's 'Sohemian Society' events ... president-in-death one Julian McLaren-Ross? More info here:

Anglonoel said...

Hi Stuart, I've been to a few of Marc G's soirees. It was there that I first heard of Julian M-R. I'm glad I did now!