Journey into the Past – Stefan Zweig

An engineer from a humble background, Ludwig fell in love with his employer’s wife and she with him – before they were separated by circumstances and by war.  Now, nine years later, their unfulfilled passion is tested as the two reunite. Can the past, and their happiness, be restored – or have they been forever undone by hardship and betrayal?

I wondered how much I would enjoy another book set around the First World War after recently finishing Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, I needn’t have worried as I was hooked within the first few pages and was left to revel in the literary goodness for the rest its pages.

Having previously only read Chess by the author, I was expecting another terse effort with well-rounded and strongly realised characters who carried the story and made a strong impact on my imagination.  I was not to be disappointed on any of these anticipations.

The backdrop to the story is the First World War and its aftermath.  The impact on regular people caught up in those epochal events is something so often reduced to mere statistics, but here its presented in such a gloriously human, flawed, aching and passionate way.  Zweig has managed to capture what many authors fail to do, and that is to make believable, fully human characters whom the reader truly cares about. Continue reading “Journey into the Past – Stefan Zweig”

The Return of the Soldier – Rebecca West

Chris Baldry returns from the front to the three women who love him. His wife, Kitty, with her cold, moonlight beauty, and his devoted cousin Jenny wait in their exquisite home on the crest of the Harrow-weald. Margaret Allington, his first and long-forgotten love, is nearby in the dreary suburb of Wealdstone. But Chris is shell-shocked and can only remember the Margaret he loved fifteen years before, when he was a young man and she an inn-keeper’s daughter. His cousin he remembers only as a childhood playmate; his wife he remembers not at all. The women have a choice – to leave him where he wishes to be, or to ‘cure’ him. It is Margaret who reveals a love so great that she can make the final sacrifice

Noticing that nibbled apple on the cover, I gravitated to not only to the Virago logo but more importantly to the author’s name.  Having read some of West’s non-fiction pieces, mainly to do with religion and politics, her fiction promised to be a worthwhile read.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I hoped, although there were some aspects of the work that interested me.  Thankfully being one hundred and thirty-eight pages long (or short depending on your point of view), I was able to finish it before my patience was thoroughly worn out but it did take some effort to get to the end of this one, even with that in mind.

The story is focused on exploring the emotional impact of the three women, none of whom I really connected with.  Margaret is by far the most likeable character, whilst Kitty and Jenny came across as unbelievably snobby and at times ridiculously hysterical.  It was this overly dramatic nature that made me care little, despite appreciating the situation they were in. Continue reading “The Return of the Soldier – Rebecca West”

Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Set on the French Riviera in the 1920s, American Dick Diver and his wife Nicole are the epitome of chic, living a glamorous lifestyle and entertaining friends at their villa. Young film star Rosemary Hoyt arrives in France and becomes entranced by the couple. It is not long before she is attracted to the enigmatic Dick, but he and his wife hold dark secrets and as their marriage becomes more fractured, Fitzgerald laments the failure of idealism and the carefully constructed trappings of high society in the Roaring Twenties.

This somewhat autobiographical novel is an interesting read, not only for the story itself, but also for the extra examination of Fitzgerald’s dependency on alcohol and his wife’s Schizophrenia.  This, his final and favourite novel is certainly a mixed bag but well worth picking up.

The old cliché about Americans who visit other countries is reinforced here as many of the characters retain a strong American identity but seem purposefully oblivious (and superior) to the cultures that surround them.  The locals tolerating their shenanigans partly because of America’s role in the war and, inevitably, the riches brought to a shattered continent recovering from the horrors of the First World War.

There is a vacuous nature to the majority of the characters, at one point I began to wonder if I would be bothered by the fates of any of them.  In a world filled with frivolous parties and empty conversations, the carefully manufactured and cultivated superficial facades mean so much to the characters, who like actors are putting on a well rehearsed show.

“When there were enough Americans on the platform the first impression of their immaculacy and their money began to fade into a vague racial dusk that hindered and blinded both them and their observers.” Continue reading “Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald”

A Month in the Country – J. L. Carr

A damaged survivor of the First World War, Tom Birkin finds refuge in the quiet village church of Oxgodby where he is to spend the summer uncovering a huge medieval wall-painting. Immersed in the peace and beauty of the countryside and the unchanging rhythms of village life he experiences a sense of renewal and belief in the future. Now an old man, Birkin looks back on the idyllic summer of 1920, remembering a vanished place of blissful calm, untouched by change, a precious moment he has carried with him through the disappointments of the years.

It’s been an utter pleasure rereading this splendid short book, heading back to 1920’s Oxgodby and its five hundred year old church painting. Reacquainting myself with the inhabitants, and a way of life lost to time reminded me of Carr’s evocative prose and the beauty of the English countryside.

This is a great story to get lost in – one which demands repeat readings be savoured – it really accentuates the little things in life, those wondrous things that surround us, yet seem hidden in plain sight until viewed in hindsight. There is a comforting sense of isolation here, a total delight to be immersed in.

The plot revolves around the methodical and gradual uncovering of a medieval wall painting and this also extends to the personalities of the  people.  As time moves on there is a slow exposing of both, as well as the social life of the village.  All this is played out in such a relaxed manner that the under the surface busyness is very subtly played out.

Birkin’s love for mechanisms and how the parts slot together are a fitting metaphor for how he sees the community and also in a literal sense of the time. There is a feeling of being on the cusp of changes in his life, in the rhythms of countryside and nature and how the industrial age is really starting to impact the isolated countryside.  It’s pleasurably melancholy and allows readers of any age to feel the loss of what once was. Continue reading “A Month in the Country – J. L. Carr”

Their Duty Done: Forest Town and the Great War – Tim Priestley

wp_20161122_001Forest Town in Nottinghamshire would send many of its men to war.  This is the story of those who never returned and whose names are inscribed on the local memorial.

From every city to the smallest of villages around Britain, every traveller will always come across a war memorial dedicated – most often – to those fallen in World War One and World War Two.

All too often one finds themself looking at the names of these people and imagining those times and of the utter devastation of the population and the trauma suffered both at the front and of those waiting back home to hear news; yet waiting in dread as each letter may be an official notification of death.

Their Duty Done, reminds us that each name on the memorial stones and the graveyards spread around the world belonged to real people, with families, jobs and a sense of duty.

Whether you are familiar with my neck of the woods or not, Forest Town and its surrounding area is a typical example of any town you care to pick from, all of which saw many men go to war. FT has the distinction of being a mining town which perhaps aided (for those in that occupation) with the speed of demobilisation and arguably saved many from the early stages of the war, if they chose not to volunteer.

The first half of the book gives a brief overview of each year of the war and chronicles those who died, giving details of their ages, rank and date of death.  There is also a write-up about each soldier, from their birthplace , parent’s names, job, army history and the details of their demise and resting places, where the bodies could be recovered.

It brings home the fact that each person was real, it seems obvious, of course  but with all the literature, films and so on, it is easy to be fixated on the final body count of various battles and the war in total.  In essence we have become desensitised to the human side of war, in the face of the sheer scale of carnage. Continue reading “Their Duty Done: Forest Town and the Great War – Tim Priestley”

The Fires of Autumn – Irène Némirovsky

WarmAutumnParis 1918, Bernard Jacquelain returns from the trenches a changed man.

The city is a whirl of decadence and corruption and he embarks on a life of parties and shady business dealings, as well as an illicit affair.

But as another war threatens, everything around him starts to crumble and the future for him and for France suddenly looks dangerously uncertain.

Irène Némirovsky has long been a favourite author of mine and is definitely one of the best 20th century authors, sadly still criminally under recognised by readers out there.  Her ability to clearly convey human nature is incisive and dramatic but most of all beautifully accomplished.

The first chapter contains a wonderful Champs-Élysées family scene, which was perfectly executed and was made all the more poignant knowing the events that history is rushing inexorably toward.  I would have been happy to stay in that place and just wish these people well but sadly that is not life.

Perhaps they have now gone too far to step back and feel we’re on the brink of an abyss?  But what is certain is that it will be the young men who are first to fall into that abyss.

It’s a hard book to read knowing what will befall nations and tear apart of families.  The problem with Némirovsky’s characters – which goes for all her books – is that they are so well realised and penned that it becomes hard to see them suffer on their journeys.  Even the characters one dislikes demand a certain sympathy as their flaws are something we can all relate to as much as their fears and expectations. Continue reading “The Fires of Autumn – Irène Némirovsky”