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This blog makes liberal use of AB's journals, letters, travel notes, and other sources.

And make sure to visit The Arnold Bennett Society for expert information and comment on all aspects of the life and work of AB.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Promise unfulfilled

Image result for Wolf borderThis is the fourth book I have read by Sarah Hall (Haweswater, Electric Michaelangelo, and Carhullan Army) and I approached it with a sense of eager anticipation. It was good but, for me, not as good as it promised to be; there was a definite sense of feeling a bit let down when I got to the end. I have been reflecting on why I felt the way I did and have come to the conclusion that the book was either too long or too short - it should either have been pared down to a short novel focussing on the central female character, the wolves, and the place; or it should have been developed over a couple of hundred more pages to do justice to the complex issues raised and to develop the cast of minor characters.

The 'heroine' Rachel comes from a troubled background in Cumbria and has made a success of her life as an expert on wolves in spite of carrying a considerable burden of guilt. She is working in Idaho when the novel opens but circumstances (mainly getting pregnant) prompt her to leave and return to her home area. There she begins to rebuild a relationship with a troubled younger brother, has a baby, and starts a new relationship, as well as running a project to re-introduce wolves on a private estate. The novel follows her through a year or so of trials and tribulations culminating in an engineered (not by Rachel) escape of the wolves and the end of the project. 

Lots of issues raised along the way - how responsible are we for our parents; is suicide a legitimate course of action; class and privilege; should a woman tell the father of her child that she has become pregnant and given birth; what counts as freedom anyway ....? Then there are the characters. Rachel is I think an authentic voice, as his her new 'boyfriend' Alexander and, to a large extent her brother Lawrence. But the earl who commissions the wolf project is a caricature, as is his daughter. Then there is an enigmatic project assistant, an irascible estate manager and his dying wife, and the earl's son who is undergoing some sort of rejection crisis - none of these is developed in any satisfying way and I could not see what they added to the novel, except perhaps a bit of colour. But why populate a novel with potentially interesting characters who could help the reader to better understand the central character, and then do nothing with them? Similarly at one point the project starts to receive unsettling anonymous e-mails and this reader thought this was plot development leading to some significant event, but they came to nothing - so why introduce them at all?

In amongst all this Hall writes beautifully about the thoughts and feelings of her central character, and is superb in describing the changing seasons, the place and the animals. Her prose is sparse, sharp and often visceral. The dialogue between the main characters is very believable as are their responses. So, the book is well worth reading, but it could, in my view, have been so much better.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

A successful appeal

Sunday, December 24th., Fulham Park Gardens, London.

An amusing anecdote from the Potteries:

Thomas Arrowsmith called on John Beardmore for a subscription to the Burslem Wesleyan Chapel. Beardmore declined to contribute, and explained how he was losing money on all hands and had in fact had a very bad year. He went to such lengths of pessimism that Arrowsmith at last interrupted:

   "If things are as bad as that Mr. Beardmore," he said, "we'll have a word of prayer," and without an instant's hesitation he fell on his knees.
    Beardmore began to stamp up and down the room,
    "None o' that nonsense," he shouted. "None o' that nonsense. Here's half a sovereign for ye."

I really ought to find an opportunity to use this in a story. 
This must be what is meant when people talk about 'the power of prayer'!

Image result for Burslem wesleyan Chapel

The first Wesleyan Chapel was built in the Potteries in 1766.
This was replaced by Swan Bank Chapel, shown in the photograph, in 1801. 
In 1816 it was enlarged to seat 1290 people, before eventually being replaced in 1971.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

How time robs the reader

By tomorrow night the Christmas book season will be over. Publishers will have sent out their final parcels, and closely estimated their sales and profits (though most of them say they never make a profit). Popular and unpopular authors will have ceased to pester their publishers by telephone and e-mail concerning the exact circulation of their books up to time of asking. Some authors will be preparing for a merry Christmas in a world where readers have shown a commendable taste for good books. Other authors will be preparing for a gloomy Christmas in a world where readers simply don't know a good book when they see it. Reviewers, an unthanked and misunderstood class, will be preoccupied with hateful questions relating to their career prospects.

Image result for heinemann great short stories world
Time lacks, more even than money lacks, for the faithful, interested reader. Take for example Heinemann's "Great Short Stories of the World". Here are over one thousand pages comprising 178 short stories which extend over all the world, and over thousands of years. An extremely remarkable production. All the greatest short stories are not in it, but very many of them are, and the number of inferior ones is quite small. But even by this time next year even the bravest reader will almost certainly not have vanquished this prodigious volume.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

At war

Tuesday, December 22nd., Comarques, Thorpe-le-Soken.

Today I heard firing at sea which seemed to be like a battle, and not like firing practice. The first time i have had this impression since the war began, though we have heard firing scores of times.

This is the most gruesome item I have seen in any newspaper. It is from an account of life in Brussels in the  Daily Telegraph date 15/12/1914. I wonder if it is true?

    Since the fatal attacks on Ypres and Yser a new recreation has been created for the Bruxellois, namely the trains of the dead. These pass through the suburb of Laeken, and go by way of Louvain and Liege to Germany, to be burnt in the blast furnaces. The dead are stripped, tied together like bunches of asparagus, and stacked upright on their feet, sometimes bound together with cords, but for the most part with iron wire. two to three thousand pass with each train, sometimes in closed meat trucks, sometimes in open trucks, just as it happens. The mighty organisation will not suffer a truck to go back empty; a dead man has no further interest for them.

I am sceptical as to the veracity of this account. It seems to me more likely that this is part of a programme of propaganda aimed to make the general public hate Germany and all things German. In spite of my scepticism, it is not without its effect!

General Heath told me that he thought of having a proclamation printed in German for the benefit of invading Germans, warning them that if they did certain things certain punishments would without fail ultimately follow. Rather good. Pointless but rather good.

A master at work

Image result for harris officer spyI brought "An Officer and a Spy" home from the library because I have read most of Robert Harris's books and invariably enjoyed them. That said, I was sceptical about this one because it was clearly based on the Dreyfus affair which I had some knowledge of and which didn't strike me as being likely material for a riveting read; educational certainly, but not riveting. How wrong I was! I was gripped from the outset and, though I knew what the outcome would be, I wanted to see how the thing worked itself out. 

Harris is a consummate story teller and in this book (as in others he has written) he deploys a large cast of characters without ever confusing the reader. His characters are convincingly described and we glimpse something of the psychology which underlies their presentation to the world and their behaviour. It feels to me that Harris's descriptions of late Nineteenth Century French society, and of Paris in particular, are authentic - clearly a great deal of research has been done which shows itself in a telling detail clinching the experience for the reader. This could easily have been a dry account of a notorious episode in French history, but in Harris's hands it becomes a high class thriller. And something more, because the author conveys the potentially corrupting power of fanaticism (hatred of 'the other') both for the individual and for the masses - a sobering and appropriate lesson for our times.