Books of 1916: Part One
2016 was a tough year in many ways, so may I introduce you to 1916? I think you’re going to love 1916.
I was struck by something I read in a (very nice) review of one of the books of 1916: —“because anything first published in 1916 that does not contain a word or thought about the First World War has got to be interesting.” Yes, you’d think so. But actually most of these novels make no mention of the war whatsoever. They tend to be historical, or escapist, or completely surreal.
You may notice that I’ve only reviewed about half as many books as I did last year for 1915. But last year I wasn’t done until March! So what you are losing in volume you are gaining in punctuality. Basically I began to feel this project was affecting my brain perhaps a little too much. My brother pointed out that I said in casual conversation, “I read that book in 1911.” I needed to dial it down just a bit.
Uneasy Money by PG Wodehouse
PG Wodehouse is always a delightful treat. I’m so happy there are more than fifty books still to come! I went by the US publication date in order to include this book, which some may consider cheating.
Lord Dawlish has a title but no money, so he is delighted when an eccentric millionaire leaves him all his money just because Lord Dawlish (aka Bill) gave him a few golf pointers once. But when Bill discovers that the eccentric millionaire has stiffed poor but deserving relatives, he sets out for Long Island to try to set things right. There is beekeeping, romance, people pretending to be other people, and lots of hilarity. The only sad part is something that happens to a monkey. In the end, everyone ends up engaged to the right person. On the final page we are at the train station in Islip, Long Island, which today is a gross and unappealing town, but apparently 100 years ago was a bucolic spot where the rich built mansions. If this book doesn’t make you smile, your soul is in mortal danger.
These Twain by Arnold Bennett
This is the third book in the Clayhanger series, and my favorite. In These Twain, the somewhat-starcrossed lovers from the first two books, Edwin and Hilda Clayhanger, embark on married life. They fight a lot. I read this book in the 1990s and haven’t re-read it, but what I remember most vividly are the descriptions of how angry they get at each other. Edwin Clayhanger thinks how he’d like to strangle Hilda, but then he goes for a walk and after a while he calms down, and when he comes home, he loves her again. At that time I was dating someone who made me really angry fairly often, and I thought These Twain was incredibly realistic. Bennett’s World-War-I-themed book (The Roll-Call) will come up in 1918, and is the last in the Clayhanger series.
Love at Second Sight by Ada Leverson
My hardcore fans (yes, both of you!) may remember that two years ago I was unable to review Birds of Paradise because I mislaid it and therefore couldn’t read it. (It turned up in the end, in a knapsack I never use.) I was eager to rectify my mistake by reading Ada Leverson’s 1916 offering, especially as this was her last novel.
Love at Second Sight is the last book in the Little Ottleys trilogy. Although I didn’t read the first two, it was easy to see what must have happened in them—in book one, the main character Edith must have married her husband, and then in the second one both Edith and her husband fall in love with other people but remain together thanks to Edith’s bloody-minded loyalty.
As this novel opens, Edith’s family has a guest in the house, and it’s unclear who she is, why she’s come to stay, and how long she plans to be there. But Madame Frabelle exercises a strange fascination over all of them. This book is terribly amusing and I’m not even going to tell you what happens, other than it’s a scream. The protagonist is thinking funny things about other people all the time but since she’s kind and fairly quiet, people don’t realize that she’s amusing and smart. The husband seems like the most annoying person on earth, and he must be drawn from life because how could you invent a person that annoying?
This is one of the rare books that has a contemporary setting during World War I. The husband was not called up because of a “neurotic heart,” which seems to be like PTSD. Edith’s love interest from the previous book returns home from the war, wounded. This novel’s realism allowed me to see all kinds of period details. For example, when the characters need to look up train timetables, they use things called the ABC and Bradshaw, which must be the apps they had on their phones at that time. Edith also had an Italian composer best friend who I thought might be based on Puccini since (according to Wikipedia) he and Ada Leverson were great pals.
I really was on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen, and guess what? Everyone gets a happy ending!
Ada Leverson’s Wikipedia page says cattily that after this novel, she worked on ever-smaller projects. Just like me!
Inclinations by Ronald Firbank
Firbank is a riot! This book reminds me a bit of Morrissey’s List of the Lost. Of course, that should be no surprise really, since both of them are directly related to Oscar Wilde on the literary family tree. What sets them apart is Inclinations is unalloyed comedy and nearly all dialogue.
What kind of inclinations does this novel concern itself with, you may ask? Well, it’s about a middle-aged writer Miss Geraldine O’Brookmore, known as Gerald, who brings a fourteen year old girl (Miss Mabel Collins) on a trip to the Mediterranean. There’s basically no description of anything or explanation of what’s happening or who is speaking, so you have to be okay with feeling unsure about what’s going on. One of the characters is shot and killed and it was chapters later that I finally understood which one. Plot is not what this book is about. This book is about lines so funny and with such a nice ring to them that I will just give you a small sampling for your enjoyment:
Miss Collins clasped her hands. “I’d give almost anything to be blasé.”
“I don’t see Mrs Cowsend, do you?”
“Breakfast was laid for four covers in her room.”
“Or perhaps it was only three.”
“She writes curiously in the style of one of my unknown correspondents.”
[Talking about a costume ball]:
“Oh, Gerald, you could be a silver-tasselled Portia almost with what you have, and I a Maid of Orleans.”
“Don’t be tiresome, darling. It’s not as if we were going in boys’ clothes!”
“Once she bought a little calf for some special binding, but let it grow up...and now it’s a cow!”
“Gerald has a gold revolver. ‘Honour” she calls it.”
“Is your father tall?”
“As we drive I shall give you all his measurements.”
“I had a good time in Smyrna,” she drowsily declared.
“Oh, my dears, I’m weary of streets; so weary!”
“I’m told she [Gerald] is a noted Vampire.”
“Who ever said so?”
“Some friend of hers—in Chelsea.”
“What do Vampires do?”
“What don’t they!”
If you find this sort of off-putting, these lines really do make more sense, somewhat more sense, in context. In a chapter that is eight words long (“Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!”), Miss Mabel Collins throws off the protectoress-ship of Gerald and elopes with a count. The final section of the book is different, slightly more conventional and somewhat Jane Austen-esque (“I’ve such news!” “What is it?” “The Chase is let at last.”) In this part, the Countess (Miss Collins-that-was) returns home to England with her toddler and there’s question in some minds about whether she is properly, legally married. I’m looking forward to Firbank’s next novel in 1917.
I’m only just now realizing that Firbank is the author that the main character keeps reading in The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst. I guess I thought Alan Hollinghurst just made him up. The thing is that his name sounds so made up, just “Fairbanks” with some of the letters taken out. Ugh, I learn everything backward.
This started out really good. Almost exactly the same as Not His Kiss to Take, except for the doctor kink.
There is a lot of focus on Daren’s injuries and the way he heals for most of this story. That’s not a bad thing. I hate reading about miraculous recoveries, so this felt real. I did want a bit more out of the relationship.
Especially because the first half was focused on how Sebastian and Daren interact with each other and Sebastian nursing Daren back to health.
But that tentative development suddenly stopped and I found myself in a James Bond kind of story line. Which I did not like.
Lot of loose ends when it’s suddenly over. Sort of an HFN, but not enough for me. The relationship had just started, and they are now on the run, still being chased by the bad guys.
Promising storyline, but would have been better with more relationship development and a better ending.
Il concetto tragico che Hardy ha della vita è qui, nella tetra e selvaggia brughiera di Egdon, luogo immaginario che racchiude in sé le asperità e le incertezze della natura e dell’esistenza umana.
Protagonista e spettatrice è la brughiera di Egdon, dove le stagioni passano, i destini s’incontrano, si attraversano e si compiono.
Nella lentezza dello svolgersi del tempo, una figura si staglia lassù, sul poggio. Immobile, come il colle su cui posa. È lei, Eustacia, selvaggia come la natura che la circonda, bella come una dea, capelli neri e anima in tempesta. Diversa dalle altre donne di Egdon, sgradita come una strega. In questo luogo desolato, il suo unico desiderio è essere amata. Amata alla follia. “L’amore era per lei l’unico cordiale che potesse distruggere la divorante solitudine delle sue giornate.”
Non brama un innamorato, auspica l’amore.
Nella brughiera, in questo melodramma carico di passioni e debolezze umane, si consumano amori e rancori fra i sogni di chi torna per restare, e i miraggi di chi ne è prigioniero e anela di fuggire.
Il fato, intanto, tesse la sua tragica tela.
Too Like the Lightning is Ada Palmer’s fiction debut, and it is part one of at least a two part series. (I wasn’t warned about this, and I kind of wish I had been. My expectations are different when reading a story that won’t be finished for another book.) And, I liked this book. I think. Mostly. It’s very peculiar and difficult to explain, which makes it sound awful. It’s not awful, but it is a kind of book that I found it hard to grapple with.
Too Like the Lightning is set in the future, in a sort-of utopia, which has achieved its status by a careful balance of alliances and interests. This occurs less across national and international divides and more through clusters of philosophical outlook and tradition which people subscribe to. These are called Hives, and are the main political and personal forces. Public displays of religion have basically been outlawed.
So, this is science fiction, but it’s the kind of science fiction that talks about Thomas Carlyle and Voltaire all the time. The Enlightenment is as powerful a force in this society as any other point in history–we are given a sense of the great philosophers and thinkers of the fictional near past, but they also hearken back to the 18th century. And there’s the kind of science that basically looks like magic, also possibly real magic in the form of a mysterious child named Bridger. This is what I mean by peculiar.
It is mostly narrated by a man named Mycroft Canner–everyone in this book has that sort of name–and he is not entirely reliable. This fact is hammered home a little too forcefully towards the end of the book, but it’s fairly clear from early on*. Mycroft is a Servicer, sentenced to a lifetime of usefully helping society after having committed a serious crime. Mycroft, we’re given to understand, is an extra-specially notorious criminal whose identity has to be obfuscated for his own protection.
We do also have occasional interjections from other characters and points of view, although how many of these are in fact filtered through Mycroft is an open question. But this book is full of other people, because Mycroft has his fingers in all of the pies and knows all the powerful people in this world. This is a book about power and who wields it and how it is balanced and unbalanced. Most of these characters are sketched in quickly, but some of them are given more depth. The sheer number of names and the relationships between them can be pretty overwhelming at times.
And that, I think points to my main lingering puzzlement about this book. It’s almost 400 pages long and I read them all. I feel that I should be able to say if it’s interested in plot (things definitely happen!) or characters (there are lots, and they’re interesting!) or philosophy (there’s so much of it. SO MUCH.) but in the end it all seems somehow very detached. My point earlier about it being interested in power and the shifting and balancing of power is as close as I can come to any kind of a theory of what this book is about, and why you might be interested in it. (Unless you are the kind of person who automatically perks up at the mention of Enlightenment philosophy, in which case this is the book for you.)
I have other lingering puzzlements, however. First: how do I feel about Mycroft at the end of the book? I don’t know. Palmer is playing with the reader’s expectation of trust and I’m not entirely sure if it’s not working, or if it’s working perfectly and I just don’t like it. Second: how do I feel about everyone else? WHO KNOWS? They are all kind of awful in a fascinating way, even–I would argue–Bridger. The narrative really seems to want us to care about Bridger, who is the force of innocence and goodness, but who ends up coming across as Charles Wallace Murry x 10.
Also, two related further puzzlements. Why does everyone seem so pro-Mycroft? Is it simply that we’re getting the story filtered through his perspective? I ended up wondering if I would like the story better if it were about Thisbe. Further: the social understanding of gender in this world confounds our gender expectations, which would be really interesting. Except that Mycroft’s narration, which often puts gender back onto the characters, seems to reinforce them, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. It seems less successful than, say, Leckie’s use of “she” as the default pronoun in the Imperial Radch books.
Finally, this is less of a puzzlement and more of an outright nope–I got very frustrated with a section about icons that does not understand icons or their religious significance and use. I shouldn’t be surprised about this, because it happens all the time, but I found it annoying, and it made me wonder what else the book got wrong.
Sometimes when I’m not sure how I feel about a book, writing the review helps me solidify that. In this case, I still don’t know! It’s a mostly-positive befuddlement. And I’m not exactly sure who I would recommend this book to, either. You don’t need to have an in-depth knowledge of philosophy to be able to read it, but you do have to be patient enough to work through all the names and social conventions and mini-history lessons. Ultimately, for that patient reader, it is a rewarding book, even though I still can’t say exactly why I liked it.
* Yes, yes, arguably all first person narrators are unreliable to a certain degree. Mycroft is a bit beyond that.