Saturday, 29 October 2011

The Ambassadors by Henry James

I was listening to the radio and writers were being interviewed about books that had been tough to read but which in the end proved worth the trouble. Henry James was mentioned more than any other writer. I can half see why they said that, after reading this; but only half. Unfortunately for me, I think the half that is missing is the half when you say 'ah, so it was worth it'.

I had only read the Turn of the Screw before this, which I enjoyed. But that is only a novella or, perhaps, as short story.

His style is so vague and elliptical, in this book, that it is often hard to figure out what, if anything, is going on. He uses ambiguous phrases like 'make out' and 'bring on' in the course of dialogue which is often opaque in its meaning. This is clearly deliberate, as we share in the protagonist's journey of understanding. He has been sent by a rather buttoned-up American family to bring the son, perceived to be errant, back from Paris. He realises during his mission that things are not so simple, of course. This creates a bit of dramatic tension, hard though that is to follow behind the linguistic mists of James's style. It also supports one of the novel's central themes, the nature of civilisation and the differences between cultures.

Much is inferred rather than stated, not least in relation to sex. I spent a lot of the book trying to understand whether we were dealing with friendships or love affairs. Perhaps that uncertainty reflects real life and is to be appreciated on that basis. But it can be bewildering when spread out over a whole novel.

A practical point - I was reading the Penguin Classics text and it contained a number of annoying typographical errors.

I won't be rushing to read another novel by Henry James, to be honest. The period he wrote in fascinates me, however, and I fancy Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. But for this reader, James is a bit too much like hard work, for now at any rate.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

There can have been few better times in the last 100 years or so to read this book. It was written in the 1960s by the American historian Barbara Tuchman and it deals with August 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War.

I have read several books on this period, trying hard to understand the reasons for what we think of today as a war of unexampled pointlessness yet destructiveness. This is the best I have read. She portrays brilliantly the unthinking nationalism and direly stupid autocracy of Europe's governing elites. British readers, brought up like me on the myth of unstinting British heroism in both world wars, will find the cool analysis of British intransigence and disorganisation in the weeks preceding the outbreak of war and, especially, the early and crucial weeks of the campaign, unsettling. And any American reader who thinks the French deserve the nickname of cheese eating surrender monkeys (ironically created though it was) can be disabused by her account of amazing French heroism.

It is shocking still to read of how atrocity and gross intimidation were written into the German approach to war; these were formal policy,  not isolated incidents. So fearful were they of French and Belgian snipers that they adopted a disciplined approach to horror, shooting whole villages, including children, with bureaucratic dispatch, as reprisals.

Tuchman describes the events through personalities and the telling anecdote. When Europe is going through economic convulsion, it is timely to remind ourselves just how corrosive nationalism has been in Europe in the relatively recent past. We still see vestiges of it in the Balkans and elsewhere. World War I was, according to this distinguished and readable account, ultimately caused by a collective derangement over 'national interests'. Where have I heard that phrase invoked in the councils of Europe recently?