Sunday, 2 September 2012

Swiss wine and cheese reviews part 2: The Riddle of the Sands and A Single Man

First, I would like to share some good news with you. The furniture has gone. It has ALL GONE. There are NO MATTRESSES IN THE HALLWAY ANY MORE and there is NOT A WARDROBE IN THE BATHROOM EITHER. I am euphoric but also slightly suspicious, in case this is all too good to be true and I wake up tomorrow and discover that it has returned, bringing friends.

I seem to recall that I only reviewed half of the books I read on holiday. This is because the furniture made me too angry to think. But now it has gone, and I have room in my brain to get angry about books again.

Actually, neither of these books made me particularly angry. One did make me sad (you'll see why), and one just confused me, but both of them turned out to be not at all well-chosen holiday reads. Oops.

First up, The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers.

If this book was a person, and I met it on a singles website (go with me on this), we would immediately flag up high uncompatability and any date we were forced to go on would be a disaster. If it was a dog, it would be a short-haired chihuahua and I would be looking for one of those dogs that look like an enormous toilet brush. What I am saying is, this book was not the book for me.

If you want to find out whether or not you will enjoy The Riddle of the Sands more than I did, you need to ask yourself one important question. Do you like boats?

For me, boats are like horses: I find them pleasant from a distance, but quite puzzling close up. They have lots of bits to them, like jibs and booms and all manner of little clippy things (?) that need constant attention, and I am daunted by this. This is not to say that I am incapable of getting on board with aquatically-themed novels. I read the whole Swallows and Amazons series in my youth (although I did mentally look away during the more naval parts), and I think boats are excellent places to put a plot. But there are books featuring the sea and there are books where THE WHOLE STORY is people belaying the fore-top-poop-sail and then letting it out again. (Or is belaying letting it out? Answers below please). And the second is the case in The Riddle of the Sands.

Unfortunately, my duffer of a brain does not allow me to focus properly on seafaring terms, meaning that I was only able to take in approximately one-third of the words in The Riddle of the Sands. To me, a typical paragraph looked something like this:
"??? the ??? ???!" said Davies. I quickly ???? ???? and jumped into the ?????. "Quick!" cried the normally taciturn Davies, turning a violent shade of puce. "We only have three hours until the ??? fills up the ??? and we are left in the ????" "But what of the villainous Germans?" I asked. "Surely their ??? must ???? on the ???? at ????." "Nonsense," said Davies. "Remember the ??? ???? ????? ???? at eight ????. Also, canals."
The narrator, Carruthers, is a twerp - he begins the story by complaining about how BORED he is of London because all his friends are away and both(!) of his clubs are being cleaned - but even though the real hero is sweet, silent Davies, he is still too nautical to make me feel like I had discovered a kindred spirit. Our intrepid heroes (?) have to foil some sort of plot to do with Germans and canals, which they are either in, or not in, or in the wrong ones, or something. Anyway, the important point is that they are VILLAINOUS, like all Germans in British novels at the beginning of the twentieth century.

If you want a good tonal comparison for The Riddle of the Sands, think The 39 Steps but with boats. It's got the same jolly-ho British gentlemen, casual racism, open-air chases and random but very dangerous danger. I think I would have found The Riddle of the Sands gently amusing in its own unintentionally offensive way had I not been so befuddled by all the boat words. If you do like boats, I think you'll find it charming but dated, but because I don't I have to give it

2.5 stars.

My last holiday book was A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood. So far, I have had 100% success with Isherwood. Even though I'm not sure Isherwood's someone I'd like to hang out in a pub with, I love his prose style, and both of the books I've previously read by him were pretty dark but unfailingly funny. In this novel, though, he has magnificently lost his sense of humour.

It's clear that Isherwood was going through a very, very bad time when he wrote A Single Man. Every page of it washes you with utter black despair of the kind I haven't experienced since the last time I read The Bell Jar (which I keep doing because I love it, even though I know that afterwards I will have to crawl into bed and stare at the ceiling for a while thinking about doom). Like The Bell Jar, it feels intensely personal in a way that makes you want to phone the Samaritans on the author's behalf.

Set in sixties America, it follows one day in the life of George, whose life-partner Jim has suddenly died. Because George is a man and Jim was one also, he can't acknowledge his grief, he can't properly mourn and he has no physical or legal claim on the person he loved. (Sounds familiar? Of course it does. And the worst thing is that it's not just ancient history. In the kind of life-mirroring-art that you wish would never happen, George's exact story played out again last year. That last link, by the way, is to a youtube video made by the surviving partner, and you should probably be in a strong mental state before you click play.)

Feel depressed yet? It gets worse. If that whole scenario wasn't awful enough on its own, A Single Man is set in Los Angeles, the most grim city in the universe, where the roads are neverending circles of hell, the sky is a permanent weird shade of yellow and everyone is starving hungry and hates each other. Everything is horrible, George hates everyone and his life is just A LITANY OF DESPAIR. And that is how this book goes.

I felt uncomfortable and upset while I was reading it, and disliked George intensely, which I'm sure is exactly what what Isherwood wanted to happen. The idea he's trying to get across- and it's an extremely powerful one - is that if you're subjected to hate all your life, you will become a hateful person. If you simply feel soggily sorry for George, you've missed the point. He's not a tragic martyr, he's a painfully angry, sad man, and that's the fault of all the people who have made sure that he can't be open about the life that he's lived. Isn't that a jolly holiday thought?

A Single Man was incredibly powerful, but also incredibly embittered. Rage and sorrow just shoot out of it in waves. I think it'll stay with me, and I know I agree with what it's got to say, but I didn't actually enjoy the experience of reading it.

I just wish it wasn't still so completely relevant.

3.5 stars.


  1. ha, I can't remember what I told you about Riddle Of The Sands but mostly what I remember about it is about a million chapters of nothing but really techy marine navigation. which at the age of twelve I thought was just like SO COOL. but the propaganda value of it is interesting, Erskine Childers was interesting, and the fact that the environment - the german coast, boats - is so meticulously factual is I think important in the evolution of this kind of story. that being said: I literally don't remember the plot at all except for a bit where they make maps. it's a thriller about admin! HURRAH.

    but in order to really root for something in this kind of story you have to be going 'gosh yes! prevent those foreigners from doing whatever they are doing!' and today my brain just - can't do that.

    also I'm glad to hear your furniture has been disappeared! AT LAST.

    1. I know. So many facts! I felt like I was closer to understanding why spy novels always make me feel like I am hopelessly beating my way through a thicket of time charts. I can't be dealing with facts that aren't 'and the body was BEHIND the chair but IN FRONT OF the stuffed walrus with a GREAT BIG MAORI KNIFE embedded in the walnut secretaire'.

      I always find it incredibly interesting to note how many years before 1914 it was fashionable to be suspicious of Germans. I lazily assume WW1 was a SURPRISE, but literary evidence tells me not.

      Yes it has gone! You should come down some time and dance in the newly created spaciousness.