An Oulipo French classic

Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright

Zazie’s mother has a hot date in Paris, so she has to leave her eleven year old daughter with her Uncle Gabriel.  Zazie is a mischievous and potty-mouthed youngster who, unable to achieve her aim of travelling on the Métro as they are on strike, runs rings about Gabriel and his friends generally causing chaos wherever she goes, whilst having a weekend to remember.

That is the plot of this short novel in a nutshell, but of course it is much more than this, for in 1960 Queneau was a co-founder of the Oulipo salon – ‘Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle’, whose members espouse writing under extreme literary and/or mathematical constraints; other notable members include Georges Perec and Italo Calvino.

Zazie was Queneau’s thirteenth novel published in 1959, but was the one that brought him to public notice, particularly after Louis Malle filmed it in 1960. I was inspired to retrieve it from the TBR after Simon T recently wrote about one of his earlier books, the highly experimental Exercises in Style here, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect…

The narrative is actually straight-forward, but with sudden scene-shifts occurring mid-flow as the story chops and changes between Zazie and the other characters.  As the story descends into a pure farce and slapstick near the end, it got quite complicated to know where I was, but arguably this didn’t matter much as the crescendo of mounting chaos must eventually come to a head!

Where Zazie was more experimental was in the language, and this is where translator Barbara Wright has done her stuff, by translating (I assume) both Queneau’s run-together-and-phonetically-expressed-colloquialisms (a txtspk precursor?) into English equivalents, and his interesting choices of verbiage (as in a Will Self novel!).  The first page of the novel gives you a hint of both styles to come: ‘Howcanaystinksotho, wondered Gabriel, exasperated.’, and a few lines later ‘Gabriel exstirpated from his sleeve a mauve silk handkerchief and dabbed his boko with it.’

Then we meet Zazie, the charming little imp.  Unkoo Gabriel, as she calls him, and the taxi driver Charles are keen to show Zazie the sights of Paris, but are arguing about which building is the Invalides and where Napoleon’s tomb is.  Zazie puts a stop to this…

‘Napoleon, my arse,’ retorts Zazie. ‘I’m not  in the least interested in that old windbag with his silly bugger’s hat.’

Endearing, isn’t she!  Being a fan of the TV show The Royle Family, it was doubly funny to see words more normally associated with the layabout Jim coming out of a little girl’s mouth, although Zazie was decades earlier.

What about the other characters?  Gabriel is interesting for he is a female impersonator in a celebrated gay nightclub, but is happily married to Marcelline. I suppose we get to know him marginally better than the others, but for the most part we don’t get under the skins of his friends, or the myriad people he and Zazie meet at all.

As a comedy, this book quickly became too cartoonish and silly for me. I’ve not seen the film, but I expect this could be one of those rare cases where I prefer the screen to the page.

As an impressionistic work describing a first visit to Paris and the sights and sounds of the city, Zazie is rather like Gershwin’s An American in Paris, full of snatches of noise and glimpses of fabulous buildings, and I enjoyed this aspect very much.

As a stylistic experiment in expressing conversations as they are heard, Zazie in the Métro requires more work, but still delivers, and can be summed up by the only words that Gabriel’s world-weary parrot can say…

Talk, talk, that’s all you can do!

A charming, quirky, wacky, wordy and very silly book!  (7/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Zazie in the Metro, Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

Man, lost, needs space.

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad, translated by Deborah Dawkin

Written in 2005 in Norwegian and newly available in translation, this novel had an irresistible title for me being a bit of fan of all things space related.  However, it’s not really about the Apollo space program, it concerns one man’s view on what happened next to the second man to walk on the moon.  It is well documented in Aldrin’s autobiography (link below), that he suffered terribly in two directions – always being in Armstrong’s shadow, but also wanting to melt into the background and not being allowed to. This led to a battle with the bottle and some bad years for him.

Mattias is thirty and works in a garden centre – a nice quiet job where he can quietly do what he’s good at, and have a nice quiet life, as he explains …

Some people like being the secretary who’s left outside when the doors close on the meeting room, some people want to drive the garbage truck, event during Easter, some people want to perform the autopsy on the fifteen-year-old who committed suicide early one January morning, and who’s found a week later in the lake, some people don’t want to be on TV, or the radio, or in the newspapers. Some people want to watch movies, not perform in them.
Some people want to be in the audience.
Some people want to be cogs. Not because they have to, but because they want to be.
Simple mathematics.
So here I was. Here. Here in the garden, and I wanted to be nowhere else in the world.

Mattias lives his quiet life, always managing to keep out of the spotlight.  He does have a long-term girlfriend though but their relationship is getting very rickety. Helle’s career is developing, and she feels held back by Mattias’s passivity.

I’d been together with Helle for twelve and a half years. Four thousand and fifty-nine days,. 109,416 hours. Six and a half million minutes. 6,564,960 in figures. A long time. A very long time. In half a year we would enter the third decade in which I’d loved her. But she still didn’t want to get married. Didn’t believe it would work.

Mattias needs bringing out of his shell. Helle decides she’s not the girl to do it, and dumps him.  His job goes down the spout too due to the recession, so Mattias agrees to go to the Faroe Islands as the sound engineer to his friend Jørn’s band who have a gig there.  Jørn had at one time hoped to recruit Mattias as lead singer – he has a wonderful voice, but only sings in private (or when drunk), he’s that shy.

The next thing we know, Mattias wakes up soaked through in a bus shelter well outside the island’s main town and he’s in some mental distress.  A driver stops, and that is Mattias’s lucky day, for Havstein is a psychiatrist who runs a halfway house for patients who aren’t quite ready to make a go of it on their own in the world yet after institutionalisation.  The house is a converted factory in Gjógv, a small and increasingly isolated hamlet over an hour’s drive from the Faroese capital Tórshavn.

Havstein makes him welcome and Mattias feels strangely at home at the factory.  He is given time to sleep and calm down before meeting the others – Palli, Anna and Ennen.  Mattias is delighted to see himself fitting in, becoming a valued member of the group, the isolated position of the little community suits him just fine. Havstein is outwardly so laid back he’s practically horizontal but behind the scenes he works hard behind the scenes to make everything tick. When Mattias manages to miss his plane back to Norway for Christmas, left on his own, he starts reading Havstein’s files…

I’d read enough psychiatric files to last me a year or a lifetime now, but I stood there wondering for a moment if I should get on the bandwagon and write a book myself. Survival Strategies: Basic Model For a Long and Happy Life. A three-step program.

Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Repeat as required.

Mattias will bond with his new friends for life and go through many experiences with them, especially Ennen whom he becomes very close to. Ennen is obsessed by the Swedish band The Cardigans, and their songs pervade the pages once Mattias is in the Faroes; their album also form the section titles of the book. In fact, the whole book is infused with the spirit of grown-up rock – these are all guys and girls who like their music.

A lot more actually happens in this book than I’ve described, but really it’s about Mattias’s unconventional voyage back to full health from his crisis, and coming to terms with his life.  All the characters came to life well – from Mattias’s parents who were full of middle-aged restraint, to his co-patients full of little insecurities; only Havstein remains a real enigma, but eventually his layers get peeled away too.

It’s thoughtful and laid back in that cool Scandinavian way, but I always wanted to read more despite it being a bit long.  Rather good! (8.5/10)

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My copy was supplied from a review list sent by Amazon Vine.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad, translated by Deborah Dawkin, pub Seven Stories Press, Sept 2011, Hardback, 471 pages.
Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon by Buzz Aldrin
Best Of by the Cardigans (CD)

Incoming … Yes, it’s a filler, but I know you all love new books!

Apologies for the slight blogging lull – these couple of weeks since half term have been a) hectic, b) I’ve been full of lergy, and c) I have to fight my daughter to get on the laptop these days!  Those are my excuses, and I’m sticking with them.

Meanwhile, I know most of you love looking at new acquisitions, so here are the latest titles to arrive at Gaskell Towers …

From the top, they are:

  • The Snow Childby Eowyn Ivey. A modern fairy tale of a childless couple in Alaska and the snowgirl they make. Sounds magical.
  • The Child Who by Simon Lelic. The third book from the author of Rupture, a highly original crime novel. The child who features the case of a twelve year old murderer and the impact it has on his solicitor.
  • You & I by Padgett Powell. OK, I was drawn in by the purple and gold cover, but on inspection this promises to be rather interesting and experimental having been described as ‘Waiting for Godot on acid’.
  • Collected Folk Tales by Alan Garner. A collection of British folk tales, gathered and retold by the renowned author – and purple and gold again – Christmas’s trending colours in book covers perhaps?
  • The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman, which tells the story of the siege of Masada in 70AD through the eyes of four women.
  • Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. I hope that by finding out more about Dickens the man, I’ll be enthused to read more of his novels.
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I’ve given in to the hype surrounding this book, (but did buy a cheap copy via The Book People).

Have you got any good new books lately? – do tell …

Home, sweet home, or not as the case may be…

Wall Of Daysby Alastair Bruce

A man stands on a rocky outcrop, watching the sea-green water. He is called Bran. He survives alone on a small island just big enough to sustain him where he has lived for ten years ever since he was banished from his homeland. Life on his rain-soaked island is hard, but there are fish, tubers, roots and the occasional gull to eat; there is peat for the fire, and a cave to live in. The resources are decreasing, but are enough, he calculates, to see his time out.

At the end of each day I make a small mark with a stone on the wall of the cave. The seventh line I draw crosses the previous six. At the end of fifty-two of these plus one extra mark or two extra every fourth year I start a new row. Last night I reached the end of the tenth. Tonight I will start another. Every year with the last of the marks I remember being told why we measure time this way – with one or two eatra days in a year – but every year I realise I have forgotten the reason. I imagine it is something to do with the moon, the moon I have not seen for a decade. So much of what I do, of what we used to do, is for reasons that I cannot remember, that I dare say no one can remember.

Marks on a wall. The second time in my life I have made marks on a wall. They mean more than days. I do not forget that.

Bran had been Marshall of the settlement that bore his name.  He had a lover, Tora, whom he misses still; he wonders what has happened to her, and whether Abel, his deputy, is still in charge. Bran was banished by his community, set adrift on a raft, exiled.  Return, they said, would mean execution. But one day, something happens. Bran feels compelled to return to his settlement to warn them that they’re in danger, and he cuts down some of his precious few remaining trees to build another raft …

We’re never told where this world is, but we know that something happened, both in the far past where most of mankind has been wiped out, and in the recent past where Bran appears to be answerable to some unforgivable acts as leader. The remaining people have reverted back to a life that is rather like that of a frontier town in a Western or a medieval town – there is no technology, even ancient left here.

Ten years as a hermit have naturally taken their toll on Bran, and it is fair to say that he is not the most reliable narrator, but he does have a sense of duty as former Marshall to his former people.  He understands why they think he betrayed them, he acknowledges the guilt, but he was only doing it for their own good. He is desperate to find out what has happened in his absence and still holds a torch for Tora. Once he returns though his efforts to warn them of the dangers he thinks will come and his search for answers are totally frustrating, he cannot find an audience.

This novel is strangely beautiful in its way, but like an iceberg, what lies beneath the understated prose in this drowned world, is a complex web of emotions – guilt and betrayal, love and loss, the power of memories. Even though we know that Bran has probably done bad things, we sympathise with him as he tries to atone for them, and we hope he’ll find a way to get through and maybe even find his true love again. This assured debut has hidden depths, and manages to be a thoughtful yet compelling read. (8/10)

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I chose this book for review from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Wall Of Days by Alastair Bruce, pub Clerkenwell Press, Aug 2011, 237 pages, trade paperback.

Handbagging it …

It’s in the Bag: What Purses Reveal and Conceal by Winifred Gallagher

I’ve never been terribly concerned about handbags. For everyday use, I like a big bag which carries everything in enough pockets so that I can find things. I’m a big fan of Kipling bags which I buy in their outlet shop at Bicester Shopping Village for half price! I go for the bright, washable and shower-resistant nylon canvas ones rather than their posher leather bags. Practicality is my byword in a bag!

So I found it strange to be attracted to this little hardback when I saw it in the charity shop, but for a quid couldn’t demur. I’ve been dipping into it over the past couple of weeks, and learning all about the ‘It’ bags I’ll never be able to afford (unless I win the Euromillions!).

After a very brief history of the origins of the handbag, we’re into analysing the bag business – the designers, the companies, the store buyers and the owners. Little pen sketches illustrate some of the key purses; what I missed though was a selection of colour plates to show me what these $1000+ bags are really like. However the lack of pictures was more than made up for by all the fascinating facts and bons mots …

The (Grace) Kelly Bag by Hermès

“He (Sigmund Freud) proposed that the purse – in his day, a capacious, satchel-like affair – was a symbol of woman and that placing an object inside it represented sexual intercourse. His association of the handbag and the vagina has colloquial support. The term ‘pussy’ is derived from ‘purse,’ after all…”

The Chanel 2.55 (launched Feb 1955)

“The popularity of luxury bags is also partly a response to a plumper population in general and the huge, aging baby boom generation in particular. Of all fashionable items, accessories, which require no disillusioning trips to the fitting room, are the most forgiving. Regardless of her size, shape, or wrinkle quotient, a woman can wear the most stylish shoes and bag she can afford.”

‘… You can wear jeans and cowboy boots, but as long as you carry a two-thousand-dollar bag, people will place you where you want to be placed.’  Conversely, at least in certain millieus, ‘There’s nothing sadder than last year’s It bag, she says. ‘You get on a waiting list and pay so much for it, then a year later, it’s just an ‘old bag.’ What a derogatory term!’ “(Joanna Coles, the editor of Marie-Claire)

Margaret Thatcher's Asprey handbag which sold at a charity auction for £25,000

Ann Richards, former Governor of Texas, designed her own bag, and has a wonderful anecdote to tell about our monarch. “… at a formal dinner during a visit to Texas, Queen Elizabeth arrived with a lovely evening bag. What’s more, after taking her seat, she reached into her purse and pulled out a little piece of twisted S-shaped gold. Them she hooked one end on the table’s edge and hing her purse from the other. ‘It was charming,’ says the governor. ‘The queen – or someone – has given her bags some thought.’ “

However, during my limited researches into It bags, the best thing of all was reading about the ‘Birkin’ bag, a weekend bag designed for the iconic actress Jane Birkin by Hermès in 1984. Popular with celebs such as Victoria Beckham, Lady Gaga and Carla Bruni and available in an array of hues and finishes, they cost upwards of £5k for them today, but Jane still has her original black bags – which are scuffed, covered in stickers, used all the time, and obviously still loved.

This was a sweet little book, quick to read and intermittently interesting, but rather concentrating on the American markets, (6.5/10). There are any number of other books about handbags available, but I would be drawn to 50 Bags that Changed the World, from the Design Museum, and written about in passing by Dovegreyreader here.

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To explore further at Amazon UK, click below:
It’s in the Bag: What Purses Reveal and Conceal by Winifred Gallagher, pub Harper Collins 2006, hardback 128 pages.
Fifty Bags That Changed the World: Design Museum by the Design Museum

Book Group Report: Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Our book group read this month was one of those archetypal earnest stories featuring real events that can generate great discussions.

This novel takes place in 1960s Nigeria before and during the Nigerian-Biafran war which started in 1967.  It follows the lives of two sisters, their lovers, and a young houseboy.

Odenigbo is a Professor at Nsukka University and has a new houseboy Ugwu who is thirteen and eager to please. The professor’s girlfriend is the beautiful Olanna, who comes from a rich family in Lagos – she could have married the rich playboy Mohammed, but chose the contrasting ideals of Odenigbo. Her twin sister Kainene considers herself the ugly one, but she has charisma and a can-do attitude. Kainene’s boyfriend is Richard, a white Englishman who came to Nigeria to study the native art of the Igbo people.  Ugwu meanwhile almost becomes part of the family and is very protective of his Olanna and their child in particular.

Life is easy on the university campus in 1963, and the academics get together to drink, discuss Nigeria’s worsening political situation and put the world to rights in the evenings.  A few years later however, revolution arrives, hundreds are massacred including Olanna’s beloved auntie.  They are forced to flee and live as refugees in the new Igbo Republic of Biafra, with its emblem of the half a yellow sun.

The book is written in four parts alternating between periods before and during the war, which cleverly allows Adichie to explain later in part three, things which happened between parts one and two, and similarly with part four set towards the end of the war. This slight playing with the timeline of this novel, kept the plot moving and giving a sense of tension that there was more to reveal.

We felt that many of the characters were rather stereotypical: Odenigbo and his university colleagues; Richard the white man who wants to be black; certainly Olanna’s parents who decamped to London; even Olanna herself.  In contrast, Kainene was genuinely interesting being as chalk and cheese with her twin sister. Ugwu grows up into a young man during the book, and felt totally genuine to us; indeed it is ultimately his story at the heart of the novel.

In our book group, the oldest of us were only children when the Nigerian-Biafran war occurred, but the images of babies suffering from Kwashiorkor – advanced malnutrition persist – the Biafran War was probably the first time that this type of picture was shown around the world.  We had a wide-ranging discussion about civil war in African, the effects of post-colonialism, partition, tribal and religious conflicts, the famine in Ethiopia, and more – I told you this was a book that provoked great discussion.

We all agreed that although it was a hard book to read with its brutal war sequences, it was a good one. None of us had read much, if any, African literature before, and would be open to read more – I plan to read Chinua Achebe’s novel Things fall apart for starters.

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, click below:
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Things Fall Apart (Pocket Penguin Classics) by Chinua Achebe.

Another quirky fable of men and their work

A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked in by Magnus Mills

Don’t you just love the cover of this book?  Having just finished reading it, I love it even more, as it encapsulates the kingdom within its pages perfectly. I can identify its buildings including ‘The Cake’ – the dome-topped concert hall (middle left) and the post office (middle bottom).  The cover also has a cuckoo clock, which makes one think of Switzerland, but that’s landlocked, and there is an anchor and sea at the bottom left. What you can’t see is the railway line that snakes its way from the inside covers onto the back with its choo-choo puffing off into the distance, which will have deep resonance in this fable.

After a while, I realised that the world of Greater Fallowfields in Magnus Mills’s new novel is actually more like Port Meirion in Wales.  This Italianate village (below) was built from 1925 onwards, on the Welsh coast in Caernarvonshire.Port Meirion famously featured in the cult 1960s TV series The Prisoner; the themes in that series do bear a slight similarity to those of this novel – individuals versus the collective and all that.  There are also echoes of the community in the out of season Lake District villages that featured in my favourite of Mills’s books, All Quiet on the Orient Express. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let me tell you a little about the plot of this delightfully dark and quirky novel.

The Emperor of Greater Fallowfields has gone AWOL, and a new cabinet is meeting in his absence.  The story is told by the new Principal Composer to the Imperial Court – in typical Mills fashion we never learn his name!  He joins the Librarian in Chief, the Postmaster General, Astronomer Royal and Pellitory-of-the-Wall amongst others to discuss issues like setting the clocks so one can always have tea at sundown.

I must digress for a moment to tell you that we never really find out what Wryneck, the holder of the title Pellitory-of-the-Wall does, but I did look that up in case any aspect of this job title was real.  Turns out that PotW is the name of a plant also known as lichwort and is related to nettles.  Its main medicinal use is as a diuretic – so I think Mills is taking the piss with this one!

Back to these court officers, this group of ‘Pooh-Bahs'; they are all totally new to their jobs. Arguably, if they had done some swaps of office, they could have created a cabinet that had half a chance of knowing what was what. Instead, they are determined to muddle through and learn on the job. The Astronomer Royal has never used a telescope for instance which is just as well, for the one on the top of the Observatory is operated by sixpences. As for our narrator, the Principal composer, he discovers that he has a ninety piece orchestra led by a composer who could have been really famous if he’d not been a serf. Greylag is a musical genius, but all opuses are credited to the Principal Composer who cannot play a note on any instrument.

As our officers are finding their feet in their new positions, there are plenty of gentle digs about status and roles within dictatorships. This being a Magnus Mills novel – jobsworths too; the officers find it very difficult to spend their stipendiary sixpences.  Our narrator tries to buy some sweets for his orchestra…

‘Some lions and tigers,’ I continued. ‘Also, some rhubarb-and-custard, some heart-of-violet, some liquorice comfits and some peppermint creams.’
Again he tipped out the required sweets.
‘How much does that all come to?’ I asked.
He placed a weight on the opposite scale. Then he added another. ‘It comes to fivepence, sir.’
‘Ah, good,’ I said. ‘Then I’ll just have some of your dolly mixture to round it up to sixpence.’
‘Round it up, sir?’ said the shopkeeper.
‘Yes.’
‘But you’re only allowed a pennyworth.’
‘Why?’
‘It’s an imperial decree, sir, to stop people from being greedy.’
‘But they’re not for me,’ I protested.
‘Ho, ho,’ answered the shopkeeper. ‘That’s what they all say.’
‘No, really,’ I said. ‘I’m Principal Composer to the Imperial Court.’
‘I know exactly who you are sir.’
‘The sweets are for my musicians,’ I explained. ‘They’ve been working very hard lately and I want to reward them with a treat.’
The shopkeeper frowned.
‘Well, sir,’ he said. ‘if you don’t mind my saying so, I think that’s a big mistake. Oh, I know you’re only trying to be nice to them, but what you regard as an act of kindness they’re sure to interpret as a sign of weakness. Believe me; I know what these serfs can be like.’
‘Do you?’
‘Yes, sir.’
The shopkeeper stood with his hands flat on the counter and a broad smile on his face. He was clearly very pleased with himself.
‘All right then,’ I said, after giving the situation a moment’s thought. ‘I’ll just have a pennyworth.’ I put my hand in my pocket and produced my stipendiary sixpence.
He shook his head.
‘I’m very sorry, sir, but I can’t take that.’
‘Why not?’ I queried. ‘Haven’t you got any change?’
‘Yes, I have,’ he said, ‘but I can’t just go dishing out pennies willy-nilly. Pennies are for commoners.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I see.’
I stood there clutching my sixpence in the palm of my hand. It was all I had, but I was quite unable to spend it.
‘Tell you what, sir,’ said the shopkeeper, ‘how about a toffee apple on the house?’

Similarly, the narrator and his fellow officers fail to procure beers in the pub too, until the arrival of the ‘player king’ and his theatre troupe. Things go a bit Shakespearean for a while with liberal references to Hamlet and Macbeth, although more in the mould of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – the behind the scenes view of Hamlet.

One thing missing from this entire story, is female characters.  Mills’s novels are always strictly about men.  The only women in A Cruel Bird… are some fabled dancing girls who never actually appear!  Despite featuring no girls, this novel is not lacking in inventive quirkiness and black humour. It does take a very dark turn in the last quarter, which had me worried for a while, the story manages to turn in circles of all dimensions. Incidentally if you enjoy these kind of wacky circular tales, you should watch the Coen brothers’ rather underrated film Burn After Reading, my review here.

I loved the strangeness of the familiar in this tale, which gave this sort of Ruritanian fantasy a strongly wistful feel for me, even though I chuckled my way through it.  It’s definitely one of his strongest novels. If you need convincing, read John Self’s review here, but I loved it. (10/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further at Amazon UK, click below:
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked in by Magnus Mills, hardback, pub Bloomsbury Sept 2011, 288 pages.
All Quiet on the Orient Express
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead [DVD] Play by Tom Stoppard, the film stars Gary Oldman & Tim Roth
Burn After Reading [DVD], written and directed by the Coen Brothers.

The Baroness takes on Austen

Death Comes to Pemberleyby P D James

Novels that take on the classics have a chequered history, and will always be subjected to increased scrutiny to see if they live up to the premise.  Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and Gone with the wind, for instance, have all had prequels, sequels and adapations written with varying degrees of success. Published this week is Anthony Horowitz’s new Sherlock Holmes mystery too, House of Silk, which sounds irresistible. 

Austen is of course another author ripe for the treatment, and over the years Pride & Prejudice has had more than its fair share of homages. P&P & Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith, which spawned a tide of monster mash-ups, was actually rather fun (my review here); another trend-setter inspired by P&P was Bridget Jones Diary

Published today comes a new sequel to Pride & Prejudice, Death comes to Pemberley,  written by the one and only Baroness P D James, and it’s a crime novel.  James is a fan of Austen, and in a recent Guardian article, she apologises for appropriating Austen’s characters into a murder investigation, but said, “It has been a joy to revisit Pride and Prejudice and to discover, as one always does, new delights and fresh insights.”

If anyone could fuse P&P with a murder mystery, the Baroness, now in her 90s, is the woman to do it, and to paraphrase Sir Bruce, ‘Doddery, she is not’!

A clever prologue summarises the story of the original novel and reminds us of the main characters. Then the action shifts from the Bennet’s home at Longbourn to Pemberley six years after P&P closes. Elizabeth and Darcy now have an heir and a spare in the nursery, Elizabeth has happily settled as mistress of the manor and Darcy is a local magistrate. The Bingleys have set up home close by, so Lizzie’s beloved sister Jane is always at hand.

It’s the night before the annual Pemberley ball held in honour of Darcy’s late mother, Lady Anne. The Darcys and Bingleys are having a quiet family dinner. Uppermost on Elizabeth’s mind is Darcy’s younger sister, Georgiana; she appears to be falling for the Bingley’s young house guest, Henry Alveston, a young lawyer from London. Darcy’s cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, is also there, and he is hoping that Georgiana might look his way.  Elizabeth muses…

It still surprised her that between Darcy’s first insulting proposal and his second successful and penitent request for her love, they had only been together in private for less than half an hour: the time when she and the Gardiners were visiting Pemberley and he unexpectedly returned and they walked together in the gardens, and the following day when he rode over to the Lambton inn where she was staying to discover her in tears, holding Jane’s letter with news of Lydia’s elopement. He had quickly left and she had thought never to see him again. …

… And would she herself have married Darcy had he been a penniless curate or a struggling attorney? It was difficult to envisage Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley as either, but honesty compelled an answer, Elizabeth knew that she was not formed for the sad contrivances of poverty.

We all knew Lizzie was a material girl at heart.  Then a commotion occurs to stop the dinner party in its tracks. It’s a chaise, rattling out of the woods (the back entrance to Pemberley). The driver reins the horses to a halt, and out of the coach spills Lydia, saying that her husband Wickham is dead!

Whilst none of us would be sad to see the last of the dastardly Wickham, or indeed to suffer much of Lydia’s histrionics, to have him killed off in the opening chapter would be to miss endless opportunities for more arrogance and bad behaviour on his part. Darcy, together with Colonel Fitzwilliam and the Henry Alveston, form a search party, and they do find a body, but it’s not that of Wickham. Indeed, initially, he appears to have been the perpetrator and although in a real state is taken into custody.

I’m not going to tell you more about who died. But it is entirely fitting to the setting for Wickham to be involved up to his armpits in the intrigue surrounding the events that happened that night. One of Darcy’s colleagues on the local bench is called in to take charge of proceedings, and of course the ball has to be cancelled. Darcy, as Wickham’s ‘brother’ through Lydia’s marriage, is reluctantly, but dutifully, drawn in to support Wickham through his imprisonment and impending trial. As owner of the land on which the murder was committed, Darcy is also involved at every step of the investigation. There were other people abroad that night though too, and we become intrigued to find out what they were doing in those hours of darkness.

The main story really belongs to Darcy, and through her intimate knowledge of the source material, PD James, is able to flesh out a lot of the back story between him and Wickham. Darcy plays a sort of Dr Watson to the succession of investigators, but having a foot in both camps, as he finds out answers, more and more layers get peeled away from Wickham’s shell, and we gradually get a real feel for Wickham the man. Meanwhile, Elizabeth in her roles as wife, mother, and mistress of Pemberley, ministers to all her charges, including the staff who are all very fond of her. She has the knack of finding out little confidences, which help everything to add up in the end and provide the complementary side to Darcy’s more robust stance.

All that remains is to decide whether James has cracked it. I believe she has. She knows her Austen, and the characters have authentic voices. Darcy and Elizabeth feel totally familiar. The only character missing is Mrs Bennet, and I at first I couldn’t decide whether that was a blessing or an opportunity missed to enliven the process, but after further thought she wasn’t missed much. We also get a good picture of the Regency judicial process and as to whodunnit – I didn’t work it out, having fallen for one of the red herrings.

Crafted with consummate skill, Death Comes to Pemberley works both as a crime novel and Austen sequel. I loved it, and hope you will too. (9/10)

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My copy was kindly supplied by the publisher – thank you!
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Death Comes to Pemberley by P D James, pub 3 Nov by Faber, Hardback 320 pages.
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