It seems that people like posts about books, so who am I to argue? The series that I promised would never happen is now into its third article. Let’s see how long it can run. As with the second post, these books are simply some that I have read and enjoyed. In this article, I have featured three books that were written as diaries, a theme I have always enjoyed. I make no claims for them being landmarks in Literature, although in my opinion, they all have merit. Don’t look for recent titles here either, as I read very little at the moment.
Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks. This 1993 novel is the first in a trilogy set before and during the First World War, then moving on to events during the Second World War. It is the strongest of the three books, and at the time, I could not put it down, reading it over two long sessions. The book moves through time in distinct sections, following Stephen from his life in France before the war, on to his service as an officer in charge of former miners, tasked with tunnelling under enemy positions to lay explosives. The complex love affair from the first part of the book has echoes throughout, and we see the character of Stephen changed by his ordeal in the trenches, and his fears for the men under his command. A second story runs at the same time, set in England, during the late 1970s. His grand-daughter is trying to discover more about his life, at the same time struggling with her own relationship and unhappiness.
Whether you like this type of structure in a book is a personal choice, but I feel that it worked well. The sections set during the war are especially powerful, and the way it is threaded together to lead into the sequels is a sign of a great writer.
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, by Robert Tresell. This book was written in 1911, and is both an important social document, and one of the early works to advocate the benefits of a Socialist society. Set in a fictional place, it represents life for the working classes in the English seaside town of Hastings, between the turn of the century, and the outbreak of WWI. The workers at the time had little or no rights, and were expected to keep their ‘place’, and do as they were told. Peopled by corrupt politicians, and Christians who were propping up the system, we follow a team of house painters working on a house in the town. Frank Owen, the main character, is tired of the poverty and poor conditions that he and his fellow workers have to endure. He tries to politicise them, giving them examples of the Capitalist system that they work under. He is frustrated though, as his uneducated colleagues have no comprehension that any other system could ever exist, and most seem happy enough with their lot, expecting nothing else from life. This is very much an indictment on society in England at the time, written before the Russian Revolution, and the war that would change attitudes, if not lives, some years later.
The Name Of The Rose, by Umberto Eco. Many of you may know the film of this book, starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater. As is normally the case, the book is much better. It is more or less a detective story, concerning a series of murders in a Benedictine Monastery in Italy. However, it is set in 1327, and packed with fascinating period detail, and the convoluted religious issues of the time, including The Inquisition. At over 500 pages, the novel has space to develop characters and descriptions that allow the reader to journey back to the fourteenth century. The settings, from a room where illuminated scripts are added to manuscripts and monks toil to transcribe books, to the labyrinthine library, where secrets are held, are all evocative, as they are so perfectly brought to the page. The monk who arrives at the time of these murders is English, and his name is William of Baskerville. This might be a blatant allusion to Sherlock Holmes, but the plot unfolds nothing like those of Conan-Doyle. Besides the basic theme of someone solving a series of murders, the machinations of the Catholic Church, the involvement of Cathars, feuding monks, and the bleak location, all add up to making this a terrific read for anyone.
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. It helps to be young when you read this, and I was. That is not to detract from the fine writing, and in particular the brilliant character descriptions, that enable the interested reader to picture them completely. This book was written in the 1880s, and is set over one hundred years earlier, at the time of pirates and seafarers, sailing the oceans of the planet. It is an exciting tale of remote islands, a young man’s journey into the world of piracy, buried treasure, and mysterious maps. It is also very well written, with a solid structure, and a definite style, that made it appeal to children and adults alike. Who can forget Long John Silver, Blind Pew, Black Dog, and young Jim Hawkins? It has been filmed many times, and also serialised on television, but even the most memorable performances can get nowhere near the dark feel of the book, and the way that it makes you feel like part of the action. In every sense, a worthy classic.
The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane. This slim novel, at only 110 pages, manages to cram in the experiences of a young Union soldier during the American Civil War. Although it involves battles, the story is not about that war itself, rather the issues of cowardice and redemption seen through the actions of young Henry. Initially confident, his first taste of battle leaves him terrified, and he runs away, deserting his wounded companions. When he receives a slight wound later that day, he returns to his unit, where they bandage his injury, and commend him for his bravery in the fighting, unaware that he had fled. During another attack by the Confederates, Henry seizes the flag, and leads his regiment forward to victory. The Red Badge of Courage is the blood-stained bandage around his head.
The book was written in 1895, decades after the war ended. Crane was not born when the war was fought, so his detailed descriptions of battlefields, equipment, and the feel of being in a battle all came from his imagination. I read this book when I was still at school, and was affected by what I regarded to be its anti-war message. Others disagree, and believe that it glorifies war. I will leave it to you to decide, if you ever get around to reading it.
The Concise Pepys, by Samuel Pepys. This edited version of the famous diaries makes for easier reading that the weighty full volumes. I have read both, so I am recommending this version for those new to the work. Pepys was a member of parliament, and an official with the Navy. During ten years of his life, from 1660 on, he kept a diary of his comings and goings around the city of London, and recorded events small and large, not least his experiences of The Great Fire. This fascinating diary details the problems he experiences with his marriage, the people he has dealings with on a daily basis, and also tells of climactic events, including the war with the Dutch. He gives a first-hand report on the arrival of the Great Plague in London, the corpses in the streets, and the need to evacuate his wife to safety away from the city. The detail is compelling, and the history of this great city unfolds in his entries. Imagine a seventeenth century Facebook, combined with an erudite blogger, add a dash of an ‘on the spot’ reporter, and you will get the idea. It is priceless.
Howards End, by E.M. Forster. If you ever wanted to understand the stifling class structure of Edwardian England, then this is the book for you. Perhaps Forster’s best work, the detailed characterisations, together with the contemporary view of society (it was written in 1910) make this novel an historical treat. Three families represent each of the main classes found at the time. The rich capitalist family, the Wicoxes, are at one end of the class ladder, and the impoverished Bast couple at the bottom. In between are the modern young Schlegel sisters, full of ideals, and attempting to be everything to everyone. The relationships in the novel are interwoven and complex. Bast marries a young woman of ill-repute, and when she meets Wilcox, he recognises her as his former lover. Margaret Schlegel falls for Wilcox, whose wife is terminally ill. After the death of Wicox’s wife, the family are surprised to discover that she has left her ancestral home, the Howards End of the title, to Margaret. There is a great deal more to enjoy in this book, which is a long way from the soap-opera story that it sounds. It has an intricate plot, fascinating characters, and provides a valuable insight into the class system that still exists to a large extent in this country.
Legionnaire, by Simon Murray. Like most young boys in the 1950s, I was excited by the idea of the French Foreign Legion. I watched films like ”Beau Geste’, and imagined the romance of serving in this elite unit, fighting Berbers in the desert. Fortunately, I didn’t embark on this adventure, and this book, published in 1979, should ideally deter any others with a similar idea. Englishman Simon Murray joined the Foreign Legion at the age of nineteen. He served for five years, and was involved in fighting against the Algerian independence fighters in North Africa. Murray’s highly readable account of the harsh training and brutal discipline he encountered served to confirm my relief at never having followed in his footsteps. This book was formed from diaries he kept during his service. The characters he encounters, from his dubious comrades, to incredibly sadistic instructors, really stay in the mind. The descriptions of sporadic fighting, and occasional brutality against their Algerian enemies, are always believable, and make the book feel authentic at the turn of every page. Murray made it to the rank of sergeant, and turned down the offer of a commission. The book was later filmed; but despite the best efforts of all concerned, it never managed to capture the atmosphere of the writing.
The Diary of A Young Girl, by Anne Frank. I read this book when I was fifteen years old, the same age as Anne was when she died of disease in a German concentration camp. I knew little about the domestic life of Jewish families, and even less about the terror of hiding from the occupying Nazis in wartime Holland, so this all came as a revelation to me, as it was written not as a novel, but by a person my age, who actually lived through it. It reads like a series of letters, relating daily life in the claustrophobic conditions where two families lived for two years, before betrayal and discovery in the summer of 1944. Eight people lived in a concealed hideaway built behind her father’s company premises. They were helped by a group of friends who brought them supplies. This book is naturally written only from Anne’s perspective, but it remains as a unique and important account of the extremes that families in such situations were forced to endure.
The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass. This is an example of how being fascinated by a film, led me to search out the original book. The film was released in 1979, twenty years after the book was published, and I was overwhelmed by its unusual style, and the unique story of the boy who refuses to grow up. At the time of the rise of the Nazis, young Oskar experiences puberty and fatherhood, whilst still having the appearance of a child. He tours with a dwarf circus, entertaining the troops, and has a voice that can shatter glass. The tale is so complex, I would need a whole article to do it justice. The book serves that purpose well, and goes on to times beyond the scope of the film into post-war Germany, explaining how Oskar comes to relate the story in the form of his memoirs. Wonderful stuff.
So, more selections to add to your reading lists, or not, as you choose. I hope that you are interested enough to seek out one or two, or if you have already read them, please feel free to add a comment.