The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

Summary: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

When reviewing for the first time the play, “Waiting for Godot”, the theatre critic Vivian Mercier, writing in the Irish Times, famously described it as a play in which ‘nothing happens, twice’.

I had a similar thought when reading Ann Patchett’s “The Dutch House.” Nothing happens a lot in it.

Its narrator, Danny Conroy, describes his generally unremarkable life in an account that hops back and forth in time, much like an unreliable memory. Son of a wealthy property developer father in Philadelphia, Danny is really brought up by his older sister Maeve. She takes on maternal responsibilities after their mother’s departure from the family home – the Dutch House of the title. Maeve’s burdens are added to when their father acquiesces to marry Andrea. While the two step-sisters this brings them may not be ugly, Andrea certainly carries a measure of evil with her.

Danny, aware enough to know that he is self-absorbed, gets to go to medical school through Maeve’s efforts and wiles. But he never really practices as a doctor opting instead to become a property developer like his father. Maeve becomes the finance manager of a food company. Danny marries and has a family. Unfortunately, Maeve and his wife, Celeste, do not really get on. 

Around them America is changing, with the Vietnam war, and the demands for civil rights. But these barely encroach upon Danny’s consciousness. Maeve is, we learn in passing, socially engaged.But Danny is never really interested enough in what she is doing to tell the reader more.

So, that’s about it. 

But I don’t want to sell this short. “The Dutch House” is, perhaps, the literary equivalent of a still life of a fruit bowl: an exquisitely crafted rendering of ordinary life, or rather of life of unfulfilled potential. Selfless, wise-cracking Maeve, one feels throughout the book, should be the heroine of golden era Hollywood, a sort of Rosalind Russell figure from “His Girl Friday”, working on front page exposes of graft and corruption instead of being stuck, happily she claims, with balance sheets. By the end of the book one feels that her niece and namesake Mae is on the verge of the sort of life that Maeve should have lived.

“The Dutch House” is shot through with this sort of melancholia, and moments of unambiguous grief. It is a beautifully written and haunting book.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Summary: the restless dead, and their thoughts on the mid-19th century state of the union

In certain schools of Buddhism the “Bardo” is an intermediate place between death and rebirth or heaven. It is into this Purgatory that William Wallace Lincoln, third son of Abraham, arrives in 1862.

Unlike the other children who arrive there Willie lingers, longing to see his father again. Some of the older ghosts – a young man regretful of his suicide, a middle-aged man pining for his young wife, a elderly minister fearful of what lies beyond – worry about what will befall Willie if he stays too long. So they take it upon themselves to help the young fellow move on. As a result they encounter the devastated president, come to visit the grave of his beloved son.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a strange book. Literary critics call it “experimental”. Portions of it, those providing the historical context, are edited from the vast literature of Lincoln and the Civil War. Into this context George Saunders creates a sort of American “Cré na Cille”, populating his narrative with the ghostly denizens of the graveyard where Willie lies.

A cross-section of American society from independence until 1862 is here: white supremacists dwelling alongside the slaves dumped in a common pit; wealthy misers rubbing ectoplasm with alcoholic down-and-outs. They reflect the nation at the moment of crisis that Lincoln confronts. Their stories, their memories of their past lives and their gossip on the current scandals of the graveyard society, are by turns hilarious and shocking, always entertaining and ultimately gripping.

At first President Lincoln’s presence in the midst of this cacophony of voices seems almost incidental. But it is not. Rather his presence is catalytic, provoking profound changes to the social order of the Bardo just as he is about to lead profound changes to the order of the Union.

Lincoln may sometimes be thought of as one of the last fatalities of the Civil War. But he wasn’t that. George Floyd may hold that dreadful distinction at the time of writing, but of course that won’t last for long. But Lincoln, alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, offers a glimpse of how much better America can be when it confronts its own original sins of slavery and genocide. That idealism echoes in this book.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

Summary: A routine blackmail case opens a whole nother can of worms for Marlowe

img_1848If Rusty Regan had still been around General Sternwood would never have had to call Marlowe. But Rusty took off weeks ago and Sternwood needs someone discrete to handle this Geiger fellow’s blackmailing grift.

It seems like a straightforward gig to Marlowe. Then Geiger turns up dead. And everyone starts getting real interested in the whereabouts of former IRA commandant Terrance Regan.

Four things you can always count on Chandler for: twisty plots, strong atmosphere, femmes fatales, and prejudice. Just as I was feeling that The Big Sleep was remarkably free of the sort of bigotries that mar his other books, such as The Long Goodbye, Chandler decides The Big Sleep needs a discourse on gay men. Unsurprisingly Chandler’s thoughts on the subject are of the sort that probably render the reader just a little stupider in their reading.

There are bona fide loose ends in The Big Sleep: it’s never quite clear who killed everyone or why. But a thing that has always intrigued me about The Big Sleep is whether Chandler based the character of Regan on Ernie O’Malley.

Regan?

O’Malley, a former IRA commander and writer, spent a chunk of the late Twenties and Thirties in the US hanging out amidst artistic and literary circles. I can’t find any indication that Chandler and O’Malley ever met. But Chandler’s description of Regan does sound very like O’Malley: “a face that is sad rather than merry, more reserved than brash… a forehead broad rather than high, a mat of dark, clustering hair… the face of a man who would move fast and play for keeps.”

Admittedly this question is probably only of minority interest. What is more important is that if you can stomach Chandler’s horrible prejudices for a bit, this is a classic piece of hard-boiled detective fiction, beautifully written with moments of poetry, and gripping from start to finish.

Blood and Sugar, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Summary: A gripping historical detective story, probing the dark heart of the system of slavery that made Britain rich.

The origins of Britain as a leading commercial and industrial nation lie in two comparably genocidal events: the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the conquest of India.

These are atrocities that the majority of British people know little about. Insofar as they may be aware of the slave trade they probably only know of William Wilberforce’s parliamentary campaign to end it. The painstaking and arguably more important work by Clarkson, Sharpe, Equiano and the Quakers, that made parliamentary action possible by shifting the tide of public opinion against this industrialised trafficking of human beings, is much less well known.

Well, if British people remain ignorant of this for much longer, it will not be for Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s want of trying.

Blood and Sugar starts with the gruesome murder of an abolitionist lawyer in the slave port of Deptford. But, horrific as this event is, as veteran of the American war, Harry Corsham, discovers when he begins to probe into the death of his erstwhile friend, this is not the worst thing that those responsible for the slave trade have done.

Blood and Sugar is a gripping and richly detailed historical detective thriller that probes unflinchingly into the savagery of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Its power is magnified by its verisimilitude: while the foreground figures may be fictitious there is nothing made up about Shepherd-Robinson’s descriptions of the horrors of the Middle Passage and the tortures routinely inflicted upon enslaved Africans.

Shepherd-Robinson has already gained deserved praise from other exemplars of the historical detective story. But even if comparably entertaining to the best of this genre Blood and Sugar is something altogether more important. It is an act of remembering, bringing to, potentially, a whole new audience one of the foundational events of modern Britain. If readers are also stirred to remember that slavery still afflicts some 40 million people across the globe, many of them still in conditions akin to those described in this book, then all the better.

Blood and Sugar is a mighty accomplishment.

The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

 

Summary: “Of course, the deaths of young men in battle are tragic. But that is not the worst fate.”

History tends to be kind to men because, until quite recently, we tended to write all of it. Hence the literature on war has emphasised the courage, camaraderie and sacrifice of the combatants, rather than the plunder and rape they have so often indulged in after the battles.

This pattern was set from the outset with the Iliad. It tells us that Briseis was Achilles’ slave taken when he stormed one of many Trojan cities. But the depth of the brutality of her experience is not explored. It is a mere footnote on the Iliad’s central concerns of Achilles’ rage – at Agamemnon’s affront to his honour, and at Hector’s killing of Patroclus in battle.

With The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker refocuses the story of the Iliad onto the civilian victims of war, the women and children raped, and then enslaved or murdered by the “heroes” of the Iliad. With this focus on violence against women, it is perhaps something of a fictional counterpart to The Five, Hallie Rubenhold’s extraordinary account of the lives of the women murdered by Jack the Ripper.

In many ways this is a faithful version of the Iliad. The famous events, and some of the dialogue of that classic are all here. But the shift of focus of the narrative from Achilles to Briseis results in a wholly arresting and new work of literature. It is her unflinching descriptions of the horrors she and the other captured women and girls endure, and her cool assessments of the incidents and personalities she encounters, that forces us to think anew about this story.

The casualties of war are not distant memories to Briseis, but brothers, neighbours and a husband. The women reduced to chattel slavery by the war are not footnotes to the main story, but her friends, a last source of tenderness in the midst of all the cruelty and carnage.

War has made Briseis wise beyond her years, with any illusions, if she ever had them, about martial glory stripped away and replaced by a profound understanding of human nature in this nightmare. Briseis sees through the facades of “honour” to the truth of the combatants’ characters: Patroclus, in spite of everything, a kind man; Achilles, a warrior since childhood, now a traumatised bundle of rage; Agamemnon, the worst of the worst, a greedy venial despot who has “forgotten nothing and learned nothing,” as Briseis puts it.

I cannot recall being as consumed by a book since I first read Ernie O’Malley’s classic memoir of war, On Another Man’s Wound, when I was about 16 – and I have read many, many great books in the decades since.

The Silence of the Girls is an exquisitely written, unflinching and stunningly beautiful meditation on endurance amidst the horrors of war. It is quite simply a masterpiece.

The Pursuit of Power, by Richard J Evans

Summary: the origins of our common European identity

In The Pursuit of Power, Richard Evans, a distinguished historian of the Twentieth Century, traces the history of Europe from 1814 to 1914. It is an astonishingly erudite work, alternating chapters on the political history of Europe with ones its social and economic development during these years.

Liberal Europe tried to be born in the 19th Century but was bloodily suppressed across the continent by the forces of reaction in 1848 – militarily in most places but by famine stoked by racist English misgovernment in Ireland.

Nevertheless, the 19th Century did transform Europe in crucial ways: serfdom was abolished; the industrial revolution took place and the continent became more urban; literacy expanded; and from Ireland to Poland subject peoples demanded their rights, respect and freedom.

But just as the seeds of a progressive social democracy were taking root in Europe, the imperial elites had their last piratical fling with their colonialist project, including their Scramble for Africa. This brought 57% of the world’s population under often brutal European and American rule on the eve of the First World War.

Aside from a few points of irritation – the wife of the great Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell was called Katey NOT Kitty, a moniker both Parnell and his wife loathed – The Pursuit of Power is an extraordinary work. In spite of its vastness of scale it is an elegant and remarkably disciplined piece of writing. The grand sweep of the narrative is frequently illuminated with the voices of ordinary people from across the continent. So, Evans ensures this history retains its human faces. And it demonstrates that, as well as its national sub-plots, an interplay of social, economic and political factors shaped the whole continent and its emergent European identity. Even if that identity’s common values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law did not gain its full expression until after the bloodbath of the Second World War, and even though these values are again under threat, particularly in the UK and Hungary, Evans’ work shows how deep the roots run.

As Sam Bourne (Jonathan Freedland) noted in his recent thriller, To Kill the Truth, some things have a future because they have a past. Europe is one of those things.

 

The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler

Summary: The Shamus’s Shamus shows how it’s done, but rarely explains why.

Terry Lennox was the politest drunk Marlowe ever met. Not the worst sort of guy to share a gimlet with on a Los Angeles evening. So when he shows up at Marlowe’s place one morning with a Mauser 7.65 automatic in his hand and a worried look on his face, what sort of a heel would Marlowe be if he didn’t give his pal a lift to Tijuana, just like he asked?

Then Terry’s wife shows up dead and Marlowe finds himself in a jam of his own when the cops show up at his door curious to know why he seems to be the last person Terry was in touch with.

Raymond Chandler thought of The Long Goodbye as his finest novel, though critics, I read, have been more divided on it. I loved it, though, like his other books, this one is rather tainted by the casual racism of its day. Marlowe is, as always, a tarnished knight errant, more moral than Sam Spade, less enlightened than Spencer, and very much a man of his times, a subject upon which he waxes lyrical.

There is a legend that Howard Hawkes and William Faulkner, director and screenwriter respectively of the classic screen version of another of Chandler’s novels, The Big Sleep, finished the picture with no real knowledge of who was killed or why.

This is of course nonsense. But, like the movie The Big Sleep, chunks of Chandler’s books can race by leaving the reader in some sense of bewilderment as Marlowe’s acerbic comments and laconic attitude rarely lets the reader completely into his thought processes.

But, perhaps because of this, it is intoxicating to be taken along for the ride. Los Angeles’ mean streets never had a better guide.

The Vanquished: why the First World War failed to end, by Robert Gerwarth

Summary: a fine, at times horrific, survey of the aftermath of the First World War in Central and Eastern Europe, vital for all Europeans with an interest in the future of our continent

The First World War did not end in 1918. It merely transmuted into a bloody set of interlocking independence struggles and civil wars that racked Europe from Ireland to Russia until 1923.

In this violence lay the seeds of the war that engulfed Europe in 1939. Indeed, as Robert Gerwarth notes in this fine, if necessarily at times horrific, survey of this period in central and Eastern Europe, many of the individuals who brought Europe to its nadir in the 1940s began their murderous careers in the bloody struggles of these years.

In this context Ireland’s bloody independence struggle appears almost civilised in comparison with some of the savagery that the rest of the continent experienced. The atrocities in single weeks in, for example, Turkey, Russia or Ukraine regularly dwarfed the worst that Ireland saw in any given year of its revolutionary period.

The seeds of wider cataclysm in the 1940s were fertilised by the harsh peace terms imposed on the defeated Central Powers in the Versailles Settlement. These treated the democratic revolutionaries of Germany and Austria who helped to bring an end to the fighting on the Western front as if they were the Prussian and Hapsburg militarists who had initiated the bloodshed in 1914.

Given their inauspicious beginnings, it is small wonder then that so many of the liberal democracies established in the ruins of empire at the beginnings of the 1920s collapsed into authoritarianism even before the rise of Nazism that plunged Europe into renewed fratricide. Indeed, as Joe Lee pointed out a few decades ago in his extraordinary book, Ireland 1912-85, Politics and Society, it is not an inconsiderable achievement that, for all its flaws, Ireland did not follow a similar path.

As so many in England now aim to rip up the systems of cooperation that are the foundations of peace in Europe, it is worth remembering the savagery that ordinary people can descend to in times of civil war – and all these European wars were civil wars. Of course if so many in England had a knowledge of war and history greater than that gleaned from watching The Dambusters, perhaps we would not be at this dark juncture.

The Second Sleep, by Robert Harris

Summary: Robert Harris on bleak, civilisation collapsing form

In March 2007 the singer Rhianna released the song Umbrella. This led many to believe, as the TV presenter Rick Edwards (I think) put it, that she was a voodoo devil woman whose song was directly responsible for the wettest, most miserable summer in living memory.

Now I’m not saying that Robert Harris is a warlock. But in 2019 he published The Second Sleep, a book about the aftermath of civilisation’s collapse, in which he mentions that such a collapse may be brought about by, amongst other things, a drug resistant pandemic.

Can it be a coincidence that I write this from a pandemic lockdown?

Some people may be curious to know that the Second Sleep is about a young priest’s investigation in the far, post-event, future into the mysterious death of an older priest. Some may also be interested that it is perhaps Harris’ bleakest book since his story of Nazism triumphant, Fatherland. Like that book The Second Sleep is an elegantly written and gripping thriller in which the initial death proves to be but the loose thread that unravels the veil covering a much greater monstrosity. Some may be interested to know that the other ways in which Harris postulates that civilisation may collapse are nuclear war, climate change, an asteroid strike, a super-volcano eruption (I think he means Yellowstone), or generalised information technology failure.

But all that is beside the point. Robert Harris has cursed us. He is the Rhianna of the Covid-19 generation.

Not even past: establishing the foundations of a New Ireland

Summary: A prerequisite for Sinn Fein being permitted to join a coalition government in Dublin should simply be that they agree to the establishment of, and full cooperation with, a truth commission on the Troubles.Image result for kingsmill massacre

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

Writing 2,500 years ago about a civil war in Greece, Thucydides, the first great historian of that war between Athens and Sparta, made a vital observation: ‘The people make their recollections fit with their sufferings”.

Given the unchanging realities of war and human nature, what was true then is true now. Hence recollections of the Troubles reflect the sufferings of those recalling them. For example, Britons remember with justifiable grief and anger the civilians slaughtered in the Birmingham and Guildford bombings. But many still cherish the paratroopers who similarly slaughtered and injured so many unarmed civilians in Ballymurphy and Derry.

As with so many other things to do with their history, most Britons are blissfully unaware of their security forces subsequent collusion with Protestant, “Loyalist” paramilitaries who acted as proxies in the commission of later atrocities, such as the Miami Showband massacre.

Loyalist paramilitaries when they called their ceasefire did express “abject and true remorse” for the sufferings of the innocents that they had caused. But elements of their community still clearly cherish the memory of some of the worst perpetrators of that hurt, and still celebrate the pain caused.

Irish “Republicans” keep bright the memory of British and Loyalist atrocities but grow irritable at the mention of their own murderous attacks, particularly those on Irish civilians such as Kingsmill, Enniskillen, and La Mon. Their peevishness is perhaps at its greatest when reminded of the savagery of their post-ceasefire butchery of Robert McCartney and Paul Quinn.

Of course, war crimes such as these and brutality by those inured to war are as old as war itself. But when selective memory is practiced in relation to a civil war, then it impedes the possibility of reconciliation and reunification in its aftermath.

It is the very nature of a civil war that after the guns fall silent the belligerents have to continue living together with those they have so grievously injured. The Good Friday Agreement was an effort to establish a basis on which this could happen. With Brexit striking at the very foundations of this peace settlement new constitutional possibilities must be contemplated, including that of Irish reunification. But true Irish reunification depends on uniting people, not just political territories. Without honesty about not just what each side endured but also what they inflicted then such true reunification becomes impossible.

The ideal of Irish reunification has suffered some quite serious blows in recent weeks with the crass celebrations by some victorious Sinn Fein candidates in the recent Irish general election. Singing “Up the ‘RA” on such occasions demonstrates a spectacular insensitivity to a section of the Irish population who suffered at the hands of the IRA during the Troubles but who must now consent to reunification if a New Ireland is to become a reality.

Martin McGuinness, notably in a speech he gave at the peace centre in Warrington, did show considerable moral courage in confronting the pain caused by IRA operations. Implicitly in that speech he recognised that even a just war is an evil thing.

But, like those Brexiters whose only knowledge of the Second World War comes from watching The Dambusters, many of today’s Sinn Féin activists’ attitude to the Troubles is, appositely enough, troubling. They seem to regard their armed struggle not as a regrettable necessity,  but rather as a moral good and those involved in it as beyond reproach. This is a similarity they have with the British Conservative party who resent the idea that British armed forces should be held to basic human rights standards.

The post-election negotiations to form a new Irish government may yet see Sinn Féin entering government, possibly even holding the office of Taoiseach. Former armed rebels entering the government of an Irish state which they hitherto opposed is hardly an unprecedented departure in history. Fianna Fáil did it. Clann na Poblachta did it. The Workers’ Party did it. Sinn Fein has already done it in Belfast.

But with a senior role in government comes responsibility. And one of the principle responsibilities of Irish government over the next decade is going to be exploring the possibility of Irish reunification and, hopefully, establishing a process by which such unification can happen.

This will be an impossible task for Sinn Féin to lead so long as they continue to refuse to face up to the full truth of their history including its most unpalatable aspects and the unremitting pain that they have inflicted on so many hundreds of their compatriots.

Many of the other parties elected to the Dail have refused to contemplate entering government alongside Sinn Fein such is the distaste that they feel at their history. But the logic of the peace process demands that Sinn Fein should have the opportunity to participate in government should the electorate so deem it.

This is a circle that can only be squared if Sinn Fein faces the truth of its history and ceases revelling in silly songs and slogans. In other words, a prerequisite for Sinn Fein entering government in Dublin should be its agreement that the government establish, and Sinn Fein cooperate fully with, a truth commission, modelled on the South African precedent.

Facing the truth about oneself is always a difficult thing. But, if nothing else, over the past decades Sinn Fein leaders and supporters have demonstrated considerable courage. However, it still remains to be seen whether they have the fortitude to move beyond their current posturing self-righteousness to help establish a process to properly remember our collective past and establish an agreed account of it that acknowledges all our sufferings and not just those of any particular  partisan faction.

After all, a new and reunited Ireland needs a foundation of shared truths.