The Magician by Colm Toibin

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I’ve admired and enjoyed Colm Toíbín’s work since reading Nora Webster (published 2014), and then Brooklyn, which was published earlier in 2009 but I read later. He has a remarkable gift for bringing his characters to life; a deep understanding of the workings of his characters’ inner life; telling a wonderful story. The Magician is different. It’s a novel based on the life of German author Thomas Mann. He’s taken this path before, writing The Master based on the life of writer Henry James. Clearly Toíbín has a fascination with other writers but for me his fictionalised biographies don’t work as well as the novels. I felt this about The Master, despite it receiving critical acclaim and being short-listed for the Booker Prize. But when I read brilliant reviews of The Magician, I felt I should give this genre a go again.

To begin with, I really enjoyed it. I remembered reading Mann’s novels in my twenties and of course even if you haven’t read Death in Venice, most people will know of the film. Its story has a clear link to Mann’s suppressed homosexuality and the theme is constantly referred to throughout. Toíbín himself is gay but at the time Mann was writing, it was not accepted and still illegal. This fits with an almost ideal marriage that Mann makes to Katia who is willing to love him as he is and indeed they have six children. Katia has a close relationship with her twin brother Klaus that hints of something sexual at times but is perhaps merely an intimacy that no one else can infiltrate. Towards the end of the book, she says she didn’t want to be married to someone like her father who had many affairs and she knew Thomas wouldn’t do this to her. What Toíbín so wonderful conveys is how this marriage, which is some ways one of convenience to them both, works so well and the love and affection between the couple comes clearly through.

From the beginning, Katia was brought up in a household full of drama ‘as if it were a modern play’ and this sense of drama continues through her own marriage and her family.

Thomas was brought up in a wealthy family with much privilege but when his father dies and he doesn’t inherit the family firm as he believed he would, and the family have to leave their home and he is forced to take a job as a clerk, he is devastated: ‘No matter where he went, he would never be important again.’ Of course, he became very important indeed through his writing and I hadn’t realised before reading this quite how important on the global stage, nor how much wealth his writing created for him. But this early experience seemed to mark Mann for life; he seems always an outsider, guarding his reputation beyond most other things, Katia his support and protector.

Thomas dismissed the threat of Hitler for a long time, refusing to speak out. Clearly to some extent he does believe the threat back in the early 1930s is exaggerated and Hitler may disappear as a nothing in the end, but even when the threat grows more real and Hitler comes to power, Thomas is reluctant to speak out. To an extent this is excused by his protection of his family and his publisher, but it is also about his reputation and wealth – his books would be destroyed.

Mann’s life is haunted by tragedy, particularly suicides of family members. At the outbreak of war he uses his reputation to secure a ticket out of Europe to America where he struggles to fit in; struggles with the ‘death’ of ‘his Germany’. There is great poignancy in the family’s loss of their country and it becomes impossible for them to fit in well elsewhere, find another true home.

The book gives a background to Thomas’s writing, both his habits (always writing in the morning) and within his mind, how experiences shape the novels he writes, which is fascinating, particularly if you know his work. It’s also a portrait of a rather dysfunctional man and family and I found it hard to engage with the characters. What began as promising for me, ended as rather a dull book and a little pedestrian in its description of Mann’s life, as if all the ‘facts’ had to be included, however small, and although in a biography (whether fictionalised or not) you don’t necessarily have to like the subject, they have to promote interest but by the end of this book I neither liked Mann nor could understand how he became such an admired writer.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

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I’ve been reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland again – many decades after my first read – as I’d booked to see the Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I’m slightly ashamed to say I don’t remember ever reading the book to my own children, but I do remember it was one of my favourites as a child – a book (along with Alice Through the Looking Glass) that I read over and over again.

As I started this ‘adult’ read – reading it as an adult – it struck me how weird it all was. Of course, I knew that, but I’d forgotten quite how weird and upside down a world is created here. When I was only about halfway through and happened to be talking to my daughter, I discussed with her that it was interesting to think how I’d seen it as a child. Did it all seem as weird and extraordinary to the young me as it did to the adult me? Or did I take it more at face value? Accepting the extraordinary more readily. Children are very accepting of magic. As I watch my young grandsons immersed in imaginary games, I’m not sure they would be at all surprised if a white rabbit ran past them saying, ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’

You can find many analyses and interpretations of Alice online, and it invites all kinds of theories, but of course none of these would mean anything to a young child. I’m guessing I was about eight when first enraptured with Alice. I was an early and voracious reader and Alice was only one of my literary loves, but certainly one I turned to regularly. What did I see in Alice then? What so captured my imagination and interest? Perhaps it was no more than a child’s love of magic.

What I did see in Alice when reading it again now is the way Carroll captures the essence of children. Children are very logical and so is Alice: of the Queen of Hearts’ rule about processions, she says, ‘… what would be the use of a procession … if people had all to lie down on their faces, so that they couldn’t see it?’ Alice also displays a child’s sense of fairness and embodies their tremendous intensity and exaggeration. The Queen of Hearts screaming ‘Off with their heads!’ is just the kind of thing a child would scream in a boisterous game. Children live on a big scale, a small disruption to their lives or desires often blown out of all proportion to the adult. And of course there’s impassioned talks and questions. Anyone who has experienced a small child’s ‘why’ questions, the endless wanting to know more and more, no answer ever being enough, will recognise these qualities in Alice, who is constantly interrupting to question everything.

What the V&A’s exhibition confirms is that really, there is no definitive meaning to be gained from Alice. But its exploration of the way the books have influenced most areas of our lives since they were published 150 years ago, is both hugely informative and delightfully entertaining. And we learn much of Carroll (really Charles Dodgson, a Cambridge don) whose obsession with riddles and mathematics began at a precociously young age, as witnessed by a school report. We also learn – or are reminded – that at the time Carroll was writing a standardised Greenwich Mean Time had not been introduced (it came in 1880 and the first Alice was published in 1865) and thus the discussions of time at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the rabbit’s distress about being late as he looks at his pocket watch, all make more sense when we understand that time was moveable and not agreed upon.

The Tea Party is a reflection of the new idea of ‘taking afternoon tea’, introduced by the Duchess of Bedford in the 1830s. The exhibition tells us that Carroll’s Mad Hatter party was ‘parodying these stuffy social conventions’. Thus Carroll makes social and political statements through the vehicle of Alice. But there are less tangible, more abstract questions. Much has been written about Alice and identity. The exhibition notes tell us: ‘Alice changes in shape and size, and repeatedly faces the question “Who are you?”‘ We can see Alice as a young girl trying to make sense of an adult world; a young girl struggling with the changes to her body as she grows. But Alice is also an example of female empowerment for she grows in confidence as the story unfolds.

There’s so much more to Alice than I’d remembered and I’m so pleased I reread the book and the V&A’s exhibition is glorious. If you’re in London, don’t miss it! Click here for their website.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

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This was a bit of a spontaneous buy – reading just a few words about it in an email about new books made me think it would be one I’d enjoy. It turned out to be a book I loved. An extraordinary book that’s sad, inspiring, magical and wise. It’s about enduring love; what it means to be an immigrant, someone not living in the country in which you were born; it’s about family history and the passing on or denial of the past.

Elik Shafak is a British-Turkish prize-winning author. The Island of Missing Trees centres around the story of Cyprus and its divisions after the Turkish invasion of 1974, which led to the island being divided into Turkish Cyprus to the north and Greek Cyprus to the south. Before this, the tensions between the Turks and the Greeks was already difficult enough that two young lovers – the Turkish-Muslim Defne and the Greek-Christian Kostas – had to keep their love secret from their families who, if they knew, would disown them.

‘Once upon a memory’ opens the book, ‘lay an island so beautiful … that many travellers … fell in love with it … wanted never to leave or tried to tow it with hemp ropes all the way back to their own countries.’ Such beautiful language makes the tragedy of the battles and divisions that have raged throughout Cyprus for generations all the more vivid and haunting.

The story, however, opens in London with Ada, 16-year-old daughter of Defne and Kostas, who when asked by her teacher about family heirlooms can’t answer, and then starts screaming. Is she screaming because her mother recently died? Is she screaming because her father has been consumed by his grief and become distant from her? Or is she screaming because of all the untold stories, secrets, ghosts and tragedies of generations that lay hidden within her?

The Island of Missing Trees follows Defne and Kostas’ story through Ada, a girl born in London with all traces of her Cypriot heritage apparently wiped away but desperate to be recognised. Much of the story is told through a fig tree (which narrates alternate chapters), grown from a cutting of a tree that stood in the middle of The Happy Fig taverna in Nicosia. A tree that has witnessed all. In 1974 the taverna was run by a gay couple – one Greek Cypriot, one Turkish Cypriot – who were more at risk of discovery than even the young lovers. It was a happy place ‘despite the tensions and troubles besetting the island … It was a place with history and small miracles of its own.’ Yusef and Yiorgos help the young lovers, giving them a quiet corner of the taverna where they won’t be seen. The men are their protectors – but there’s no one to protect them when violence breaks out …

Kostas is persuaded to go to London in 1974 to escape the danger in Cyprus, told it’s only temporary, but  really for good. He writes to Defne but she doesn’t write back. More than 20 years pass but Kostas can’t forget his first and true love. By now he’s become a well-respected botanist and when his work takes him to Cyprus again, he knows he has to find out what happened to Defne. She is working as an archaeologist digging up the remains of all those who died in the war so that the lost are identified, the families can make peace. Or do they make peace? Should some things be left alone?

Despite Defne’s initial reluctance the two become a couple again … secrets, heartbreaks are shared. Both move to London, Defne already pregnant with Ada. It should be ‘happy ever after’ but in real life this rarely happens, and nor does it here. Defne becomes an alcoholic, she can’t forget the past and is haunted by ghosts and the loss of her own country, by the family who rejected her. She and Kostas agree to never speak of the past, of their families, so Ada grows up in ignorance of her heritage, her culture, her wider family. A decision made with love but also ignorance of our need to know where we came from, who we are.

Meanwhile, through the fig tree, the family’s story is told through a weaving of nature: of trees and plants, or animals and insects. It’s a wondrous tale of the continuity and connections in life.

I really loved this book: a book which is sad and troubling but also one of hope and delight.

Grandmothers by Salley Vickers

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I’ve long been a fan of Salley Vickers – since a friend lent me her copy of Miss Garnet’s Angel (probably Vickers’ most popular and well-known book) as I was heading off on a holiday to Venice in 2006. I loved the book so much I had to buy my own copy and then lent it to others who were visiting Venice. I also very much liked The Other Side of You, but on the whole, the more recent books haven’t made quite the same impact on me as the early ones, although I’ve enjoyed them.

A friend mentioned Grandmothers to me a few months ago. As doting grandmothers she thought we should read it. I waited a while to see when the paperback would come out (I rarely buy hardbacks and don’t like reading novels on Kindle), but as it won’t be until September 2020, I gave in and bought the hardback. I knew the book had received mixed reviews so approached it with some uncertainty about what I’d think.

One of the things that appeals to me about Vickers’ writing is her background as a Jungian analyst. This might suggest that her writing is heavy going but in fact her books are easy reading, in the sense that they flow and are very accessible. What her psychotherapist background gives her is a deep understanding of how people think, how they react to events and situations; how their experiences in life have led them to be the people they are now; how relationships work – or don’t work. Thus there are always moments of recognition; moments when you know she’s caught exactly how someone would feel. This is usually just one sentence that is so well put together that it stops you fleetingly and you think ‘oh yes’ or ‘but of course’.

There are similar moments in Grandmothers, though not really startling or new thoughts that you’ll take away with you as precious revelations on the workings of life. Vickers knows that ‘Children understand better than people give them credit for’, that one of the hardest things to grasp is ‘that other people see life from a perspective often quite unlike one’s own’ and that ‘the whole business of meting out blame was a mistake. Blame was a displacement activity, a means of avoiding the recognition that very little in life was in your control.’ She asks whether it is ‘sadness that made people kind – or was it that kind people were more liable to sadness?’ But these are more neat little summings up of what we already know rather than words that make us think deeply.

There are three grandmothers in the book and rather an odd bunch they are. They are not particularly likeable; one, Nan, is particularly difficult and fierce. Their overriding feeling is that they know better than the parents of their grandchildren, but the wisdom of their long lives and experience is not appreciated. They come from dysfunctional backgrounds, carrying long held griefs (that one feels a bit of psychotherapy should have sorted out years ago) and their young families are equally dysfunctional. This all gives a sense of the characters being formulaic, mere vehicles for some of Vickers’ ideas, and thus a little too one dimensional.

So … I quite enjoyed the read; it was an easy read and engaged my interest enough to want to read on (and I do give up on books I’m not enjoying!), but it was a disappointment; it didn’t feel like a book that came from the heart. And as a book about grandmothers, it should have had a lot of heart.

 

 

Daniel Mason: The Winter Soldier

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It’s been a while since I’ve written here but plenty of reading has been going on; an inevitable part of the life of a book editor. But there have also been books chosen by my book club (like Jonathan Coe’s brilliant Middle England), books recommended by friends (like Madeline Miller’s Circe) and those simply picked up in a bookshop while I’ve been browsing. A Winter Soldier fits into this last category. I think there was one of those little ‘recommended’ cards attached to it in Waterstones, but I’ve always had an attraction to reading works set in World War One, from the poetry of Wilfred Owen and others, to Pat Barker’s glorious Regeneration trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ early and brilliant novel, Birdsong.

I haven’t been quite so absorbed by a novel for a while and have hardly been able to put it down over the past couple of days. The story opens in 1915 as Lucius, a young Austrian trainee doctor, reaches the desolate winter lands of North Hungary on his way to take up a position in a remote Polish field hospital. ‘He was twenty-two years old, restless, resentful of hierarchy, impatient for his training to come to an end.’ He’s left his home in Vienna in the hope of at last finding a chance to get the medical experience he yearns for, frustrated by the teaching he’s so far received. And he’s fought against the wishes of his privileged and wealthy parents, who don’t think being a doctor is a ‘proper’ or suitable career for their son and would prefer him to go to war as a soldier.

An accidental sixth child, Lucius knew ‘from the beginning he hadn’t belonged among them’. Perhaps this feeling of being an outsider fuelled his determination. Just as maybe the tortuous instruments a doctor fits into his mouth to ‘cure’ his childhood stutter, gives birth to a conviction that there are more effective and kinder ways of healing damaged people than the horrific treatments he witnesses in the medical school. Far away in a remote corner of Poland, he unexpectedly finds himself the only doctor in the hospital where he’s been sent; set up in a church with horrifically wounded men lying between pews. Impossibly unprepared and inexperienced, he finds the nurse in charge, a nun, extraordinarily competent. From Margarete he learns almost everything, from how to do amputations to the importance of hygiene, the cleaning of wounds – something yet not understood back in Vienna. But then the Winter Soldier arrives and this disturbs the rhythm of the life Lucius has built with Margarete and nothing will ever be the same again.

Part war story, part romance, part a history of medicine – particularly the beginning of understanding, or trying to, the workings of the mind – this is above all a story of determination and courage; mistakes made and the longing for atonement. Mason’s background as a doctor gives a strong authenticity to his descriptions of battlefield surgery and treatments, while his understanding of emotions, fears and relationships gives a powerful urgency to the story.

The writing is simply beautiful and often lyrical: ‘April turned to May … The sun grew warmer. The snow began to melt. Harp strings of light broke through the nave. Everywhere the valley was filled with crinkling whispers, the whine of shifting snowdrifts, the rustling of rills. Beneath the ice, the river began to murmur.’ Single sentences say so much, as when Margarete responds to the warming weather: ‘In her step, he noticed a new lightness, which he hadn’t known she’d lost.’

I don’t want to detail the story too much here; I just want to encourage you to read the book. For The Winter Soldier is a remarkable book, a true tour de force.