Saturday, June 14, 2008

Digested classics / Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell


Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

John Crace
Sat 14 Jun 2008
The clocks were striking 13 as Winston Smith entered his seventh-floor flat in Victory Mansions. The voice on the telescreen babbled away about the overfulfilment of the Ninth Three-Year Plan as he gazed out of the window at the bleak landscape dominated by posters of a black-moustached face, with the caption "BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU". This was London, chief city of Airstrip One, itself a province of Oceania.
He sat down in the alcove, hidden from the Thought Police. He picked up the book he had bought from a slummy shop that Party members were not supposed to frequent and felt a tremor pass through his bowels. The thing that he was about to start was a diary, an offence punishable by death or at least by 25 years of forced labour.
I am a real 39-year-old man with real feelings. I am not just a cog in a heavy-handed political satire on Soviet totalitarianism.
Winston stopped writing. What's the point? he thought. I am just a cipher. He drank a tumbler of Victory Gin and headed back to work at the Ministry of Truth. The face of Emmanuel Goldstein, Enemy of the People, flashed on to the telescreen during the Two Minutes Hate followed by the familiar declaration "WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH."

As the telescreen went blank, Winston looked up and spotted O'Brien, an Inner Party member whom he had seen perhaps a dozen times in as many years. Something about the man's face suggested that, like himself, his political orthodoxy was not perfect.
A feeling of imminence overwhelmed him. Not much may have happened up till now, as his every action had so far served only to illustrate a not altogether convincing dystopian world divided into three superpowers - Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia - that were perpetually at war with one another. But as he took a ruminative stroll among the coarse, yet heavily sentimentalised, Proles, he realised a young woman from the Ministry of Truth had placed a note in his pocket.
Winston unwrapped the slip of paper. "I LOVE YOU". Why would an attractive young woman risk everything in a world where love and sex were forbidden to Party members for a nondescript middle-aged man with varicose ulcers to whom she had never spoken before? Such inconsistencies did not detain him long. Or at all. His heart raced. At last the action had really started.

"I've done this hundreds of times before with lots of different men, you know," said Julia affectionately, as they lay together in an Oxfordshire meadow enjoying the secret thrill of a post-coital Victory Cigarette.
"You do know that we are bound to get caught eventually," Winston replied, anxious that no one should forget the determinist realities of a repressive regime. "And that when we are, we shall both be vaporised."
"I do and I don't care," she murmured defiantly, apparently unaware that she had just said she'd got away with it loads of times before.

Their meetings were infrequent over the following weeks, furtively arranged half-hours between work and Party commitments. Yet even the terrifying scuttering of a rat in the church belfry could not unsettle Winston for long. His heart and mind were now free.
"We must go to O'Brien," he announced one day. "I am sure he's a powerful figure in the Brotherhood and we can enlist in the resistance movement."
"That sounds like an extremely rash assumption," Julia didn't reply.
"I'm very glad you both could come," O'Brien said, sipping a glass of wine. "I'm going to give you a copy of Goldstein's forbidden book to read."
The war with Eurasia was over and Winston found himself working long into the night rewriting the Party history to portray Eastasia as the enemy. Julia and I need a bolthole among the Proles, he later thought. Somewhere we can make love to the sound of Cockneys saying "Gor bless yer, guv'nor".
Winston found a room above the slummy shop where he had bought the diary. "It's perfect, darling," Julia sighed, untidily applying some contraband make-up. "You look so much more attractive when you are defying the conventions of Stalinist brutalism," he cooed romantically. "Now let me read you page after page of extremely dull extracts from Goldstein's book that repeats everything about the regime you already know."
"Put your hands in the air and come slowly," said a voice from behind the telescreen. "You have been caught just as you always knew you would be."
"You are going to have to learn DoubleThink," O'Brien observed kindly, as electrodes were fitted to Winston's body. "The art of holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time."
"OK, OK. I believe this is both a ponderous and didactic political allegory and the most brilliant critique of Soviet Russia. But I still love Julia."
"Then it's Room 101 and the rats for you."
Winston sat out in the square enjoying Big Brother's latest magnificent victory. Why had he struggled so hard against the Party? How great it was to be a cog in the wheels of satire!

Books / Friends for faraway places

Friends for faraway places

Take Alexandre Dumas to Paris, read Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil, pack Michael Dibdin for Sicily - wherever you are going on holiday this summer, writers recommend the perfect literary travelling companions

Saturday 14 June 2008 
Dibdin's Blood Rain (Faber) feels indebted in part to Lewis for its historical background. There is a suspicion in the first half of the book that Dibdin is getting a little weary of his Inspector Zen, and an even bigger suspicion at the end (no, I'd better not spoil it); but the action and sense of place are as satisfyingly rich as in any of the series with which the author anatomised modern Italy.
It was odd to turn to Goethe's Italian Journey (Penguin Classics) almost for light relief - or at least a change of mood. And if some of the silent, scrutinising faces glimpsed in narrow village streets could have come straight from Lewis's illustrations, or Dibdin's text, the landscapes between the villages were still very much as Goethe had described them: groves of head-high wild fennel, aloes, asphodels, amaranthine clover, orchids, wild peonies. Goethe was a tourist as we were (he had a memorably bad time in Enna), but his engagement with every aspect of life - from the high aesthetics of accurately rendering maritime moonscapes to the daily practicalities of macaroni-twisting - is simply inspiring. As is one of his conclusions: "To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything."

Julian Barnes


Walking through Sicily this spring from Enna to Cefalu was enhanced by a lucky choice of reading: Goethe, Michael Dibdin and Norman Lewis. Lewis's The Honoured Society (Eland) is a classic account of the Sicilian mafia, that murderous exploiter initially formed to protect the exploited. One of its grimmer side-stories has a queasy contemporary parallel: in 1943 the Americans, to speed their invasion of the island, reinstalled and relegitimised the criminal gangs that had been more or less broken by Mussolini in the late 1920s. Easy conquest, disastrous reconstruction: the echos of Iraq are thunderous.
William Boyd

Los Angeles

I used to go regularly to Los Angeles to work, but I always thought (as I joylessly travelled across the vast city from meeting to meeting) that it would be a great place to go on holiday. There are many classic novels that capture the atmosphere and character of the place, but the books that follow are more neglected classics. So, for once, don't read Raymond Chandler for those LA mean streets (or James Ellroy), try John Fante's melancholic Bunker Hill lowlifes in Ask the Dust (Canongate). And for a more contemporary view of the LA underbelly, there is nothing more disturbing than Craig Nova's bleakly excoriating Turkey Hash (Delacorte).
When it comes to the movie business, pass on F Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon and Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust and check out instead Budd Schulberg's brutal satire What Makes Sammy Run? (Vintage). Its ruthlessly amoral protagonist, Sammy Glick, will linger in your mind: the Sammy Glicks of this world still flourish in Hollywood and elsewhere - they are legion. Robert Towne's screenplay of Chinatown (Faber) reads like a great short story (it's the best film about Los Angeles ever made) and Michael Tolkin's novel The Player (Avalon) is still on the nail.
Two enduring and illuminating works of non-fiction place the city in its sociocultural context: Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (Penguin) will guide you through the fascinating cityscape, and Mike Davis's prescient City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (Verso) will inform you about its denizens.
William Dalrymple


Travelling in India provides great opportunities for reading: even if you are not subjecting yourself to week-long train journeys or long cross-country bus rides, there will still be the inevitable hours in departure lounges waiting for delayed planes, and at the end of it, hopefully, many horizontal hours of reading on the beaches of Goa or the houseboats of the Kerala backwaters.
Most travellers tend to pack with them some of the recent star turns of Indian or diaspora fiction that have for good reason filled the prize shortlists over the past two decades. Good places to start might be a couple of Rushdies - perhaps Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh (both Vintage) - A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (Harper Perennial), The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (Flamingo), Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (John Murray), The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri (Bloomsbury), The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (Harper Perennial), The Impressionist by Hari Kunzru (Penguin), Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra (Faber), A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Faber), and one each from the Desais: maybe In Custody by Anita (Vintage) and The Inheritance of Loss by her daughter Kiran (Penguin).
Much less well known in Britain are some of the masterpieces of Indian writing from the early part of the 20th century: Twilight in Delhi by Ahmed Ali (WW Norton), arguably the great Indo-Islamic novel, Saadat Hasan Manto's Selected Stories (Penguin Modern Classics) and All About H Hatterr by GV Desani (NYRB Classics). Then there are the great Malgudi stories of RK Narayan (Penguin Classics), which slip down as easily as a glass of sweet lassi.
Narayan also produced two excellent short versions of the great Indian epics, The Mahabharata and The Ramayana (both Penguin Classics), which give a wonderful taste of Hindu mythology. Less well known is the most popular epic of the Indo-Islamic world, The Adventures of Hamza, a rollicking, magic-filled heroic saga; remarkably, the translation that has just been published by Random House Modern Library is the first edition of the epic in English.
These great epics could be read alongside some of the masterpieces of ancient Indian love poetry, much of which is extremely beautiful. The various reworkings of classical Indian poetry produced by the late AK Ramanujan are fabulous: Poems of Love and War (OUP) and The Interior Landscape (OUP India) bring together his finest work:
Her arms have the beauty
Of a gently moving bamboo.
Her eyes are full of peace.
She is far away,
Her place not easy to reach.
My heart is frantic
With haste
A ploughman with a single ox
On land all wet
And ready for seed.
For travel writing, try VS Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies Now (Viking) or Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (Headline). For the British investigation of India's ancient past, try John Keay's India Discovered (HarperCollins) and, for the end of the Raj, Alex Von Tunzelmann's Indian Summer (Pocket Books), by a long way the most amusing account of the Mountbattens and their strange ménage à trois with Nehru. For sophisticated takes on modern south Asia, try Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India (Abacus), Pankaj Mishra's Temptations of the West (Picador), Amartya Sen's The Argumentative Indian (Penguin) and Ahmed Rashid's Descent into Chaos (Allen Lane).
Dave Eggers


The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (Penguin Modern Classics) is probably the ultimate Chicago book, charting the course of a young man making his way out of poverty, into the depression, into the second world war and with a bunch of adventures in between and after. It incorporates just about everything you could imagine - the American dream, distinctions of class and race, the chaos of immigration, ideas of Utopia, the "special destiny" Augie assumes awaits him . . . It's big, crazy, relentless, very funny and holds up as if it were written yesterday. Bellow is one of two Chicagoans, the other being Hemingway, who won the Nobel prize.
Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol (HarperCollins) isn't about Chicago only, but it's a riveting indictment of the public schools in some major American cities, and two Illinois systems, Chicago's and East St Louis's, are covered with incredible clarity and moral outrage.
Stephen Elliott's novel Happy Baby (Picador) is set in the 70s and 80s in Chicago. The protagonist, Theo, grows up on the streets, homeless, in juvenile homes, and is raped by a male counsellor. Told in reverse, a grown man looks back at the injustices that made him the almost-broken (but functioning, sensitive and even hopeful) person he is today. Elliott is one of the best contemporary writers about Chicago, unflinching but not unromantic.
Gwendolyn Brooks won a Pulitzer for her poetry and was the beloved-by-all poet laureate of Illinois for many years. Maud Martha (Third World Press) was her only novel for adults, and has the precision and economy that poets-turned-novelists so often display. It's about a woman, Maud Martha Brown, who grows up on Chicago's South Side. The book renders the incredible segregation of the city - Chicago has always been one of the most polarised cities in America - by simply showing that for some residents of the overwhelmingly black South Side, the white North Side barely existed; the worlds seldom intersected. The book is set in the 1930s and 40s and is, despite the tension underpinning it, really a quiet meditation on childhood, girlhood, self-awareness and perceptions of self-beauty. It's a perfect book, perfect in scope and execution.
Isabel Fonseca


I recommend three marvellous Uruguayan writers. First, Horacio Quiroga (1878-1931). Despite a life - and body of work - engulfed by violent death (his father was shot; he accidently killed his own friend; his stepfather, one of his wives, he himself and then both his children all committed suicide), Quiroga is most widely read in Uruguay by children - especially his Cuentos de la Selva, or jungle tales. He is one of the greatest animal writers ever. His creatures are weird, savage and utterly inexpungeable from the mind. Quiroga's grown-up stories are often compared to those of Poe (see "The Decapitated Chicken" and "The Feather Pillow", published in The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories, University of Wisconsin Press). They are also a bit like Roald Dahl's macabre tales for adults; the writing is ruthlessly crisp and concrete.
Felisberto Hernández, born in 1902, was a plumber's son and a mama's boy (he had four wives and many lovers besides, but always went back to his mother, sometimes in the middle of the night). He died in penury in 1964 - though he managed for many years by playing the piano in local cinemas: "musical illustration" for silent films. He is a writer's writer, not bothered by the need to create convincing plot, character, suspense or intrigue; an early story has among its characters an infinite horizontal line and a circumference that rolls along it. Among his ardent admirers he counts Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez. Hernández published 10 short books (his first was only 21 paragraphs long). He spent years creating his own system of shorthand, with the result that some of his work - and this would have delighted him - has never been deciphered.
Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-94) is considered by many to be Uruguay's finest writer. A solid modernist, he rejected the folksy and sentimental culture that romanticised nature and the gaucho, and his eloquent brand of urban despair is so well turned that it remains vibrant and readable - see The Pit (Quartet), The Shipyard and A Brief Life (both Serpent's Tail). He was an editor of Marcha, the great literary magazine dissolved by Uruguay's military regime in the 1970s. Despite his huge reputation, Onetti was imprisoned in a mental institution, and as soon as he was able he decamped for Spain. Like Borges the chicken inspector, or like the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas exiled in New York, this most distinguished citizen and former director of the national library worked in a lowly capacity in his adopted country - as a doorman and a waiter. Though he lived for a decade after the end of military rule, Onetti never returned to Montevideo.
Maureen Freely


Some books are so famous they need no introduction. But have you ever read Yashar Kemal? His first novel, Memed, My Hawk (NYRB Classics), set in the south-east of Turkey and about a young man at war with feudal authority, was published in the 1950s and brought him international fame. It is still greatly loved in Turkey, and with good reason. If you are after something urban and contemporary, Elif Shafak's The Flea Palace (Marion Boyars) is an excellent place to start. Set in a building that has seen better days, it is a quirky and exuberant portrait of an Istanbul that defies categorisation. Moris Farhi's novel Young Turk (Telegram) is a beautiful account of the same secretly multicultural city during the middle years of the 20th century, while Emine Sevgi Özdamar's The Bridge of the Golden Horn (Serpent's Tail) tells the story of a young woman who goes to Germany as a guest-worker in the late 1960s and returns to Istanbul just in time for a coup. It is one of the funniest and most original books you'll ever read.
If you're after superior mysteries, try Mehmet Murat Somer's The Prophet Murders (Serpent's Tail). Set in contemporary Istanbul, it stars a transvestite detective. There is a whole series in Turkish. Jason Goodwin has two utterly delicious mysteries set in 19th-century Istanbul - The Janissary Tree and The Snake Stone (both Faber) - and in these the detective is a (dead sexy) eunuch. If your taste runs to quality historical romances, Katie Hickman's The Aviary Gate (Bloomsbury) takes you into the Harem to follow the fortunes of an Englishwoman who becomes the Sultan's slave in 1599.
In the early years of the 20th century (the last years of the Ottoman empire), there was a fashion for memoirs by women from this part of the world, and the renewed interest in things Turkish has led to many being republished. The best one to read first is The Memoirs of Halide Edip (Turkey's first feminist and, for a time, one of Atatürk's closest associates), and if you like that, check out the catalogue of Gorgias Press for others covering the same period. Eland Press, which is based in London, publishes two classic memoirs by Irfan Orga. Portrait of a Turkish Family is a harrowing tale of a wealthy family left destitute by the first world war. But what I like even more is the same author's menacingly seductive account of a year he spent with a nomadic tribe in the south-east of Turkey during the 1950s (The Caravan Moves On). Or did he?
There is one other memoir I feel I must recommend - though I should warn you that I am biased, because I translated it. It is by the human rights lawyer Fethiye Cetin, who was in her 20s when she discovered that the good Muslim grandmother who had brought her up was really Armenian - she'd been pulled from her mother's arms off a death march in 1915. The thing I most admire about My Grandmother (Verso) is that it refuses to be sidetracked by the issues it raises: it is a tribute to the woman, an expression of shared pain, and a plea for reconciliation. That it was a bestseller in Turkey should tell you something.
Finally, no one should go to Turkey without reading at least a few issues of Cornucopia (, which has to be one of the most beautiful magazines in the world. Published here, its remit is Turkey - not its sordid politics, but its art, architecture, history and antiquities.
David Mitchell


Tokyo, where the neon is brightest and airfares are cheapest, is home to Haruki Murakami and many of his withdrawn protagonists: A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood and a rich collection of stories, The Elephant Vanishes (all Vintage), are perhaps his finest hours so far. Taichi Yamada's Strangers (Faber) is a twisting ghost story set in any of the city's endlessly repeated high-rise "mansions". Early 20th-century Tokyo hatched the "modernist gothic" imagination of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, well represented in Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories (Penguin Classics). A throttlingly good fictional account of the city's postwar turbulence, Tokyo Year Zero (Faber) is by the British Tokyoite David Peace.
Junichiro Tanizaki is an adopted son of Japan's courtliest city, Kyoto. His masterpiece is The Makioka Sisters (Vintage Classics), a family drama set during the 1930s and 40s. No tricks here, just exquisite craftsmanship. Murasaki Shikibu traversed the same streets of Kyoto in her palanquin a thousand years ago: her proto-novel The Tale of Genji (Penguin) is more for Sherpas of world literature than for ramblers, but The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon (Penguin Classics) by her catty rival is a lighter sampler of Heian-period sensibilities.
Off the beaten track, Kobo Abe's perfectly executed The Woman in the Dunes (Penguin Modern Classics) will teach you to watch your step in the dunes near Matsue, one-time home to the folklorist Lafcadio Hearn, whose anthology of folk tales, Kwaidan (Stone Bridge Press), is dated but still worth a look. Shusaku Endo's masterly Silence (Peter Owen) will enrich a trip to Nagasaki or the rugged Goto Islands with its account of a Portuguese Jesuit who defies the bans on foreigners and Christianity in the "Closed Country" era. Visitors to northern backwaters may find space for early itinerant poet Matsuo Basho's slim The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Penguin Classics), to see how much Japan has changed, and what recesses of it have not. Lastly, an idiosyncratic travelling companion - especially in little-visited Shikoku - is Saiichi Maruya's erudite, entangling Rain in the Wind (Kodansha International Ltd), about the last vagrant poet, Taneda Santoka: well worth tracking down.
Caryl Phillips

The Caribbean

Anybody travelling to the Caribbean this year should tuck into their bag VS Naipaul's Miguel Street (Heinemann), which is a wonderful collection of his early short stories. These almost cinematic snapshots of the social and cultural chaos of Caribbean life are not only hilarious, but also sing with the inventive cadences of the region. In the later part of his career, Naipaul's attitude to the world that produced him seems to have darkened considerably. However, in these stories there is warmth and affection, and an intimacy that suggests a man who is sharing a part of himself with us. Selected Poems by Derek Walcott (Faber) spans 50 years of his writing, with extracts from the longer narrative poems, and a stunning assemblage of his shorter lyric engagements with the history, the flora, the fauna and the people of the Caribbean. Walcott is not only the most important poet that the Caribbean has produced; he is one of the great writers in the English language. This is an essential collection for anybody visiting the region.
Patrick Leigh Fermor's The Traveller's Tree (John Murray) was first published in 1950. Although the islands have changed dramatically and become both politically independent of Britain and, to some extent, uncomfortably dependent on the United States, this book remains relevant. It is as much a personal odyssey as it is a guide to the islands of the Antilles.
Finally, the Guyanese writer Roy Heath died earlier this year. His memoir Shadows Round the Moon (Flamingo) evokes a Caribbean childhood that is by turns humorous and painful. The book is blessed with fine portraits of family, friends and neighbours, all of whom conspire to remind the reader on the move that while the landscape may change, the topography of the human heart remains the same.
Jonathan Raban

Pacific Northwest

My first introduction to the Pacific Northwest was in 1964, long before I visited the United States. It was at a motorway service area on the newly built M1, where, looking for something to read over my coffee and ham sandwich, I found Bernard Malamud's A New Life (Penguin) on a carousel of mass-market paperbacks. I knew Malamud from his exquisitely turned short stories of poor New York Jews in The Magic Barrel (Vintage Classics). This was clearly something different: A New Life had a lurid jacket and bore the legend, "He found strange refuge - love with another man's wife." I spent a long time over that miserable sandwich. Malamud's story, or fable, of Seymour Levin, an indigent English instructor from New York, "formerly a drunkard", who finds himself in exile at a "cow college" in Oregon, teaching freshmen composition, kept me spellbound. Written when Malamud himself was in exile, in the English department of Oregon State University at Corvallis (then known as Oregon State Agricultural College), it brilliantly captures the shock of the far, mountainous Northwest as seen by a bewildered newcomer from the urban East Coast. The wild grandeur of the landscape is set against the narrow social and political conformity of its inhabitants, at a time when America was in the throes of McCarthyism. Levin is last seen in his rattletrap car, heading back East, too "unAmerican" in every way for straight-laced Oregon in the 1950s.
Malamud's star has dimmed since his death in 1986, and many readers know him best as the model for the great Jewish-American writer EI Lonoff in Philip Roth's Zuckerman series. A New Life appears to be out of print, though it is easily available over the internet, with prices starting at 1p. For a beautifully written, acid comedy, the best novel ever to come out of the Pacific Northwest, that is a shameful and utterly undeserved fate. Living now in the general landscape of the book, I read it at least once a year, always with laughter, recognition and gratitude to Malamud as one of the finest American writers of the last century.
Ahdaf Soueif


Something by Naguib Mahfouz is a really good idea. My preferred Mahfouz in English is Miramar (Anchor Books). Published during the critical year of 1967 and set in Alexandria, it captures something very close to the heart of Egyptian life of the period. I'll come clean and admit to being biased towards the translation of this particular novel; it was done by my mother.
The other Egyptian novel that I love (in English) is Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali (New Amsterdam Books). Again, this was published in the 60s, but deals more with the 50s, and with the young Egyptian's life in England. But I would still recommend it to an English-language reader who wants to read about Egypt. It is intelligent, authentic and very funny.
Adam Thirlwell


The problem is that there is no such thing as France. There are infinite Frances - because there are infinite places, and infinite times. So the happy summer reader needs to choose both a place and a time.
For the Paris of the 19th century, there is the spiky novel by Guy de Maupassant, Bel-Ami (Penguin Classics), with its lovely comic structure, based on exponentially increasing, unassailable good luck. Which makes it the opposite of much sadder summer reading: the Normandy of the 19th century which Maupassant describes in his novel Une Vie (Wildeside Press), with its structure of exponentially increasing, unassailable bad luck.
If you want to holiday in the Paris of the 20th century, then there is George Perec's novel Life A User's Manual (Vintage), set just after 8pm on June 23 1975 in a Parisian apartment block. This has its own twin: Emile Zola's 19th-century Parisian apartment block novel, Pot-Bouille (Everyman).
For a book that moves between the 19th and 20th century, from Paris to the south, there is Jean Renoir's wonderful memoir of his father, transparently titled Renoir, My Father (NYRB Classics), with its gorgeous descriptions of painting and Renoir's domesticity, alongside many usefully cookable recipes. This can be accompanied by another literary work, which masquerades as a cookbook: The Alice B Toklas Cookbook (The Lyons Press), which contains recipes supplied by modernist exiles such as Picasso. And since everything has its twin, maybe this should be read beside another masterpiece from the interwar France of international exiles: The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, written not by Toklas, but by her lover, Gertrude Stein (Penguin Modern Classics).
But perhaps two of the best swimming-pool books take place in the vanished Paris before Haussmann and the serious 19th century. The first is The Princess of Cleves by Madame de Lafayette, translated by Nancy Mitford (New Directions), which is one of the cleverest novels about passion and its repression. And the second is The Three Musketeers (Penguin) by Alexandre Dumas, which evokes an imaginary France, delicious, uninhabitable and impossible. But then, every France is impossible. Because France is infinite.
Colin Thubron


China is many countries, and recent novels by two giants of the nation's literature evoke contrasting facets of its character. Gao Xingjian's Soul Mountain (Harper Perennial), finely translated by Mabel Lee, reads like an autobiographical journey through the country's hinterland, filled with haunting encounters, landscapes and legends. This is the timeless China that only the adventurous will ever see, pervaded by its own raw sensibility: the masterwork of China's Nobel laureate.
By contrast, Ma Jian's Beijing Coma (Chatto), translated by Flora Drew, makes for grim summer reading. It is centred brutally on the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, about which the current regime is still silent. This is a big novel, whose paralysed protagonist looks back on his fragmented past over 30 years - mirroring the history of modern China itself. Ma Jian writes less with psychological depth (westerners typically find this lacking in Chinese fiction) than with an earthy practicality, but the book's drama mounts almost unbearably through Tiananmen's confusion into epic tragedy.
Colm Tóibín

South America

Elizabeth Bishop's Poems, Prose and Letters has just come out from the Library of America and is probably the best record of half a lifetime's encounter with Brazil. It includes translations of many important Brazilian poets, plus three stories by the strange Brazilian genius Clarice Lispector (check out her book The Hour of the Star, Carcanet), as well as poems and letters by Bishop about the glories and mysteries of Brazilian life. For an account of Brazilian history, Euclides da Cunha's Rebellion in the Backlands (University of Chicago Press) is a fascinating account of a 19th-century revolt that, in turn, became the inspiration for Mario Vargas Llosa's The War of the End of the World (Faber), which is one of the greatest novels written in the 20th century. Mario Andrade's Macunaima (Quartet) is one of the masterpieces of Brazilian literature, mixing the mock-heroic and the mythological. Machado de Assis is another Brazilian genius whose work deserves to be better known, especially The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (OUP). The books of João Guimarães Rosa, which have been translated into English, are also wonderful, as rich and complex and modern as Brazil itself. For Argentina, the stories and poems of Jorge Luis Borges are essential reading, especially the ones that manage not to mention his native country at all. (There are no camels mentioned in the Qur'an, as Borges liked to remind us.) José Hernández's long poem The Gaucho Martin Fierro (State University of New York Press), which has been superbly translated into English, is worth learning off by heart before setting foot on the pampas. Anyone going to Chile should be steeped in the work of Roberto Bolaño. Best to start with the best, which is The Savage Detectives (Picador). For anyone who has read the entire works of Gabriel García Márquez and is in search of a new Colombian novelist, then Juan Gabriel Vásquez's The Informers (Bloomsbury) is a thrilling new discovery.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Digested classics / Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

John Crace
Saturday 7 June 2008

"It's not a bad camp, Sir," said Hooper. "A big, private house with two or three lakes. You never saw such a thing."
"Yes I did," I replied world-wearily. "I've been here before."
I had been there; first with Sebastian more than 20 years before on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the sentences heavy with nostalgia. We had met several months earlier when he had been amusingly sick in my Oxford rooms. He had begged my forgiveness and thereafter allowed me to be his friend.
"Jump in the boot, Charles," he had said, placing his teddy bear, Aloysius, on the front seat beside him. We're going to have champagne and strawberries with Nanny."
"You d-d-do know that my s-s-stutter is to let you know I'm a p-p-proper homosexual," drawled the aesthete Anthony Blanche some time later in the manner of the Wandering Jew, "and to l-l-let the reader know your's and Sebastian's c-c-campness is p-p-purely p-p-platonic. And n-n-ow is as good a time as any to fill in the b-b-backstory of Sebastian's family. His father, Lord M-M-Marchmain, lives in Venice with his mistress, while L-L-Lady Marchmain remains at B-B-Brideshead. His eldest sister, L-L-Lady Julia, is rather aloof. The youngest, C-C-Cordelia, is a hoot."

I returned home rudderless and without money that summer. "I'm in queer street," I told my father.
"Why don't you get a job then?" he replied.
Such common sentiments irked me greatly and it was with some relief that I received a telegram from Sebastian. "I'm bored and you're the only person I know desperate enough to drop everything and come immediately," it read. That summer was very heaven as we lay sketching, drinking and being clever.
"Let's go to Venice to see Daddy," Sebastian chirruped one day. "I'll pay."

"Welcome to the palazzo," growled Lord Marchmain. "Don't you hate Catholicism?"
Sebastian and I were inseparable the following year. Perhaps I should have noticed then that Sebastian's sadness was giving way to sullenness and that he was becoming a drunkard, but I was intoxicated with pleasure myself that I, a mere agnostic member of the middle classes, should be allowed such proximity to Catholic aristocrats.
"I want a drink," Sebastian shouted.
"You have done a very bad unCatholic thing by giving Sebastian whisky," Lady Marchmain reprimanded me icily. "I banish you from Brideshead."
Knowing my place in the world, I had no feelings whatsoever about losing my friendship with Sebastian. Not even a jejune irritation. It was not until sometime after, when I met Rex, Julia's arriviste Canadian fiancé, in Paris, that I heard how Sebastian had escaped the clutches of Lady Marchmain's appointed chaperone, stolen money from Blanche in Constantinople and run off to Tangier.
Rex and Julia's wedding was a quiet affair. I later learned their plans had had to be hastily changed.
"Rex has been previously married," had shrilled Lady Marchmain. "Why didn't you tell me?" Julia had wondered.
"Because if I had there would have been no last-minute Catholic hand-wringing," Rex laughed.
I returned to London to observe the General Strike and it struck me as strange that if the lower orders really didn't want to work, why didn't they do nothing in the first place like me?
"Mummy is dying," sobbed Julia. "She wants to apologise for being so beastly to you."
"I absolve ourselves of any wrongdoing," Lady Marchmain whispered. "Now run along to Tangier and see how Sebastian is getting on."
Sebastian lay bearded and unkempt, preyed on by a parasitical German. His upper-class charm shone brightly, though his alcoholism was still a bit of a problem. "I'm staying here," he slurred.
Ten years passed, years in which I did agreeably little. My theme is memory, that winged host. Unfortunately mine is not that good, because on my return to New York from sketching in Mexico, I was unable to remember the name of my son or that my wife had been pregnant when I left.
"Gosh. Really?" I said, when Celia told me the news.
The storm raged, divinely symbolic of my inner turmoil. I took Julia in my arms and kissed her hard.
"Thank God Celia was unfaithful first so I'm not a cad," I murmured.
"And I thank the Almighty that Rex is having an affair as well."
"Then let's get married once we're both divorced."
The arrangements were proceeding amicably when Julia announced her father had returned to England to die. "Come back to God," the priest threatened. Lord Marchmain made a sign of the cross and died.
"See how Daddy has returned to Catholicism," Julia cried. "Sebastian is working for a monastery, Cordelia is doing good works, so I too must embrace my Faith. We can't be wed after all."
"I quite understand," I said, deferential to the last. Brideshead looked at peace as we marched through its gates. I made my way to the chapel and prostrated myself. I too could be a Catholic.