Anita Shreve’s Resistance

I didn’t quite know what to expect when I started reading it, but I have to say that Anita Shreve’s novel Resistance (1995) is not half bad. There are things about it I didn’t like, but the truth is that it’s probably no worse than a lot of the ‘literary’ fiction I’ve read in recent years, books which have either won awards or been hailed by critics for reasons I fail to see. It might even be better. Perhaps that’s simply because it’s less pretentious, or perhaps I think so because I came to it without any expectations. Either way, although neither exceptional nor flawless, Resistance is a decent read and that’s not a bad thing.

Ted Brice is an American pilot whose B-17 bomber is shot down over the fictional village of Delahaut in southern Belgium in late 1943 on a mission to bomb Germany. Wounded, he is rescued by a young boy, Jean Benoît, who brings him – not to his own home, for his father is a collaborator – but to the Daussois, a married couple that are members of the resistance: Henri, a farmer, is a somewhat reluctant member, and his wife Claire, a former nurse, is more committed. The emotional centre of the novel is the relationship that develops between Claire and Ted during the few weeks of his convalescence. But it would be misleading to think that this is a domestic love story. The warm colours on my paperback’s front cover are also somewhat misleading. The story is rather more brutal: Germans are killed, reprisals against Belgian civilians follow, and Claire and Ted’s idyll inevitably comes to an end.

The novel ends with the inauguration of a monument to the crew of the B-17 fifty years after it was shot down, an ending which allows Shreve to wrap things up. There is a photo on Shreve’s website of the monument erected in the village of Cerfontaine (the model for Delahaut) in memory of the fallen B-17: you’ll find the photo in the photo gallery. Shreve’s husband, John, is the son of the American pilot of that B-17.

The novel was turned into a film with the same title in 2003 with Bill Paxton and Julia Ormond.


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Michael Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid

Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is not really a novel and not really a volume of poetry either. It’s less than a hundred pages long and most of those consist of only a few lines of text. There are a lot of blank spaces, or perhaps a lot of blank space, open space, breathing space. Text is sometimes printed at the top of a page, sometimes at the bottom. It leaves you room to create your own image of Billy.

The book makes two important points about novels or perhaps about storytelling.

The first is that if you choose your words carefully, you don’t always need all that many words to tell a story, to create a character or two or more, to create a landscape in which they can move about and develop a storyline running over a substantial time lapse.

The second point it makes is to remind us how bloated, how overweight many novels are, filled with unnecessaries. There doesn’t seem to be a narrator here: everything is quotation, almost. There is little that is not necessary; anything excessive seems to have been cut out.

As such, it’s a strange work, somewhere between a collection of poems and a novel, perhaps not ‘poetic’ enough to be considered poetry (through its subject matter or its language?), and perhaps too fragmented, too shattered to make up a novel in the strict sense. The book is easy enough to read as a series of fragments, but piecing them together to create a kind of overall picture is a bit more demanding. It’s appropriate then that Billy the Kid should include various pictures: a few photographs, some drawings and illustrations. These too are fragments that stand on their own and that need to be worked into a broader picture by the reader.

It’s also appropriate that Ondaatje withheld the apparently only existing photograph of the Kid and opens the novel with an empty frame:


Obviously, you then wonder why the publisher decided to include the photograph on the front cover (the original edition, published by House of Anansi in 1970, featured a photograph by Eadweard Muybridge of a man on a horse).

Ondaatje.Billy cover

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Ben Elton’s The First Casualty

Ben Elton’s 2005 novel The First Casualty clearly advertises itself as a World War I novel. The poppy and the faded sepia photograph of soldiers wearing Brodie helmets are as clear indicators as you can get. But it really isn’t a novel about WWI at all. It’s a detective story – a detective story set against the backdrop of that war.

Elton.CasualtyThe novel’s hero is Douglas Kingsley, the leading inspector of the London Metropolitan Police who has somewhat lost in popularity since he joined the ranks of conscientious objectors on intellectual grounds and has been sent to prison, where he is not made to feel particularly welcome by his fellow inmates nor by the guards.

Perhaps fearing for his safety, Elton manages to pull Kingsley out of prison and drop him in Flanders, where he is to investigate the murder of Captain Abercrombie, a celebrated soldier and poet who upon his return to the front line was sent to a clinic where he was described as NYDN, i.e., not yet diagnosed, nervous. Kingsley arrives in Flanders during  the Third Battle of Ypres, or the Battle of Passchendaele, which took place between 31 July and 6 November 1917.

Elton gives his readers a bit of a feel for what it must have been like in the trenches and on the front line, but his attention is clearly on Kingsley and his heroic actions as he plunges into the heat of the battle: he may be a conscientious objector, but by God will he go to great lengths to see his investigation through to the end, even if it means killing Germans!

But although his heroics are set against a rather brutal reality, it’s not sure how seriously Elton is taking it all. Since the novel is dedicated to the memory of his two grandfathers – who fought on opposite sides in the First World War – one can presume that it’s not all intended as a joke, but the characters are so unreal that it’s difficult to know.

But perhaps I’m missing the point: it’s not meant to be realistic or sombre or serious or anything, and the questions raised in the novel as to violence and war and killing and so one are not all that important either: they’re just part of the furnishings. No, with one exception, the novel is pure fiction, pure entertainment, and one that reads well enough, I guess, although I can’t really tell, since I’ve already half forgotten it as I write.

There is, however, one short chapter that I do remember and that I like a lot. Paradoxically, it’s a short passage in the opening chapter – at 2 pages, probably one of the shortest chapters in the book. It’s a description of a soldier who is drenched through from the rain and who is slowly making his way along a duckboard before dawn, carrying, on top of all his gear, a heavy reel of barbed wire. As he slowly makes his way, ‘his heavily nailed boot skidded on the wet duckboard and with scarcely a cry he fell sideways into the mud and was gone’.

It’s a scene I found hard to believe at first, but when looking at photos of the Battle I see I was wrong. One minute he’s there, the next minute he’s gone. End of story. And the end of his war. Short and unheroic, it’s a more powerful scene than any other in the novel.

624px-Chateau_Wood_Ypres_1917I found this photograph, taken by James Francis Hurley, on the Battle of Passchendaele page on Wikipedia. It shows members of an Australian field artillery brigade in the devastated Château Wood near Hooge, on 29 October 1917. You can find more information on the picture on the Australian War Memorial site here.

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On the shelf: Jack Finney’s Time and Again

I like browsing in second-hand bookshops. I realize that more and more. I haven’t been to a ‘regular’ bookshop in a long time. It’s not that I don’t like first-hand bookshops (if you can call them that). I do, but I realize I’m not all that interested in the latest hardbacks or paperbacks. When I do go in, it’s sometimes to browse. But I generally know what I want and I generally know the shop has it in stock. In second-hand shops I also like the fact that you’re pretty much on your own. The shelves are packed, and it’s up to you to go digging for, well, whatever you’re after or whatever catches your attention, whether a title, a book cover, a recommendation, an author’s name, an author’s photograph, you name it.

I try to do the tour of the local shops here in Brussels on a more or less regular basis, so as to see what new titles have come in. Some places have a high turnover, others less so. Inevitably, there are the books that move and then there are those that just don’t seem to be going anywhere fast. Of those, there are the ones which you suspect will be on the shelves for a long time yet, and there are the ones you wonder what they’re doing there in the first place.

I’ve been going to the Ixelles branch of the second-hand bookshop Pêle-Mêle since it opened a year or two ago. The last books I bought there were Jim Thompson’s The Transgressors and The Grifters – because, well, it’s Jim Thompson – and Ben Elton’s The First Casualty – because I’m compiling a list of books set in full or in part in Belgium (see my post a few months back). I also bought James McBride’s memoir The Color of Water and Philip Gourevitch’s A Cold Case, two pretty good books I was happy to move off the shelves and which I hope will remain on my shelves for a long time yet.

Jack Finney’s Time and Again has been on the shelf from the start, and every time I see it I’m tempted to buy it. But the thing is I have the exact same Scribner paperback edition so there’s no reason for me to get it for myself. I could get it for someone else but as I wrote it in my previous post I’m not really good at getting books for other people. At times I’m tempted to just buy it for another browser or to tell them to buy it. And maybe one day I will, because it’s a great book.

I don’t really know how well known Time and Again is or not. I don’t think I’d ever heard of it until recently, not that that means anything. I’d heard of the film (Invasion of) The Body Snatchers – which has been adapted for the big screen three times, in 1956, 1978 and 1993 – but I don’t think I knew they were based on a novel by Finney about an extraterrestrial invasion where the aliens take over humans and strip them of emotions. Perhaps if I did know I dismissed him as a science-fiction writer, which was a mistake, because even though Time and Again is a time-travel story, it’s a great novel tout court.

It’s the story of Si Morley, an illustrator in an advertising agency who gets hired to work on a secret project to travel back in time. No time machine here: all you have to do, so to speak, is to study the era you’re going to be travelling to and then through self-hypnosis you make the change from one era to another. To help him imagine the late nineteenth century, Morley reads books and studies the clothes of the day, for instance, but he also relies on photographs – it’s a novel with pictures, there are quite a lot of them reproduced in it – and it works really well. As a reader, just as you have to imagine the era in which the novel is set, just as looking at the photographs and sketches forces you as a reader to try to imagine the actual reality behind these black-and-white snapshots, to give them colour (as the book cover below illustrates). Finney’s writing is so enticing that he really does manage to give life to the landscape and characters he creates.

It’s also a book that seems to have aged well, and whose subject lends itself well to the passing of time: reading the novel today, in the 2010s, you’re at enough of a distance from 1970 (when the novel was published) to get a sense of the changes that have taken place between the 1960s and the late nineteenth century. As a a reader you get to travel back in time twice, once with Morley, once on your own, and it’s a journey that’s well worth taking.

So if ever you’re near the Ixelles branch of the Pêle-Mêle bookstore in Brussels, head to fiction section on the first floor and take Finney’s Time and Again off the shelf and bring it home with you.

! Update: as of 6 January 2014, Finney’s Time and Again is no longer on the shelf at Pêle-Mêle in Ixelles! I don’t know who bought it, but I hope they enjoy it as much as I did.


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‘My favorite book’

‘V[ery] happy 40th / This is my favorite / book – so you / better enjoy!’

What was he thinking? Doesn’t he know that when giving someone a gift – a friend, a relative, a lover, whoever – the thing to try to remember is to give them something they like, not something you like? It’s not always an easy thing to do, and it’s a wonder that there haven’t been more philosophical or psychological treatises written on the delicate art of choosing gifts, including books.

Choosing a book for someone can be the easiest thing in the world, but it can also be a perilous exercise, all the more so when the book involved is the giver’s favourite. Ultimately you wonder to what extent it’s still a gift. After all, it’s the giver‘s favourite, not the receiver’s. Also, offering your favourite book kind of places a burden on the receiver, an obligation to like the damn book just because the giver likes it – and not just to like it, but to like it as much as the giver. Now, you might love the giver, but why should you love the gift as much, if at all? Why should the receiver share the same taste as the giver? That sense of obligation is illustrated here by the latent threat that came with the gift, free of charge: ‘you better enjoy!’

Ultimately, is urging a book on someone productive? I’m not sure. I’d tend to say it’s often counterproductive, unless it’s done in a particular context: leading critics, say, have (had?) the authority to urge books on readers who trust their judgement sufficiently. Their authority is (was?) such that they don’t even have to put the threat into words. It’s simple: if you don’t read the book they recommend, you’ll be out of it, either an ignorant fool or an unfashionable one or both.

Threat or no threat, The Bridge on the Drina got dumped. The giver’s dedication wasn’t enough, and neither was the whole blurb material: recommendations from National Public Radio, the Daily Telegraph, the Times Literary Supplement, not to mention the fact that Ivo Andric won the Nobel Prize for Literature! But even that didn’t do it. It got dumped, and now this copy is mine. And I can’t tell you what it’s worth or whether I’ve enjoyed or whether you better enjoy it, because I haven’t read it either yet.


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Important Artifacts etc.

There are good ideas that turn out to be good ideas, like the paper clip, or the safety pin. And then there are those good ideas that turn out to be not so good, like the automatic seat belt in cars. Or like Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts etc.

It sounded so promising: in order to tell the story of a couple’s affair, the book pretends to be the illustrated catalogue of the sale of their belongings after they break up. The 300 lots that make up the catalogue are organized – conveniently enough – chronologically, so we get the whole arc of their affair from the initial encounter up to their peak and down to their break-up. The objects range from clothes and books and foods and drinks and artworks to toys and photographs and letters and films and CDs.

To an extent, it works: it’s immediate (this is the actual stuff their relationship was made of), it’s intriguing (what exactly is this stuff?) and it’s intimate (these are the things they gave each other or wrote one another for their eyes only). Also, identification can be immediate (hey, I’ve got that! I’ve read that! I’ve seen that!). And who doesn’t like hearing about the beginnings of a love affair, the efforts that are put into a relationship in the early days, efforts that initially seem so effortless but later seem to demand so much effort? Who hasn’t been through it at least once?

And the idea to tell that story through mere things is not great but also very courageous. That’s the thing about objects: they seem to speak to us in some way or another, but they are ultimately mute. Shapton uses a passage from Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (what else?) about an ashtray from the lady’s side of the bed: ‘If ashtrays could speak, sir,’ says one character, to which the other replies ‘Indeed, yes.’ But of course that’s the irony of using this quote for this type of book, because the ashtray ultimately tells you nothing. You may be able to tell the story of the ashtray, but the ashtray itself will virtually tell you zilch, nada, nix, nothing – unless you have the same ashtray and then you might recognize the other owner as one of your tribe.

Do the objects here tell us anything? Not much about the characters, unless that they are apparently very hip New Yorkers with a fetish for all things fashionable and trendy and hip. This is no ‘ordinary’ couple selling off ‘ordinary’ things: these two have a certain taste for certain new and vintage objects of certain brands at certain prices as well as for certain writers and certain artists etc. Is there anything wrong with that? Of course not, except that their choices all seem to be dictated by the same principle or idea: it has to be hip, which gets a bit tiresome. And the objects in themselves don’t reveal much about the couple besides the type of couple perhaps, but not the actual people – and certainly not about their story. Neither do all the homemade ‘cutesy’ things like little menus, and handmade gifts tell much of a story: they ultimately become more embarrassing than anything else.

So to get around that, Shapton has to include lots of print-outs of e-mails and handwritten notes and whatnot, which is stretching belief a bit, since one wonders who would, not only pay for this type of stuff, but actually take the time to catalogue it for sale at auction? If the stuff they wrote was even mildly interesting, why not. But consider this: ‘I want it to be perfect.’ Or ‘Dad – not enough love, mother – too much love.’ The things these people write, the things these people think.

The problem ultimately is that the accessories of their affair, the trappings of the relationship outshine the relationship. There is in fact no relationship to speak of: all we get are the props of that relationship: but they tell us little about the actual emotional relationship between these two human beings. They never ever come to life individually, let alone as a couple. The photographs of them that Shapton includes doesn’t add any depth to them either: they remain on the surface.

Shapton claims she got the idea from an auction catalogue of Truman Capote’s belongings in 2006 (the catalogue is online on Bonham’s website). Capote, of course, was famous, unlike Lenore and Harold. Still, looking through the catalogue, it’s amazing how much of it seems to be of rather little interest to anyone but a few people: who would be interested in buying his old suits – old suits, perhaps, but Capote’s old suits? Some of his stuff will be of interest to the literary historian, other things will be of interest to the relic hunter, or someone just looking for a bargain. I don’t know what the catalogue tells us, nor do I know quite what Shapton’s catalogue tell us.

Perhaps it tells us that objects are in fact more interesting than people. Perhaps it tells us that we don’t know how to tell stories and all we know is how to talk about our stuff and show photos of our stuff and of ourselves and perhaps even to try to sell ourselves and our stuff to make a buck.

Shapton.Important Artifacts

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Second sight: Ciaran Carson’s Shamrock Tea

Surprisinly enough (or perhaps not), relations between Belgium and Ireland go back a lot further than Ireland’s entry into the EEC in 1973 or than the founding of the Irish College in Leuven in 1607 when Leuven was part of the Spanish Lowlands. Indeed, it seems relations between the two countries go back to the seventh century no less, when a young Irish lass by the name of Dympna made her way from the Emerald Isle to Flanders, and more precisely the province of Antwerp.

She was in fact fleeing the incestuous advances of her father who, now that his daughter was grown up, fell in love with her just as he had lusted after her late mother who had died when little Dympna was a child and whom Dympna so strongly resembled. So Dympna fled to Antwerp with her confessor, ending her journey in Geel, in the province of Antwerp. But she and her confessor were tracked down and killed by her father and his men. Their bodies were translated in the 13th century, an event marked by numerous cures of epileptics and lunatics. This is why she became patroness of the insane. From then on, the town of Geel ‘has had a splendid record in the care of the mentally ill.’

Of course, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, the legend of Dympna ‘seems almost pure folklore.’ But folklore or not, her magic nevertheless seems to work for some, and much the same could be said of the Northern Irish poet, translator and writer Ciaran Carson’s magic in his 2001 fiction Shamrock Tea. This book reads like a lesson in storytelling, in how every story begets another story and how every image begets another image, endlessly. Indeed, if there’s one thing Shamrock Tea makes clear, it’s that everything is connected – and if not in real life, at least in this book: from Dympna to Saint Augustine, from Conan Doyle to Oscar Wilde, from Wittgenstein to the Belgian laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature Maurice Maeterlinck, from Belfast and Tydavnet in Ireland to Ghent and Geel in Flanders, from Jan van Eyck to Ignatius of Loyola, from Kaspar Hauser to Gerard Manley Hopkins, and from the Arnolfini Portrait to Carson himself.

The actual plot underlying the novel – if there is a plot and if it is a novel – matters less than the serendipitous accumulation of stories and facts and coincidences that keep piling up until Carson’s whole edifice threatens to come tumbling down. Told by characters and backed by sources that are as reliable as they are not, this story ends where it begins and begins where it ends, and in it past, present and future ultimately are one. And yet, though I’m not really that much of a storytelling person, it doesn’t collapse. It holds up, and perhaps it does so because if it’s about storytelling it’s no less about art and about painting, ‘the art of making things real because you’ve looked at how things are,’ as Carson says. And perhaps that’s why the story is bookended in this Granta edition by the double reproduction of Van Eyck’s Double Portrait. It plays a key role in the book and is discussed in some detail, so it’s useful for readers to be able to look at it – although the details Carson mentions are so minute it’s impossible to visualize them at all. And that’s the point, of course: the only way to see them is to use one’s imagination.

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The Lady and the Unicorn

There must be a long tradition of literature inspired by (real) paintings or photographs or other artworks. Two examples from among many others, I guess: W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Musée des Beaux-Arts’ was inspired by Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus, and Richard Powers’ novel Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance was inspired by the eponymous photograph by August Sander.

The nice thing, I guess, about this type of book is that it can ‘breathe some life’ into these pictures (if they need that at all), make them more directly accessible in a sense. It can tell the story either of the characters in the painting, or the people behind the artwork. In either case, a good story can always go a long way.

Like her earlier novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring, inspired by Vermeer’s famous painting of the same title, Tracy Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn (2003) fits in this tradition. It too is inspired by an artwork, a collection of six tapestries drawn in Paris and produced in Flanders in the late fifteenth century and currently hanging in the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Chevalier tells the story behind these tapestries through different characters and narrators, from the nobleman who commissioned them and his wife and daughter to the painter who drew them and the weaver who produced them, moving between different settings in Paris and Brussels, weaving (well, yes) her own tale into the tapestries and unfurling the different threads that connect these different characters together.

The trouble is that the story she weaves is so weak, so unreal that, instead of breathing life into these beautiful tapestries, it banalizes them, trivializes them, and thereby fails to stand on its own two feet. It’s good to know or to imagine that there are real people behind these works, that these tapestries were not always in museums behind glass cases but that they were made in the real world by real people with real desires and real problems, to imagine, for instance, as Chevalier does on the opening page, the painter going to ‘the nearest tavern for a drink and a laught and a grope’ to restore his spirits. But the trouble is that Chevalier fails on two accounts. She fails to make the characters convincing as human beings with real feelings. And she fails to give any sense of the absolute beauty of these tapestries and the fact that these poor mortals actually managed to create something so wonderful. If the fiction isn’t stronger than the original, I’ll stick to the original.The_Lady_and_the_unicorn_Desire

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Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58 tells the story of Thomas Foley, a rather bland British civil servant who works for the Central Office of Information, as he is dispatched to the first World’s Fair since WWII. His role? To keep an eye on the pub Britannia, a key element of the British presence in Brussels. The son of a Flemish mother and a publican father, Foley seems to be the man for the job. So, leaving behind his wife Sylvia and their baby girl, Foley escapes to Brussels, where he falls under the spell of the Atomium as much as of Anneke, one of the Fair’s hostesses. But shadowing him are two British secret service agents who remind him that his duties are to his country and that he has a small role to play in the cold war between the Americans and the Russians.

I was looking forward to reading Expo 58 on two accounts. Firstly, it’s a novel by Jonathan Coe, whose satirical novel What a Carve-Up! is widely seen as a modern classic but which I haven’t got around to reading yet. The second reason I was looking forward to Expo 58 is that it is set in Brussels, a city that is rarely the setting for any fiction, let alone fiction by English-language writers. But the novel never really takes off, never develops into anything.

The Fair apparently drew over 41 million visitors in six months but from the novel you get the impression that besides Foley and Anneke and a few other people, there weren’t really all that many people. You certainly don’t get much of a feel for the fair, the visitors, the national pavilions. Neither do you get any sense of Foley’s attraction to the modernity that the fair represents, not least in the construction of the Atomium. I’m not sure, but I think he doesn’t even visit it. Neither is the novel about Foley’s Flemish ancestors whose house was destroyed in the First World War, when his mother fled to England. Neither is it about Foley’s mariage or his fling with the fair’s hostess. Nor is it about British insularity. Nor is it really a spy novel, nor a comic novel. So what’s it about exactly? I don’t know. Foley’s blandness? His lack of choice? His lack of courage? The life not lived? All or none of these? Who knows…

In the acknowledgements, Coe claims that it was an interview he gave at the Atomium in September 2010 that sparked his fascination for this ‘extraordinary’ building and ‘soon afterwards the whole history of Expo 58.’ But somewhere along the way – early along the way – his fascination seems to have petered out. Instead of engaging with his subject and thereby engaging his readers, he seems to turned away from it.

Coe.Expo58Jonathan Coe will be at the Atomium on 16 October for the launch of his novel in both English and in the Dutch translation: tickets available from the international house of literature in Brussels, PassaPorta. And on 15 October Coe kicks off Passa Porta’s new reading club with a discussion of his novel The Rotters’ Club: tickets available from PassaPorta also (limited seating availability).

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