Monday 28 July 2014

Book Review: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

A recent book conversation on Twitter resulted in my making an impulsive proposal to reread Testament of Youth. It was only afterwards, checking its page count of over 600 while glancing at my teetering tower of unread books, that I wondered at the size of my commitment.

Testament of Youth is Vera Brittain's memoir of her experiences during the First World War, but the opening finds this vibrant, intelligent young woman fighting a personal battle with Victorian parents to permit her to study at Oxford. 'The desire for a more eventful existence and a less restricted horizon' than provincial Buxton leads her to relentlessly pursue a place at Somerville College.

Meanwhile her brother Edward, whose own path to Oxford is straightforward, as well as sweetheart Roland and their friends Victor and Geoffrey, are rapidly abandoning education for the army. Idealism abounds and this golden circle of young men enrols with heads full of heroism and valour, realising they might lose their lives in the service of their country, but envisaging a gloriously patriotic death.

Today we realise they will face not a quick, victorious war won by Christmas but years of hardship in front-line trenches mired in mud. The four friends each endure their own separate hell of danger-spiked tedium alternating with interludes of that fierce, sporadic fighting which sacrificed so many thousands of infantrymen for so little gain. During her first longed-for year at University, with most of her male contemporaries in action, Brittain reaches the conclusion that she, too must make a physical contribution to the war effort and sets aside her studies to volunteer as a Red Cross nurse.

Like many, I first read Testament of Youth after watching the moving 1970s television dramatisation starring the brilliant Cheryl Campbell. Since then I've reread it on several occasions, but this time round, as we near the centenary of Great War's beginning, it seems even more achingly relevant and richly rewarding of the commitment. Brittain's recollections now have an almost prophetic note, sounding a trumpet blast against the waste and futility of today's armed conflicts in the streets of Gaza and Syria and our inflamed international relations after the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine. Her generation was to pay such an enormous price for a war which attached little value to so many human lives; how have we forgotten so quickly and is this a lesson we must really learn anew?

Brittain's writing emphasises the devastating personal suffering of war, the near impossibility of having to endure every day without knowing whether those you love dearest are safe. She gets through by making herself too physically exhausted to think, yet still scans the casualty lists in The Times with dread and fears the knock at the door that might herald a telegram. When the worst news comes, there is no relief. Most shocking is the army's extraordinary return to a grieving family of all a dead soldier's possessions, including the shredded, blood-soaked clothes he was shot in.

As the War progresses, Brittain places herself further in harm's way by volunteering for service overseas. Her experiences in the sunshine of Malta and the 'corrupt clay' of France are both perilous but sharply contrasting, yet despite her essential role she faces growing demands from her parents that, with shortages of domestic staff commonplace, her place as a daughter is to look after the home.

Sometimes there's still joy in nature and the simple beauty of a sunset, even when seen from the trenches. The poetry in Testament of Youth is deeply evocative; often these are Brittain's verses which draw on her own and Roland's experiences, as well as the better-known lines of Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen and the heart-breaking simplicity of May Wedderburn Cannan

When the vision dies in the dust of the market-place
When the light is dim
When you lift up your eyes and cannot behold his face
When your heart is far from him,

Know this is your war; in this loneliest hour you ride
Down the roads he knew
Though he comes no more at night he will kneel at your side
For comfort to dream with you

Although war is central to Testament of Youth, Brittain writes of more than this; at the beginning she reminds us of the intensity and passion of first love, especially in a time now gone when a young couple are usually chaperoned on the rare occasions when they meet. She describes the elaborate outfits she took such care over; particularly memorable is her black moiré and velvet hat trimmed with red roses. Women can neither graduate from University nor vote and marriage is seen as the natural pinnacle of their ambitions. It's only in the darkest days of 1918, with women already doing much of the work traditionally undertaken by men, that partial suffrage is granted to those over thirty. By then, so much has happened that Brittain doesn't even notice this monumental achievement for feminism which
crept to its quiet, unadvertised triumph in the deepest night of wartime depression.
Her description of the end of war is one of 'numb disillusion' and in the aftermath she returns to Oxford, not to be hailed a war heroine but to be shunned by students too young to serve. Struggling to come to terms with peace, through her journalism and work for the League of Nations, she experiences at first hand the disastrous consequences of the Treaty of Versailles.

Nobody is more deserving than Vera Brittain of the measure of personal happiness she eventually finds, not least due to her great friendship with the writer Winifred Holtby. But she is forever 'shaped and shadowed' by the War, as her daughter, Shirley Williams, explains in the preface;
It was hard for her to laugh unconstrainedly; at the back of her mind, the row upon row of wooden crosses were planted too deeply.
Small wonder that she became an advocate of pacifism, distressed at the prospect of another approaching war. Her wonderfully articulate, haunting masterpiece still stands today as a testament to her beliefs.

Read Helen Stanton's review of Testament of Youth on her blog MadabouttheBooks here

Testament of Youth is available in the UK as a paperback from Virago Books. 
Photographs courtesy of The Telegraph and The Birmingham Mail.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Reading the Classics: Achebe, Steinbeck and Bulgakov

My reading of the classics has been decidedly patchy over the years. I hated everything we studied in English at school on principle - even novels I've later come to adore like Jane Eyre. Essay writing was always a chore so, despite having otherwise loved books, I gave up on taking literature post-16. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot - seems I was intent on blasting a double-barrelled shotgun at mine.

These days I'm trying to make up for my wilderness years, as well as weaning myself off a complete diet of new books, which I tend to read and review for this blog. So here are three recent reads:

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

I became intrigued by the writing of this internationally acclaimed Nigerian author after discovering its influence on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The opening line of her first novel Purple Hibiscus is a direct reference:
Things started to fall apart at home when my brother Jaja did not go to communion...
I also like the way Achebe and Adichie nestle together on the bookshelf:

 In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is an important man in the village of Umuofia, a wrestler and warrior of great esteem. He has three wives, many children and a plentiful supply of yams in his barn. In this patriarchal farming community, life is physically demanding and a successful harvest, the bridge between life and death, is at the mercy of the elements. There's a strict hierarchy to respect, gods to honour and customs to be obeyed. Often they are brutal; twins are considered evil and left to die in the forest and Okonkwo participates in the killing of a boy he has virtually adopted as a son, in order to appease the Oracle. But things really begin to fall apart when Okwonko offends the gods and is banished from his home. Upon his return, he finds that white men have arrived, threatening to overturn life as he knows it.

Traditional Nigerian village existence is challenged by the arrival of colonial power in the guise of Christian missionaries and a white civil governor. Things Fall Apart is the first in a trilogy of works about the changes wrought in this community. I was absorbed by the unstinting power and directness of Achebe's writing and will be reading more.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Having loved and cried over The Grapes of Wrath, I'd been intending to read Of Mice and Men for a while. It was this book's recent 'banning' from the English syllabus which made me pick it up, interested to find out why it had been studied by a phenomenal 90% of GCSE students in England.

George and Lennie travel together in search of work on the ranches of California during the Great Depression. George, small and quick-witted, looks out for Lennie, a gentle giant of limited mental capacity who doesn't know his own strength. The duo are migrants but dream of a better life where they own their own land and keep rabbits for Lennie to stroke.

Existence on their latest ranch is fraught with danger and, despite being a hard worker, Lennie is ill-equipped for it; there are threatening moments as the boss's son Curley craves a fight, while his new wife is busy craving the attention of every man she happens across. George and Lennie's dream comes so close they can almost reach out and touch it, but tragedy is foreshadowed in the fate of animals be they mice, old mutts or newborn puppies. Foolishly George leaves Lennie on the ranch for an evening while he goes to town with some of the other hands, with farther-reaching repercussions than even he could have imagined.

Steinbeck's writing is as unflinching and atmospheric as ever, but I was startled that such a brief novella, more of a snapshot than a fully developed masterpiece, could have become the book of choice for GCSE. Maybe brevity is the point; the story can easily be absorbed in one sitting and regurgitated without too many problems. But surely it's an issue that there's only one stereotypical female character in the book, even though she has a suggestion of greater depths which could be explored in a longer novel. Does any of this make Of Mice and Men easier to discuss in answering a GCSE question? I have a feeling it might not.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Entering the surreal world of 1930s Moscow when the Devil comes calling was my favourite of these three reads. He appears in the city one evening with a fast-talking black cat named Behometh and a motley collection of other associates, plus a set of bizarre predictions which unnervingly come true. Wreaking havoc all around him, it seems the citizens of Moscow are powerless in his grasp. 

Meanwhile, Pontius Pilate is in Jerusalem, overseeing the trial of Yeshua, a story at the heart of the Master's novel. Margarita, the Master's lover, believes passionately in his work, but given the opportunity by the Devil to become a witch with supernatural powers, she takes it and presides over his midnight ball.

This is a multi-layered satire of good and evil filled with allusion to Stalin's repressive regime and many of the absurdities it created. It is full of cultural and literary references, but tellingly, the devil has all the best lines; 'Manuscripts don't burn' he proclaims as he produces the novel the Master earlier threw on the fire. 

Saturday 5 July 2014

Book Review: The Stonehenge Letters by Harry Karlinsky

Stonehenge will always be at the edge of your consciousness if you live or work in Bath, so firmly planted on the tourist trail that it's the labelled destination of every other West Country tour bus that passes under your window. That must be why I leapt at the chance to read The Stonehenge Letters, an unusual novel which explores the reasons for the monument's existence.

The story opens with a completely separate intrigue as our narrator, an unnamed retired psychiatrist, is looking into why Sigmund Freud never received a Nobel Prize, despite having been proposed for the award numerous times. During his investigations in the Nobel archives in Sweden, he stumbles across a 'Crackpot' file full of unsolicited letters, often from people nominating themselves. But amongst these applications is a distinct set of correspondence relating to Stonehenge, which leads our psychiatrist's investigation in an entirely new direction.

Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel was a talented chemist and entrepreneur who came to own explosives plants and laboratories in more than twenty countries. As his legacy, he directed in his will that his immense fortune be used to establish a number of prizes, awarded for exceptional contributions to science, literature and peace - the Nobel Prizes so familiar to us today. But, as Ragnar Sohlman, one of his executors, begins to look through Nobel's papers, he uncovers a series of letters involving a certain Florence Antrobus.

Florence had married into the family whose land and property included the monument of Stonehenge, which by the end of the nineteenth century had fallen into disrepair. Primarily interested in buying the land surrounding the stones for use in weapons' testing, Nobel and Sohlman pay her a visit, whereupon she takes them on a tour of Stonehenge:
Florence carefully escorted Nobel and Sohlman between the upright and fallen stones, sharing her knowledge of Stonehenge as they proceeded. She particularly wanted Nobel and Sohlman to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings, and described in great detail how the stones changed their colours with the shifting weather. Florence also provided a charming overview of the various theories addressing how Stonehenge had arisen. 
Nobel is captivated by Florence's performance and indeed by Florence herself. They continue to correspond and her enthusiasm for the stones is infectious, so much so that in one of his final letters, Nobel promises
I now plan to will part of my fortune for the creation of an additional prize - to be awarded to the outstanding man or woman amongst these prizewinners who can solve the mystery of Stonehenge. 
Sohlman sets about making Nobel's last wish a reality and writes to every Nobel laureate, inviting them to make a submission which will contribute to solving the mystery. Sensationally, the letters which our narrator has stumbled upon in the 'Crackpot' file are entries into this competition from the likes of Ivan Pavlov, Teddy Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling and Marie Curie.

This is Karlinsky's second novel, following The Evolution of Inanimate Objects which investigates the life of a possible relative of Charles Darwin. Fact and fiction are once again densely woven together in The Stonehenge Letters, which reads less like a story and more like a meticulously investigated historical account, complete with footnotes and documentary support. There are some delightful photographs and illustrations and it's fascinating to realise the connections between the developments taking place in the worlds of science and literature at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Karlinsky captures the analytical tone of his narrator well and takes time to explore the characters of Nobel and his contemporaries, adroitly setting up the background to the fictional prize, so that the novel is about so much more than the mystery of Stonehenge. The potential solutions, not as central to the book as I was expecting, are all absorbing but varying in quality; some seeming almost trite while others are far ahead of their time. I particularly enjoyed the involvement of Einstein in evaluating Marie Curie's submission; this could have been expanded to create an even stronger core to the novel.

While I didn't really recognise the suggestion on the jacket cover that this book is 'laugh-out-loud funny', it certainly does have its wryly amusing moments. Above all The Stonehenge Letters is an intelligent, stylish novel with an original construction and intriguing central premise, which Karlinsky pulls off with great aplomb. By the end of reading it, I was wishing it could all be true; that the Stonehenge Prize really did exist and the letters were today established in pride of place in a Stockholm museum, for us to stand beside in yet another selfie on a well-worn tourist trail.

Thanks to The Friday Project for my review copy.