247–257: The Comforters; The Darling Buds of May; A Breath of French Air; The War of the Worlds; Moonfleet; Raffles; The Gun; Some Prefer Nettles; The Twelfth; Little Women; and Love, Roger

Is the world a lunatic asylum then? Are we all courteous maniacs discreetly making allowances for everyone else’s derangements?

I might have said this before, but Catholic convert authors do like to write about Catholicism (cf. Evelyn Waugh). Muriel Spark’s The Comforters has elements of that; elements of mystery; elements of metafiction; and elements of the truly, gloriously, bafflingly bizarre. The characters are eccentric and peculiar; the events unexplained and inexplicable; and the plot the sort of thing you really just have to roll with and enjoy. This is one of those books that defies categorisation and just is.

With distaste he remembered his office: the in-tray, the out-tray, the files, the other chaps, the ink-stained desks, the chatter of typewriters.

My previous experience of HE Bates is How Sleep the Brave, and his Larkin stories – of which The Darling Buds of May and A Breath of French Air are the first two – are both very like and very unlike those stories. They are unlike, of course, in content and concerns and characters and tone – chaotic domesticity, rather than young men facing death in the air night after night. But they are alike in Bates’s uncanny knack for reaching to the very human centre of things, of diagnosing and evoking human feeling, of imbuing his characters with a vivacity and life which is rare on the printed page. In the stories of How Sleep the Brave he makes us know and feel for and even in a sense love the characters of each brief vignette, and with the Larkins he deploys all the same skill.

The Larkins themselves reminded me of a line from The Lost Art of Letter Writing; they have “a way of being usually seen only in young children and canines: an unreserved delight for life.” Into their rude, happy world comes a representative of the Income Tax people, a Mr Cedric Charlton, with forms for Pop Larkin. He stays for a night, and then a little longer, and then longer still, while the free and carefree world of the Larkins works its magic on him. It’s really one of the most delightful things I think I’ve ever read.

HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds is rather different in tone, one of the defining texts of the science-fiction genre. Opinions might well be divided, but despite being over a century old (in fact, dating back to 1898), I think it more than stands the test of time, although it’s become such a byword that you might (as I did) know the core idea of the denouement. It has a powerful first person narrative, though, and depicts strongly the growing hopelessness of the invaded Earth.

Another one from 1898, John Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet is one of those classic adventure stories. I found it most interesting for its extension over time and distance, and the mixed nature of its ending, but it’s also the case that our narrator and hero John Trenchard has a generally enjoyable style. It’s pretty good, although I won’t say rush to the shops now and buy it. (I feel now that I’m being unjust, but I can’t quite articulate my thoughts about it properly.)

I would rob St Paul’s Cathedral if I could, but I could no more scoop a till when the shopwalker wasn’t looking than I could bag apples out of an old woman’s basket.

Raffles is perhaps the archetype of the sort of criminal referred to in Uneasy Money, with “something spacious” about his brand of crime. He is the classic gentleman thief, someone who “would have been too absurd had he not been thoroughly alive to his own absurdity.” He and his friend, “Bunny”, perpetrate bold crimes with imagination and vigour. The stories in this collection (which includes, I think, most of the stories from the first two original collections – I got a bit confused, frankly) are brilliant good fun.

CS Forester’s The Gun is an adventure story with something of a difference – it follows an individual cannon during the Peninsular Wars. It’s occasionally brutal, frequently exciting, and always powerful.

Some Prefer Nettles, by Tanizaki Junichirō, is a distinctly peculiar book, set in inter-war Japan, exploring the clash between Japanese tradition and modernity. There are infidelities and disputes and friendships and intricacies. Certainly more than worth having a crack at.

The Twelfth is an absolute classic of sporting literature. Colonel the Hon. George Hysteron-Proteron – “Recreations: shooting, shooting, and vintage port”, who once knocked himself out with a high pheasant – passes into a coma in the armchair of his club, and wakes up to find himself a grouse mere days before the Twelfth of August; that is, the first day of the grouse-shooting season. From there the plot unfolds not unpredictably, but it is rather fun.

Little Women is one of those real classics, isn’t it? The famous ones. Alcott and her characters are frequently just a little preachy in their tone, but that’s not unusual in work for children of this period – cf. Tom Brown’s Schooldays, for example. The characters are delightful, from the glorious Beth, “who firmly believed that her sisters were gifted with wonderful genius in all things,” to the classic tomboy Jo, to their young friend Laurie. (I found out after I finished that Jo and Laurie do not in fact get married. This was hugely disappointing.)

“How did you make the boys stop calling you Dora?”
“I thrashed them.”

Written a full hundred years later than Little Women, Charles Webb’s Love, Roger is good but very different, and it was a bit of a shift for me (that Sunday was a productive day). There’s a sort of exacting, undiscriminating minuteness of detail that means the book reads in places like it was written by a child. And then I did this. And then I did that. And then he did the other. The sky was grey. The pencil was blue. That said, it’s not ineffective; it gives the book a voice, rather than simply reading like something amateurish. Grounds it, I suppose, in a straightforward quotidianism (I don’t think that’s a word). It’s a feature, I think of Roger himself.

“The small formalities,” she said. “I’ve never known anyone to neglect them like you do.”

That’s symptomatic of the slightly different way that Roger approaches life, and it makes the book a rather interesting one to read. Charles Webb also wrote The Graduate. Webb himself is an interesting man – he lives in Sussex with his ex-wife; they divorced to make a political point of some description, rather than as a break-up. Love, Roger certainly has elements of the non-traditional.

The Comforters
Author Muriel Spark
Published 1957
Pages 196
Best character Louisa Jepp, Laurence’s grandmother.

The Darling Buds of May
Author HE Bates
Published 1958
Pages 137
Best line “Something extra nice always happened, Marietta said, when you had champagne.” Words to live by.
Best character Mariette, I think.

A Breath of French Air
Author HE Bates
Published 1959
Pages 155
Best line “The process of being mentally undressed by strange men had never amused her.”
Best character Angela Snow.

The War of the Worlds
Author HG Wells
Published 1898
Pages 168
Best line “‘It’s no kindness to the right sort of wife,’ he said, ‘to make her a widow.’”
Best character The narrator’s brother.

Author J Meade Falkner
Published 1898
Pages 241
Best line “No man ever perilled his life to bid adieu to an aunt.”
Best character Elzevir Block.

Author EW Hornung
Published 1899
Pages 248
Best character Bunny, occasionally hapless.

The Gun
Author CS Forester
Published 1933
Pages 155
Best character Captain Brett.

Some Prefer Nettles
Author Tanizaki Junichirō
Published 1929
Pages 143
Best character The old man, Misako’s father.

The Twelfth
Author JK Stanford
Published 1944
Pages 103
Best character Aunt Lizzie.

Little Women
Author Louisa May Alcott
Published 1868
Pages 311
Best line “But, dear me, let us be elegant or die.”
Best character Jo. It would have had to be Beth or Jo, and Jo just pipped it.

Love, Roger
Author Charles Webb
Published 1969
Pages 166
Best character Melinda.


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