Tag Archives: book club

the sense of an ending

A Booker prizewinner is not a natural choice for our bookclub. We’re a social bunch, and don’t want to be overwhelmed with worthiness. It may be no exaggeration to say that we chose Julian Barnes’ book The Sense of an Ending because it’s short.

But, oh my goodness, it packs a punch. And it doesn’t feel short, because I went back to the start when I finished to catch the clues I missed.

It’s primarily a meditation on the nature of personal history as we remember it. What we forget, what we use to define our stories, and how wrong our personal image of the past can be.

The narrator is Tony, whose misremembered past comes into greater focus when he is notified of an unexpected inheritance. Tony is a bit of a berk. Self satisfied, self involved, and completely out of touch. The inheritance comes from the mother of an ex-girlfriend. Why? There’s money and a diary. The diary of a former school friend, one greatly admired until he took up with the ex-girlfriend, Veronica. Tony is baffled and decides to investigate. Unfortunately, he doesn’t ‘get it’. He never does.

Veronica, now going by her second name, Mary, is angry. Raging, possibly damaged. The situation is complex, like algebra, but what bit is Tony’s fault? Any of it?

Tony had described Veronica to his wife, when he eventually spoke of her, in such a way that she is simply referred to as ‘the Fruitcake’. Was that representation fair? Why does Veronica/ Mary call the inheritance ‘blood money’? Was Tony always obsessive? Why doesn’t Tony ask more questions? What is the significance of all the biblical names? What is the root of the competition between Sarah and Veronica?

The book left me with many questions, much as looking at my own past does. Did that really happen that way? Did I not…? Was I there? I’m not yet as old as Tony, but Barnes makes it clear that there will always be multiple versions of even recent events and that a definitive ‘truth’ is impossible.

The book divides opinion: from ‘dull, dismal and poor plot’, to ‘engaging, challenging and a great read’. It’s about how unreliable memory (and narrators) can be. Recurring themes are history, great unrest and eggs. Overall, though, ‘something happened’.

My Last Duchess

Robert Browning wrote ‘My Last Duchess’ in the mid nineteeth century. The Duke is displaying a painting of his late wife to the emissary of a potential new wife. The late wife was young, nouveau riche, socially beneath the groom, but arrived with a sizeable dowry. The painting showed her happy and flirtatious nature, which displeased the Duke “’twas not her husband’s presence only, that called that spot of joy into the Duchess’ cheek”. This Duchess was killed as a result of her alleged improprieties.

In our latest book club read, Cora Cash, the main character of Daisy Goodwin’s ‘My Last Duchess’ escapes that fate, but there are strong similarities of theme and plot. Rather than a menacing tragedy, we have a romantic novel, light but detailed, filled with social commentary without being a treatise.

None too subtly, the ‘Cash’ family are exceptionally wealthy if a bit brash for the heights of New York society. Cora is beautiful, educated, in demand. She travels to England in search of a titled husband. So far, so predictable. There is a lot of detail of clothing and excessive displays of wealth (reference to Faberge party favours, gilded humming birds, unbelievable meals) which doesn’t sit heavily. Normally I get bored by too much detail, but perhaps these excesses were so remarkable that they held my imagination.

Cora could have been arrogant, but her character is more sympathetic than I’d anticipated. She is spoilt but spirited, rebelling against expectations and her dragon mother. The Duke, Ivo, is also rebelling against his mother, the Double Duchess. The two mothers are great fun, despite their difficulties, machinations and power struggles, especially when the Prince of Wales comes to visit.

Cora is self  assured and in love with her husband, but lost in her new world, the old world. She struggles to find friends and doesn’t realise how she is being manipulated by others. She is encouraged to have her portrait painted; a scandal ensues- ‘on each cheek was a splash of colour’.

The romance between servants Bertha and Jim is worthy of further exploration. Bertha is black, from the South of the US and very aware of the potential difficulties their relationship would bring. Jim thinks they’ll be alright if they go to London, as everyone is a foreigner there.

Will Cora run off with Teddy, her first love? Will Ivo see the error of his ways? What will Charlotte do next? What will become of Bertha and Jim? Will the Double Duchess retire from competition?

I enjoyed this; it wasn’t rubbish romance and it was far from being a worthy tome. The writing is a little plodding, but not enough to be irritating to me. Others in the bookclub were not so forgiving; ‘boring’, ‘needs a thesarus’, ‘Mills and Boon’, ‘do I need to bother finishing it?’ were some of the other comments. Mind you, nobody felt strongly enough about it to argue too much. There was wine to be having and food to eat and lives to be caught up on. It’s only a night out.

choices

Sometimes we get it wrong. With the best of intentions, we make the wrong decision- the one that doesn’t turn out so well for us. We make mistakes and do daft things. That can have serious consequences, or be a minor disturbance. This choice was not serious, but I chose wrong. After a run of historical/ war type book club choices, I helped choose something contemporary and fictional, when I should have voted for family biography.

I should have chosen The Hare with Amber Eyes.

I’d thought that a history of ‘things’ from Paris in 1871, to Vienna in 1899, to Tunbridge Wells, Tokyo and London would be dull. Worthy. Have nothing to say to me. I was wrong.

This is a beautiful, mysterious, intriguing, gripping book. The fabulously wealthy Ephrussi family are at the heart of banking, empire building and art. They are secular but defined in so many ways by their Jewishness. We’re with them as they rise to prominence, through the Dreyfus Affair, the First World War, the rise of national socialism, the Anschluss and its aftermath. We are there for the loss, the diaspora, the return of the netsuke to Japan. I’ve studied these periods of history, but I’ve never read anything that made this time ‘real’ until now. The Ephrussi family were far outside any social circle that I could relate to; because of that there exisits archive material, financial records, letters, still familiar gossip. In contrast, there is no information on the servant Anna apart from oft told family tales. ‘There is space around Anna.’

The story has been painstakingingly researched, but wears it lightly. We get a feel of what life was like for the very, very rich- family estates, palaces, holidays in a six story chalet in Switzerland. During this time the netsuke (tiny, intricate carved toggles made out of wood or ivory) were highly fashionable, a bit of an embarrassment, children’s playthings, totems.

Edmund de Waal is a descendant of the Ephrussi family, and is an English ceramic artist. His ancestor Charles, commissioned work from the likes of Renoir, Monet and Degas. Charles’ cousin Viktor, unexpectedly, became head of the bank in Vienna. He wasn’t great with money (more well meaning but bad choices). Viktor’s eldest daughter, the formidable Elisabeth, correspondant of Rilke, was the keeper of the stories and de Waal’s grandmother.

I found two great tensions running through the story: what was going to happen to all of the family members, and how on earth could the netsuke survive? I have to say that the book lost some of its interest for me once those issues were resolved, but I’m sure the tales of  Elizabeth’s brother Iggie’s life in Japan would be more interesting to others.

De Waal travels back to the original family home in Odessa and still finds traces of the Ephrussi amongst the dust.  He wonders about whether his great grandmother’s dress was from the previous season, and how he could find out. He reads the Gestapo listings of the contents of the Ephrussi home. He realises that ‘Jews matter less than what they once possessed’, that the records of the Viennese Jews were overwritten, red stamped ‘Israel’ for the men, ‘Sara’ for the women.

The Hare With Amber Eyes isn’t so much about the netsuke themselves, but about their people. De Waal’s father was never a keeper of the netsuke, but is integral to the book.  He kept finding parts of the family archive in hidden boxes and suitcases, and these were essential to the discovery of the story. His son’s bemusement at the series of finds shines through.

Powerful and emotive, it could have been an interesting book club choice.