Posts Tagged ‘NYRB Classics


The Year of the French by Thomas Flanagan

The Year of the FrenchThe Year of the French by Thomas Flanagan

An immersive novel, Thomas Flanagan’s historical novel takes readers right into the muck and bogs of 18th century Ireland, it’s prejudices and injustices, it’s poetry and cruelty. It’s pretty great.
For years, Flanagan was a professor of Irish fiction, specializing in 19th century Irish novelists, writers who were basically blotted out by James Joyce’s explosive fiction. An American, Flanagan spent a lot of time there and befriended several writers (including Seamus Deane, who contributes a short introduction to the NYRB edition of this book). He knew the country.

It comes through in his book: the rhythm of the dialogue, the gloomy ambience and snatches of lyricism embedded in his book. It has a dense feeling, like a layered work of history. And it’s based on actual events, albeit ones generally overshadowed by the Napoleonic wars and the later bloody struggles in Ireland.

In 1798, after years of prodding by Irish nationals, a small band of French soldiers landed in Ireland, hoping to stir up local rebellions and take Dublin. A short time before, sections of the island had rebelled against the English, although they’d been wiped out by the time the French landed. After several skirmishes, the English defeated the small French force; a few years later, Ireland was incorporated into England and during another bloody struggle, some 30,000 Irish died.

Flanagan’s novel takes these remote events and brings them to life. He mixes his action from narration to letters, diary entries and excerpts from histories written by his characters. Large sections are told via local priest Arthur Broome’s memoirs, written some years after the events, but others come from the diary of Sean MacKenna, a schoolmaster. Letters, other memoirs and diaries complete the multi-angled portrait.

When Flanagan bounces between characters and points of view, I’m reminded of Rashomon’s multiple angles of the same simple story. Several characters are English and look down on the Irish, often in a patricidal, coolly dismissive attitude that mixes loathing with a vague sense of problem solving:

“I know these people,’ Edgeworth said. “They are not governed by reason. All the laws and pamphlets ever written mean less to them than a poem. I have written against the dangers of poetry in this country. It is their only academy… hatred breeding hatred. I have tried. No one listened to me. ” (pg 399)

Meanwhile, the Irish characters have a more complex sense of their well-being. Several join the United Irishmen and fight alongside the French, while others (like MacKenna) stay away the fighting. Many often express the same lines about how they can finally escape the oppressive English while others only want to live their lives in peace, hoping to escape eviction by their absentee landlords.

It’s a sad, almost pathetic story. The Irish are quickly caught up with a charismatic French general, Jean-Joesph Humbert, who leads them in a form of guerrilla warfare and marches them to oblivion in the small town of Ballinamuck, the place of the pig. The English, who often say how poorly they feel for these downtrodden people, stamp them down like animals, slicing them down in battle and burning down everything in their path. It’s a sad, tragic story and one that continued up through the time Flanagan wrote this novel.

Written in 1978, The Year of the French kept reminding me of America’s actions in Vietnam a few years earlier. There too, the Americans destroyed villages in order to save them, went after local insurrection and fought decisive battles against smaller forces. There too, the larger, almost colonial force was never quite able to beat out rebellion; when Flanagan wrote this novel, Ireland was still in The Troubles, with the IRA setting off bombs and the British army patrolling the streets. Some 200 years on and the same fights were being waged, the same people’s lives wasted in senseless violence.

Rating: 8/10. One of the more dense books I’ve read this year and something that sucked me into it’s world, The Year of the French is a great historical novel. Flanagan captures the troubled spirit of these times: the conflicted villagers, the loyal British soldiers, even the mad landlord Tyrawley, a man who wants to help people but just doesn’t see the Irish as people. Recommended, especially for people into British history.


Jungles, Oceans, and the Lookout: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis

The Adventures and Misadventures of MaqrollThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Álvaro Mutis

He travels with a shady Cypriot passport, takes odd jobs at sea and travels with almost nothing but the clothes on his back and a hardcover book or two. Money, friends, adventure all slip through his fingers. He’s known throughout the world, but his full name never gets mentioned. He’s just Maqroll or The Gaverio: the lookout.

Throughout this book the Gaverio gets involved in arm smuggling, gold mines, a brothel and sawmills, often barely escaping with his life. Yet the stories are never as action-driven as you’d think: Maqroll drifts along, like a boat travelling with the current, getting himself wrapped up with a weary resignation. He doesn’t impose himself on his surrounding, but before long, he’s impossible to miss.

Maqroll’s not a person who elicits an easy description. There are shades of Conrad’s Marlow, but unlike him, the Gaviero retains his wits even as his adventures descend into chaos. Don Quixote also comes to mind: like Maqroll, he roams the world for adventure. But unlike Cervantes’ book, this is neither a satire nor a cruel joke. It’s more melancholy (although I should note, it’s never sad. It’s often quite fun, actually). Maqroll stands alone, an attitude I think he’d agree with; he certainly seems to prefer his own company.

The one person who kept coming to mind is German director Werner Herzog, who seems to share similar opinions on humanity and the jungle. It’s not hard to imagine him reading some of Maqroll’s lines:

“Sometimes I think this land is so good it makes certain people angry… They shoot, they burn and they leave. They’re all the same. Things are quiet now. Who knows how long it’ll last.”

But he’s not the only compelling character here. He’s often accompanied by Abdul Bashur, a merchant who dreams of finding the perfect tramp steamship, or Ilona, an Italian woman who comes up with the ideas. Their schemes often run just a shade to the illegal– they range from running a brothel where the women dress like stewardesses to making signal flags for smugglers – but they’re not bad people, just ones with a sliding sense of morality.

For me, the most striking section of the book comes with that brothel, an idea born of a desperate need for money and a sudden insight, but quickly spirals out of control and ends in disaster. But there are others: a visit to a drug kingpin in the jungle, multiple run-ins with guerrillas and military intelligence, even an attempt as babysitting. And even at 700 pages, I was left wanting more.

By book’s end, you feel like you know the Gaviero intimately. His loves, his losses, his taste in books (and booze, especially; he loves his drinks and especially to experiment for the perfect martini) and why he has such a melancholy outlook on people.

Before he turned to writing novels, Mutis was a poet. His prose retains shades of that: it has a flowing feel, which carries the reader along without them noticing they’re reading page-long paragraphs. Maqroll likes to speak in images and fragments, making book occasionally spiky and illusionary with flashes of insight: lines painted on the wall, conversations where people are really speaking about something else, etc. Kudos to Edith Grossman’s translation, which never lags or feels like it’s trying to compensate for something missing. Given the varying ways Mutis narrates his action – sometimes in the first person, other times as a diary or epistolary – this was no easy task.

Rating: 8/10. Mutis died a little less than a year ago, leaving behind a long legacy as a poet and novelist. I’m not as familiar with the poetry (it looks a little hard to come by in english), but this weighty volume is an ideal a way to honour the man’s work and a great read to boot.


What A Bitch: My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

My Dog TulipMy Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley

A month or two ago, my dog died. He was about 15 years old and admittedly in rough shape near the end, having accidents in the house and spending most of his days sleeping. Still, it’s hard to let go and a couple of days after his passing, I found myself looking for a good book about a dog. Eventually I ended up with JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, an amusing, fun account of life with a skittish, freewheeling German Shepherd. And although it’s a nice read, I can see why it’d also turn some readers off.

For many years, Ackerley was an editor at The Listener, a magazine published by the BBC. In his lifetime he wrote a handful of memoirs – Hindoo Holiday, My Father and Myself – and a novel, We Think the World of You, which prominently features a dog. I think it’s safe to say he was a dog lover, or at least that he loved one dog in particular: Tulip, a German Shepard he insists is more intelligent, beautiful and interesting than the average mutt.

He let her do whatever she pleased, more or less. When they went for a walk, Tulip was off-the-leash, roaming around as she pleased to sniff, scratch and take a crap. If people didn’t like, tough on them. Take this exchange from when a passing bicyclist yells at Ackerley:

“Try taking your dog off the sidewalk to mess!”

“What, to be run over by you? Try minding your own business!”

“I am an’ all,” he bawled over his shoulder, “What’s the bleeding street for?”

“For turds like you!,” I retorted. (pg. 33)

Turds come up in more ways than one, since what this book does best is what some people hate about it: its utter frankness. Ackerley never minces his words, describing Tulip in startling detail: her rambunctious attitude, her fur coat, her bowel movements and her heats. He never once tries to turn her into a human, but never treats her flippantly, either. It’s a full portrait of a canine, warts and all.

Well, sort of. While Ackerley never hides how naughty she was – “I never knew you friendly before,” says one anonymous person when approached by a subdued Tulip – apparently he’s also got the blinders on, too. Sure, he mentions how she takes a dump in front of a greengrocer, chases and kills a rabbit or bites a bus driver, but according to Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ introduction, that’s not the half of it. In real life, Tulip was often so wild Ackerley’s friends stopped inviting him over since he always brought the dog.

But then again, Ackerley was utterly devoted to her and tried to make her life as happy as he could. He tried to find her a “husband,” so she could experience being a mother and he nurses her (and the pups) to health. He takes her for long walks in the woods and along the riverside, even takes her inside the pub when he gets a Sunday pint. When she does something bad, he occasionally yells and gives her a swat, but all she has to do is look at him with her and he just about melts. Truthfully, I did, too.

A note about context: this book is mostly set in the mid-to-late 1940s. This was a time when you fed your dog table scraps (or, as Ackerley does, raw meat), and before getting your dog spayed or neutered was a common practice. I’ve seen more than a few people cringe when Ackerley debates his options with puppies (does he do The Dark Deed, as he calls it?), but such a practice was hardly unknown then – and besides, all the pups get a home, anyway.

Rating: 6/10. I liked this a lot: it’s insistence on a total portrait, its frank language and utter devotion to Tulip. Ackerley certainly loved his dog. But I can see those very same things turning people off, too. This is one of those books that either clicks immediately or repels you. Maybe it was a matter of timing, but it clicked with me.


A Revisionist History of Ancient Greece: Moses Finley’s The World of Odysseus

The World of Odysseus (New York Review Books Classics Series)The World of Odysseus by Moses I. Finley

If you’ve read my reviews here for any length, you’ll know I’m a sucker for Ancient History. I’ve read everything from Aesop to Tacitus, histories to poetry. But if I had to choose one that I’ve enjoyed the most, it’d probably be the Fagles and Knox translation of The Odyssey: not only is it presented in a great translation with a ton of notes and context, but it’s just a blast to read.

But truthfully, part of that enjoyment came on a recent re-read, which I did on the urging of another book I recently picked up by the late Homeric scholar Moses Finley: The World of Odysseus, which was recently republished by The New York Review of Books with an introduction by Knox.

A clear, concise and fascinating look at the world of Ancient Greece,  Finley’s The World of Odysseus busts a myths about two of the most famous stories to emerge from the ancient world and lays out a clear vision of how Finley thinks things were nearly 3,000 years ago.

On the surface, it sounds like one of two things: dull, full of academic jargon and of little interest to the average person, or full of supposition and guesswork. Surprisingly, it’s neither of them. Finley supports his opinions with careful readings of Homer, opposing them against other Ancient Greeks (Hesiod, generally), and with the support of our knowledge of oral epics in other cultures and other ancient societies. And the way he does it, carefully laying out an opinion and explaining why how he reached it, never comes across as overly academic – or in a way that talks down to his readers.

In a nutshell, Finley lays out a thesis that neither The Iliad or The Odyssey have any real basis in fact: there may have been a Troy, but it certainly wasn’t subject to a ten-year siege, for example. And forget trying to chart Odysseus’ journey on a map: if Homer knew anything about geography, he didn’t leave it in his poem. He goes a step further, too, explaining customs between city-states (finally, a good explanation for the gift-giving!), between a king and his community and man and the gods.

Two examples to show the simple genius of Finley’s book. In one chapter, Finley points out the changing roles of Greek religion in Homer: the sun-god Helios, who you’d think would rank among the most powerful gods, has such little power he has to turn to  Zeus when Odysseus’ men eating his cattle. In another, he observes how oral histories of the Second World War have changed and been embellished in just a short period of time; based on that, how could one reasonably think a history told over hundreds of years, in many oral forms, could retain anything but a grain of truth?

Finley’s book is packed with interesting observations like that. It breaks down myths and misperceptions, trashes naive and lazy assumptions by historians and archaeologists. It came just as the Linear B tablets were discovered and just before they were decoded; once they were and the idea that one might find Ajax’s receipts was destroyed, Finley’s controversial takes were finally accepted. Looking back, it’s a wonder anyone thought otherwise.

Rating: 7/10. It’s a short read, but one that’s remarkably full of insight, lucidly presented. People who know The Odyssey in depth will have things to chew on here, but so will newcomers. It’s a scholarly text that reads like a popular history. Recommended!


Swords, Ships and Jokes: Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships

The Long Ships

A wild ride through Europe c. 1000 AD, Frans Bengtsson’s The Long Ships is something of an overlooked classic. It’s got everything you’d want from a fun summer read: wild brawls, romance and quests for missing brides, hidden treasure and a sly sense of humour to boot.

The story follows Red Orm, the youngest of a family of Vikings in tenth century Scandinavia. Stolen aboard a Viking ship at 13, he quickly becomes friends with the crew and goes off on a journey that takes him as far abroad as Spain. Before long, he’s roaming through Europe and into the courts of Kings and Caliphs before fighting his way back with a ragtag crew. Later, he takes part in the defeat of an English army, gets wealthy, becomes a rather casual Christian and falls for a princess.

And that’s just in the first third of this book; it only gets wilder from there: a giant gathering of Scandinavians in the wilderness; a corrupt and maniacal, sex-crazed ex-priest and his band of evildoers; a secret stash of Byzantine gold hidden in a series of weirs and more fighting and pillaging than you could shake a sword at.

But like I said above, what really sets this book apart is Bengtsson’s sense of humour. What could be a simple paint-by-numbers historical novel comes alive thanks to that: the characters feel much more complete, never taking themselves too seriously. My favourite part is a recollection of a wedding where an argument over a horse deal erupts and things go crazy:

“However, when the bride… saw her uncle’s eye gouged out by one of the bridegroom’s kinsmen, she has seized a torch from the wall and the the bridegroom over the head with it, so that his hair caught fire. One of the bridesmaids, with great presence of mind,  had forced her petticoat over his head and twisted it tight, thereby saving his life, though he screamed fearfully and his head, when it appeared again, was burned black and raw. Meanwhile the fire had caught the straw on the floor, and eleven drunken or wounded men lying in it had been burned to death; so this wedding was generally agreed to have been one of the best they had had for years in Finnveden…” (pg 133)

This sense of humour’s constantly there through the book. Orm is inordinately lucky, surviving a number of misfortunes, but he’s constantly wary of doing anything. His friend Toke is fond of breaking into verse when slashing people with his sword and even fonder of getting drunk afterward. Bentsson’s ironical sense of humour works wonders here, keeping the book from taking itself too seriously and giving readers a break from the also-unrelenting violence. It would’ve been easy for The Long Ships to fall into the potboiler trap of being nothing more than a series of Viking fights, catering to people who think the Sagas start and end with Thor. It’s to Bentsson’s credit that his sense of humour makes Orm, Toke and the others come alive here.

NYRB’s edition has a few maps, which are nice, and an introduction by Michael Chabon, which is well-meaning but doesn’t really add anything; “It’s a great book,” he says, over and over. I appreciate the sentiment and agree with him, but it’s easily skipped over. The translation by Michael Meyer is good, although it’s a little oddly formal-seeming sometimes (see all the passive voice in the above quote).

Rating: 9/10.  If you’re at all into historical fiction, Icelandic Sagas or even stuff like Game of Thrones, you’ll love this. It’s swordfights, jokes, plundering and more. Recommended.