Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Veggie Books: The Human Factor

Castle and Davis work in Intelligence. They deal with South Africa, which involves checking a few cables, taking a few phone calls. Occasionally top secret information comes their way, but it's not very exciting stuff and nobody takes security too seriously.

Tension slowly begins to build between them as Head Office seems certain there's a spy in their office. Castle is nearing retirement, happily married; Davis drinks too much and has passionate thoughts about one of the secretaries. They have long conversations about what Head Office might be doing, how paranoia is affecting the world nowadays. Davis tells Castle about some suspect confidential information he came into:

'Better not let them know you told me, all the same.'

'Old man, you've caught the disease of the profession, suspicion.'

'Yes. It's a bad infection. That's why I'm thinking of getting out.'

'To grow vegetables?'

'To do anything non-secret and unimportant and relatively harmless. I nearly joined an advertising agency once.'

'Be careful. They have secrets too - trade secrets.'

The telephone rang at the head of the stairs.

You just know it's not going to end well. Although, and I always find this when I'm reading Greene, you do still hope for these trapped, sweaty men, battling against the worst forms of quietly menacing bureaucracy that has no place for their emotions.

Great book. Yeah. And it contains the best depiction of a dog I think I've ever read. Complete dog-dom in a few lines.

As an aside, why are the covers for Greene novels always so grey and boring? Anyone got a good cover for one of his novels? All of mine are awful.

Later on this week I'm going to take a look back over the veggie books I've picked and choose my favourites. I've read some corkers, that's for sure.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Veggie Books: Reflections in a Golden Eye

You know how sometimes you finish a great big meal and all you want is a cup of strong black coffee and an After Eight? After Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin, Carson McCullers' Reflection in a Golden Eye was my After Eight.

It's the exact opposite of Alone in Berlin. It's slim and surreal and sensual, and metaphorically dripping in sweat. Mainly in horse sweat, but also in human sweat. Phew. I felt like I needed a mint julep whilst reading it, and I don't even really know what that is.

Leonora lives on an Army fort in the American Deep South. Her husband, Captain Penderton, doesn't ride horses, or indeed live, as well as her. She throws herself into adventures, such as the affair she's having with her neighbour. Leonora catches the eye of Private Williams, who works in the stable. He begins to let himself into her bedroom at night, where he crouches by her, and watches her sleep. He creeps through the pages of the novel, infusing it with his strangeness.

Meanwhile, Leonora continues to throw herself about on the fort. Here she is organising a huge party with the wife of her boyfriend. The shindig will include an awful lot of meat and booze and a few vegetables:

'Listen!' said Leonora, and her fresh rosy face flamed suddenly with anticipation. 'I just wish you could see my kitchen now. Here's the way it will go. I'm putting in all the leaves in the dining room table and everybody will just mill around and help themselves. I'm having a couple of Virginia hams, a huge turkey, fried chicken, sliced cold pork, plenty of barbecued spare-ribs, and all sorts of little knick-knacks like pickled onions and olives and radishes. And hot rolls and little cheese biscuits passed round. The punchbowl is in the corner, and for people who like their liquor straight I'm having on the sideboard eight quarts of Kentucky Bourbon, five of rye, and five of Scotch. And an entertainer from town is coming out to play the accordion -'

'But who on earth is going to eat all that food?' Alison asked, with a little swallow of nausea.

'The whole shebang,' said Leonora enthusiastically.

I won't tell you what happens at the end. It's too good to ruin. I thought it was the most amazing novel, with a deep sense of sexual menace underpinning a delicate story. But I do wonder if I would have enjoyed it less if I hadn't read it straight after the Hans Fallada. An After Eight can seem really unfulfilling to a hungry person, right? You have to be replete with the meat and veg first before the small dark sliver of rich chocolate does the trick.

I'm hungry now. Off to the kitchen.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Veggie Books: Alone in Berlin

If you're anything like me, you read a lot of books and most of them entertain, amuse or educate. But they don't stay with me, not in a deep, lasting way. I might think of them, or even re-read them, but they're not necessarily books that I have to talk about, to recommend, to pass on. Those sort of books are pretty sparse, really, I think.

Last week I read two of them. One after the other. I would say books are like buses but the third book I read wasn't anywhere near as good, unfortunately, so it's not as if good things do come in threes. So much for the easy aphorism approach to blogging.

I'll leave you in suspense as to what the second book was, but the first was Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. Fallada had a pretty full-on life, involving stints in psychiatric care and problems with drugs and alcohol. He didn't write a vast amount of books, and when he wrote Alone in Berlin he knew it was the best he was going to achieve. It's a true story, set during the early 1940s, of a man and his wife who lose their son in the war and try to find some way of fighting Nazi rule. They settle on writing postcards containing anti-Hitler statements and leaving them in public buildings. It's a small rebellion that has very little effect, but if they get caught they're well aware they'll be sentenced to death.

It's easy, I think, to say - I wouldn't have stood for that. I would have spoken up about the atrocities committed by my leaders. But this book shows how difficult that is, because decent people want to protect their loved ones, their children, their older relatives. Fear for them utterly erodes the will to act, to save a stranger instead. And yet people still do act, amazingly - in the novel, an old Jewish woman is taken in and hidden by a retired judge. A young couple try to start a group to sabotage machinery at work. And the postcards, too, are an act of extreme bravery. All of these small rebellions can come to nothing - we already know Hitler was not defeated by his own people. This knowledge pervades the novel. It did not work; it was not enough.

One character in the novel, Eva Kluge, decides to leave the Nazi party, and is subjected to torture and disgrace for her decision. She leaves Berlin and moves to the countryside, where, one day, a boy on the run stops next to her vegetable patch and steals her breakfast.

In the last few months in the village, Frau Kluge has got a little used to these children: the bombing raids on Berlin had intensified, and the populace was called upon to send their children out into the countryside. The provinces are inundated with these Berlin kids. It's a curious thing; some of these kids can't adjust to the quiet of rural life. Here they have peace and quiet, better food, undisturbed nights, but they can't stand it, they have to go back to the metropolis. And so they set off: barefoot, begging for scraps of food, with no money, hounded by rural constables, they make their way resolutely back into the city that almost every night is ablaze. Picked up and returned to their rural communities, they give themselves a little time to put some flesh on their bones, and then run away back home again.

This present specimen with the challenging eye who was eating Eva's breakfast had probably been on the road for quite some time. She couldn't remember ever having seen a figure quite as filthy and ragged as this. There were straws in his hair, and she felt she could have planted carrots in his ears.

Eva takes in this boy, a member of Hitler Youth who has run away from an abusive father, and tries to teach him right from wrong. Can the indoctrinated learn a different path? That seems to me to be the key question of the novel.

Published in 1947, Alone in Berlin does not obey modern sensibilities, obviously. It's a wonderful product of its time, and gave me a fresh insight into that terrible war.

Golly, that was all very serious.