Louis de Bernières Notwithstanding
..I celebrate the quirky people I remember: the belligerent spinsters, the naked generals, the fudge-makers, the people who talked to spiders. I have not written what did happen, but what might or should or could have happened……..
In this delightful collection of stories about his native village in Surrey, Louis de Bernières disarms the reader very quickly:
‘I’m not in. Over,’ I told my mother, sighing as I held the walkie-talkie in my right hand and with my left continued painstakingly to stick small seeds to the outside of my living-room window.
Archie and the Birds, the first story is followed by an immensely varied selection of tales, several funny, one or two gently poignant, some set in the past, some contemporary but all set in the village of Notwithstanding. They are linked by a comically eccentric cast of characters – the General, Mrs Mac, Colonel Barkwell, Polly Wantage, Agatha Feakes and the hedging and ditching man who makes a cameo appearance in each story, usually contemplating some strang object he has discovered in the course of his work. We read about young Robert’s battle with the Girt Pike, about the love affair of Bessie Maunderfield and Piers de Mandeville and, in four instalments, how the members of the Famous Notwithstanding Wind Quartet meet.
These people move in and out of focus as de Bernières evokes a disappearing rural way of life, one which he acknowledged was far from idyllic for many, but in which Villages were proper communities, with all that entails in terms of social support.
Notwithstanding is available in paperback, published by Vintage, and as a very good audiobook, full & unabridged, which is narrated by Mike Grady.
Justin Cartwright Other People’s Money
This is a very topical satirical comedy about financial misdemeanours in an old banking family featuring an autocratic patriarch and a younger son who has reluctantly taken on the job of running the family business (the elder son ‘the hairy heir’ preferred to drop out and travel the world):
It is everything he loathes about corporate life – the meetings, the legal documents, the stale air on flights, the churning anxiety, the oppressive sense of importance, the dead coffee in insulated flasks, the portraits of all those crooks on the walls, the dull conversational conventions, the wilting sandwiches and above all – way above – the insistent belief that this money production is a superior form of activity and that those who deal in it are superior people.
Julian longs to escape from the bank, to spend time with his small children: his dreams are dominated by the pony he loved in his childhood. The characters may be stereotypes (the young actress wife of Sir Harry, his faithful former secretary whose love is unreciprocated etc) but actually seem to be the kind of people we’ve been reading about in newspapers and magazines for the last few years and the financial crisis is described in simple, comprehensible terms “You can go on calling them derivatives until you’re blue in the face, my boy, but show me one”. The comedy is terrific, particularly in the subplot involving Artair MacCleod, a playwright and actor-manager, who lives in an old lifeboat station on the Camel estuary in Cornwall, writing his magnum opus while directing endless local reruns of his most popular stage works, Thomas the Tank Engine and The Wind in the Willows.
This is a modest, gentle work of genius which creeps up on you. It’s also the only time a book has ever caused me to laugh out loud with sheer joy on the very last page. A treat from start to triumphant finish.(Viv Groskop The Observer March 20 2011)
Other People’s Money is available in hardback, published by Bloomsbury.
Adam Gopnik Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York
After 5 years in Paris, reporting on life in that city for The New Yorker (see his excellent book Paris to the Moon), Adam Gopnik returned with his wife and young children to New York, which for him exists:
simultaneously as a map to be learned and a place to aspire to – a city of things and a city of signs, the place I actually am and the place I would like to be even when I am here.’
He describes their search for an apartment, the education of the children, various Thanksgivings and many, many other aspects of family life in the city, sometimes discussing his subject straightforwardly, at other times wandering down interesting side roads. The whole story is given added resonance by the fact that while Paris to the Moon ended happily with the birth of his daughter on September 11 1999:
Two years later, we were preparing to celebrate that baby’s second birthday when a phone call came. The rest is history, as we say of an unforgettable event with an unsettled meaning, unsettled because the meanings assigned to catastrophic events fluctuate so entirely as the rest of what happens unfolds that to claim to understand an event’s meaning, even long after, much less right away, is absurd.
He revisits the events of September 11 at different stages of the book, in between his musings on the decline of New York’s great department stores, his own psychoanalysis, his daughter’s imaginary friend Charlie Ravioli, how the competitive parents at his son’s school made Peter Pan fly and what happened when the pet fish got stuck in his castle:
“Calm down, Olivia,” Luke said. “He’s just a fish.”
“Bluie is my best friend,” Olivia said. “ I could tell him things I couldn’t tell anyone else!” Until that moment, Bluie has seemed to be just a finny bit of decor, but at that moment, at least, he mattered to her crucially.
I watched Bluie wriggling in his window, staring out, stuck.
I felt for him, another victim of grandiose Manhattan real estate, undone by his own apartment. It was one of those moments, of which parenting is full, when you scream inside.
As Rachel Cooke commented in The Observer
Gopnik’s great skill is to choose a subject you did not deem it worth thinking about too much – or even at all for more than a moment – and pin it firmly to the page. His thoughts connect like beautiful stitches or (a better analogy, this) an elegant map of city streets, making order out of all the mayhem.
(29 July 2007)
Through the Children’s Gate is a Quercus paperback.