Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture, p/b, London,   Faber & Faber, 2015 (2008)

Sebastian Barry

Beautifully written complex story of a 100 year old  Irish woman Roseanne, committed for many years to the Roscommon Regional Mental  Asylum in Ireland.  Since the Asylum is about to be demolished to make way for a new and smaller establishment a psychiatrist, Dr Grene has been employed to determine whether some of the patients would be better off outside of the failing asylum. Roseanne has been secretly writing her own life story and hiding her work under loose floorboards in her room whenever anyone comes her way. The novel works consecutively throughout with reflections from Roseanne and then from Dr Grene, a regular visitor to Roseanne, which has surprising and complex results.  

At the same time the story covers obliquely the C20th ups and downs of Irish history including the extraordinary reach and power of Roman Catholicism at many levels in Irish society. Sebastian Barry is the current Laureate of Ireland and writes with surety and subtlety, leading the reader gasping for air but at the same time unable to do without the next instalment. Readers need to have a good memory for names and occasionally need to go back to remind themselves who is who. A powerful, unsettling but finally rewarding read.   5 stars. 

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 7: Finding Time Again,  Trans., Intro., and Notes, Ian Patterson, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003 (1927) 

Marcel Proust
In Search of Lost Time Volume 7 Finding Time Again

The final volume of Proust’s seven volume odyssey begins with the Narrator living quietly at Tansonville, the home of his former girlfriend Gilberte, now the  wealthy wife of the unfaithful and frequently missing Robert de Saint-Loupe, the Narrator’s close friend.  Here the Narrator has the opportunity to read the Journal of Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, a pastiche of literary conversations, bad mouthings and competitive rivalry written between 1850 and 1870.  The Narrator finds himself questioning his own aptitude for literature and wondering whether, after all literature may not be the fine and wonderful thing he thought it to be. The question of whether or not the Narrator should himself write a book keeps returning throughout Volume 7 especially between pages 219 and 223 and later reappears from p280 onwards where he occasionally refers to “my book” during extended passages of literary examination. As the novel draws to an end the possibility of a book begins to fade away. 

This peaceful time of remembrance is rudely interrupted by the advent of World War 1 and the impact of this war on the Narrator and on Paris, Saint-Loup and everything else dominates the central section of Volume 7. During this period the Narrator spends two periods of unsucccessful cures in a sanatorium, loses his friend Robert de Sainte-Loupe to death in warfare, experiences the horror of the German assault and the bombing  of Paris, unexpectedly runs into the Baron de Charlus who continues on his wayward path running a sado-mashochistic brothel in Paris, and in addition the Narrator devotes a considerable  amount of time to a meditation on love in all its various manifestations.

The third section of Volume 7 finds the Narrator in old age, at yet another soirée at the hotel of the Guermantes after a twenty year period of absence.   Being asked to wait in the library whilst a musical item concludes, the Narrator falls into a deep  and extensive reverie about ageing, lost time and finding time again.  When he finally enters the salon, he at first thinks every person is in fancy dress since they all look so ridiculously old. Reluctantly realising this is his own condition also,  the Narrator ruminates on the post-war changes to the Faubourg Saint Germain and to his former friends and colleagues from whom he has been separated for a long period. The Narrator initially does not even recognise his former lover Gilberte.  The novel simply drifts away to a gentle conclusion as he ponders these changes to his life.

It has taken me over two years to complete a reading of the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. A former headmistress colleague of mine encouraged me to read it many years ago and I have now completed the task. She of course had been able to read it in French which would have been a massive advantage. My university French was nowhere near the task. Am I glad to have read Proust’s major work? Yes, there are observations,  even in translation, of deep beauty and powerful thought.

 Is the novel uplifting and life changing?  No! On his own admission the Narrator is extremely self-centred, spoilt, neurotic, obsessive and at times overly pleased with himself.  Now this may be  the very point of Proust’s work. If this is the case, I don’t think we need seven volumes to elucidate the problem.  Of course my feeble brain has been inadequate to the task of assessing the strength of Proust’s philosophical digressions so I will yield to greater minds an assessment of the value of his  deep meanderings on life and the human condition. The Narrator leaves the reader to judge the moral behaviour of his vast cast of characters. I believe the finest writers are able to point a way out of the moral quagmires of life and Proust’s inability to do this is a negative for me.   4 stars.

Ellen Gunderson Traylor: Mark, p/b, Wheaton, Tyndale House, 1989 

Ellen Gunderson Traylor

Well put together “possible life” of John Mark, probable author of the first Gospel, cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10)  and son of Mary, a wealthy Jewish landowner in Jerusalem (Acts12:12).  Mark appears frequently in the New Testament, working with Peter, Paul (after an earlier bust up), Timothy and Barnabas. Mark is generally regarded as the person who fled from the scene naked during the scuffle over Jesus’ arrest in the garden of Gethsemane.

Traylor has manufactured a life story for Mark which incorporates effectively the story of the origin of the earliest Christian church in Jerusalem and the subsequent spread of the Christian Gospel to Asia Minor, north Africa, Cyprus and Greece.  The story covers Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem and his arrest, trial, execution and resurrection in the sight of various witnesses. The narrative moves on to the scenes at Pentecost in Jerusalem, the formation of the early church and the gradual expansion of the new belief in spite of vicious persecution by both Jewish leaders like Saul as well as the tragic impact of brutality practised against the Christian faith by the Roman State. Truly the Christian faith was born within the crucilble of hellish opposition and egregious cruelty.

Traylor’s understanding of the historical background of C1st Christian beginnings is detailed and historically accurate. She does not sugar coat the strengths and weaknesses of the early church leaders and their gains as well as their stumbles. In particular this book demonstrates how, under the direction of key witnesses, the early Christian Church exploded into existence by word of mouth and strong leadership in spite of vicious and heart-breaking persecution.

Reading this book provides a surprising amount of information about John Mark’s activities and his important, and perhaps little understood role in the growth of early Christianity. Although some of “Mark’s” appearances at certain events in the Jesus story are unlikely Traylor has nevertheless given us an accurate history of the events surrounding the establishment of earliest Christianity.  This book is very helpful in understanding the birth of one of the world’s most influential faiths. The “feel” of this book is that it is aimed at a young audience nevertheless the historicity of Traylor’s account is accurate and I believe the book would surprise adult readers when they realize how little they really know about these “well known” events.   5 stars. 

The Fables of Aesop with Designs on Wood by Thomas Bewick, Intro: Michael Marqusee,  p/b, Paddington, Two Continents Publishing Group, 1975 reprint of the 1818 Edition printed by E. Walter, Newcastle, for T. Berwick;

Lysippus’ statue of Aesop;  

Thomas Bewick (1753–1828) *oil on canvas, *38 x 29 cm *1827

Scholars are divided about whether there ever was an “Aesop”.  Ancient traditions have his birth place at Cotieum in Phrygia Major in 572 BC.  Many of the absurd fictions concerning Aesop were invented by a C14th Greek Monk Planudes who lived in Constantinople. Plato’s Phaedo mentions Aesop (60 c; 61b) and early tradition has Aesop  as a shepherd boy who rose from being a slave to great eminence, living in the service of Xanthus in the island of Samos, and afterwards at Athens. Aesop is also mentioned in Herodotus.  A statue allegedly of Aesop by Lysippus, Greek sculptor (C370-300 BCE) is held in the Villa Albani in Rome. Aesop is also mentioned in Aristophanes as well as the Roman poets Ennius and Horace and the writings of Plutarch. In spite of all this, The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1997) notes that Aesop is probably a legendary figure. (p.9).  This collection of fables acknowledges that the stories contained in this edition have been gathered from sources far and wide and they are not and cannot be precisely dated. Only a very small number explicitly refer to Aesop.

Thomas Bewick, (1753-1828),  was an outstanding English wood engraver whose major work was the outstanding two volume work of British Birds. Bewick also engraved The History of Quadrupeds and Gay’s Fables as The Fables of Aesop, which he also annotated with clear and helpful analysis of the meaning and purpose of each fable. This Paddington version is an exact reprint of the 1818 edtion.  There are 180 fables in this impressive collection and each one has a short, wise and to the point analysis by Bewick himself. The book includes an introduction by Michael Marqusee, The Preface Dedicaory ‘To the Youth of the British Isles’ written byBewick himself, and an introduction outlining a ‘history’ of Aesop as well as comments about the source of other fables. 

Although some of Bewick’s reflections can get a bit tedious after 180 fables, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book if only because a number of these fables are well remembered from my own childhood reading.   5 stars.

Antony Beevor: Berlin: The Downfall 1945, p/b, Camberwell, Penguin, 2003  

Antony Beevor
Berlin: The Downfall 1945

English historian and former serving officer in the British 11th Hussars, is arguably  England’s most well known and competent historian of the Second World War.  This demanding read tells the chilling story of just five months in the ferocious cataclysm of World War 11…the fall of Berlin to the Allies and the end of the Second World War in Europe. This is not a story for soft hearts. On the contrary it is a tale of seemingly unending horror, of mass rape, of the murder of millions of lives,  of the senseless destruction of homes, cities, historical architecture, and of the folly of human pride, perversity, greed and the simple desire for power and rule.

Beevor is amazingly even handed in his treatment of the final stages of this destructive whirlwind which convulsed Europe. The race to Berlin was the seminal goal of the Allies at the start of 

2005 but it was by no means a certain question. Germany may have been defeated in north Africa, Asia, Stalingrad and in the air but on the ground in Germany her vast armies were still strong and well maintained.  So begins a titanic conflict as the United States and British military move relentlessly towards Berlin from the West and the immense Russian armies surround Berlin from the north, east and south. 

Beevor handles the complexity with dexterity and makes the story clear even for folk like myself who have never looked closely at the detailed planning, communication, feeding and political complexity of three ferocious war machines … Russia, the Western allies and Germany. Well crafted maps, four sets of excellent photographs, and clear explanations of each situation enable the reader to feel both the immensity and the shock horror of C20th destructive warfare.

In between the unending battles, Beevor analyses through real life examples, the strengths and weaknesses of generals, the plight of innocent victims, the assumption that mass rape in war is to be expected, the jealousy of individual leaders, the weaknesses and strengths of Stalin, Churchill and Eisenhower, the tension between military, secret police and counter intelligence leaders, and the crushing destruction of thousands of innocent lives.  Beevor provides excellent analysis of the mysteries behind Hitler’s final days and the chilling destructiveness and power of Stalin. 

In the age of Putin, this book is important to read to remind ourselves that there can be no winners in a world war.   5 stars.