The Evenings by Gerard Reve

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The Evenings by Gerard Reve.

The Evenings by Gerard Reve

The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis

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The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis.

The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

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Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham.

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse

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The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse.
 

The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse

The Mating Season by P. G. Wodehouse

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The Mating Season by P. G. Wodehouse.

The Mating Season by P. G. Wodehouse

Howards End by E. M. Forster

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I decided that it was time to re-read one of my old favourites, so picked E. M. Forster’s Howards End off the bookshelf.

Howards End by E. M. Forster

I first read this wonderful novel eight year ago and it had a big impact on me. I also saw and loved the 1992 film adaptation, staring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, and Helena Bonham Carter, which to my mind is one of the very best literary novel film adaptations.

Now, as about a million people have no doubt already written lengthy and detailed reviews of this novel, I shall not attempt anything of the sort here. What I’ll do instead is just mention some of the things that I love about this novel.

A sensitive and intelligent exploration of a theme. Turn over the front cover of this novel and on the title page you see Forster’s memorable epigraph: “Only connect…” and the whole of the novel can indeed be seen as an exploration of our deep desire to truly connect with others, as well as the myriad ways in which this desire can get frustrated.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

There are also many other important themes intelligently explored in the novel, including those of sex and of class and of our quest for meaning in life.

Brilliant characters. Two of the principal characters are the half-German Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, who are so vividly alive in their exploration of culture, beauty, and the arts. Their financial and intellectual independence lead them to explore many of life’s questions in bold and original ways. Contrasted with the Schlegels, are the wealthy Wilcoxes, who are almost entirely focused on practical matters and business and maintaining conventional values. Then there is the poor Leonard Bast who yearns for more out of life than his poverty allows him. The interplay between these and other characters in the novel is really what makes it so memorable.

They had nothing in common but the English language, and tried by its help to express what neither of them understood.

For despite all of the many misunderstandings and strongly held opposing views, we also see these characters do come together and truly connect – at least some of the time.

A finely written plot. E. M. Forster is such a great novelist. In this, as in his other novels, he clearly has his whole story mapped out precisely in his mind from the beginning and uses every scene, every piece of dialogue, indeed every word to layer up his themes and move forward his plot. The way that the different characters move from initial acquaintance with one another to friendship then to greater or lesser degrees of trauma and separation, and then finally to closure is also superbly handled.

Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.

Beautiful, passionate writing. This is a joy to read. There are many, many sections that could be quoted from this novel. Here is just one typical exchange, which exemplifies the lively exploration of life and the human condition contained within this novel:

If we lived for ever, what you say would be true. But we have to die, we have to leave life presently. Injustice and greed would be the real thing if we lived for ever. As it is, we must hold to other things, because Death is coming. I love death – not morbidly, but because He explains. He shows me the emptiness of Money. Death and Money are the eternal foes. Not Death and Life. . . . Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him.

If you enjoyed this, you might also E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, or A Passage to India (which I now definitely want to re-read!)

I’ll finish with one final quote:

Science explained people, but could not understand them.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

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Back in January I celebrated my birthday and my wonderful wife gave me a fantastic present, which I must now write about. On the day of my birthday I received an envelope with my name and address on it, in what looked like typewriter key strokes. When I opened the card, I discovered that it was a birthday card with a difference. The card itself featured a lovely black and white print of Alice from Alice in Wonderland and inside I discovered that I had been given a book subscription from a fantastic company called The Willoughby Book Club (do go and have a look at their website).

This fantastic little company offers a personalised book subscription service, whereby the recipient receives a surprise new book in the post each month (or every other month, if you prefer) based on their reading preferences. In my case, my wife stated that I liked a mixture of contemporary fiction, vintage classics, and modern classics. My wife also sent them a link to this book blog, to ensure that I would not get sent anything that I had already read.

I then eagerly awaited for the beginning of February, when my first surprise book would arrive in the post.

When it did, it opened the outer cardboard packaging to find a beautifully wrapped book, complete with Willoughby Book Club badge and bookmark.

The gift package I received from The Willoughby Book Club Plus, stuck inside the front cover of the novel there is a personalised message, with information about the bespoke book subscription scheme on the reverse. All of this is delightfully done, so kudos to the fine people at The Willoughby Book Club for doing things with flair, passion, and creativity.

Inside the front cover of Goodbye to Berlin

And what was the book? Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. This influential novel was first published in 1939 by the Hogarth Press and is based upon Isherwood’s own experiences of living in Berlin in the 1930s. Here is a close-up photo of the front cover of my edition:

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

The book is really a collection of six different stories (in fact, some of the six chapters did first appear printed separately in other collections), all told from the perspective of the same observer (Isherwood) as he lives in Berlin during the first few years of the 1930s, when the Nazis party was started to get stronger, but had not yet come to power.

It is a very honest and non-judgmental account of what Isherwood saw during his time in Berlin. Most, if not all, of the characters he writes about are people who would be at risk from the Nazis, should they ever gain real power (which, of course, as readers living later in history, we know that they did). For example, there is a gay couple, Peter and Otto, and a wealthy Jewish heiress, Natalia Landauer, and an English upper class, rather self-absorbed singer and general waif, Sally Bowles.

The narration is largely a simple retelling of events, generally with little comment or analysis from the narrator. In fact, on the opening page, Isherwood writes explicitly:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

This very sparse style actually gives the novel a real force, as you can really imagine being in decadent Berlin in the early 1930s with Isherwood and his friends.

This was a very readable and interesting book, which I certainly enjoyed. I am now looking forward to the other surprise books I will receive from this subscription!

As a postscript, I see that the novel was made into the film Cabaret in 1972, for which Liza Minnelli won an Academy Award for her performance as Sally Bowles. However, as I’ve not seen the film, this doesn’t mean a lot to me! (Plus, it sounds as though the character of Sally in the film is pretty different from Isherwood’s creation in this novel.)

If you liked this, you might well enjoy: Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

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