Western observation

23 07 2016

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad




First published in 1911, Under Western Eyes traces the experiences of Razumov, a young Russian student of philosophy who is uninvolved in politics or protest. Against his will he finds himself caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing directed against the Tsarist authorities. He is pulled in different directions – by his conscience and his ambitions, by powerful opposed political forces, but most of all by personal emotions he is unable to suppress. Set in St Petersburg and Geneva, the novel is in part a critical response to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment but it is also a startlingly modern book. Viewed through the ‘Western eyes’ of Conrad’s English narrator, Razumov’s story forces the reader to confront the same moral issues: the defensibility of terrorist resistance to tyranny, the loss of individual privacy in a surveillance society, and the demands thrown up by the interplay of power and knowledge.

With a new BBC adaptation of The Secret Agent screening it looks like Conrad might be coming back into fashion. Maybe, maybe not but Under Western Eyes is an outstanding book whichever way you look at it. Certainly as good as The Secret Agent it feels surprisingly fresh and modern and, as the blurb above notes, addresses some big issues which are as relevant today as they were a century ago. Recommended.


four stars

Bon voyage!

16 07 2016

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf


Rachel Vinrace embarks for South America on her father’s ship and is launched on a course of self-discovery in a kind of modern mythical voyage. The mismatched jumble of passengers provide Woolf with an opportunity to satirise Edwardian life. The novel introduces Clarissa Dalloway, the central character of Woolf’s later novel, Mrs Dalloway. Two of the other characters were modelled after important figures in Woolf’s life. St John Hirst is a fictional portrayal of Lytton Strachey and Helen Ambrose is to some extent inspired by Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. Rachel’s journey from a cloistered life in a London suburb to freedom, challenging intellectual discourse and discovery very likely reflects Woolf’s own journey from a repressive household to the intellectual stimulation of the Bloomsbury Group.

This, Woolf’s first novel, is very much about self-discovery as the blurb here suggests. There is not a huge amount to get excited about here but the writing is excellent and Rachel is an interesting lead. Well worth a read.

3 star

The colonial good guy

9 07 2016

A Good Man in Africa by William Boyd



Escapee from suburbia, overweight, oversexed … Morgan Leafy isn’t overburdened with worldly success. Actually, he is refreshingly free from it. But then, as a representative of Her Britannic Majesty in tropical Kinjanja, it was not very constructive of him to get involved in wholesale bribery. Nor was it exactly oiling his way up the ladder to hunt down the improbably pointed breasts of his boss’s daughter when officially banned from horizontal delights by a nasty dose …

Falling back on his deep-laid reserves of misanthropy and guile, Morgan has to fight off the sea of humiliation, betrayal and ju-ju that threatens to wash over him.

The improbably named hero Leafy runs from difficulty to problem to disaster and they keep stacking up for him as he stumbles from one mess to another. No-one comes out of this particularly well as the whole colonial edifice begins to crumble. Sharply observed and with plenty of comic scenes, some of which are extremely funny, it is certainly an entertaining read.




Ascetic’s foot

2 07 2016

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse




Siddhartha is perhaps the most important and compelling moral allegory our troubled century has produced. Integrating Eastern and Western spiritual traditions with psychoanalysis and philosophy, this strangely simple tale, written with a deep and moving empathy for humanity, has touched the lives of millions since its original publication in 1922. Set in India, Siddhartha is the story of a young Brahmin’s search for ultimate reality after meeting with the Buddha. His quest takes him from a life of decadence to asceticism, from the illusory joys of sensual love with a beautiful courtesan, and of wealth and fame, to the painful struggles with his son and the ultimate wisdom of renunciation.

Unutterable guff, I’m afraid. I fear I am in a tiny minority here but this just feels to me like pure avoidance of any meaningful engagement with reality. No wonder it is so popular (consistently five star on Amazon).


1 star

Doctor Doctor

25 06 2016

Dr Frigo by Eric Ambler




Dr. Ernesto Castillo has shunned politics and shut himself off from the world since his father, a Central American leader, was assassinated years ago. The doctor is content to live quietly on a small island, keeping busy with his practice and his mistress . . . but now his late father’s political party comes calling. Its rising leader, Manuel Villegas, hopes to put Dr. Castillo to work as his physician and as a rallying figure for the elder Castillo’s supporters.


A really well-written and suspenseful thriller. Reminiscent of several Graham Greene works in terms of setting and plot but none the worse for that. Overall, rather entertaining and well worth a read.




There’s a catch

18 06 2016

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller



Set in the closing months of World War II, this is the story of a bombardier named Yossarian who is frantic and furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. His real problem is not the enemy – it is his own army which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. If Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions then he is caught in Catch-22: if he flies he is crazy, and doesn’t have to; but if he doesn’t want to he must be sane and has to. That’s some catch…

Decided to go for this on 55th anniversary having avoided the previous 40 such dates (actually did try a few times before and then gave up). Glad I did although it didn’t feel like quite the masterpiece it is sometimes presented as. Pretty entertaining as well as being sharp and funny and rather dark in places.



Total nightmare

11 06 2016

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

An inspiration for George Orwell s 1984 and a precursor to the work of Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem, We is a classic of dystopian science fiction ripe for rediscovery. Written in 1921 by the Russian revolutionary Yevgeny Zamyatin, this story of the thirtieth century is set in the One State, a society where all live for the collective good and individual freedom does not exist. The novel takes the form of the diary of state mathematician D-503, who, to his shock, experiences the most disruptive emotion imaginable: love for another human being. At once satirical and sobering and now available in a powerful new modern translation We speaks to all who have suffered under repression of their personal and artistic freedom.
An impressive dystopian science fiction novel in which D-503 discovers he is more than just a number and begins to rebel against the wholly-controlling regime as he falls for a beautiful dissident.  Written in the 1920s it prefigures both 1984 and Brave New World and offers an intelligent critique of totalitarianism resulting in a ban in the Soviet Union. A really interesting read.


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