Valentin, the great French investigator, head of the Paris police is on the trail of the great criminal Flambeu who has eluded capture from the police of three countries, a master of disguise his only distinguishing feature is his tall height. Valentin gets a lead that Flambeau may well be on his way to London to a Eucharistic Congress in London.
Here looks see the start of two great minds of the detective and criminal on a duel on who can out think the other. Like Holmes and Moriarty, Bond and Blofeld. This is nothing like that however, that would be too predictable. No, our real hero is a short round unassuming priest of all people. This priest comes across as some what bumbling and does not appear to be anything like the great Valentin. They meet on their way to London on a train and he politely warns the old priest about telling everyone what expensive things he is bringing to the Conference, a blue cross being the main thing.
Without going into too much detail the detective manages to follow a convenient trail that leads him to track down Flambeau who is with the old priest who suspects Flambeau is on the trail of the blue cross. It is later found out that the priest Father Brown was on to Flambeau. Father Brown tests Flambeau to see if he is a criminal or not whilst in disguise and realises for a priest he had a disappointing grasp of ecclesiastical theology so leaves a trail for the police to come and find them and arrest Flambeau.
Father Brown is similar to the Agatha Christie sleuths Poirot and Marple, appears relativity harmless. He is a man not of action but of realising how others think based (going on this story) what has been told to him in confessions. Unlike Sherlock Holmes who relies on deduction and observation, exhausting all possibilities, Father Brown has his suspicions tests them and draws his conclusions based on psychological and spiritual observations. Where as Sherlock is a man of action who knows his martial arts and can get involved in a bit of rough with Holmes and Lestrade among the others from Scotland Yard, Father Brown is more intellectual and spiritual and will try to achieve his objective. His course is that of good and he can confront those who try to justify their actions by reminding them how it is wrong.
There has been many adaptations of the Father Brown Mysteries. The BBC produced one starring Mark Williams of The Fast Show Fame (you ain’t seen me, right). As great and marvellous as he is as the character I do think he’s a bit tall for the character.
I am a big fan GK Chesterton. I find his life as fascinating as his works and I adore his works The Man Who was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill. I recommend you all to give him a look.
[From The Complete Farther Brown Collection, Kindle Edition]
Unlike the previous short stories Asylum Piece is not all in the first person. These are a collection of short chapters that describe the lives of people working and living at the Asylum on the continent. We get to read about how the patients think and how the staff treat them. Asylum Piece is very sympathetic to the patients. It is written of course by someone who has experienced themselves. The characters we meet have the qualities of being compassionate and caring and are being treated by people who have little understanding of what it is they are treating. Only the patients themselves can understand as people send them to the Asylum if anything, to be out of site and out of mind, like a jail. The stories are emotional and thought provoking, Anna Kavan writes in a way that is easy to read and is not unnecessarily convoluted, especially when it comes to describing mental wealth.
In the second chapter our narrator who is not able to think straight remembers she had a friend, a lover or did she? She remembers at the least that this person is in the asylum. We meet the patient Hans, a young man who is not so sure about how unwell he actually is. He has his crushes in the hospital area. What he does not know as we find out is that his letters never get sent by the postmaster, which begs the question if this applies to all the patients.
One tragic story that appears in Asylum Piece is the story of the parents who come to visit their daughter, the mother is concerned naturally and the father relies on the Doctor’s word but they are not permitted to see her, the Doctor just wanting rid of them. The daughter finds out they visited and is upset they never saw.
Within the collection of chapters in Asylum Piece we read more about the patients, some who are frustrated, who get admitted to the hospital by their loved ones. Upset patients and sympathetic staffers. There is another story of a husband coming to visit his wife hoping he will eventually get her out of the asylum only for another patient to know that she will be let down.
The End in Sight and There is no End
The End in Sight is another Kafka like story. The narrator finds out that her demise is due through a formal letter. There is no End suggested to me that regardless if there is an ending or not, the overthinking the Enemy which appeared in her other short stories is something that is only real in the head of the narrator and is always there. Although it may not physically exist the Enemy causes a lot of pain for the narrator. Something that seems to combat the Enemy is the narrator’s love of nature and birds. It seems to put them at ease. The battle may be exhausting but it is something that they have to do.
[Peter Owen LTD ebook edition 2014. Written by Anna Kavan in 1940]
I would like to write more with respect to how mental health is portrayed in literature, to read about how mental health is portrayed. There are many books out there that look at it to a certain degree. I do not know how these are going to be presented by myself and I suspect a bit of myself will come out.
Let me introduce you to if you have not heard of it already to something special. Asylum Piece (and Other Short Stories) by Anna Kavan.
Asylum Piece (and Other Short Stories) is a collection of short stories that interconnect to a certain degree and describes the thoughts and feelings of someone who is suffering from mental health problems along with their time in a mental health clinic an old school asylum. Somewhere in Switzerland in these stories.
Within these collection of stories we read what the narrator thinks, how they thought at the time. It is plainly and beautifully written. The narrator never wholly describes what her mental illnesses are but if you’ve ever experienced them yourself you may well recognise how the narrator is thinking. There is of course the fact that we are only getting the narrator’s side of the story. We do not know what is happening outside of what the narrator tells us.
To anyone who has had problems with respect to your mental health, you will recognise the suffering, the worrying, the overthinking and the low moods. You will be able to recognise not being able to think straight, to see straight, the angers and the frustrations.
Without going in too much detail and repeating the stories again I would like to describe to you what each story shows us. See these as brief summaries about them if you will. I will do a separate post on Asylum Piece and the two short stories that come after it.
The narrator talks about a girl she meets in boarding school who seemed different and somewhat different to the other pupils. Years later the narrator thinks she see the old acquaintance after taking wrong way at a tourist spot and seeing her in what she thinks to be an asylum, recognising her by her unique birthmark she was made aware of in school. After seeing this she is escorted away by guards.
Going Up in the World
Here the narrator tells us about meeting some patrons to ask for help saying she wants to share in their sunshine and warmth, she tells us of how cold and lonely she is in the fog as she goes up to see them living high up in what she sees as the light. Her patrons are reluctant making reference to her past deeds with them but the narrator is desperate, she descends back to the fog, the patrons ungrateful of her modest gift to them. We do not have much detail other than what is given. We are also presented with the darkness and cold when compared to the light and warmth.
The narrator talks about an unknown enemy that wants to do them wrong. This describing what many of us with mental health problems feel. That there is someone out there who hates us, who wants to do us wrong, they win when we feel bad, when we lose our tempers for that is what they want from us. We can feel them inside our thoughts, almost like they are breathing on the back of our necks.
A Changed Situation
This is an interesting short story in that the narrator discusses the house they currently live in before leaving it. A well written mediation on how our environments can affect us. How a space can dominate us (we are learning this now with respect to the current lockdowns, especially in the UK)
The Birds makes reference to that unknown enemy described. It also has a slight nod to Franz Kafka’s The Trial with respect to that they feel victim to some senseless injustice, to a frightening uncertainty. In this story the narrator is fascinated by the birds outside ignoring the environment around her. Within The Birds the narrator analyses their own mental health to some degree.
Airing a Grievance
The narrator is not sure about her official adviser for her condition and the fact that she has to travel. The narrator’s overthinking comes into play and we witness the narrator having to put up with a certain degree of bureaucracy as well as her self doubts.
Just Another Failure
Here we are made aware of the narrator’s relationship with a certain D as well as her overthinking
and mental thoughts come into play. The narrator has a difficulty with living.
In the Summons the narrator meets up with an old friend. Their intentions are not made clear to us at first. We know that they are a close friend and that they are to meet for a date of sorts. The narrator notices R’s ugliness and is made to feel uncomfortable by a waiter. It is later revealed that this is where the narrator is to be taken away by what we would suggest is ‘the men in white coats’ and there is the possibility that R was involved with this. Again, there is the feel of Kafka in this story.
The narrator we would assume is in an asylum. The narrator is thinking over her current situation, as far as she is concerned she has done nothing wrong, as she is not too happy about her situation. She is upset at her loss of freedom acknowledging the fact that she has to put up with it.
An Unpleasant Reminder
To say the reminder is unpleasant is an understatement. A cruel trick is played on our narrator. She is made aware of the mortality of her life and who have control over her whilst she is at the asylum.
Machines In The Head
Anyone out there who have suffered with their mental health would be aware of how it affects them when they are trying to sleep. The narrator’s anxieties take over her in a way that she has trouble controlling it. She is battle with her mind, she is in battle with the machine in her head.
These stories show us a woman who is intelligent and yet at the same time held back by what plagues her mind. She is a good woman and her intentions are honest and true, her hearts in the right place. As stated previously stated we only know her as she is described herself to us. We know that she thinks people are out to get her and to some extent she may well be seem justified which only adds to her paranoia. How the narrator thinks seems wholly justified to her. For example she is repulsed by an ugly waiter despite the fact that he does not appear to have any malicious intent.
These stories are so beautifully yet simply written. The thoughts of the narrator appeared strong in my mind’s eye. The only thing that irked me was that I was able to recognise the frustrations and mental frustrations. I have sensed the enemy coming after me, I have had the sleepless nights and lost all hope. I haven’t (touch wood) had to be committed to a mental health hospital but many people have with varying experiences. Anna Kavan of course was writing in a time when knowledge an attitudes of mental health are different to what they are now (having been written in 1940). Hopefully more will be understood in the future and even out attitudes today may well be seen as dated.
The first in the complete volume of Clarice’s short stories is The Triumph. We start with the type of prose we would come to expect from Clarice:
The clock strikes nine. A loud, sonorous peal, followed by gentle chiming, an echo. Then silence.
In Triumph we wake to Luisa. As we get to read about the detail of what is going at that time with the clock just striking nine we get to read about Luisa’s afternoon before. She is aware of the silence when there would otherwise be noise. The afternoon before, her partner leaves, saying he despises her. We spend the next morning with poor Luisa going over what had happened before and now that the morning is different she sees things in a different light. At first Luisa cannot acknowledge that he is gone only finding a note he has written about mediocrity and some form of frustration. Luisa then realises however, that she is the better person and eventually that her partner will come back.
This first of the short stories leave us wanting to know more about Luisa and her situation. We know that she lived in an isolated area, that her partner Jorge left with his servant and that he used to travel abroad. Could it be that Jorge can no longer go abroad and is now a bit fed up of his current situation? Could it be that he is just a bit of a jerk and was just being mean? Why would Luisa want him back? These are some of the questions that I though after reading this story.
Luisa’s triumph is that she has not let Jorge leaving get to her. She realises it is a perfect day. If anything it is Jorge is the one who has lost. Without knowing the wider facts, she is not at fault and she keep her head held up high. That is always something you should make an ex spouse be aware of. That you are not at loss and Luisa has realised this.
I said in my last post on A Breath of Life by Lispector that I will go on to look at her short stories. I thought I would do the same with other writers also and it will be quicker for me to post something on here, I am currently going through some longer books and they are going to take me a while to get through so here goes.
Germans at Meat is about a British narrator having dinner with a number of German guests.
Katherine Mansfield does not write about the German dinner guests in a positive light. The German guests in question are from a time when Germany’s place in the world was ever rising after unifying as one nation. A very different Germany to what we know now.
The German guests pass comment on the British diet and the English breakfast. At the same time we get to witness their table manners such as ‘He turned up his eyes and his moustache, wiping the soup drippings from his coat and waistcoat’ and the British narrator interrupts one of the guests before he goes on about the effects of the amount of sauerkraut he has eaten. We also read about the German guest’s bemusement by the narrator choosing to be a vegetarian and even more surprised about not knowing what her husband’s favourite meat is.
Among other topics discussed is how Munich is described as being what Germany is (I assume none-Bavarians would disagree with this) and asking the British guest if they are scared of a German invasion saying ‘You have no army at all – a few little boys with their veins full of nicotine poisoning’ (of course history has showed us what really would happen… twice but that’s neither hear nor there).
We also hear about the thoughts on the family. It appears German women like to produce big families. It ends with the British dinner guest leaving.
Although a British person is used in contrast to the German dinner guests, it is really about people with different cultures and ideologies meeting face to face and not quite understanding each other as opposed to Britain and Germany themselves. You could argue in today’s world there are more similarities than differences.
The British narrator observes their table manners and holds back from saying anything that may be deemed to offensive as the German guests reveal their thoughts and attitudes. The British narrator does not appear to have any form of the Edwardian British stereotype. She can speak German to her guests, she is a vegetarian, she does not behave like the classic housewife who knows what her husband like to eat all the time. Despite all this the German guests almost treat her like (as far as they are concerned) that she is the embodiment of what the English are.
What I learnt from this short story is that despite where we are from, we are actually all individuals and we have to choose to act as such. I could be wrong on that but that is what I got out of it.
[From Katherine Mansfield, The Complete Collection, Kindle Edition]
So far I have been doing write ups on books that I enjoy reading. I’m interested in the world of Scientology and of course Clarice Lispector so I have posts concerning them and I have also written posts on other books I find interesting and I think you should also consider that you may have not been aware of. Which leads me to I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. In many respects this is quite a famous book, has had a film adaptation made (albeit which diverted quite a bit from the book). So why am I doing a post on it? Well I think this book is prescient in respect to what it portrays. Fear, ignorance and (though not a virus) bacterial infections that has a massive affect on the world after war and unrest.
There are vampires in this story but it isn’t really about vampires, there is elements of science fiction with respect to a future world but this is not really about science fiction. This is more about how we see the world of Richard Neville, he appears to be in the last man alive in world full of vampires. At night they harass him in his fortified house and by day he looks out for food and other supplies and hunts the vampires. We see his loneliness and depression as he remembers his loved ones and plays his music from a different time.
As the story develops he realises that not all the vampires are ruthless killers and are upset with the fact that he is killing their loved ones. He meets one vampire he gets attached to but again it is too late. To him they were the horrible monsters to them he is the bogeyman, he has become a legend.
When I said that this book was prescient I was also referring to the fact that Neville does what he does based on his own experiences not being made aware of the thoughts of the vampires before it’s too late. That ‘not all’ vampires are mindless killers. Just like in the real world, we fear and belittle that which we do not understand. You would only have to look at the insults on social media and that some people only surround themselves with people of the same opinion creating echo chambers and refusing to even consider why some people think in a particular way. If there is anything that I have learnt from I Am Legend is that nobody what you do, you have to try and understand the consequences of your actions. Are you doing the right thing. Try to understand. As stated by a character in the book ‘I know you were just as much forced into your situation and that we were forced in ours’. We need to understand people’s reasons for doing things in order to find a better way.
[Published in 1954, this edition on Kindle by Gollancz 2010]
[Below is a quick first impression of this book, I will come back to it and write about it in more detail but I’ve thought after just putting it down]
I have never really given much thought to surrealism other than the paintings. I know Breton was one of the founding fathers of the surrealism movement and it that it about a vision of life displayed from our own unconsciousness and dreams (I am aware that this is a simple definition). Which brings us on to Nadja.
Nadja as you would expect is an interesting book which going on the introduction is somewhat semi-autobiographical. For the first fifty pages or so Andre Breton meditates on what he thinks and his life in general to a point. He starts with ‘Who am I?’ and continues to write about his contemporaries and discussing the theatre. As you would expect the narrative is not anything you would recognise as traditional but is in no way hard to follow. For example Breton writes:
‘Do not expect me to provide an exact account of what I have been permitted to experience in this domain.’
I could be guilty of filling this post with excerpts of the book so I will keep it to a minimum. This is an easily quotable book although I will say I was not too sure where it was going for the first segment of the book as it was not what I expected. I thought it would be about a man’s obsession with someone like with Lolita but it’s nothing like that. This is more of a fascination of thought
As soon as Breton meets Nadja, he his fascinated by the way she presents herself at first meeting her, as well as her responses and thoughts that Breton presents to her to ponder upon. When he asks who she is she responds by saying she is ‘a soul in limbo’ among other thoughts. Once Breton learns more about her however, as with many things Breton’s fascination decreases a little bit. Breton eventually leans that Nadja is mentally ill which may have had an affect on what she thought, he also contemplates Nadja’s way of being with respect to the society she is in. He contemplates on the effect she has had on his life if only for a brief time.
This book has given me a lot to think about and as I write I am already aware that I am not giving the justice it deserves and I have missed going into detail about some points such as how the fascination for Nadja envelopes and if it is love he is feeling or not, but I do like how Breton almost spills out his thoughts and only writes what he deems relevant to the story. I also liked the fact that he put pictures and photographs in the book. It helps when describing Nadja’s drawings Breton is shown.
I think this is another one for me that will need another read as well as learn about the Surrealism movement and how it has influenced our current age.
[First published in the French by Librairie Gallimard 1928, this Englsih translation by Penguin Books 1999]
I won’t go into too much detail of the plot, see a pic of the paperback below I will show you that much, I will however, write about some of the characters you will meet. I will say I loved this book and I could have written so much more about it, I don’t want to spoil anything for you…. Read the book.
In the beginning we are introduced to our narrator Mary Katherine Blackwood otherwise known as Merricat. She a little bit about herself like you would to a group of people you have met for the first time. We learn that she is an an unreliable narrator though we do get to learn so much more about her.
Merricat for her eighteen years of age appears somewhat childish at first but as we get to know her we realise she is actually quite intelligent and can read people quite well. Merricat knows the history of her respected family, is fully aware of what of the villagers and rival rich families in the local area along with her own family and the scandal that had tarnished them through the eyes of the locals.
As we learn about Merricat we also learn of her older sister Constance and of how at her core is a good person who is the only authority figure Merricat has. She looks after old Uncle Julian and is the defacto head of Blackwood family. The incident years prior has clearly affected her.
Uncle Julian when we are introduced to him tells of the murder of the rest of the family to some guests (one of which was uninvited to the annoyance of Merricat) and reminds them that Constance was acquitted and we later learn his mind is not as focused as it once was.
Mental health is an underlying issue in this story. Merricat creates her own little world (or rather moon) in her head and has her own unique way of thinking, her older sister Constance, appears to have agoraphobia (a New England Woman who won’t leave the house and liked gardening reminding me of Emily Dickinson) aft er the incident and Uncle Julian who despite being an intelligent man himself, gets easily confused and thinks people around him are who they are not as well as having an obsession with his memoirs and what happened ‘that day’.
We learn more of each character with respect to how they view Cousin Charles. He just suddenly shows up with suspected ulterior motives. Constance sees the good in people and likes Cousin Charles at first, Merricat is distrustful (quite rightly) and goes as far as damaging things in the room he stays in. Uncle Julian despite being confused is also suspicious.
The personality of each character is well displayed in this book especially when you consider that we are seeing this world through Merricat’s eyes only. For its 146 pages, you just get enough information to know what is going on and you want to know more about the story. For example, what was the motive for the murder of the family? Why did Constance not tell us of what she knew back then?
Despite Merricat’s formal introduction we at the end are assured of her love for her sister and her somewhat peculiar way of thinking and that Constance is the true heroine in this story (for me personally at the least).
I liked the way it ended with the conversation between Constance and Merricat which in conclusion defines who they are. Merricat with her dark way of thinking and Constance with her domestic housewife like response to her. Ultimately you are reassured of the love they have for each other.
[Penguin Classics first published 2009 / First Published by Viking Press in 1962 USA]
If there is one genre I try to avoid then it’s the thriller novel (and to a lesser degree crime fiction). You know what I mean, the ones you see plague book stores in airports and train stations, where the name of the author appears larger on the cover than the name of the book. Although relatively easy reads with some degree of suspense and action, I never think they offer enough to vary themselves from each other. The stories are often forgettable yet do have potential to be something so much better (that’s the frustrating thing for me) and characters between one thriller novel to the other have some basic similarities to them that I sigh when I notice the similarities. Sometimes it might as well be the same character used by multiple authors. Protagonists tend to be policemen, journalists, lawyers university professors usually with an alcohol problem, with previous broken marriages and kids that won’t talk to them. They are the modern equivalent of what was written in old pulp magazines, lazy, soulless and yet annoyingly popular.
With respect to what I have said above I do however find some notable exceptions from time to time. In this case Archangel by Robert Harris. Archangel is a thriller which is also historical fiction. Published in 1998 Archangel has a look at Russia after the fall of communism and how it has come to grips to handling its recent past. In this case the reign of Joseph Stalin and additionally the secrets he may have held.
The story starts in a hotel in Moscow where a former Soviet guard tells the story of how Stalin had a journal that has yet to be discovered. He tells this story to our main protagonist Kelso (likes a drink, works for a university focusing on Russian history, broken marriages). As Kelso tries to discover more, he does his research, there are people trying to stop him and his associates. One of these is O’Brian who satisfies the generic thriller character by being a journalist, although saying that I was impressed by the character of Zinaida Rapava who in my opinion, the story should have focused on more (she’s not a lawyer as you would expect but is studying it). Once the knowledge of a journal that Stalin had is discovered, it leads our hero to go to Archangel in the north of Russia where we meet what appears to be the reincarnation of Stalin himself. I’ll leave it there with respect to the plot because despite me not liking thrillers, this one was not too bad.
What fascinated me more in Archangel was not so much its look at the Soviet era during the later end of Stalin’s life but how Russia is perceived once the USSR fell and the Federation arrived the change in economy and Western influence along with how Russian people react to it.
I think the story takes time to get itself going, the second half of the book was definitely much better than the second and if anything more focus should have been put on that second half. The book if anything is good to read just to understand if at all possible what made Stalin tick. We know people who were close to him were no safer than his apparent enemies and as Kruschev would tell the world after Stalin’s death, he wasn’t the nicest of guys to put it lightly. We learn about his impact on Russia and how he is still revered. Despite the flaws of Archangel it does have a lot of substance to it, especially from a historical perspective which should you have an interest in it at all, will make you contemplate the legacy of Stalin on the truly remarkable and beautiful country of Russia. I actually would be interested to know what Russians would think of this novel and how a western writer has also perceived them, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Before cyberpunk and Asimov, before Star Trek and the film Metroplis there was the play Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Capek. The play premiered in Prague in 1921 and introduced the world to the word ‘robot’ (other words had been used). The thoughts and questions raised in the play have been pondered and mediated on ever since almost a century later with respect to robots and artificial intelligence.
The play looks at themes with what we have come expect with respect to the relationship of humans and robots. The ethical treatment of robots, what happens if the creation and advancement of robots goes too far, when robots rebel and become self conscious, when they start to glitch. What I was surprised by with respect to the play was that Capek looks at what would happen not just if the humans went too far, but if the robots did as well. Capek also looks at how far an organisation would go to satisfy shareholders for the sake of profit, so there is a little pop at capitalism to a certain point there. The main company in the play never question what the buyers of their robots do with them before it’s too late. We also get to see the worries of the robots when they realise they can’t create other robots. We read about the concerns of being treated like slaves (origin of the word ‘robot’ has its roots in the word ‘slave’ in the Czech language)
It is a relatively short play, there’s four acts and an epilogue with a form of introduction of what’s going on, the problems that arise and a conclusion which see the world change drastically. The Robots in Capeks play are mechanical robots but organic ones like the replicants in Blade Runner for example, as they are designed to be more human they become to behave in that way. I wanted to read this play because despite being a fan of science fiction myself, I never really knew much about it. I heard a mention of it on the TV show QI about where the word ‘robot’ came from and there is a reference to it in the video game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided which is also set in Prague where of course the play originates but other than that. Capek had also written a novel War With the Newts which has some similar themes as RUR and other science fiction works which I want to have a look at in future.
Karel Capek from what I’ve read lived a fascinating life, coming from what was then Czechoslovakia and lived through the interwar period but sadly passed away in 1938 before the world took major a turn for the worse, the only solace if any that could be gained is that the Nazis did not get to him before he died.
RUR surprised me in that the themes and thoughts that Capek writes about are still written today, to compare it to anything it is like piece Bauhaus furniture from the 1920s. Despite the decades that have past, it still feels somewhat modern.