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The Return by Hisham Matar

What are the effects of disappearance, long imprisonment and brutal dictatorship on people, individuals and their families, their communities, their countries? And how is it to live in exile, from a country you loved and from the knowledge of what happened to your father? Hisham Matar has campaigned for more information about the brutal years of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and specifically for in information about what happened to his father. And when relations with Libya were normalised by the Blair government he campaigned for the human rights of political prisoners. And finally, when Gaddafi was toppled, in that brief period of hope for Libya, he returned to his home country. This is his account of these events.

What is known

Jaballa Matar was a leading dissident who opposed Gaddafi and like many others took his family into exile to continue the struggle from abroad. But he was kidnapped in Cairo and delivered to the Libyan regime. He emerged in a notorious prison in Libya. Jaballa Matar was kept separately but other prisoners heard him recite poetry during the dark nights of captivity. His fate is ultimately unknown, although it seems likely that he was murdered in a massacre in the Abu Salim prison in 1994. His family received some letters but when these ceased, and when reports of sightings dried up the family was unable to discover confirmation of his fate. It is believed that at least 1270 men were killed in the prison massacre. An account by a witness is included in the book.

Documentary evidence is scant. And witnesses have also disappeared or may be unreliable. Researching his grandfather’s activities brought him to the absence of an archive of the period of Italian occupation and to the same frustrations he experienced in his search for the truth about his father.

I was back in that familiar place, a place of shadows where the only way to engage with what happened is through the imagination, an activity that serves only to excite the past, multiplying the possibilities, like a house with endless rooms, inescapable and haunted. (161)

What it means

This is a beautifully written memoir. In part it provides Jaballa with a legacy. He was an opponent of Gaddafi, and for that it is likely that he paid with his life. But he was also a father, husband, brother, cousin, uncle and son, a patron of many as well as an inspiration to young men. They also pay the price.

Those in exile also suffer.

Guilt is the exile’s eternal companion. It stains every departure. (105)

And family relationships are damaged.

We tiptoed around each other, trying our best to avoid confronting the ways in which political reality manages to infiltrate intimacies, corrupting them with unuttered longings and accusations. (110)

Family relationships are central to this account, and although Hisham Matar’s family are strong and supportive, they’re also stretched by long periods of separation, and by conflicting family loyalties and beliefs. When fathers have been in prison for more than 20 years their sons have grown into young men, strangers.

The history of the family becomes more and more significant as tiny fragments of information are gathered to add to the incomplete picture. We learn of the heroic stances of other members of the family: the grandfather who resisted the colonisation and destruction of the Italians; the young fighter Izzo a cousin who killed in the last battles of the revolution to unseat Gaddafi. His story was relayed on Facebook. Or the cousin, a judge, who leads a strike to demand judicial independence in the new Libya. And Hisham Matar’s own campaign to find the truth about his father.

The writing

Hisham Matar is also a novelist. I heard him talk about his novel In the Country of Men and was profoundly impressed by the way he spoke about his novel and its relationship to his own situation. This was at Ways with Words in the summer of 2012 and I was struck by the sparse attendance at his talk, which was so good, in contrast to the Radio 4 celebrity event that attracted a much larger crowd to the main hall at Dartington.

What struck me was his use and control of language.

There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.

This is the opening sentence of Anatomy of a Disappearance, which he told us came to him after a couple of years being blocked and allowed him to write. Here is another example of his control, describing how people used their houses differently since Gaddafi took power:

Light is no longer welcome in the houses. It is shut out, like other things that come from outdoors: dust, heat and bad news. (51)

There is control too in the account of Hisham Matar’s many conversations with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the dictator. The grotesque nature of his promises, sympathy and bargaining in these transactions is evident. But there is no rancour in the text. We can be happy that Saif is currently in prison and Hisham Matar is free to write.

And this is the description of Libya in 2012, in that brief period of hope called the Arab Spring. Hisham Matar is writing about Benghazi.

I had never been anywhere so burdened with memories yet so charged with possibilities for the future, positive and negative, and each just as potent and probable as the other. (140)

I read this with the avidity of a novel reader. Reading is important to understand the varieties of damage caused by oppression and violation of human rights. In his fiction as well as in this memoir Hisham Matar brings us face to face with our responsibilities to resist.

The Return: Fathers, sons and the land in between by Hisham Matar (2016) Penguin 280pp

The Return attracted several prizes including 2017 Pulitzer Prize for biography and memoir, Pen American Award, Slightly Fixed best first biography award and reaching the shortlist of several more prestigious awards.

Fiction by Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (2006) Viking Penguin

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006.

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar (2011) Viking Penguin

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Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen

I was browsing the shelves for anything as yet unread by Elizabeth Bowen and found not one but two old fashioned penguin copies of Friends and Relations. The novel was not known to me, but the writer is, and I have found her to be remarkable, whatever I have read of hers.

264 F&F penguin

The story

The novel opens with the wedding of Edward and Laurel. We are in the years after the Great War. This brilliant opening scene introduces the reader to all the characters, pegs them for their little foibles and faults. And it is entertaining and perceptive. Here is the bride and the father waiting for the ceremonies to begin.

Her clothes were all packed; she was buttoned into an old blazer of Janet’s and did not look like to-day’s bride. From half-past ten till noon she and Colonel Studdart, shut into the morning-room, played demon patience. Her life here was over, his at a standstill; there was nothing for them to do. (7)

This is typical of Elizabeth Bowen’s ability to present her characters through their actions.

Within weeks Janet (Laurel’s sister) marries Rodney. For a few days it seems as though the second wedding will not take place for there is an alarm. Edward’s mother, Lady Elfrida brought social opprobrium upon herself when she had an affair with Considine, and then did not marry him. Rodney is Considine’s nephew and heir. Edward refuses to meet the uncle. Although the marriage does go ahead, it is not before Janet quarrels with her brother-in-law, Edward.

‘But Edward, we really cannot quarrel. Please … Do think of what is convenient: we are relations for life. I mean, we shall stay with each other, shan’t we, at Christmas and everything? It would be impossible for Laurel and me to be divided. For as long as we live, I suppose about fifty years, we shall all always be meeting and talking over arrangements. At least, that is how we have been brought up. You must see what families are; it’s possible to be so ordinary; it’s possible not to say such a lot. …’ (46)

It seems that they are talking about his mother’s indiscretion, but this attitude of finding what is convenient, of being ordinary and not speaking of things is how they will live their lives, despite her love for him, and later his for her.

The second section describes a week in May, ten years later, when Edward and Laurel’s two children are staying with Janet and Rodney. There is a socially difficulty as Janet and Rodney live with Considine’s in his house. They decide to invite Lady Elfrida to join them, believing that after ten years Edward cannot still object and Lady Elfrida and Considine are now good friends. But Edward does object, and he arrives to remove the children. His action is the occasion for him and Janet to acknowledge their mutual love.

The third section is called Wednesday, and takes place the following week, when everything comes together. Janet admits to Edward that she engineered the meeting and marriage with Rodney to be more connected to him. Janet and Edward see the impossibility of being together more than as in-laws. They settle for being ordinary, for not saying such a lot. Briefly, others mistakenly think they have gone off together. As readers we see what the reaction would have been if the lovers had decided to be together in an unbearably difficult social situation.

The main theme

The question that dominates the novel is what to do about love that is passionate, but outside and a betrayal of marriage? Lady Elfrida became a social outcast through her affair with Considine, especially as she did not marry him. Elizabeth Bowen makes it clear that their love was genuine, but has now changed to affection. Her son Edward is considered sensitive as a result of his mother’s behaviour. But in adult life he realises that he loves his sister-in-law Janet. What should they do once they have acknowledged it? Elizabeth Bowen herself came to a different conclusion from Janet and Edward, in her own life. She drew on her affair in the novel The Heat of the Day.

264 F&R new cover

Theodora

Theodora is a great creation, a kind of wild child in the first section, and then a mould-breaking adult, one of the surplus women of the inter-war years. Like Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen was very good at children in her writing. The House in Paris revealed her expertise. Theodora is some kind of relation, and brazenly out of step with her parents.

The Thirdmans were shockingly out of it. They had brought their girl, Theodora, for whom at each introduction they joyously turned. But she was never beside them. (11)

Theodora meets the bridesmaids on the lawn playing clock golf.

Their four little pink satin shoes were green-stained. There would be trouble, Theodora noted with pleasure. She was fifteen and, except for the bridesmaids, the youngest present. Every allowance made for her unfortunate age, her appearance was not engaging. She was spectacled, large-boned and awkwardly anxious to make an impression. (11)

Theodora fails to make an impression on anyone at the wedding. Ten years later she lives with a school friend, frequently spends time at Considine’s house, and visits Laurel and Edward in London. She cannot fail to make an impression as an outspoken adult. She provides light relief in the novel, but also reveals what happens to those who don’t fit in society in the inter-war years.

Recommended

264 Elizabeth_BowenElizabeth Bowen is skilled at communicating a great deal in a short space. She is also able to show the drama of small events, moments in domestic time, which have resonances down the years.

Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen, published in 1931. My copy was published on that cheap brown wartime paper by Penguin in 1946. Price one shilling. 151pp

Related posts

Books Snob’s blog review of Friends and Relations, in which she is pleased to have become acquainted with Elizabeth Bowen.

I have reviewed the following on Bookword blog:

The Last September

Two Elizabeths, two first novels (At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen)

The Heat of the Day

The House in Paris

 

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More bookish things in the Cevennes

At the end of May I went walking in the Cevennes region of France. The area’s most famous literary connection is with Modestine, the donkey. The previous post looked at Robert Louis Stevenson and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Now I consider three other books connected with the area.

Le Rozier

  1. Village of Secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France by Caroline Moorehead

The Cevennes lies in the southern part of le massif central. Northeast of Robert Louis Stevenson’s route lies the large plateau Viverais-Lignon where the villages, farms and forests are frequently cut off in winter and require effort to reach at other times of year. It is high, remote and isolated. It also has clean, restorative air and, long before the Second World War, had been a place for the French to improve their health during the summer months, especially children.

257 VofS cover

During the time of Vichy government and the occupation of France hundreds, perhaps thousands of people fled from the German occupiers to the plateau. First it was the Spanish refugees from the Civil War in Spain; then the foreign Jewish families who had escaped to France and needed to hide from the occupying German forces when France was defeated; then it was the French Jewish families, who had been assured of the protection of the Vichy government and then betrayed; later on, the Service de Travail Obligatoire (STO) introduced national service for the French to work in Germany and many people went into hiding to avoid the STO; and the Maquis, the local resistance movement also found cover on the plateau. Most of these people survived the war.

La Causse Mejean

The book tells the reader what happened, but also asks the question, what was it about the people of the plateau that enabled them to successfully defy the demands of the occupiers and to shelter these fugatives?

The geography of the plateau made it excellent for hiding.

The bravery of individuals and the determination of the organisations that hid those in danger, especially the Jewish children, was another feature.

There was a history of Protestant resistance, stretching back to the bloody wars of religion in the 18th Century, described in some detail by Robert Louis Stevenson in his book of 1879. Some of the pastors were pacifists, all dedicated to assistance. Two sects, offshoots of Plymouth Brethren, were present on the plateau, austere and with an entrenched privacy and resistance to asking questions. Even some of the local police turned a blind eye to the hidden children.

It’s an important story, but was not an easy book to write, Caroline Moorehead tells us in an article Caroline Moorehead on Village of Secrets: ‘I received warnings’. The warnings came from a group who wished to preserve the story of the heroism of a single man, whereas she celebrates the efforts and commitment of the whole community. It was not a story of a single hero. There was no monopoly on goodness, she explains.

And as a footnote, Albert Camus spent two winters on the plateau, writing La Peste.

Village of Secrets: defying the Nazis in Vichy France. Caroline Moorehead (2014) published by Vintage. 374 pp. Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.

  1. Trespass by Rose Tremain

257 Trespass cover

This novel was shortlisted for Man Booker Prize in 2011. I read it when it was published and these comments are from my notes.

This was quite an easy read, but the story felt a little unresolved. It concerns disputed property in the south of France, and a vivid family past. A parallel story concerns a gay English woman who writes and gardens in the same area, whose brother wishes to buy a property in the area to recover his sense of self. Their stories collide badly, and little resolution is made, except by the perpetrator of the murder, who is not apprehended. This did not leave me with a sense of calm, a story ended. On the one hand satisfying revenge is had, on the other people have been plunged into grief and trauma as a result.

It’s quite a short novel, and told from a number of perspectives. Resentments, built up over long lives, are well portrayed, but it is hard to know whose story this is, and why one should care. Ultimately it feels like the rich middle class English causing rifts and damage in their new colonies.

Trespass by Rose Tremain, published by Penguin in 2011. 384pp.

Aver Amand

  1. Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne

257 Verne_-_Voyage_au_centre_de_la_Terre.djvu

And then there was Jules Verne, greeting us in the limestone caves of Aven Armand. The tour of the caves used the device of his novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth to introduce us to the fantastical stalagmites and stalactites. It was slightly dodgy as Jules Verne wrote his book before the caves were found. But the idea of great scientific discoveries being made in the 19th Century, the excitement at the new knowledge, especially about the age and development of the earth, was a point being made. Did you know that it takes a century for the stalagmites to grow 1 cm? The literary connection gave me an excuse to include a photo

257 Jules Verne

Relevant posts and websites

Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cevennes (June 2016) on this blog.

Trip Fiction for advice on fiction related to your journeys.

Reading Guide for Trespass by Rose Tremain.

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The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler (again)

Anne Tyler’s novel A Spool of Blue Thread was hotly tipped to win the Man Booker Prize 2015. In the event the panel chose A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. He is young and relatively unknown while Anne Tyler’s book is her 20th and (she says) her last. It would have been fitting to see her win the prestigious prize, especially as it’s always good to see women winning. But it is also good to see a newcomer’s talents being recognized and to enjoy the fuss over novels that the award generates.

And I would also say that A Spool of Blue Thread is not Anne Tyler’s very best novel. While I have gained huge pleasure from all her books for me it is The Accidental Tourist. Last month I reread it for one of my reading groups and remembered all over again its many delights.

208 Acc T cover

Here is my revised review, originally posted in April 2013.

The Story of The Accidental Tourist

Macon Leary and his wife Sarah are trying to come to terms with the random murder of their teenage son. The novel starts as they return early from a holiday at the beach to their home in Baltimore. Anne Tyler describes how each sits and what each wears. ‘They might have been returning from two entirely different trips,’ she says. Such observations are one of the delights of reading Anne Tyler.

Sarah leaves Macon who does not manage without her, despite devising all kinds of contraptions – like doing the washing in the shower – to make his life easier. After breaking his leg in a self-induced accident, he returns to his childhood home, where his sister and brothers also live.

Macon is rescued by Muriel, a dog trainer. Her life is chaotic, but she is open, generous, logical in her own way, and, as several people observe to Macon, unlikely. People will wonder about such an ill-matched couple, his ex-wife tells him.

He felt a mild stirring of interest; he saw now how such couples evolved. They were not, as he’d always supposed, the result of some ludicrous lack of perception, but had come together for reasons that the rest of the world would never guess.

As readers, we know that Muriel’s efforts, her persistence, her kindness are just what he needs, and by the end of the book, so does he. And in turn he will ground her.

Macon

Macon (pronounced May-con) is one of Anne Tyler’s ‘forlorn bunch’ as she calls her male protagonists. He is an antidote to the usual heroes of Great American Novels. We can’t help sympathising with the hapless Macon as he is assailed by grief, the departure of his wife, a broken leg, a badly behaved dog and a dog trainer.

Macon’s employment is as unsuitable as the rest of his life. He writes a series of guides for people forced to travel on business called Accidental Tourist in London, Paris, …

Macon hated travel. He careened through foreign territories on a desperate kind of blitz – squinching his eyes shut and holding his breath and hanging on for dear life, he sometimes imagined – and then settled back home with a sigh of relief to produce his chunky, passport-sized paperbacks.

I love the word ‘squinching’. This is pretty much his way of careening through life, the separation from his wife, the increasingly difficult behaviour of his dog, his ridiculous name and his inability to deal with his losses.

The Leary Family

Families are a constant theme in Anne Tyler’s novels because, she says, people are forced together in them and she wants to know ‘how they grate along’. That theme can run and run. Your family probably has some rituals, sayings and episodes that you don’t boast about.

The Leary family have some interesting patterns of behaviour; they get lost whenever they venture into the streets of Baltimore, they never answer the phone and their favourite food is baked potatoes. One of the things that needs fixing in the novel is the Leary family’s dependence on each other and the bizarre rituals they have developed to cope with the external world. The three brothers, including Macon, and their sister Rose, all get lost whenever the venture out into Baltimore. They get lost in every respect until their lives are smoothed by opening to other people, especially Muriel.

Perhaps we all have rituals like the Leary family. Here is a delightful detail about order in Rose’s kitchen.

Rose stood on a stepstool in front of a towering glass-fronted cupboard, accepting groceries that Charles and Porter handed up to her. “Now I need the n’s, anything starting with n,” she was saying.

“How about these noodles?” Porter asked. “N for noodles? P for pasta?”

E for elbow macaroni. You might have passed those up earlier, Porter.”

Anne Tyler

208 A TylerIn the very few interviews that she has agreed to, Anne Tyler asserts that she writes, not what she knows, but to see what it’s like to be inside someone else’s life. She asks the question, ‘what does it feel like to be this kind of someone?’ (Read Lisa Allardice’s Guardian interview and listen to Mark Lawson’s Radio 4 Front Row interview).

And she does it gently, wittily, wryly, in all her novels. She says that she has to like her characters, and even when they are behaving in absurd ways, the reader recognises something of themselves, their fears or foibles: perhaps you don’t alphabetise your kitchen stores, but people do organise stuff in their homes in very particular ways (see Bookword post on arranging books for example). Macon’s strategies for coping with the exigencies of travel are only a little more idiosyncratic than yours or mine.

Is she a women’s writer? The question seems to imply she’s a lightweight, and contains an accusation that she is sentimental, homely, homespun. It has been suggested that she is anti-men. Of course she has many male admirers, including John Updike. And it is true that her male characters, including Macon, are quirky. But they are not wimps, unpleasant, grasping or self-promoting. And Anne Tyler herself claims that growing up with a loving father and brothers and having had a good marriage, her experiences of men have been good. ‘Isn’t everybody quirky? If you look closely at anybody you’ll find impediments, women and men both.’

Another reason to reread The Accidental Tourist (1985) is that it seems to me to be an exception to the disappointment of film adaptations. Starring William Hurt and Geena Davis, this film captured Macon’s maladroitness as it is slowly smoothed out by Muriel’s openheartedness.

I will be sorry if she never writes another novel but happy to explore her oeuvre again. One of the things I enjoy about her novels is how her characters are engaged in managing the challenges of ordinary lives, and how she continually challenges stereotypes, especially of the adult American male.

Related posts

I reviewed A Spool of Blue Thread on Bookword in July 2015.

Natasha Hinde’s interview in July 2015 in the Huffington Post: ‘Completely Without Inspiration’

 

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler published in 1985 by Penguin Random House 355pp

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Nora Webster by Colm Toibin

I love to read a book that isn’t brash and that has something quiet to say. Nora Webster is such a read. The story moves steadily but without dramatic events, at the tempo of ordinary lives. The significant events are the daily interactions with neighbours and family, someone’s choice of words, the purchase of a recording, a short drive to the coast. This is the work of a writer who knows and understands the warp and weft of life.

195 Nora W coverThe story

The novel opens when Nora Webster has just been widowed and we follow her life over the next 3 years in Wexford, Ireland in the late 1960s as she moves through her grief.

Nora has four children: two young boys who live with her and two girls who are older and making their lives elsewhere. The death of Nora’s husband Maurice means she has to has to help her children with their grief as well as her own. She struggles to find what she wants from her life without her husband, and eventually without her four children as they grow up.

The novel shows us the important of small things as we see Nora almost knocked sideways by grief and the difficulties of raising the boys on her own. We enjoy her steely independence of spirit as well as the consistent if quiet support of her family. Her progress is gradual and there are set-backs. She is unable to prevent damage to her young boys and in some ways contributes to it for she does not invite conversation with those around her about the difficult things in life.

Driven by her circumstances to reconstruct her life she reluctantly embraces a return to work, new friendships, new projects, and repairs her connections with her family. She stands up for her sons in a manner that demonstrates her determination and her ability to take on the educational establishment in 1970s Wexford. By the quiet close of the novel you have come to realise that Nora was diminished in some respects by her marriage. Her spirit along with the passage of time and the needs of her sons has brought her to a new way of being Nora.

Nora

In Nora Colm Toibin has succeeded in creating an engaging character. She goes a long way not to offend her community, but increasingly undertakes small acts of resistance. We are introduced to her in this way.

‘You must be fed up of them. Will they never stop coming?’ Tom O’Connor, her neighbour, stood at his front door and looked at her waiting for a response.

‘I know,’ she said.

‘Just don’t answer the door. That’s what I’d do.’

Nora closed the garden gate.

‘They mean well. People mean well,’ she said.

‘Night after night,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how you put up with it.’

She wondered if she could go back into the house without having to answer him again. He was using a new tone with her, a tone he would never have tried before. He was speaking as though he had some authority over her.

‘People mean well,’ she said again, but saying it this time made her feel sad, made her bite her lip to keep the tears back. When she caught Tom O’Connor’s eye, she knew that she must have appeared put down, defeated. She went into the house. (1)

From this opening paragraph we already understand a great deal about Nora’s character and that something has changed in her life that allows a man to shift his behaviour towards her. It establishes that the novel will deal with the changes she faces and how she navigates them and how she responds to people around her. Acutely conscious of her own discomfort, but also intensely private about her reactions, she is neither put down nor defeated.

In addition we can catch the Irish lilt, the intrusiveness of Tom O’Connor, and Nora’s apparent passivity. And the simple sentence ‘Nora closed the garden gate’ adds a small beat as we contemplate the scene, an everyday exchange between neighbours. The resistance to Tom O’Connor is slight, but such acts grow to include a misguided haircut and taking up singing.

Other things I liked

The quiet style of the writing matches Nora’s character. It means that the novel is compelling without it being a page-turner. Here is an example: Nora’s reflections on the different pace at which she and her sons are coming to terms with Maurice’s death.

She pictured the house, how strangely filled with absence it must be. She was aware now that the changes in their lives had come to seem normal to them. They did not have her sense of watching every scene, every moment for signs of what was missing, or what might have been. The death of their father had entered into a part of them that, as far as she could see, they were not aware of. They could not see how uneasy they were, and maybe no one but she could see it, yet it was something that would not leave them now, she thought, would not leave them for years. (116)

While I wished that Nora would accept the support and help offered, her struggle with grief, with the enforced changes to her life, with making her own way is a very affirming story.

I enjoyed the themes of music in Nora’s life and photography in her son’s. Both come to these arts knowing little about them and with some perseverance both find their feet and new connections with others through their interest.

The novel has been well received: Nora Webster won the 2015 Hawthornden Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2014 and the 2015 Folio Prize.

There was an excellent review by Jennifer Egan in the New York Times in October 2014.

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin (2014), published by Penguin 311pp

 

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