Tag Archives: Rose Tremain

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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Filed under Books, Reading, Travel with Books, Travelling with books

Music in Novels

I am passionate about both books and music. It’s hard to find music (classical) in novels, partly because it not easy to communicate what music does in words. Here are five novelists who have used music in different ways.

String Quartet by Buyerlerdeqalardim  via Wikimedia Commons

String Quartet by Buyerlerdeqalardim via Wikimedia Commons

E.M. Forster A Room With A View and Howard’s End

126 Howards EndEM Forster knew his Beethoven and in A Room With A View Lucy crashes through a Beethoven piano sonata revealing her romantic but unformed sensibilities. I’ve done that too! Lucy’s playing style provokes this prophetic observation by Mr Beebe:

‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting – both for us and for her.’ (36)

Beethoven is there again in Howard’s End. Helen attends a concert at the Queen’s Hall.

It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it. Whether you are like Mrs Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come; or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee; or like their cousin, Fraulein Mosebach, who remembers all the time that Beethoven is ‘echt Deutsch’; or like Fraulein Mosebach’s young man, who can remember nothing but Fraulein Mosebach: in any case, the passion of your life becomes more vivid, and you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at two shillings. (p45)

There is gentle humour in this passage as well as skill. The sentence that begins ‘Whether you are like Mrs Munt …’ is very long, has great rhythm, near-repetitions and at the same time takes us into the characters of several people through their responses to the music. Margaret’s response is contrasted to Helen’s who sees heroes and shipwrecks. When I was much younger I used to listen to music as Helen does. Forster is saying something about Helen’s naivety. In the Adagio she hears goblins and a trio of elephants, and then comes the final movement. We are following Helen’s perspective now:

Beethoven chose to make all right in the end. He built the ramparts up. He blew with his mouth for a second time, and again the goblins were scattered. He brought back the guts of splendour, the heroism, the youth, the magnificence of life and death, and, amid vast roarings of a superhuman joy, he led his Fifth Symphony to it conclusion. But the goblins were there. They could return. He had said so bravely, and that is why one can trust Beethoven when he says other things. (p47)

A theme of the novel is the contrast between Margaret’s down-to-earth realism, and Helen’s more emotional impulses.

Rose Tremain Music & Silence

126 Music SilenceThis is a historical novel, set in the Danish Court of King Christian IV in the 17th century. Peter Claire is a lutenist employed in the king’s small orchestra, who must endure the most bizarre and harsh conditions, playing in a cellar amongst wine and chickens. It is some time since I read this novel but I clearly remember that the king believed that the function of music was to bolster a sense of order. I am tempted to reread it now I have picked it up again.

Vikram Seth An Equal Music

126 Equal MusThis novel tries to capture what is like to make music, in this case in a string quartet. At its heart is a love story, boy violinist meets girl pianist. We learn a great deal about rehearsing and performing in the quartet. I have the CD that complements the novel, containing the pieces to which it refers. What does it mean if the sound track is available alongside the novel? That the words cannot do the work of the music?

Reviews concluded that it is a flawed but interesting novel. See for example the review by Nicholas Christopher in the New York Times.

A full house, seen from the rear of the stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937 via Wikimedia Commons

A full house, seen from the rear of the stage, at the Metropolitan Opera House for a concert by pianist Josef Hofmann, November 28, 1937 via Wikimedia Commons

Eva Hoffman Illuminations: a novel

The story, both vivid and frightening, follows a concert pianist, Isabel, who is very passionate and focused on her art and the meaning she makes from the nineteenth century canon, especially Schubert. On tour in Europe she meet Anzor, who is a mysterious Chechnyan. He is passionate too, but about the damage to the codes of conduct and honour of his people. The story turns violent. Isabel observes that we need to pay attention to the ‘unfinished provisional prose of life’, not cut ourselves off in music (however beautiful) or in violent nationalism. This novel questions the meaning of the creation of beauty and the forces of violence and passion.

Steven Galloway The Cellist of Sarajevo

126 CellistThe cellist was a real person, Vedran Smailovic who played Albinoni’s Adagio for 22 days in honour of each of the victims killed on 27th May 1992 by a bomb at a bread queue during the siege of Sarajevo. The Adagio is a poignant piece of music, even if it is almost certainly not written by Albinoni. The novel The Cellist of Sarajevo is not about either the music or the cellist. The music stands for humanity in a dehumanised situation, crystallised by the cellist’s courageous act. Asserting humanity in the face of the destruction and moral decline of war is the theme of this novel.

While music is not a common theme in fiction, fiction certainly appears in music, notably in opera. The novels of Walter Scott are a frequent a source, and Dumas’s La Dame aux Camelias was the inspiration for Verdi’s La Traviata, to notice just two examples.

Do fiction and music mix well? What do you think?


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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews