The Girl at the Lion d’Or, by Sebastian Faulks

This 1989 work is a perfect little novel. The reader is drawn into the story of two fine people, and wonders what will happen to them. The novel does nothing else; it simply explores their story and probes their desire for human contact. While they belong to different social levels, their affair is not a metaphor of a clash between those levels. Nor, with one person being married, is there a reference to the morality of their situation.   It is simply the story of Anne, the servant girl at the Lion d’Or inn, and Charles Hartmann, a married, more wealthy bar patron at the inn. They meet casually and are slowly drawn to one another. She is alone in a world that has abandoned her, and he is married to a wife he no longer loves. Each seems to provide what the other needs, and they take advantage of a burgeoning friendship to fill the emptiness in their lives.

The reader wonders, given the couple and their situation, how this affair could possibly arrive at a romantic conclusion. One even wonders—remember the perfection—if this could be a modern version of Madame Bovary; that is, whether or not both Anne and Hartmann will survive their affair.

Indeed, it is clear from one late scene that Faulks himself considered the impact of the Flaubert novel. In that scene, one character picks up a knife, and the reader senses that person’s world about to end. What I think this scene is is a young novelist’s salute to Flaubert.

At the end, however, he resorts to neither romanticism nor tragedy, as he resolves with empathy the outcome of this ”impossible” affair.

The background is just substantial enough to highlight the difficulties that their affair represents. It is not the society that each belongs to that is in conflict, but the separate needs of this couple from contrasting backgrounds. That background is the 1930s in a France weakened by the world-wide depression, and a France that looks nervously on the threat from Hitler’s Germany.

In the background is also the terrible toll that World War I took on the manhood of France. And this is made tangible by the story of Anne’s father, who refused an officer’s order for a futile charge of the German lines. Anne has long kept secret her father’s fate, fearing that knowledge of it would create scandal and destroy her own hopes for the future. But as finally she reveals her secret to Hartmann, she becomes more human—and we realize the need she has for human commitment, as well as the need he has for a deep emotional connection to another human being.

Faulks probes just deeply enough in the psychology of Anne and Hartman to make their affair convincing. And despite the “impossibility” of their affair, he does make the resolution effective, as he explores the internal psychology that brought them together and now may or may not separate them. In one case it is the threat of abandonment, and in another it is a matter of conscience.

And whatever the resolution, the reader feels that both have benefitted from their affair. Both have profited from the kind of deep human contact that they had previously denied themselves. And both come to a better understanding of themselves as a result.

And yet the peripheral characters also have substance. We see the inn owner in a different, less dominant light, as well has the inn’s brutal manager in a softer light, at prayer. There is also the incompetent contractor Roussel, and the predator Mattlin who takes advantage of young women. And most of all, there is Hartmann’s wife, the patient Christine, a good but dull woman, who sees she is losing her husband and realizes she can only wait for the outcome. Her strategy is to rely on her husband’s conscience. She becomes a sympathetic character, despite our primary concern for the fate of the two lovers.

Perhaps the simplicity of this work is typical of an early novel, as Faulks focuses on his two main characters, particularly on Anne. Of note is that this is the first of three novels that Faulks set in modern France, three novels built around the emotional lives of three young women of need. The other two works, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray, are superior because they are conceived on a grander scale, particularly with their military environment. And their heroines face a far greater challenge than their search for love.

If this had been my first Faulks novel, it would have piqued my interest, but nothing more. Since it was not, it reveals to me the foundation of his later and more powerful work. (August, 2013)

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

This 2005 novel is remarkable. But, half-way into it, I was puzzled by the book’s purpose. I was prepared to experience different stories at various time levels, but was not prepared to experience its various genre styles. At one point, I wondered if these different writing styles merely reflected the author showing off.

The story begins with Adam Ewing recording a sea adventure from the 19th century. Then it moves to an introspective study of a composer and his innocent student, Robert Frobisher, suggesting a similar account about a young man and Frederic Delius. Next, we move to a somewhat sinister tale of a reporter, Luisa Rey, who is tracking down a scientist fleeing a powerful energy company, which resorts to violence when the scientist claims its new atomic plant is unsafe. The fourth tale introduces Timothy Cavendish, a publisher who ends up fleeing London, only to find himself locked up as crazy in a rest home.

It is with the fifth tale, however, that Mitchell really suggests showing off. Set up as an interview with Somi-451, an android type, this is a science fiction tale set in a world the reader finds difficult to grasp as it begins underground in a controlled society, a society from which the android heroine attempts to escape to become a human. An entirely new vocabulary (and references) are introduced for the first time.

A new vocabulary continues in the sixth tale, set in a Hawaii of the distant future after a world calamity, for here the narrator uses a blend of slang and a Western cowboy accent to tell of a violent war between two tribes, plus a mysterious woman who may be ready to help the narrator’s side. This is the only tale which is told completely in one take. After one gets past the idiomatic narrative, however, it ends with an exciting attempt to escape across the Big Island to safety.

The other five tales have stopped abruptly, and now they resume, each reaching an exiting climax. As the Times review notes, the narrative sequence is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, which underlines the deliberate structure of this work.

We return to Somni-451’s search to be human and the adventurous finish— except hers turns out to be a shaggy dog tale, as the author pulls the run from under our feet. Next to reappear is publisher Cavendish, whose fast-paced adventure rises to a climax with his escape from the home, except it then winds down gently.

By now the reader is wondering where Mitchell is going with these tales with the suggestion of a link between them. One link, a comet-shaped birthmark, suggests reincarnation. Another link occurs when, somehow, a book, a film, or letters fortuitously appear that refer back to a previous tale and enable the characters (and the author) to connect the various stories.

The most exciting return is to Luisa Rey, and the reader wonders what has happened to her after she has been run off the road and presumably killed. This return to Luisa Ray demonstrates how well Mitchell can write a clever suspense novel if he wishes. Luisa’s adventures keep moving as she escapes peril after peril, with surprising deaths hindering her along the way. Until, as in most mysteries, the corporate skullduggery is revealed and justice is served. Except, before we leave her Luisa receives a mysterious package with letters Frobisher wrote back in 1931 during his life with the composer.

These letters reveal Frobisher’s frustration both in love and in composing. His tale also reaches a definite, unexpected conclusion, as he culminates his short career with the Cloud Atlas Sextet. Except…he himself has discovered an old book in his room, propping up a bed leg. The book contains the second half of the Adam Ewing tale that began this novel.

Ewing’s tale returns us to his harrowing adventure on the high seas and a threat to his life. It also climaxes with an unexpected surprise, before offering a 19th century conclusion that says life is a struggle, often against evil, but that men must dedicate themselves to doing good and enjoying the fruits of that effort.

So what is Mitchell trying to achieve here? It appears to be a summary of human experience. Through six tales of adventure, he ranges from the 1800s to an unknown distant future. And in each adventure, his heroes and heroines confront evil, sometimes triumphing, sometimes not. Which, of course, is the human experience.

At the same time, Mitchell also decided to challenge himself. He will use different writing styles to relate different stories with different outcomes. The artist in him also suggests those links between the stories—either a comet tattoo, or the letters, manuscript, or film that advances the narrative to the succeeding tale. Except, I think that these links are decoration, an author’s maneuver to justify his six tales being brought together. It has nothing to do with the novel’s meaning.

What makes this book work is its cleverness: its fascinating adventures, its frequent surprises, its believable characters in every era, its shifting styles, its solid reality both in the past and in its world of fantasy. One review sums it up: “Cloud Atlas is a narrative about the act of narration, the ability of story telling to shape our sense of history, civilization, and selfhood.” Or another: “It knits together science fiction, political thriller and historical pastiche with musical virtuosity and linguistic exuberance.”

The one area that did not persuade me was the suggestion of a kind of simultaneousness to these stories, a suggestion that they exist outside of time and will repeat over and over. This is most obvious in a scene in which a bomb blows up an airplane, and a suggestion that the characters will return and meet again. This thought does blend with the idea of six separate time frames joined together in one book. But surely it is much less effective in raising a philosophical point than it is in being a technique to join these stories. Indeed. Mitchell seems aware of this, as publisher Frobisher rejects the mere idea of reincarnation in a manuscript about Luisa Rey

To sum up, I felt it was unnecessary to link these tales through letters, manuscripts, and film. The work does not need this. It is the range of the tales and their similarities that justify bringing them together. One similarity, for example, comes from each character striving against all odds to reach a goal, mostly succeeding, sometimes not. Still another is the narrator always trying to escape pursuers to achieve this. Finally, there is also a similarity, paradoxically, in each tale being related in a different literary style.

And yet the imagination behind this work is truly impressive. Indeed, while Mitchell had to receive pleasure in answering the challenge behind his structure, I cannot help but think that he also sought, through the narrative within each tale, to create maximum pleasure for his readers.

Is there another book like this one? Can there be? It would certainly seem that only this author could top this book. Which makes me truly interested in his future works, even as I suspect that the literary risk that he takes will not always work. Yet I cannot help but salute him for trying. (August, 2013)

Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh

How witty and tongue-in-cheek can one get? This is a delightful novel written in 1938. It is a satire on the field of journalism, conveyed through the experiences of William Boot, a naive nature writer with no ambition who is hired in error as a foreign correspondent by the Daily Beast (now I know what inspired Tina Brown) and then sent to the fictional east African country of Ishmaelia.

The confusion begins when William Boot is contacted instead of fiction writer John Boot by the foreign editor, Salter, and the managing editor, both incomptents who are beholden to their authoritarian publisher, Lord Copper. The confusion lasts until the very end, when John is rewarded instead of William and Uncle Theodore is accepted to replace William.

But not only are the Beast people incompetent, so are the competing papers and fellow foreign correspondents that William meets in Ishmaelia. These correspondents are easily road-blocked and then sent on wild-goose chases by the local government of Ishmaelia, whose own actions are arbitrary and incompetent. Waugh, of course, is having fun with all of these people—with London society which fumbles it influences, with the newspaper editors out to please their boss, with the gullible foreign correspondents, and with the doctrinaire Ishmaelia government, a country run by one family, the Jacksons.

Some today will look back at the description of the men who run this country, and accuse Waugh of racism. Actually, however, he is having the same fun with these incompetent blacks as he is with London society and the journalistic profession. Such satire in those days, the thirties, was acceptable; but we look at such matters differently today.

The bitterest comment on the press is when both the bosses and the correspondents think that nothing is happening in Ishmaelia, so they had better come up with something to justify their time there. William, however, is too naive to understand this, and has to be taught by friendly companions both the hidden political life in that country and the meaning of the cables that he is receiving from his London bosses. Until the Scoop of the title—the scoop of what is really happening in Ishmaelia—has to be explained to him by others. A great example of his incompetence is when he meets the British ambassador and fails to inform him of what he has just learned about the plot against the Ishmaelia government—and fails to get his own resulting scoop in return.

This is Waugh at his finest, as he looks down on all these people, turning them into incompetent fools. It is perhaps characteristic of this author, who will later be revealed to be secure in his conservative faith, that here he writes with the smug attitude of a self-satisfied member of society. Unlike Greene.

Which may help to explain why Greene used his faith as the core of his early novels, because he had doubts about it; and these doubts provided the (internal) conflict that is at the heart of literature. Whereas, since Waugh had no doubts about his faith, he turned to society for his subject matter. And so, where Greene is deeply involved with his characters, Waugh is quite aloof.

The greatest fun with this novel is at the beginning, when the confusion sends the unprepared William to Africa, and at the end, when the Beast tries to reward him for his success. My favorite scene, in fact, is at the end, when Salter travels to rural England to William’s home in order to persuade him to continue working for the Beast and to attend Lord Copper’s banquet in his honor. His hike from the railroad station, his arrival unkempt (the family thinks he is drunk), and his meeting of this eccentric family—all this is delightful, Waugh’s devastating portrait of rural English society.

William’s success abroad is, of course, none of his doing. The result is a lot of byways in the early portion of his travels in Ishmaelia; and it slows the novel until the revolutionary activity is revealed. In the meantime, we are introduced to Katchen, a Polish girl without a country who is married (sort of) to a German who has disappeared into the interior of Ishmaelia.

Katchen is the “love” interest for William, who thinks he loves her but is not really interested in love. Neither is she, of course, except to get the Beast’s money she can finagle through William. Interest picks up when her husband returns, and they escape uproariously in a canoe William gives them. Her presence works, however, because her husband is involved in the search for minerals that interests both the Germans and the Russians and motivates the basic story, their attempts to take over the government of Ishmaelia.

And then there is the mysterious “Baldwin,” who travels incognito with William on his way to Africa, is helped by William, and then parachutes into Ishmaelia to save the day for the government—and William. He also provides an opportunity for Waugh, through exaggeration, to needle the Soviets.

Waugh spent time in Africa covering the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, and this novel is said to be inspired by that experience. Further speculation relates many of these fictional characters to real journalists, from Lord Beaverbrook (Lord Copper) to John Gunther (Jakes).

Waugh wraps up the fate of his various characters in the final two pages. It is clever and somewhat arbitrary, but it works, not least because it is in keeping with the aloof style of the rest of the novel.

To sum up, this is marvelous Waugh—to be appreciated especially by journalists, who are the victims of his satire. But he spreads the satire all around: to politicians, to high society, to publishers, to empire builders, to dictators, even to the Communists. The work is both witty and funny, witty in style, funny in subject matter. And most of all, its characters act believably even as they act deviously or stupidly. The naïve William is truly three-dimensional. The remaining characters are not, but they are alive on these pages because they are so incompetent. (June, 2013)