Review: The Great Swindle – Pierre Lemaitre

great swindleI read a large number of books during 2015 and was delighted to end my reading year with The Great Swindle, a highly impressive and entertaining novel from French writer Pierre Lemaitre which although recently published has drawn comparison with Balzac, Zola and Hugo – and rightly so in my opinion.

This superb novel has a vast scale and contains many complex and colourful characters and a very ingenious series of plots and subplots which kept me entertained throughout the book’s 464 pages. Opening at the end of the First World War, we meet the two young soldiers, Albert and Édouard,  on their final battle field just before the armistice is agreed. Both young men are devastated by the horrific events of the last few days of the war and are demobbed to a civilian life which no longer has any place for them, Édouard with terrible injuries and Albert with what today would be called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Pierre Lemaitre is under no illusions about the glories of war or the competence of the army. We know of course about the battle-fields of Verdun and other locations, but Lemaitre is a master at capturing the impact of these cataclysmic events on individual soldiers. Even demobilisation is a chaotic experience revealing the breakdown of military organisation once a war is finished and it seems to be a miracle that the men eventually return to Paris. However, life in the capital turns out to be extremely challenging for both men and after weeks of poverty and hardship, the heavily disfigured Édouard comes up with a scheme from their jointly rented room to make vast amounts of money by an ambitious plan of deception.

It would be so easy to spoil this book for readers by describing what happens next, so I will confine myself to attempting to give a flavour of this great novel.

Albert, the reluctant foot soldier has few qualities to help him get on in the world. Destined for low-paid work as a sandwich board carrier, he has a sense of extreme loyalty to his seriously disfigured friend Édouard who helped him so much on the battlefield. He cares for Édouard in every way he can, even entering the criminal underworld to procure supplies of morphine to dull Édouard’s pain. Édouard is an altogether more resourceful figure, the son of wealthy banker and also a highly talented artist. His frustration at the long period of agonising recovery feeds into his lively mind and he draws out complex plans for a scheme to gather phenomenal riches by highly illegal and immoral means. Albert on the other hand is an honest man who finds himself gradually being drawn into Édourd’s scheme despite his deep misgivings. But his hunt through the underworld for ever-increasing supplies of morphine have broken the bounds of his simple morality and have opened him up to a descent into greater acts of criminality.

The devastation of the battle-field

The devastation of the battle-field

Much of the novel concerns the means whereby war-graves were constructed for the many fallen soldiers. After the war there was a great desire to honour the fallen and apart from the new cemeteries which needed to be constructed, each town and village wanted a war memorial of its own. What scope for ambitious businessmen to win huge contracts for exhuming the dead from the battlefields and re-burying them in proper cemeteries. Yet also how much scope for money-making short-cuts, every type of scam and also a level of general incompetence which will surprise no-one who has every worked on projects like this.

The author, Pierre Lemaitre must have put vast amount of work into this book for the level of detail on this work is highly impressive. Yet, this is not a litany of cold facts, for he manages to suffuse the whole process with a touch of humour which keeps the reader able to skim through this tale of misplaced corpses, bodies crammed into too-small coffins, bones misplaced and mixed up with different owners, even falling prey to the occasional wandering hound.

Pierre_Lemaitre_—_Salon_du_livre_de_Paris_-_23_mars_2014_recadrée

Pierre Lemaitre

Into this situation arrives a government inspector, Joseph Merlin, an old and cantankerous bureaucrat who refuses to be fobbed off by small-time officials and scheming contractors. Merlin takes his work very seriously and produces reports on the work which dismay his superiors who simply want to get the work over and done with. Alas, the scale of the various frauds is so great that covering it up ceases to be an option and ministers and senior official find themselves unable to stem the flow of Merlin’s shocking reports which soon threaten their own reputation and careers in public service.

By this time we have a vast array of characters before us, all beautifully drawn, from the irascible and villanous Henri d’Aulney Pradelle who tries to make his fortune from this business, to 11-year-old girl Louise, the mens’ landlady’s daughter who works with Édouard to bring his scheme to completion. We meet bankers, workmen, servant-girls, mistresses, and chancers of every description, all of whom are drawn with great detail and almost affection by this highly skilled writer. By the time I finished the book, many of them lived on for a few days in my mind making me wish I was just starting the book rather than adding it to my pile of completed reads.

It always seems to be a good thing when an author credits those books and writers who have influenced him. Pierre Lemaitre goes out of his way to acknowledge his debt to a whole pantheon of writers,

The Great Swindle owes much to the novels of the immediate post-war period, those of Henri Barbusse, Maurice Genevoix, Jules Romain and Gabriel Chevallier . . . throughout the book, I have borrowed here and there from various writers: Émile Ajar, Louis Aragon, Gérald Aubert, Michel Audiard, Homer, Honoré de Balzac, Ingmar Bergman, Georges Bernanos, Georges Brassens, Stephen Crane, Jean-Louis Curtis, Denis Diderot, Jean-Louis Ézine, Gabriel García Marquez, Victor Hugo, Kazuo Ishiguro, Carson McCullers, Jules Michelet, Antonio Muñoz Molina, Antoine-François Prévost, Marcel Proust, Patrick Rambaud, La Rochefoucauld and one or two others. I hope they will consider my borrowing a homage.

While no doubt these writers helped to form Lemaitre’s writing, I have no doubt that he will in due course form part of someone else’s list of people worth crediting with advancing the French novel.

Other reviews of The Great Swindle:

Edward Wilson in The Independent
Sarah Lyall in The New York Times

The Great Swindle was translated by Frank Wynne.

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Review: The Wind-up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

wind-up birdIt seems a long time since I last read anything by Haruki Murakami and out of interest, I looked him up in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to find that Peter Boxall had included The Wind-up Bird Chronicle as one of two selections, the other being IQ84.  As I started to read the book I realised that the first few chapters were familiar to me, but I soon found myself on new territory – evidently I began this book back in the 1990’s then gave up on it.  Never mind, I was determined to reach the end this time and found that I was able to get through its 624 pages in about a week.

I found that reading the book in just a week was not at all easy.  I read it on a Kindle and aimed to get through about 15% of the book each day (the Kindle’s reading progress counter can be set to tell you percentage progress).  With a book this long it seems to take a lot of page-turns to increase the counter by 1%!  I found that I was having to pick the book up throughout the day, even when I would normally be doing other things. However, this gave a sort of immersive reading experience (most avid readers will know what I’m talking about) so much so that I found my thoughts echoing Murakami’s strange story. If the purpose of reading is to get you inside the head of someone else, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle certainly achieves it.

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Review: Vulgar Things – Lee Rourke

vulgar thingsI came across Vulgar Things by Lee Rourke on Max Cairnduff”s website Pechorin’s Journal and it sounded interesting, especially for someone like me who enjoys the quirky, off-beat read from time to time.  It turned out to be an intriguing book with much food for thought; a book-group would find plenty of opportunities to explore the many byways to the plot which Lee Rourke takes them down.

Jon Michaels, loses his job in publishing having apparently been stitched-up by his two female bosses (by the end of the book we may be feeling they had a few good reasons to get rid of him!).  He returns home drunk to receive a phone call from his brother to tell him that his estranged Uncle Rey has committed suicide and that Jon has to go down to Canvey Island to sort out the remnants of his uncle’s sad and lonely life. With Jon’s depressing thought-stream echoing through our heads we travel down to the Essex coast with him, our expectations of a successful mission dwindling with every mile of the train journey of the way.

I normally dislike the use of the present tense/first person in a whole novel, but I have to admit that it works well in Vulgar Things.  It allows us to really get inside Jon’s head, even though this is not always a great place to be.  His recent divorce and the loss of his job, together with the unenviable task ahead have left Jon in an angry and miserable mood. We start off with a degree of sympathy for Jon and it’s not long before we realise that he is vulnerable to patterns of self-destructive and obsessive thinking which will lead him into quite a bit of trouble in the next few days.

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Review: All For Nothing – Walter Kempowski

all for nothingIn All For Nothing we travel to the German province of East Prussia in the closing days of the Second World War. To understand the context in which this book is set, we need to understand a little history. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 created East Prussia as a German Enclave surrounded by Poland to the east, west and south and by the Baltic Sea to the north.   With the advance of Nazi Germany into Poland, the Polish land between East Prussia and Germany was taken by the German Army and East Prussia was reunited with the Greater Germanic Reich (see Wikipedia). East Prussia was not very affected by the War once the Reich was established but as the Russians advanced, the situation changed with great rapidity. The Russians swept into the west of East Prussia, once more cutting the province off from Germany. The German government was slow to react but in the winter of 1944/45, the population realised that they needed to head west or be massacred by the invading Russians.

Walter Kempowski has created a powerfully affecting novel about the impact of the times on the aristocratic von Globig family, who live in a huge house called the The Georgenhof.   The first half of the book provides a fascinating picture of life in rural East Prussia. The family consists of the remote and self-indulgent Katharina whose husband Eberhard is a Wehrmacht officer stationed in Italy. The household is largely run by “Auntie”, an elderly relative who presides over two Ukrainian maids and a Polish handy-man. Twelve-year-old Peter has the run of the large house and grounds and is tutored by retired teacher Dr Wagner who comes out every day to provide tuition in science, maths and the classics.

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Review: Number 11 – Jonathan Coe

coe number 11Number 11 is Jonathan Coe’s sequel to his prize-winning 1994 novel, What a Carve Up, which was serialised on BBC radio.  Coe’s novel, The Rotters Club was also serialised on BBC2 television in 2005.   Wikipedia notes that What a Carve Up  “is considered an example of a post-modern novel, employing multiple narrative styles, different perspectives, movement between first- and third-person narrative voices and a highly fragmented timeline”.  As one might expect, Number 11, has exactly the same qualities, and while a superficial reading may find the book to be disjointed, erratic in style and perhaps in need of a thorough edit and tidy-up, it makes perfect sense in the context of its fore-runner.

The only problem with the book is that while it will delight Jonathan Coe fans (I am one), without a knowledge of the intentions of the author (and his previous work) it may be a little bewildering.   Some readers may find themselves thinking that while the book is amusing, it may not be worth the bother.

The book opens with a section called The Black Tower.  An eight year old girl Rachel and her older brother Nicholas are wandering around the Yorkshire town of Beverley on a winter’s day.  They are visiting their grand-parents while their mother and father are having a weekend away trying to get their marriage back-together.  The go into Beverley Minster as the light is failing, and Nicholas plays a terrible trick on his sister leaving her terrified and upset.

We then move forward a number of years where we find Rachel again terrified out of her skin and writing;

I never would have imagined that, in the very midst of a city as big as this, there could be a house enfolded in such silence. For weeks, of course, I’ve been having to put up with the sound of the men working outside, underground, digging, digging, digging. But that has almost finished now, and at night, after they have gone home, the silence descends. And that’s when my imagination takes over (it is only my imagination, I have to cling to that thought), and in the darkness and the silence, I’m starting to think that I can hear things: other noises – – –  I’ve not tried to write anything serious since my first year at Oxford, even though Laura, just before she left, told me that I should carry on with my writing, that she liked it, that she thought I had talent. Which meant so much, coming from her. It meant everything. Laura told me, as well, that it was very important to be organized when you write. That you should start at the beginning and tell everything in sequence.

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Review: Let Me be Frank with You – Richard Ford

let me be frank with youA new book from a writer as renowned as Richard Ford (PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) is always welcome particularly when the main character is Frank Bascombe, sports-writer and later estate agent (“realtor” in the USA) – surely one of the most enduring characters in American fiction.

Richard Ford led Frank on to the scene in 1986 in his novel The Sportswriter in which we met Frank as he goes through an existential crisis following the death of his son.  In 1995 we could read Independence Day in which we join Frank during a holiday weekend as he visits his ex-wife, his troubled son and his current lover.  Frank returned to our attention in 2006 in The Lay of the Land, in the middle of what he calls the “Permanent Period”, that stage of life where most things that can go wrong have already gone wrong.

Then in 2014 Richard Ford published what is probably the final Bascombe novel, Let Me be Frank with You.  This is really four episodes, almost little novellas in themselves, in which Frank shares incidents which happen in the run-up to Christmas 2012 and finds whatever meaning he can from them.  It is fair to say that this is Richard Ford’s meditation on end-of-life issues and ultimately death itself.  As someone approaching the same age to Frank Bascombe, this book spoke to me over and over again and apart from the quotations in the review below, I have included some others on a separate page here for anyone who may be interested.  Do take a look at them if you have time – there are some gems there.

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Review: F – Daniel Kehlmann

9781848667341Having previously enjoyed Daniel Kehlmann’s book Measuring The World, I was pleased to receive his new novel  “F”.  I found it to be a complex piece of work; on one level the story of three brothers in their journey from childhood to adult life, and on another level, a philosophical exploration of the meaning of existence and our quest for authenticity. At the heart of the novel is the relationship with a father with his sons; identical twins Eric and Ivan and a third son Martin who has a different mother. However, this is no family saga, for at its heart are some disturbing questions about human motivation.

The book opens with Arthur Friedland, an unpublished writer, taking his three sons to see a stage hypnotist at a local theatre. The show begins with adults being called out of the audience onto the stage where they suffer the usual indignities at the hands of the hypnotist. But soon, Arthur’s son Ivan is called up.  Despite his attempts to resist the commands of the hypnotist (lift your foot! forget your name!) he finds himself obeying the hypnotist’s every word, feeling consciously helpless to resist. When Arthur himself is called up the hypnotist is unable to affect him in any way, a hint perhaps of the distance Arthur keeps from everyone he becomes involved with.  After the show, Arthur drives his sons home and then walks out his son’s and their mother’s lives, not to return until years later.

The book moves forward a number of years and we read of the three boys as they begin to enter adult life. The focus shifts to Martin who has become a Catholic priest. All his life, Martin has been obsessed with the Rubik’s Cube puzzle which his father gave him years before and has gone so far as to enter and win various competitions.  Martin is also seriously overweight and seems unable to resist buying chocolate bars, consuming two at a time, an annoyance for the people who come to confess their sins and have to endure not only the clicking of the Cube but also munching sounds as they tell Martin about their promiscuous lives. Despite Martin’s skill at the Cube, he seems to be unable to gain the experience of God which would make his priestly calling real, but soldiers on with his calling, not realising that his perseverance is in fact the faith he is seeking.

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