09-05-13

Pat Barker: Toby's Room

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When I bought this book in a bookshop in Canterbury, I had no idea of the Virginia Woolf link. I just like Pat Barker's style and the way she writes about the impact of WWI on young lives, and next year we commemmorate the Rape of Leuven in 1914. For the moment the University Archive of the Leuven University collects family pieces that have a link with WWI to scan them and add them to its image collection, and a friend of me and my wife prepares the big commemorative expo that will be held in our town. So, more than enough reasons to buy this book, I think. The link with Virginia is the artist community of Charleston Farmhouse, where part of the book plays. Virginia had lots of friends there and was a frequent visitor. http://www.charleston.org.uk/

I started reading the book during a professional stay in the Black Forest and was despite the lack of time that week very quickly fascinated by it, and I loved every letter. It talks about a brother who gets missing on a French battlefield, his sister who is a talented artist and helps surgeons reconstruct the faces of wounded soldiers and the people around them. I love the way how Pat Barker mixes the years before the war with the terrible impact it had on the lives of these young people, and how she describes the hope and optimism of that generation and how it is shattered to pieces. The book is written so well that it sometimes seems that you are in these peoples minds. 

Pat Barker wrote more books about this periode (the Regeneration trilogy is brilliant and is a must-read, certainly now) and the way she contrasts the normality of these soldier-boys with the terrible things they endured is brilliant. There are scenes in these books I will never forget...

My own grandfather got shot in the leg during the fighting in Werchter in 1914, one of the few times the Belgian Army actually got into an offensive. He was hospitalised in Antwerp and later carried into neutral Holland where he spent the next four years in captivity together with about 35.000 other Belgian soldiers. After the war they were seen as deserters, despite the fact that most them were ordered to cross the Dutch border by their officers. They lost part of their civil rights and never got their wages for these four years. As my grandfather was literally carried over the border on a stretcher he was one of only 400 who did get their wages (400 francs) and his front-chevron as a proof that he fought bravely at the front during one year. It also gave him the right to have a 50% reduction when travelling by train...

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 In order to get his rights, grandfather needed proof that he was never a deserter and this is the confirmation he got from the army administration. 12 months at the front, 40 months behind the lines and, most important, no unauthorised period in Holland with surfeit of all rights. He was,they say, quite proud of this. We still have the papers for his war medal and his front chevron, so he must have thought it very important.

 

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03-05-13

Jeanette Winterson: The Daylight Gate

"Reading Orlando (...) is like sitting up all night by the fire with an old friend and a bottle of wine, where the talk is easy, wether of great things or small, and when as morning comes you feel better."

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It is weird how books or writers sometimes disappear out of my view for years and then pop up again, like tulips in spring. About 20 years ago I discovered Virginia Woolf in a bookshop in England and became an ardent admirer. I worked myself through The Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway (in full admiration, but I have to admit not the easiest books), and I clearly remember a long holiday in England, trekking around all summer in (most of the time) beautiful weather and reading Orlando. I visited Knole and Sissinghurst of course and made the link, something I really like about a book, and Virginia and Vita never left my heart and mind since these days.

So it was pretty special to be remembered of them and these days by two books in a row !

King James I, the former James VI of Scotland, was afraid of two things: catholics and witches. He wrote a book about the second, Daemonology, and was obsessed by the idea that they existed and had a real influence.Jeanette's Winterson The Daylight Gate is about a witch trial in 1612 in Lancashire that was the first English Witch Trial to be documented.

This book brings his two greatest fears together when a Jesuit priest returns to his region to visit his former lover, now accused of witchcraft, but the greatest thing about the book is how superstition and fantasy is slowly replaced by magic, as if it was real and existed. It is well written, and I finished it in no time, on the ferry to Dover early in the morning.

And where is the Woolf link ? Well, the female figure, a rich landowner accused of witchcraft, reminds me strongly of Orlando. I did not really catch it at that moment, it was reading the second book of which I will talk next week that put the idea in my mind.

A wine that would go with this book should be female but powerful, strong en special, and I think a wine by Arianna Occhipinti would combine perfectly.

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19-03-13

Pure, by Andrew Miller

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About a young engineer who gets the job of clearing the ancient cemetery of Les Innocents, in the heart of Paris. The year is 1785, and the Revolution is on its way.

It is a well written book, painting the period quite well, and Jean-Baptiste Baratte is an intriguing figure. I like the way the author paints the pre-revolutionary climate, though he just touches it lightly, without judging it, and it seems to me as people felt it, not knowing that revolution was on its way. Even dr Guillotine plays a very innocent role in the story. You can almost feel the new wind building up.

I loved reading it, though it did leave me a bit unsatisfied, and i will probably not reread it again. But I'm not sorry I bought it and read it, I had a good time.

To be read with a cheap but good Bordeaux wine.    

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