The Stockholm Octavo – Review

The book begins in Stockholm in the year 1791 and the octavo of the title is a form of divination by playing card through which a possible future is mapped out for a given individual by the selection of eight cards. The cards are not from a normal pack, each being a picture which will require interpretation. In this case, an octavo is provided for a civil servant, Emil Larsson, by one Mrs Sparrow, who is not Swedish but French. The author has provided illustrations of the relevant cards so that we may see them for ourselves.

Mrs Sparrow is not only French but an ardent monarchist determined that no harm shall befall Louis 16th or, for that matter, King Gustav III of Sweden. However, Gustav is intent on democratising Sweden to such an extent that a number of aristocrats feel imperilled and have begun to plot against him. There are several conspirators, but the one we meet in this book is Kristina Elizabet Louisa Uzanne, herself an aristocrat and referred to by all as The Uzanne. This lady has recently lost her husband but has now turned to power play in a big way.

The author has paid great attention to detail and not only with respect to playing cards. Fans feature in this book and, as a major part of the plot, they are also described in great detail. Likewise, what people are wearing and the surroundings they inhabit are fully realised.

None of these things, by themselves, would make this a good book if it were not for the characters, several of whom are memorable. The Uzanne will stop at nothing and sacrifice anyone to achieve her objectives, Mrs Sparrow is taken up with the theory and practice of the octavo and also with running a gambling house, and there are two other women of note, both of them young. One is Anna Maria Plomgren, whom you would not want to meet on a dark night – though the author, through her back story, gives some explanation for her cut-throat character. Then there is Johanna Bloom, who knows a thing or two about the apothecary’s art. Both of these young women are drawn into The Uzanne’s plans to their own great danger. As for the men we have Emil himself, Master Frederik Lind, and the master fan-maker Christian Nordén, who also has knowledge of octavos.

The narrative alternates between first and third person, the first person chapters being told by Emil Larsson. The book is carefully structured and many of the scenes have great dramatic impact.

The only reservation I have about this excellent novel is the machinery, of which there is a great deal: cards and what they look like, examples of octavos, descriptions of fans and their use. And each chapter is headed by a list of sources. Now it is true that when writing in the first person an author should be able to answer the question ‘how does my narrator know this?’ But when writing in the third the author knows everything and does not need to account for her knowledge to anyone.

Though it did not require so much heavy lifting as it has been given, this is a fine book by a talented writer.

 

 

 

 

Coincidence in Fiction

At the moment I’m reading The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne; I’m just over halfway through it. Early on I was struck by a coincidence. The narrator, Cyril Avery, ends up sharing a room at a boarding school with Julian, a boy whom he had last seen when he was seven years of age seven years before. How likely is that?

I read on and encountered another coincidence more striking than the first. Having relocated as an adult to Amsterdam, Cyril has taken to visiting a pub run by a certain Jack Smoot. Jack’s life had been saved by Cyril’s biological mother when he and his lover, Sean, were attacked in Dublin by Sean’s father in a drunken, homophobic rage. Despite being heavily pregnant with Cyril at the time, his mother had tried valiantly to save them. Sean died of his injuries but Smoot, though badly injured, survived.

As coincidences go, this one is major. It also incorporates dramatic irony, since the reader is aware of how major this coincidence is, but Cyril is not. Cyril has yet to meet his mother and has no idea who she is.

I am uneasy about this, but the author could always reply, Coincidences occur in life, as they do, or Look here, Rod, it may be highly unlikely but it’s possible. Which, of course, it is. Does it work? I feel manipulated by it, but others may not. To misquote Wallace Stevens, I am of two minds, like a tree in which there are two blackbirds.

Does anyone out there have a view on this?

The Thursday Murder Club

This is the title of a book by Richard Osman. For those of you who might not know, Osman is a TV Personality, appearing in UK game shows such as Pointless.

Here is the publisher’s description of the book.

In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet weekly in the Jigsaw Room to discuss unsolved crimes; together they call themselves the Thursday Murder Club.

When a local developer is found dead with a mysterious photograph left next to the body, the Thursday Murder Club suddenly find themselves in the middle of their first live case.

As the bodies begin to pile up, can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer, before it’s too late?

This post is a review, but only up to a point since I have another angle here. The book has already sold in large numbers, so my comments will not affect its success in any way. Be that as it may, having read about a third of it I put it aside for several weeks. I found the crime elements over-complicated and uninvolving – I didn’t really care who had murdered whom or whether our four golden oldies would figure it out in the end. But where it scored was in its portrayal of the retired individuals who were trying to make sense of it all. We are given them in the third person, save only for Joyce, a retired nurse who keeps a diary from the pages of which she addresses us directly as if engaging us in conversation. For me, the real centre of interest lies in the characters rather than the plot, which is surely preferably to an ingenious plot carried forward by cardboard characters.

Osman is to be congratulated on noticing, before reaching an age where he can experience it for himself, that older people still have emotions. Some authors have achieved this in the past, Ring Lardner for example. Remember him, I hope so? But Osman does it very well. Another area where he excels is reading the signs of the times. Not all old people could afford to live in Coopers Chase, a retirement complex specifically intended for the relatively well-to-do. But in conveying the details of this complex and its residents, the narrative can become a bit too whimsical for my taste, though an excellent source for social scientists.

The development is situated in the grounds of an old convent, which leads to one of the murders.

The old convent dominates Coopers Chase, with three modern residential developments spiralling out from this central point. For over a hundred years the convent was a hushed building, filled with the dry bustle of habits and the quiet certainty of prayers offered and answered. Tapping along its dark corridors you would have found some women comfortable in their serenity, some women frightened of a speeding world, some women hiding, some women proving a vague, long-forgotten point and some women taking joy in serving a higher purpose.

And because of this, the ground contains a graveyard where departed sisters have been laid to rest.

And then one day you would take the short trip up the hill, through the tunnel of trees, to the Garden of Eternal Rest – the iron gates and low stone walls of the Garden looking over the convent and the endless beauty of the Kentish High Weald beyond, your body in another single bed, under a simple stone, alongside the Sister Margarets and Sister Marys of the generations before you. If you had once had dreams they could now play over the green hills, and if you had secrets then they were kept safe inside.

As might be expected, the developer wants to ‘develop’ the entire site, graveyard included. This raises certain questions, from the simple – do we really want to dig up dead nuns for housing? – to heavy theological questions relating to the resurrection of the flesh which, not wishing to fry what’s left of my brain, I will neatly side-step. But be it noted, the developer who intends this desecration is duly bumped off before he can bring it about.

The reason I find this storyline so interesting is that my wife and I, in real life, live in the grounds of an old convent. The order in question has gone under various related names but I will refer to them as the Poor Clares. I still remember the days when they sold eggs at the convent gate.

Since the sisters who lived here suffered the same fate as those in the book, our site also contains a graveyard.

But as in the book, the developer wanted to build on this ground too, and was supported by the arch-diocese, which proposed to go along with this plan, presumably to further swell their coffers. This caused outrage at the time. Fortunately, the City Council took legal action to protect the departed sisters both from the developer and their dubious co-religionists.

Little note. In reading up about the Poor Clares I constanly found their places of residence referred to as monasteries, which I had thought were inhabited by monks rather than nuns. But since everyone round here has used the word ‘convent’ for decades I am sticking with what I am accustomed to. And, as Mrs Slocombe used to say, I am unanimous in that.

Maugham and Spark

The title of this post may call to mind a comedy duo from the music hall era, though that is not the intention. Recently, and not for the first time, I have been reading novels by these authors, both of whom deal with religion but in very different ways. Spark converted to Catholicism while I would say that Maugham, though brought up by a clergyman after his mother died (or perhaps because he was brought up by this clergyman), was not an adherent of a faith. Further to that, I would say he frequently looks on human behaviour with a cynical eye. So of the two, you would expect Spark to have the more sympathetic view of religion. Strangely, though, that is not how it seems to me. Spark has a gift for satire, and religion does not escape. Take her novel, The Abbess of Crewe.

We find that the abbess has some rather strange ideas, going so far as to include a course in electronics in the curriculum. This does not escape the authorities in Rome, who are sufficiently concerned to write to her seeking clarification. The Abbess considers her response.

‘What I have to decide,’ says the Abbess, ‘is how to answer the second question in the letter from Rome. It is put very cautiously. They seem quite suspicious. They want to know how we reconcile our adherence to the strict enclosed Rule with the course in electronics which we have introduced into our daily curriculum in place of book-binding and hand-weaving. They want to know why we cannot relax the ancient Rule in conformity with the new reforms current in the other convents, since we have adopted such a very modern course of instruction as electronics. Or, conversely, they want to know why we teach electronics when we have been so adamant in adhering to the old observances.

This is very witty, but hardly enters a Graham Greene realm of moral dilemma. To me, it is not only witty but overly whimsical, though some might respond that in this book Spark prefigures the surveillance society we have now.

Upstairs and far away in the control-room the recorders, activated by their voices, continue to whirl. So very much elsewhere in the establishment do the walls have ears that neither Mildred nor Walburga are now conscious of them as they were when the mechanisms were first installed. It is like being told, and all the time knowing, that the Eyes of God are upon us; it means everything and therefore nothing. The two nuns speak as freely as the Jesuits who suspect no eavesdropping device more innocuous than God to be making a chronicle of their present privacy.

Perhaps she suspected how things were going, though whether this is a result of foresight or the author extending the situation in the abbey to its furthest conclusions I have no way of knowing. Either way, though, the abbess does not inspire respect and nor does the establishment she is in charge of.

Maugham is a different case altogether. He based his writing on what he observed, his powers of observation were acute, and if he observed religion operating well that is that he reported. This is what occurs in the Painted Veil.

The heroine, Kitty Fane, is much affected by local nuns caring for the sick. The Mother Superior, a high-minded lady, gives her the benefit of her wisdom on several occasions.

‘You know, my dear child, that one cannot find peace in work or in pleasure, in the world or in a convent, but only in one’s soul.’

‘There is only one way to win hearts and that is to make oneself like unto those of whom one would be loved.’

‘Good-bye, God bless you, my dear child.’ She held her for a moment in her arms. ‘Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.’

Impressed as she is by the Mother Superior, Kitty, being human and by no means a saint, has problems with this.

It was singular that, though their way of life so profoundly moved her, the faith which occasioned it left her untouched.

This might well be the author’s own attitude, though there is no way of proving this. And then we have the human element, brought out in her relations with one of the nuns.

She had a wild impulse to seize the stout, good-natured nun by the shoulders and shake her, crying: ‘Don’t you know that I’m a human being, unhappy and alone, and I want comfort and sympathy and encouragement; oh, can’t you turn a minute away from God and give me a little compassion; not the Christian compassion that you have for all suffering things, but just human compassion for me?

Aspects of religion crop up a lot, sometimes in great detail, in The Razor’s Edge.

Maugham shows a knowledge of how patronage can operate in the Catholic Church.

The Abbé spoke of the faith with wisdom and benignity; he was broad-minded, modern in his outlook, and tolerant. He made the Church seem to Elliott very like a select club that a well-bred man owed it to himself to belong to. Six months later he was received into it. His conversion, combined with the generosity he showed in his contributions to Catholic charities, opened several doors that had been closed to him before.

One character, Larry, spends much intellectual energy on religious topics and raises interesting questions,

I myself think that the need to worship is no more than the survival of an old remembrance of cruel gods that had to be propitiated. I believe that God is within me or nowhere. If that’s so, whom or what am I to worship – myself?

This novel is unusual in that the author figures as a character, and so there are statements in it which we can cautiously ascribe to Maugham himself.

For a while we were silent. A chill went down my spine as it strangely does when I am confronted with deep and genuine human emotion. I find it terrible and rather awe-inspiring.

I have only scraped the surface here, there is much more in the two Maugham books than this brief post can deal with. For example, I don’t want to give the impression that Maugham does not deal with the dark side of religion: for that we can turn to the powerful story Rain. But, for me, he covers this subject with greater insight than the true believer does, and this may be because he is more open about himself, his thoughts and his feelings.

Reviews

I have written many reviews over the years and always found it demanding. To begin with, if I read a book and really don’t like it then I won’t review it. No point putting an author off after publication. Some might argue that comments concerning a certain category of book (let’s call it Book Number 1 in the Inspector Torcuil McSporran series) might have a beneficial knock-on effect in Book Number 2. But who is to say there will be a follow-up?

Reviewing has also caused me to change my reading habits. In the past (when I was younger than I am today, in every way, oh yeah, oh no) I would read physical copies. I still do, but if I intend to review a book now I will buy a eBook edition. The reason for this is an ingrained belief that it is not enough to make an assertion of the sort This book is absolute drivel OR This book is a work of genius. Assertions should be supported a) by reasoning and b) by evidence.

In the case of a book, evidence can only take the form of quotations from the text. To which end I used to sit in front of a screen typing with one hand while holding the book open at the relevant page with the other. This was a slow and inefficient process leading to strain of the left thumb. Then I discovered, late in the day, that by using an eBook I could highlight noteworthy sections then – sheer bliss! – copy them at will into a review.

Having just read two reviews of my recent title, I have been struck by how inadequate some reviews can be.

Review 1

Here are a couple of plums. Firstly, about the cover:

It is nice designed in the color and in the design itself.

And

The author succeeds in writing very detailing about the scenery

To judge by the syntax errors, English was not the reviewer’s first language. Is this is a concern? Yes, though only if the reviewer’s command of the language in which the book is written is an obstacle to him/her in properly getting to grips with it.

In this case, the reviewer liked the book but in terms so general anyone reading the review would learn nothing at all about it. For example, wouldn’t we want to know what the book was about?

To quote from the site the review was posted on (here I am quoting again, I just can’t help myself), the site “helps readers of influence discover and recommend new books to their audiences”.

Review 2

This was an interesting one but in a different way.

Hart’s characters are complex and without any definite shade of black or white except for Klein Pearson , who as the sole antagonist comes out as a vile, hateful character.

This would be a telling point against the said Klein Pearson if there was any such character in the book. Unfortunately, there is not. The reviewer has conflated two very different characters, Dieter Klein and Adalbert Pearson. Worrying, right?

 

 

 

The Ears of a Cat

This novel was due to come out on January 28th, 2020, but the publisher stole a march on me big time by bringing forward the date to November 28th, 2019 then publishing it even ahead of that. A planned launch during the first week of February has therefore been abandoned. The paperback is on sale through the websites of Amazon, plus those of major UK retailers such as Waterstone’s and Blackwells (who are offering it for sale at a discount of £1). Physical copies are already available in Blackwells Cambridge and Edinburgh stores.

While all this is good, I have been badly caught on the hop with respect to reviews, so if anyone out there would like to review it, I will do what I can to help. For example, I could have the publisher send a paperback to your preferred address. The eBook is readily available for any reader/reviewer outwith the UK.

To give a flavour of what to expect, here is the publisher’s press release. Apart from the “dizzying pace” it is pretty accurate.

Press Release

With buckets of black humour and a dizzying pace that pulls the reader to the final page, Roderick Hart’s latest novel is set in the near-future in a world very like our own where population expansion has become a serious issue…

To the well-meaning people of Future World the problem is obvious: too many people. However, so is the solution: eliminate as many of their fellow human beings as they can – though for Catherine Cooper, Cindy Horváth and Gina Saito, this is easier said than done… at least until they get their hands on a bird flu virus made lethal in the lab.

But as they work out how to use it to the most devastating effect, the German security service gets wind of their intention, as does an unscrupulous freelance agent from the United States. Following a succession of bizarre events, including a conversation with a cat, a fractured penis and the testimony of a Japanese sex doll, only the last woman standing, fish-whisperer Gina Saito, can hope to bring it off. Yet she knows full well this will lead to an agonizing death on foreign soil.

The underlying issue in the book, no matter how comedic Roderick has made the novel, is one that is a real concern to him. “My ‘inspiration’ was a deep-seated pessimism about the way the human race is going,” he states. “I approached this through a narrative involving people feeling the same way but who, unlike me, actually try to do something about it, to improve on the current situation by bumping off as many people as possible. After all, the easiest way to reduce carbon footprints is to reduce the number of feet.”

Set in Berlin, Los Angeles, England and Japan, the unfolding events show that having a plan isn’t enough: good intentions can lead to ludicrous results and, ultimately, death.

RELEASE DATE: 28 November 2019

ISBN: 9781838591441 Price: £ 8.99

What highlights tells us

We read for various reasons. Sometimes, when wrung out, I read to de-stress. In the last two years I’ve turned to Georges Simenon for this reason. Better than alcohol or drugs. But in this time I have also been reading other authors, some of whom would doubtless be considered more literary. One of those has been Elena Ferrante.

I am in the habit of highlighting sections of particular interest, sometimes for what is being said (the thought-content, for example), sometimes out of interest in the author’s craft (scene-setting, characterisation).  And it has struck me when looking over these highlights, that I have found more of note in Simenon than Ferrante.

As my old physics teacher used to say, Is this significant?

Being older now, my reply would be that everything is significant, the trick being to determine what that significance might be. In this case, I plainly find Simenon more interesting. But that may say more about me than either of the authors in question. When I say This book is interesting I really mean I find this book interesting, the subject changing from the book to the reader.

As he deals with his characters and how they relate, Simenon often generalises from their behaviour. In the four books staring with My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante deals at much greater length with her characters, but keeps to the particular more than Simenon and generalises from them less. This is made more noticeable by the fact that these books are much longer than Simenon’s. But I am not an academic and cannot support any of this with statistical analysis.

Sighs of relief all round.

But it often happens that when something springs to the eye in Ferrante, it has usually attracted many. It is not only in the world of antiques that rarity value counts. Here is an example from the second book, The Story of a New Name:

There are moments when we resort to senseless formulations and advance absurd claims to hide straightforward feelings. Today I know that in other circumstances, after some resistance, I would have given in to Bruno’s advances. I wasn’t attracted to him, certainly, but I hadn’t been especially attracted to Antonio, either. One becomes affectionate toward men slowly, whether they coincide or not with whomever in the various phases of life we have taken as the model of a man.

Why are such passages relatively rare in Ferrante’s work? In Chapter 28 of The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil might have an answer to this question he can never have heard.

Unfortunately the healing power of thought seems to be the same faculty that diminishes the personal sense of experience.

Ferrante sets great store in recounting personal experiences and may feel that analysing them too much will weaken them.

 

 

A Tale of Two Professors

There is a science festival taking place where I live right now. I had tickets for two events. The first concerned cyber security and the various scams designed to part us from our money. The second was an introduction to viruses.

The professor occupying the cyber security slot had ninety minutes to cover the subject. He showed signs of knowing what he was talking about, including footage of himself addressing a parliamentary committee examining the subject, and further footage of Amber Rudd, who plainly hadn’t a clue. (For anyone outwith these shores, Ms Rudd is Her Brittanic Majesty’s Home Secretary.)

The trouble with the professor’s presentation was that he flitted like a butterfly from one blossom to another and so achieved a remarkable degree of incoherence. He also fancied himself as a stand-up comedian, which didn’t improve things at all. Despite his best efforts, I did pick up the odd nugget, such as how easily passwords can be cracked in these digital times and how quickly this can be done.

When I was younger than I am today, which wouldn’t be difficult, I was sometimes confronted by on-screen messages accusing me of having made a syntax error. Well, this particular professor is no stranger to syntax errors either, of the order ‘I had went.’ And despite having ninety minutes, he left no time for questions. Too bad. Given the chaotic nature of his talk there must have been many.

So I attended the second presentation with some anxiety, but it was everything the first was not. Professor Dorothy H Crawford was introducing us to viruses – in more ways than one as she was suffering from laryngitis at the time. The lecture was given in the old anatomy lecture theatre in the building which housed our vet school before the new one was built; hard wooden seating raked to a vertiginous degree but intimate withal.

She was coherent and lucid, with a wonderful command of clear expression.  Though having thirty minutes less than the cyber security expert, she left fifteen minutes for questions. These were many and she answered them equally clearly. Dorothy Crawford is the author of several books on this subject, including Viruses: A Very Short Introduction. I now have a copy of this book, which is excellent, expressed in the same clear language as the lecture. Having said that, many sections will repay repeated reading, as can happen with prose when hardly a word is wasted – doubtless a function of her remit to keep the book ‘very short’.

Below is a link to her Author Page.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dorothy-H.-Crawford/e/B001IQUPF0/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

In the old days, and maybe it still happens now, students were asked ‘to compare and contrast.’ This I have done.

 

To Hunt A Sub

Jacqui Murray’s latest book, To Hunt A Sub, will be released on August 15th. It will be available on Kindle as folows:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01K7VSPBW#navbar

 

THAS-small

The title gives an indication of the subject matter, as does the summary provided by the author.

‘A brilliant Ph.D. candidate, a cynical ex-SEAL, and a quirky experimental robot team up against terrorists intent on stealing America’s most powerful nuclear weapon, the Trident submarine. By all measures, they are an unlikely trio–one believes in brawn, another brains, and the third is all geek. What no one realizes is this trio has a secret weapon: the wisdom of a formidable female who died two million years ago.’

Jacqui is an amazingly energetic person whose website, among other things, offers technical tips for those of less skilled than she is in handling hardware and software, book reviews, and also includes an extensive resource for other writers.

https://worddreams.wordpress.com/

jmm pic

To give some flavour of the book, here is a preview chapter. I think we can safely call this a tricky situation. What happens next? There’s only one way to find out!

Three days before present

Ten hours and thirty-seven more minutes and the crew of the USS Hampton SSN 767 would be home. Seasoned submariners, the six-month covert intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance tour down the eastern seaboard of South America had gone flawlessly and silently. The Atlantic is a large ocean and the Los Angeles-class sub’s noise footprint small. Once the boat cleared Cuba, the crew would relax.

The Captain sipped the morning’s fourth cup of burned coffee when the hair on the back of his neck prickled. He glanced around, trying to identify what bothered him.

“Captain,” the Watchstander’s gaze bobbed from the Executive Officer to his watchstation. “Navigation is non-responsive.” Confusion tinged his words.

That was it. A change in the deck’s subtle rumble. Before the Captain could react to the impossibility that guidance controls had crashed, every monitor in the sub’s nerve center shut down.

He hadn’t seen this in twenty years of driving subs. All personnel made a hole as he rushed toward the Control Center, shadowed by the XO.

“Sonar readings?” The Captain called to Sonarman Second Class Andy Rikes in the compartment just aft of Control, barely larger than a broom closet but elbow-to-elbow with operators, fingers flying across keyboards and eyes locked onto screens that blinked a dull grey.

Rikes answered, “Negative, Sir. The hydrophones are working, but aren’t sending raw data, like someone pulled the plug and flushed everything out to sea. Trying to fix it.” His voice was hopeful.

If the screen had worked, Sonarman Rikes would have seen the ping, a final gasp before everything electrical collapsed.

The COB—Chief of Boat—interrupted, “Captain. Reactor Scram!” The sub’s nuclear power had evaporated. “Nuclear technicians isolating the problem. Battery back-up is being attempted.”

“Shift propulsion from main engines to EPM,” an auxiliary electric motor that could turn the propeller.

“Negative, Captain. Non-responsive.” Fear leaked from his voice.

The depth meter no longer worked, but the XO guessed that the sub was angled downward at 10 degrees

“Blow main ballast tanks!”

“No response, Captain.”

How deep is the ocean floor in this sector of the Atlantic?

The Sonarman answered,It varies between 1,000 and 16,000

16,000 feet was well below the sub’s crush depth.

“There are seamounts and ridges spread throughout. We could get lucky and land on one. Or not.”

“Inform US Strategic Command of our situation.”

“Sir, comms are down.”

Release the message buoy,” though all that told the world was they were in trouble. It could quickly drift miles from their position.

The Captain continued, voice calm, face showing none of the worry that filled his thoughts, “I want all department heads and Chief Petty Officers in front of me in five minutes. I want the status on every system they own and operate. Wake up whoever you need to.” He had a bad feeling about this.

“Gentlemen, solutions.” The Captain looked first at XO, then COB and finally NAV, the Navigation Officer who turned to the senior chief of navigation.

“It’s like an electromagnetic pulse hit us, which can’t happen underwater…” then he shrugged as though to say, I have no idea, Sir.

They practiced drills for every sort of emergency, but not this one. No one considered a complete electrical shutdown possible.

“We’re checking everything, but nothing is wrong. It just won’t work.”

“Where’s CHENG?” The Chief of Engineering.

“Troubleshooting, Sir.” COB’s voice was efficient, but tense.

The Captain didn’t wait. “Condition Alpha. Full quiet—voices whispers, all silent, no movement not critical. Defcon 2,” the second-highest peacetime alert level.

No one knew who their enemy was or why they were under attack, but they had one and they were.

“XO, get lanterns up here.”

Within an hour, the massive warship had settled to the ocean floor like the carcass of a dead whale. It teetered atop an ocean ridge, listing starboard against a jagged seamount, and the gentle push of an underwater current from a cliff that plunged into a murky darkness. Every watertight door was closed. As per protocol, the oxygen level was reduced to suppress a fire hazard. Without climate controls, the interior had already reached 60 degrees. It would continue dipping as it strove to match the bonechilling surrounding water temperature. Hypothermia would soon be a problem. For now, though, they were alive.

The hull groaned as though twisted by a giant squid.

The Captain peered into the gloomy waters that surrounded the sub. “Thoughts, XO?”

“We’re stable for the moment, barring a strong underwater current.”

Based on the creaking protests from the hull, they were at or beyond crush depth. Any deeper, the outside pressure would snap the HY-80 outer hull and sea water would roar into the living compartments. Everyone would be dead in seconds, either drowned or impaled on the ragged remains of the sub by a force in excess of a Category Five hurricane.

We’re beyond the depth of the Steinke Hoods,” escape equipment that included full body suits, thermal protection, and a life raft. Budget cuts had eliminated funding for more advanced solutions.

XO pointed toward a darker expanse of black just yards from the sub. “No telling how deep that crevice is.”

“Gather the crew in the Forward compartment. Seal all other compartments. Ration water. Start O2 candles when levels reach 50% normal. Did the message buoy launch?”

“Yes, sir.”

That was a relief. The Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV) deployed in emergencies from shore couldn’t assist if it didn’t know they needed help.

Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada

I have recently read two novels set during the Third Reich: The Death of the Adversary, by Hans Keilson (1959) and Alone in Berlin (1947). I have already posted a review of The Death of the Adversary (under Book Reviews) and am following it now with a review of Alone in Berlin which, in my opinion, is very much better.

Hans Fallada is not the author’s real name. He came up with a nom de plume on the advice of his father, who knew only too well that his son had been jailed for killing a friend in a duel and, on two occasions after that, for embezzlement. What a deplorable person, I hear you say – especially compared to Hans Keilson, a notable psychoanalyst who lived to the ripe old age of 101 after a lifetime of good works.

English: 100th day of birth of Hans Fallada (1...

English: 100th day of birth of Hans Fallada (1893—1947) Deutsch: 100. Geburtstag von Hans Fallada (1893—1947) :*Graphics by Nitzsche :*Ausgabepreis: 100 Pfennig :*First Day of Issue / Erstausgabetag: 15. Juli 1993 :*Michel-Katalog-Nr: 1683 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of Fallada we can safely say that there was little concerning human weakness with which he was not well acquainted, including reliance on what we would now call substance abuse for most of his adult life. Now people with human weaknesses are all around us, and no doubt inside us as well, but life under a repressive regime like the Third Reich will expose weaknesses rather more than would be the case in the relatively comfortable societies we now inhabit in the west.  Alone in Berlin has many weak characters and a wide range of weaknesses on display.  Fallada’s life experiences equipped him singularly well to give us these people, but Fallada could also write.  He brings them to life. And there are strengths too.

The story is based on a real case, and if you buy the Penguin edition you will find considerable documentation about it as an appendix. A couple, Otto and Elise Hampel, fought a campaign against the Reich by writing postcards and leaving them to be found. The postcards called for civil disobedience and sabotage in the workplace, and the Hampels managed to keep it going for nearly three years before they were caught.

In the novel, the Hampels become Otto and Anna Quangel, and it is amazing how the apparently simple act of leaving critical postcards on stairways and window ledges can cause dilemmas for all concerned, including the police and the Gestapo. Neither  the Hampels in real life nor the Quangels in the book are highly educated, but they have considerable moral force and the determination to fight for what they believe to be right. Their philosophy, which seems to have been shared by the author, is found in several places.

‘Anna Quangel felt herself trembling. Then she looked over at Otto again. He might be right: whether their act was big or small. No one could risk more than his life. Each according to his strength and abilities, but the main thing was, you fought back.’ (Page 140)

On one level they are kidding themselves in thinking that their postcards were having an effect: most of them when found were handed straight over to the police. Fallada explains their state of mind.

‘Neither Quangel doubted for one moment that their cards were being passed from hand to hand in factories and offices, that Berlin was beginning to hum with talk about these oppositional spirits. They conceded that some of their cards probably wound up in the hands of the police, but they reckoned no more than one out of every five or six. They had so often thought and spoken about the great effectiveness of their work that the circulation of their cards and the attention that greeted them was, as far as they were concerned, no longer theoretical but factual.

And yet the Quangels didn’t have the least actual evidence for this. Whether it was Anna Quangel standing in a food-queue, or the foreman with his sharp eyes taking up position among a group of chatterers – bringing their prattle to an end merely by standing there – not once did they hear a word about the new struggler against the Führer and the missives this unknown sent out into the world. But the silence that greeted their work could not shake them in their faith that it was being discussed and having an effect. Berlin was a very large city, and the scattering of the postcards took place over a very wide area, so it was clear that it would take time for knowledge of their activities to permeate everywhere. In other words, the Quangels were like most people: they believed what they hoped.’ (Page167)

On the other hand, the Gestapo officer charged with tracking down the culprits, Inspector Escherich, is under so much pressure to get a result that he puts someone in the frame whom he knows well is not involved. The man in question is Enno Kluge, and this part of the narrative comes to a head in Chapter 32. The following quotation does not reveal the upshot of this scene between the two men, but it does paint a graphic picture of the treatment suspects could expect. Violence is the stock in trade of the Gestapo and the SS. He goes into detail concerning the interrogation techniques of the latter.

‘It’s you they want now, Kluge, the gentlemen of the SS, and they’re keen to question you in their own inimitable fashion. They believe the statement, and they believe you’re the author, or at the very least, the distributor of the cards. And they’ll wring that from you, they’ll wring everything they want from you with their techniques, they’ll squeeze you like an orange, and then they’ll beat your brains out, or they’ll put you on trial before the People’s Court, which comes to pretty much the same thing, only your agonies will be more drawn out.’

The inspector paused, and the wholly terrified Kluge pressed himself trembling against him – the man he had just called a murderer – as though seeking help from him.

`But you know it wasn’t me!’ he stammered. ‘God’s own truth! You can’t deliver me to them, I can’t stand it, I’ll scream . . .’

`Of course you’ll scream,’ affirmed the inspector equably. ‘Of course you will. But that won’t bother them, they’ll enjoy it. You know what, Kluge, they’ll sit you down on a stool and they’ll hang a strong light in your face, and you’ll keep staring into the light, and the heat and the brightness will be like nothing you’ve ever experienced. And at the same time they will ask you questions, one man will take over from another, but no one will take over from you, however exhausted you get. Then when you fall over from exhaustion, they’ll rouse you with kicks and blows, and they’ll give you salt water to drink, and when none of that does any good, they will dislocate every bone in your hand one by one. They will pour acid on the soles of your feet . . .’

`Please stop, sir, oh, please stop, I can’t hear any more . . .’

`Not only will you hear it, you will have to suffer it, Kluge, for a day, for two, three, five days – and all the time, day and night they will give you nothing to eat, your belly will shrivel up to the size of a string bean, and you will think you can die from sheer pain. But you won’t die; once they have someone in their hands, they don’t let them go that easily. No, they will . . .’

`No, no, no,’ screamed little Enno, holding his hands over his ears. ‘I don’t want to hear any more. Not one more word. I’d rather be dead!’

`Yes, I think you’re right there,’ confirmed the inspector, ‘you’d be better off.’  (Pages 296/297)

Partly because they are that way inclined, but also because they do not want to put anyone else in danger, the Quangels become increasingly self-reliant, without realising the nature of the state they are opposing, one in which everyone is expected to toe the party line.

‘So, increasingly, they took refuge in their happiness as husband and wife. They were like a pair of lovers clasped together in a flood, with waves and currents, collapsing houses and the bloated corpses of cattle all around them, still believing they would escape the general devastation if they only stuck together. They had failed to understand that there was no such thing as private life in wartime Germany. No amount of reticence could change the fact that every individual German belonged to the generality of Germans and must share in the general destiny of Germany, even as more and more bombs were falling on the just and unjust alike.’ (Page 306)

In due course the ‘law’ catches up with them, and Fallada takes us through the process of interrogation, imprisonment and trial in great detail.

There are quite a few characters in this book, and they are all brought out very well: the venal Emil Borkhausen, the excellent retired judge, Herr Fromm, the strutting party member Baldur Persicke, the post-woman Eva Kluge, and young Trudel Baumann, to name just a few. Fallada brings out their states of mind remarkably well as their situations change – usually, but not always for the worse. And the narrative notwithstanding, this is really what the book is about. In my opinion, it is a major achievement and one of the best novels I have read.