Category Archives: History

Thomas Mann – Doctor Faustus




Reading Doctor Faustus is like trying to read a political and cultural history of twentieth century Germany as told by a rather wordy and digressive narrator, Serenus Zeitblum. He states his task is to tell the life story of his much admired friend, the composer,   Adrian  Leverkühn. That is his declared task, but he cannot resist excursions into stories of odd people, into his views of philosophy and most of all into speculation about the character and genius of his beloved friend.

This is my first time of reading, unlike others who profess to have read this book five times, so I will just give a brief sketch of my first impressions . Continue reading Thomas Mann – Doctor Faustus

Annie Ernaux – The Years

Annie Ernaux was born in Normandy in 1940 the daughter of working-class parents who eventually came to own a cafe-grocery store. She became a teacher and started writing in 1974. Her slender books chart the events of her life and deal with issues that concern all women; her relationship with her father and mother, her adolescence, her marriage, her mother’s death, her own illness. Continue reading Annie Ernaux – The Years

Rose Tremain – Islands of Mercy

Rose Tremain’s new book is a dizzying ride.  Set in the middle of the nineteenth century, it covers a huge range of topics, among them British colonialism, life and environmental depredation in Sarawak, life in Bath, the inadequacies of the nineteenth century medicine as practised in Bath, morgues in Paris and London, poverty in Ireland, and the overarching theme of the pursuit for meaning in life, particularly as experienced by women. Oh, and did I say the effects of Married Women’s Property Act? Continue reading Rose Tremain – Islands of Mercy

Ben McIntyre: The Spy And The Traitor


The Soviet sniffer dog had almost certainly never smelt anything like cheese and onion crisps before.  She offered a crisp to one of the dogs, which wolfed it down before being led away by the unsmiling handler. The other dog, however, was now sniffing at the boot of the Sierra.  Gordievsky could hear muffled Russian voices overhead.

As the dog circled the boot, Caroline Ascot reached for a weapon that had  never been deployed before in the Cold War or any other. She placed Florence on the car boot directly over the hidden spy and began changing her nappy – which the baby, with immaculate timing, had just filled. She then dropped the soiled and smelly diaper next to the inquisitive Alsatian. The dog duly slunk off, offended. Olfactory diversion had never been part of the plan . The nappy ruse had been completely spontaneous and highly effective. Continue reading Ben McIntyre: The Spy And The Traitor

Emile Zola: The Ladies’ Paradise


At the far end of the hall, around one of the small cast-iron columns which supported the glass roof, material was streaming down like a bubbling sheet of water, falling from above and spreading out on to the floor. First, pale satins and soft silks were gushing out: royal satins and renaissance satins, with the pearly shades of spring water; light silks as transparent as crystal – Nile green, turquoise, blossom pink, Danube blue. Next came the thicker fabrics, the marvellous satins and the duchess silks, in warm shades, rolling out in great waves. And at the bottom, as if in a fountain-basin, the heavy materials, the damasks, the brocades, the silver and gold silks, were sleeping on a deep bed of velvets – velvets of all kinds, black, white, coloured, embossed on a background of silk or satin, their shimmering flecks forming a still lake in which reflections of the sky and of the countryside seemed to dance. Women pale with desire were leaning over as if to look at themselves. Faced with this wild cataract, they all remained standing there, filled with the secret fear of being caught up in the overflow of all this luxury and with an irresistible desire to throw themselves into it and be lost. 104

Continue reading Emile Zola: The Ladies’ Paradise