In Praise of the New with Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee 

Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee share their latest discoveries.

August 2017

 - Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Bernie Gunther is my favourite anti-hero—and in Philip Kerr’s latest thriller, Prussian Blue, Bernie is in top form. He needs to have all his wits about him because in the first fifty pages he’s ordered by the Deputy Head of Stasi to murder a former lover by thallium poisoning and then almost hanged by Stasi thugs, but outwits them by escaping from the Blue Train to Paris, and ends up on the run with the thugs and the French police in hot pursuit. At one stage our intrepid hero buys an old bicycle, a beret and two strings of onions and pedals off in the direction of the German border to evade his pursuers. This novel begins in 1956 with flashbacks to 1939, when Bernie had to investigate a murder at the Berghof—Hitler’s mountain retreat—in a case involving Heydrich, Bormann, Hess and other Nazi luminaries. On that occasion he was given only the week before Hitler’s birthday to solve the murder and survived several attempts on his life. The two cases converge explosively in a stunning climax. Rusted–on fans will be delighted with this thriller and new readers will find themselves hunting out the previous 11 novels. Highly recommended.
I knew I was going to love Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent when I saw the cover—a William-Morris-inspired design promising further delights within. The novel is set in the 1890s, that energetic decade when discoveries in science challenged literal interpretations of the Bible, great improvements were made in medicine and mass education, and there were serious attempts to provide better housing for the working class. Cora Seaborne is no ordinary heroine. She wears men’s tweed coats and boots and tramps around the shore looking for ammonites and other fossils. After the death of her unpleasant husband she leaves London for Colchester, accompanied by her socialist companion Martha and her autistic son Francis. Cora hopes to further her scientific interests there and perhaps even become a great fossilist like Mary Anning. She hears on the grapevine that a fearsome serpent with leathery wings and a snapping beak, last seen in the Essex estuary in 1669, is back again terrorising the locals—who deal with the situation by hanging dead moles and horseshoes on Traitor’s Oak. Cora hopes, more scientifically, that the serpent will prove to be a living ichthyosaurus. He friends Charles and Katherine Ambrose introduce Cora to the local vicar, William Ransome, his consumptive wife Stella and three lively children who could happily grace the novels of Edith Nesbit. Cora and William strike sparks off each other, not only because there is an underlying attraction, but also because the vicar wants to defeat his flock’s superstition through faith rather than science. Others in the mix are Luke Garrett, a young surgeon who has fallen for Cora, and his friend George Spencer, who tries to spend his fortune wisely in a doomed attempt to win over Martha. Author Sarah Perry grew up in a strict Baptist household where popular culture was ignored, classical literature esteemed and the King James Bible read. She writes beautiful descriptions of landscapes and her graceful and intelligent prose is the perfect medium for this fin de siècle Gothic novel with concerns so very like our own.
When I was twelve I read an extract from Les Misérables titled ‘The Bishop’s Candlesticks’ and pestered my parents until they bought me the novel, whose three worn volumes are still on my shelves. Back then I was utterly entranced by the stirring tale of ex-convict Jean Valjean, who turns his life around after the gift of the candlesticks, becoming the benevolent businessman who adopts the abandoned child Cosette and carries her lover Marius through the sewers of Paris in a heart-stopping finale. In The Novel of the Century David Bellos tells the story of the writing and publishing of Les Misérables. Victor Hugo was born in 1802 and first made a name though his poetry and then The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He began writing his magnum opus in 1845 and finished and published the first volume to great acclaim in 1862. On 7th April of that year publication took place simultaneously in Paris, London, and other major cities of Europe. Hugo had already received a massive advance, the publisher being sure that he would easily recover it in profits—which proved correct. The English version was, unfortunately, abridged, and a complete English text, by Australian translator Julie Rose, only became available 146 years later, in 2008. In this engrossing account Bellos carefully examines the language, geography and historicity of Les Misérables and discusses its many adaptations for screen, stage and television.  Finally, he tells us, there are 365 chapters in the novel, so at a chapter a day the complete text can easily be read in a year. Sonia


Richmal Crompton was best known as the author of the classic Just William stories, about the irrepressible and unrepentant William Brown—these books have been favourites of many since they appeared in the 1920s. However, she also wrote over 40 books for adults, long forgotten and now mainly out of print. So I fell on Family Roundabout, when I saw it had been republished by the excellent Persephone Books, and was completely taken with it. Starting in 1920, and set in a village very similar to William’s stamping ground, it tells the story of two very English families, each headed by a widowed mother. They each have five children, but are polar opposites in their approach to parenting, and most other aspects of life. Their children intermingle, mainly through marriage and engagement, and with varying degrees of success. This is such an interesting novel. It’s very easy to read and written with a wonderfully clear structure—there is very little back story to the characters, so the reader feels immediately amongst them as the dialogue is so wonderful, and the setting so vivid. The female characters are particularly believable, with their ever present needlework—sewing, mending, embroidering—all this handiwork runs like a thread through the narrative. There is also a very interesting theme of writing, with one character who is an aspiring writer, and another who is a successful author, both in love with the same girl, and neither of whom are very appealing. World War 2 is looming by the end of the book, and the sense of change is very present.
Meanwhile, in another English village at the same time, in ‘Real Life’, Tirzah Garwood was writing her autobiography. Tirzah was married to the English artist Eric Ravilious, and together, and with several friends they became incredibly prolific artists, chronicling the rural life they were living. There has been a resurgence of interest in these artists, partly because they were so willing to put their collective hand to many projects—from children’s handkerchief designs, to book covers, to large beautiful murals—and their art has more than stood the test of time. Long Live Great Bardfield: The autobiography of Tirzah Garwood, also published by Persephone Books, is an account of these artists’ lives. Not written for publication, but as a record for her children while she was recuperating from surgery, this book is quite extraordinary—for the way it’s written, for its content, and for the indelible impression it leaves on the reader. Garwood has a remarkable recall of her childhood, and for the tiniest, most amusing details. She is extremely astute and perceptive, and writes about the many people she has met—as an artist in her own right, and as Eric Ravilious’ wife. They must have been a compelling couple, people were always falling in love with them both—she writes about these complications without rancour or blame, and  with utmost candour. I was reminded of the writing of Barbara Comyns when I started reading this book, but ultimately I realised Tirzah Garwood had her own voice, and this autobiography was not like anything I’ve ever read before. The book is illustrated with the author’s woodblock pictures, black and white photographs, and with fabulous endpapers by the artist.
After reading Long Live Great Bardfield, I wanted to know more about Eric Ravilious, so I am reading Ravilious & Co: the Pattern of Friendship by Andy Friend. This is a very well researched and comprehensive book about Ravilious and his extensive circle of friends and fellow artists.  The book is beautifully produced and illustrated with photography, patterned papers, and really excellent reproductions of many paintings, illustrations and designs. Part of the appeal of this volume lies in the fact that most of the work of the artists was done for reproduction, so it sits well in book form. Ravilious often worked in tandem with Edward Bawden and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish their work; sadly Ravilious died young in WW2, but Bawden continued until the 1980s, with his work influencing many generations of illustrators. Louise