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|Written by Brendan Blom|
|Wednesday, 10 August 2011 00:00|
The world economy is trembling on its foundations, London is in flames, and the arctic sea ice is vanishing like the single little cube in your gin and tonic. It's definitely time to turn off the TV and go to the beach for some relaxation. But what should you take to read?
First, it should be fiction, because true reality is always banned at the beach. And it must have a compelling story, as engaging as the traditional escapist literature people usually bring on holiday. But it should also put you in the proper somber, mournful mood for when you get back home, when you know you'll turn your TV and computer back on, look at the news, and realize that things will never be the same again.
And so, with those criteria in mind, here is a helpful list of ten fun beach reads, full of melancholy, loss, disillusionment, and images of fleeting, evanescent beauty that will haunt us for years to come as we travel onwards into our diminished future.
1. The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a colourful but corrupt and fragile husk of its former self, run by a stolid, conservative bureaucracy on behalf of a senile, doddering old emperor. This is the world in which Carl Joseph von Trotta, a young cavalry lieutenant, comes of age. A series of scandals and tragedies gradually wears away his sense of personal honour and the value of his own place in the imperial hierarchy. Meanwhile, the country marches, along with the rest of Europe, inevitably towards the firestorm of World War I, which will wipe the Empire forever from the world map.
Joseph Roth himself led a tragic life. Born to Jewish parents in 1894 in Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he lived through its dismantling after World War I, but soon managed to install himself in still-vibrant Vienna and become a successful journalist and novelist at a young age. In the 1930s, he was forced into exile by the increasing anti-semitism among the German and Austrian populations. Profoundly depressed, he moved to Paris, where he drank excessively, and collapsed in a cafe in 1939, dead of pneumonia and heart failure during a bout of delirium tremens.
Sample passage: "The winter came. In the morning, when the regiment marched out, the world was still dark. The delicate film of ice on the streets splintered under the hooves of the horses. Gray breath streamed from the nostrils of the animals and the mouths of the riders. The matte breath of the frost beaded on the sheaths of the heavy sabers and on the barrels of the light carbines....The officers...were waiting for some extraordinary event to break the monotony of their days....And one day it erupted from the winter like red lightning from the white snow."
2. Loving, by Henry Green. While Europe and the rest of the world are tearing themselves apart (once again) in World War II, a small group of English servants in an Irish castle waits in an uneasy purgatory. Will their families in England be killed in the Blitz? Will they be forced to return home and join the war effort? In the meantime, they engage in gossip, mischief, and romantic escapades. Green was a masterful, magical writer, with a crystalline style; scenes change abruptly from one location and set of characters to another, like light glinting off a rotating gemstone, but at the end one has an indelible sense of this strange little enchanted world, isolated in time and place.
Sample passage: "They were wheeling wheeling in each other's arms heedless at the far end where they had drawn up one of the white blinds. Above from a rather low ceiling five great chandeliers swept one after the other almost to the waxed parquet floor reflecting in their hundred thousand drops the single sparkle of distant day, again and again red velvet panelled walls, and two girls, minute in purple, dancing multiplied to eternity in these trembling pears of glass."
3. The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.G. Farrell. A British military outpost in India is under siege from the rebellious natives. The British military and colonial staff try to maintain their civility and manners as they slowly starve and as their clothing and possessions rot in the heat and humidity of the tropical climate. The increasing desperation of their position only fortifies their resolve and their sense of their own racial and cultural superiority. Farrell, an Irish writer who died in a swimming accident while still in his forties, captures the absurd stoicism with a brilliantly satirical eye.
4. Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry. In the ancient, eerie Mexican town of Quauhnahuaca, on the Day of the Dead, November 2, 1938, an alcoholic British diplomat slowly and relentlessly drinks himself to his doom, in the company of his brother and his ex-wife. Geoffrey Firmin stumbles from cantina to taverna and back, drinks beer, wine, and a ceaseless flood of mescal; all the while, he remembers his life, and makes hopeless plans for a happy future somewhere else with the beautiful, lost Yvonne.
Lowry himself was an alcoholic. He was born and educated in England, and lived in Paris, New York, Mexico, and a wooden shack in British Columbia, where he wrote most of Under the Volcano. For a time, after the publication of Volcano in 1948, he was seen as a potential successor to James Joyce as the pre-eminent English-language novelist. But he never published another novel in his lifetime, and died in mysterious circumstances in 1957, after a long bout of drinking and taking pills with his wife, a few years after returning to England.
Sample passage: "'Have you gone mad?' M. Laruelle exclaimed at last. 'Am I to understand that your wife has come back to you, something I have seen you praying and howling for under the table - really under the table...And that you treat her indifferently as this, and still continue only to care where the next drink's coming from?'
"To this unanswerable and staggering injustice the Consul had no word; he reached for his cocktail, he held it, smelt it...he almost smiled pleasantly at M. Laruelle."
5. Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion. A young California woman in a mental institution, full of bitterness, despair, and broken dreams, remembers her life and reflects on her failed acting career and her disastrous marriage, which has left her with a daughter she is not allowed to see. Maria Wyeth's memories are full of harsh sunlight, strong drinks by the pool with slimy Hollywood money men and their trophy wives, and blank afternoons, leading to aimless drives down the sun-baked highway and coming apart at the seams.
6. Runaway, or anything else by Alice Munro. Some people think Alice Munro's books must be boring, because she writes about ordinary Canadian people in ordinary little Canadian towns. But she packs more emotional and psychological intensity into thirty pages of a short story than most novelists get in a couple of hundred. Reading her stories is like eavesdropping on the most scandalous gossip you have ever heard: murders, thefts, affairs, betrayals, abuse - ruined lives strewn everywhere like corpses on a twilit battlefield.
Sample passage: "As the dry golden days of fall came on -- an encouraging and profitable season -- Carla found that she had got used to the sharp thought that had lodged in her. It wasn't so sharp anymore -- in fact, it no longer surprised her. And she was inhabited now by an almost seductive notion, a constant low-lying temptation. She had only to raise her eyes, she had only to look in one direction, to know where she might go. An evening walk, once her chores for the day were finished. To the edge of the woods, and the bare tree where the vultures had held their party."
7. The Dogs of Riga, or anything else by Henning Mankell. Mankell is one of those Scandinavian mystery writers now so renowned, since everybody's read Stieg Larsson and is looking around for somebody to fill the gap now that he is gone. Mankell has pedigree, too: he is the son-in-law of Swedish film-maker and maestro of melancholy Ingmar Bergman. Mankell's detective, Kurt Wallander, lives in a grey little town on the cold, foggy southern coast of Sweden, and glumly combats the scourges of supposedly modern, liberal Europe: corruption, racism, and organized crime.
Sample passage: "In recent years Kurt Wallander had often felt the same way as Martinsson. It had become more difficult to be a police officer. They were living at a time characterised by a sort of criminality that nobody had experienced before. It was a myth that a lot of police officers left the force in order to become security guards, or work for private firms for financial reasons. The truth was that most police officers that left the force did so on grounds of insecurity."
8. Three Day Road, by Joseph Boyden. A harrowing story of two young native men from Northern Ontario who join the Canadian Army during World War I and become deadly snipers on Europe's battlefields. The story combines the despair of the slow, painful erosion of traditional native culture by settlement and government bureaucracy with the Dantesque horror of the muddy trenches in France and Belgium. The novel is a catalogue of the mind-numbing variety of ways in which man can be inhuman to man.
9. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, by John le Carre. From cold, grey, damp London to cold, grey, damp Berlin, this novel strips both the glamour and the moral certainties from the popular image of the dashing 1960s Cold War spy. The blunt truth is that well-educated, articulate old men sat in comfortable chairs drinking expensive whiskey and plotted against each other, using innocent, unwitting human beings as pawns.
Sample passage: "His flat was small and squalid, done in brown paint with photographs of Clovelly. It looked directly on to the grey backs of three stone warehouses, the windows of which were drawn, for aesthetic reasons, in creosote. Above the warehouse there lived an Italian family, quarrelling at night and beating carpets in the morning. Leamas had few possessions with which to brighten his rooms. He bought some shades to cover the light bulbs, and two pairs of sheets to replace the hessian squares provided by the landlord....From a yellow, crumbling geyser he obtained hot water for a shilling."
10. Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The glamorous Dick and Nicole Diver have the perfect life. Independently wealthy, villa in France overlooking the Mediterranean, two beautiful children, regular parties with fellow expatriates and minor European celebrities. They dress well, eat well, live well. And there is only one direction in which their lives can go.
Fitzgerald modelled the Divers partly on Gerald and Sara Murphy, an American couple who lived on the Cote d'Azur in the 1930s and socialized with many famous artists and writers, until one of their sons contracted tuberculosis, and they had to return to the States, their idyll gone forever. But he was also inspired by his own torturous marriage, blighted by his alcoholism and his wife Zelda's mental instability.
The added bonus about bringing these books on your trip is that if the power goes out, you can use them to build a fire to keep warm and cook the food you forage for in the woods. And, with that eventuality in mind, I have one more book to recommend: The SAS Survival Handbook.