Revisiting Arthur and George

MV5BMjA2OTg4NjQ4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzE3Mjk5NDE@._V1_UY268_CR4,0,182,268_AL_Julian Barnes’ novel used a famous early twentieth century case of a man sent to prison for mutilating animals as inspiration; the resulting historical novel – Arthur and George – was recently aired as a three-part series on the American Public Broadcasting channel (PBS).  Barnes fictionalized some of the story and PBS gave its own spin, but the historical basis in both was true and still shockingly relevant.

Although Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character, his creator Arthur Conan Doyle shared many of his talents.  When George Edalji, the 27-year-old son of the vicar of Great Wyrley, wrote to Holmes asking for help, it was Doyle who took up his case and ultimately proved him innocent.

George’s father, a man of Parsee ancestry, married an Englishwoman, converted to Christianity, and ultimately became the Anglican minister of a small town in Staffordshire and the target of cruel prejudice. When George was 16 years old, the Edaljis began receiving threatening letters in the post, and other Staffordshire clergymen received abusive letters over Edalji’s forged signature. George shared in the family’s troubles, but eventually became a successful solicitor.

Following several incidents of animal mutilation throughout Great Wyrley, the police received anonymous letters accusing George Edalji of the crimes. The local Chief Constable decided – with no evidence – that George had written the mysterious correspondence himself and has now escalated to killing animals.  George Edalji was tried on 20th October, 1903, found guilty, and sentenced to seven years in jail; the verdict effectively destroyed his law career.  Released after three years, Edalji wrote his own version of the incident, which was published in the papers. He posted a clipping of the article to Arthur Conan Doyle, asking for his help to clear his name.

The novel and the televised series follow Doyle as he pursues the case, ultimately proving Georg’e innocence.  The real culprit was never prosecuted, but PBS satisfyingly kills him off, after revealing a surprise connection to George.

I reposted my review of Arthur and George.  Barnes’ version of the story has the notes and wording of the famous Man Booker winner, and the themes of intolerance and bigotry still ring true. In addition, the story is a great mystery thriller.  Have you read the book?

Review: Arthur and George

 

 

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The Noise of Time

9781101947241_p0_v1_s192x300    To grasp Julian Barnes’ stream of consciousness rambling in The Noise of Time, background information on the narrator, famous Russian composer Shostakovich, is necessary, as is listening to his music.

With fleeting references to Dmitry Shostakovich’s youth as a musical prodigy, Barnes focuses the first part of his book on Shostakovich’s early success with his orchestrated Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Listening to the discordant and sharp tones can be both other worldly and agonizing. Despite world-wide acclaim, the opera irritated Stalin and the dictator left in the last act before the opera ends. As a result, Shostakovich was attacked in the Soviet press – usually a harbinger to miserable consequences in Stalin Russia. Fearing imprisonment – Barnes has him waiting every night by his elevator, expecting to be arrested.

Barnes successfully gets inside the composer’s head as he recounts the beginning of the Great Terror, in which many of the composer’s friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed, including his patron Marshal Tukhachevsky. Fearing for himself and his family, Shostakovich withdrew his next symphony and managed to write a conservative and non experimental Fifth Symphony in 1937 – conveniently title by the press as “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism.” Suddenly, he was back in favor. The seesaw continued through World War II in 1948 when a government decree accused him of perversion for his modernist music.

Part Two focuses on Shostakovich’s famous trip to the United States, as an emissary for Soviet Russia. The composer struggles with his inner convictions about music, and Barnes offers the theme of this tortuous tale, reflected in his title:

“Art belongs to those who create it and those who savor it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.”
As Shostakovich unconvincingly parroted the the voice of Power in Russia – “what he was supposed to think” – his renunciation of Stravinsky, the composer he revered, seem to affirm the American view that he was only trying to be safe. For years Shostakovich’s wrote works glorifying Soviet life or history, quietly endured a tutor to indoctrinate him in Marxist beliefs, even joining the Communist Party in 1960, under duress. Barnes offers Shostakovich’s inner turmoil as absolution for his betrayal of fellow artists in the name of the government.

Throughout, Barnes identifies the constant struggle of the artist – “When a composer is bitter, or in despair, or pessimistic…{his} music…strong and true and pure {is} enough to drown out the noise of time…” His life continued to be a balancing act between being true to his music and satisfying his government.

Not an easy read, The Noise of Time opens the history of Russian politics and the music of Shostakovich in his fearful and oppressive world.

I found Shostakovich’s banned opera – Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – on the internet, and the library had a CD of his Seventh Symphony, which I played in my car whenever I was out and about.  Together, listening to his music and reading Barnes’ treatise, gave Shostakovich’s life  substance – but I doubt I will ever really understand either.

Related Review:  The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Real Downton Abbey by the Lady of the House

coverAs an ardent fan of Downton Abbey, I am always eager to discover the reality behind the fiction.  Diane Stoneback’s article The Real Downton Abbey  reviewed the recent fan mania for tours of Highclere Castle in Newbury, England – the site of the televised serial, and mentioned  Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey,  a book by Lady Fiona, the current Countess who lives at Highclere with her husband, the Eighth Earl of Carnavon.

In her research on the house’s legacy, Lady Fiona found Lady Almina in the archives – an outsider just like the character Cora – a woman who brought wealth as a substitute for British nobility and respectability, and helped to sustain the Earl’s lifestyle.  The book was not in my library system (no surprise) but I downloaded it on my Kindle.  So far, I am not disappointed.  The storyline is full of details of the lives of the Earl and his wife.  The scandals may not be as surreptitious as the televised fiction, but Lady Fiona diligently chronicles their adventures, and it’s easy to imagine them as the inspiration for the Earl of Grantham and his entourage.

Related Article:

A Conversation With the Countess of Downton Abbey

Edgar Allan Poe and Julian Barnes Birthday

Birthday twins – both Edgar Allan Poe and Julian Barnes were born on this day.

Edgar Allan Poe

Poe, born in 1809, would be over 200 years old.  He won two small awards: a $50 prize for “MS. Found in a Bottle” awarded by the Baltimore Saturday Visiter. In 1845, Poe won a $100 award for “The Gold Bug” awarded by the Dollar Newspaper, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Julian Barnes

Barnes is still writing – most recently winning the 2011 Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending – prestige and £50,000.

Put the Dust Jackets Back On

Interior designers often recommend removing the dust jackets from books before placing them on the shelves “for a more unified appearance,”  but Julie Bosman in her article for the New York Times – Selling Old-Style Books by Their Gilded Covers -writes that publishers are now counting on innovative book covers to compete with electronic books.

“If e-books are about ease and expedience, the publishers reason, then print books need to be about physical beauty and the pleasures of owning, not just reading.”

New books with attracting and unusual covers include…

      

“If the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”     Julian Barnes

One of my favorite books with one of my favorite covers – still on my shelf –