The Man Who Died Twice By Richard Osman – Scrabble Chips Are Worth More Than Diamonds

The Man Who Died Twice is Richard Osman’s 2021 novel about a group of Kent retirement home residents who enjoy solving murders. The book sold over 144,000 copies in its first three days.

It has often struck me how popular murder is, with readers in general, but with older readers in particular. My daughter often looks after the secondhand book stall at a local market. Many of her customers are retired, and their preference for crime and murder easily outstrips their interest in anything else. And yet, this age group also tend to vote for the ‘law-and-order’ candidates in elections.

This is the kind of context of The Man Who Died Twice. People living in quiet circumstances look to shake things up with cosy crime. The atmosphere of a light-hearted murder mystery, however, combines with something much darker. The same people enjoying murder mystery fun, have to deal with the very real difficulties of their own situation; illness, physical vulnerability, and the sadness of their world passing away. Death hangs over the book, simply in the sense that its main characters are elderly and frail. That has an odd effect on the idea of jeopardy. Somehow the nearness of death in these people’s lives takes the sting out of it. The threat posed by gangsters becomes something of a joke. ‘Death be not proud,’ the poet John Donne wrote in one of his sonnets, and I thought of those lines reading The Man Who Died Twice.

This isn’t a John Le Carré novel. Richard Osman is a television presenter not a former member of the secret services. The plot, despite murders with some gruesome details, and a mugging with very real and unpleasant consequences, is hard to take seriously. At one point, elderly sleuth Joyce Meadowcroft, has to remind herself that she is involved with real criminals and not pretend ones. The criminals she deals with can never quite stop being characters in a farce, which is really the point. There is a pervasive sense that, in the end, no danger is as substantial as it might seem, with, as I suggested, the proximity of death ironically providing this feeling. At one point, Joyce uses a green felt bag that usually contains Scrabble chips to hide millions of pounds worth of diamonds. Criminals will do anything, shoot anyone, to get hold of a handful of sparkly rocks. But how valuable are diamonds to someone nearing the end of their life? Scrabble chips will probably be more precious, because they make possible a fun game to play with friends. And with mortality looming, fun, friends and Scrabble are better things to live for, than diamonds someone might want to kill for.

This is a warm, funny, moving and complex book. I’m not talking about complex in the plot sense – which has the requisite twists and turns – but complex in the way it deals with issues of ageing, danger and security. I think the sensitive treatment of these things lies behind the book’s success; or at least lay behind my enjoyment and admiration of it.

The Golden Bowl By Henry James – #longsentences

The Golden Bowl is Henry James’s 1904 novel, about wealthy American art collector, Adam Verver and his daughter, Maggie. They both have marriages arranged by their friend Fanny Assingham. For the daughter, Fanny supplies Amerigo, a financially challenged Italian prince of impeccable social credentials. For widower Adam, there is Charlotte Stant, a beautiful, accomplished, widely travelled young woman, former girlfriend of the prince, who only avoided marrying him because she did not have the fortune that his position required.

Charlotte’s job is to handle boring, administrative stuff while her husband gets on with being artistic. The prince becomes part of the Verver art collection, hanging around in fine clothes, looking decorative, and conducting urbane conversations at parties. Both Amerigo and Charlottle get bored in their stifling roles, and end up rekindling their love affair. These events are accompanied by a detailed account of the interior lives of the main characters, alongside a nuanced study of value in people, art and morals.

This is a brief description of a book which has nothing brief about it. Many hundreds of pages are covered in very long sentences. These sentences will probably dictate how you feel about The Golden Bowl. In deciding whether James’s ornate prose is good or not, it might be worth remembering that The Golden Bowl is about how we value things. Adam Verver is very confident in his judgment as an art collector. Items are good or bad. He would not be the sort to acknowledge that fashions change, and what is good today may be bad tomorrow. In 1904, long, complicated sentences were a sign of quality literature. By the middle of the century, George Orwell was busy advising that if a word could be cut it should be cut, and Ernest Hemingway was writing to his editor about the eternal value of the succinct:

‘It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.’ 

Ernest Hemingway wrote many true things but I don’t think this is one of them. The Gettysburg Address may be short, but that does not mean that people have always valued Hemingway-like brevity. As Edward Karak points out in Refract Magazine, George Washington’s inaugural address from 1789 has 315 words over five sentences. Barack Obama’s inaugural address from 2009 also runs for five sentences, but they only contain 89 words. People prefer brevity in their writing now. Fashions have changed. 

So as fashions change do we gain or lose? Short sentences can express a point better than long ones, except maybe where the writer seeks to convey a situation which isn’t merely about getting to the point. The Golden Bowl is suspicious of snappy, clear cut positions. Adam Verver sees things in black and white, whether that’s people, or works of art. They are all judged and filed away. Ironically you could say that in many ways, modern trends in writing lend themselves to an Adam Verver outlook. People go on Twitter and write a briefly stated opinion. There is only time to be right or wrong. There is much judging.

Long sentences might have a different potential. It’s not that long sentences are necessarily more deep and meaningful. Often they can sound significant without actually saying very much, and I wasn’t even close to admiring every sentence in The Golden Bowl. This is not a book to read when you’re tired. However, over time the effect of this unfashionable prose was beguiling. There’s a wonderful section where Amerigo stands on the terrace at Matcham House on a lovely morning, enjoying the view towards Gloucester, and waiting for a furtive meeting with Charlotte. Lugubrious sentences describe house and vista. The scene has no meaning beyond itself. It is a beautiful morning and that is enough. The lengthy sentences are part of that luxury of just enjoying something for its own sake. There is no point to get to. I thought these sentences really were beautiful, not because they necessarily had a depth that we have lost, but because they had an ease that we have ceased to value. They described something that could be judged as good, like a timeless sculpture of ancient pedigree, while also remaining a fleeting thing, disappearing even at the moment of appreciation. That contrast, well suited to the ornate prose, is really where the book’s quality lay for me.

I would suggest that reading The Golden Bowl is like staying at a lovely country house, which would never get planning permission today. Sometimes you sit at dinner staring at a bewildering selection of fruit knives, asparagus forks and bouillon spoons, wishing for something you could eat with your hands. At other times, you wander on the terrace and enjoy the beautiful expression of a lost society, which, in its contrasts with our own, has much to teach us.

Partita For 8 Voices – Sounds Of The City

Partita for 8 Voices by Caroline Shaw is a vocal composition which I came across as theme music in the recent BBC drama Marriage. Immediately I went hunting for both the complete piece, and background information, discovering it was created over a number of years and released in 2012 by Caroline Shaw’s vocal group, A Roomful of Teeth. Partita won a Grammy, and 2013’s Pulitzer Prize for Music.

It was the opening of the piece that sent me off on my search – a snatch of apparently random and disconnected spoken words all resolving into many-voiced harmony. It soon became apparent that the opening words are not as random as they seemed. They are actually a combination of square dance calls and technical instructions given by artist Sol LeWitt to a draughtsman for completing one of his wall drawings. So there is order in those broken words which is soon reflected in the music of the arresting opening chord as the choir all come together. Part of Caroline Shaw’s inspiration for her Partita came from singing a Christmas Eve midnight mass at St Mary the Virgin on New York’s 45th Street, and then emerging into the lively chaos of the night-time city. That combination characterises Partita for 8 Voices. My first impression was of a collision of aimless chat, modern jazz and Gregorian chant, and that’s really what it is. It’s a coming together of the particular and the general, precise line drawing instructions alongside vague musical echoes from all over the world – moments of throat singing for example, as practised by ethnic groups in Russia, Japan, Canada, Mongolia, Italy and China. There’s old and new, lasting and transient, sacred and profane. Partita is like a big city, where so many people and influences combine in brightly lit, highly organised chaos.

Stefan Golaszewski’s BBC Series, Marriage

Marriage is the new BBC drama starring Sean Bean and Nicola Walker, playing Ian and Emma, a couple who have been married for many years. Ian has recently been made redundant, and is struggling for direction in his life. Emma is doing quite well at a firm of solicitors. She seems to have a complicated relationship with her boss, who is an odd combination of superficial macho postering, and deep emotional issues. Meanwhile, representing the younger generation, we have Ian and Emma’s adopted daughter Jessica, who is trying to make her way as a singer songwriter, whilst navigating the highs and lows of young love.

The tone is surprising for a mainstream TV drama. It’s like having a Harold Pinter play in the Bodyguard slot. Events, seemingly unremarkable in their outward appearance, hide great turbulence beneath. This produces uncomfortable drama characterised by fascinating contrasts. There’s the consideration of love for example and how it changes over the years. Superficially it looks like the youngsters get all the fun – all the passion and depth of feeling. There is an instant attraction between Jessica and Mark, a young man she meets in a restaurant. Experiencing the rush of love at first sight, they sit and talk for hours. At one point they discuss their parents’ relationships, which they see as having become dull and stale. Jessica has written songs about the intense feelings of young love, songs which have given rise to knowing chuckles from Ian and Emma after watching one of their daughter’s gigs.

But here’s the thing. For couples who remain together for many years, a long-term partner can become as vital and integral to an individual’s wellbeing as their leg, arm, hand, or if we are to use the usual language of romance, heart. Maybe you might not write love songs to your arm, but if you were to lose that arm, no love song would really be able to describe the resulting loss. Ian is terrified of losing Emma, in the sense that he is terrified of losing something so important to him that it has become part of himself.

And yet there is another contrast offered by Marriage. Jessica may love Mark, but for eight months she has been involved with a creepy and controlling young man called Adam. After a loved up day of talk, Jessica does not take Mark’s number because, she admits, Adam checks her phone.

“He shouldn’t do that,” says Mark, and of course he is right. Love does not come by controlling another person. They are not your arm to do your bidding in picking something up. Everything that keeps people at a measure of healthy distance from each other is part of what allows them to be happy together. Silly arguments, and anxieties about losing the other person become oddly part of being together. Ian can have a nervous breakdown over Emma going to a conference overnight with her boss, but after the crisis, they are happy in the garden again, Emma working at her laptop, Ian putting wood stain on the garden furniture.

Stefan Golaszewski has written a fascinating piece of drama, the acting matching the subtlety of the writing. I hope Marriage gets the recognition it deserves.

Small Things Like These By Claire Keegan – Getting The Christmas We Deserve

Small Things Like These is Claire Keegan’s 2021 novella, long-listed for the 2022 Booker Prize. It’s set in a small Irish town, during the build up to Christmas 1985. Bill Furlong, who runs a coal merchant business, faces his busiest time of year. Going about his duties, with characteristic diligence and friendliness, the daily round cannot stop him pondering on his wider situation and life direction. He recalls a childhood as the illegitimate child of a servant who worked in a big house in the area. Fortunately for Bill, the lady of the house, was a decent, kindly person who looked after both young mother and her child.

As Christmas approaches, Bill comes to realise that things could have been very different for him and his mother. He delivers coal to a convent where an order of nuns run a ‘Magdalen laundry’. Although it’s not exactly clear in the book what this institution is all about, it seems to be a place of confinement and forced labour for children and single mothers. I did some googling – discovering a tragic history of organisations originally set up in Britain in the eighteenth century as places of correction for ‘fallen women’ – that is prostitutes. In Ireland, the laundries, run by the Catholic Church, saw an increasing demand for their cheap service, and for the workers to provide it. This drove a widening of the original definition of ‘fallen women’. Eventually, any woman who might challenge Irish notions of religious morality was fair game. Single mothers and their children often ended up within the brutal, secretive confines of a Magdalen laundry. Thousands died. This was the situation as Bill delivers his coal to the convent, a few days before Christmas 1985.

Bill discovers a girl, in a terrible state, locked in a coal bunker, which the nuns explain as hide and seek gone wrong. It doesn’t take a genius to work out this is nonsense. The rest of the book deals with Bill’s dilemma: does he turn a blind eye – as the community wishes – or does he do something?

Small Things Like These exists in the tradition of novels designed to bring attention to social injustices. In that sense, my reading of the book worked just as it should, getting me to look up the history of Magdalen laundries, which I had not been aware of before. Simply casting light on this dark history is valuable in itself. But I felt the book was more than a kind of fictionalised investigative journalism. It’s real subject is the daily round, which carries people along, preventing them from seeing and thinking. Bill finds a hard comfort in humdrum duties which leave little time or energy for reflection on anything except work. However, Christmas is approaching, a time when for a few days at least, the daily round stops turning. The Church is the villain of this piece. However, it is poignant that the breaks in demanding routine, encouraging wider reflection, should be religious holidays. The Sunday before Christmas, a “threadbare and raw day” during which Bill longs for the routine of Monday, is a day of crisis for him. Then Christmas itself approaches, bringing with it Bill’s final reckoning. Undoubtedly, the holidays have their own demanding pattern – cake baking, midnight masses and the like. But even so, there remains at least a chink of light, that sense of a break in the daily drill of life, which provides a chance to see and do things differently.

The contrast between a truly corrupt Church, and a kind of counterbalancing opportunity offered by traditional holidays for thought and reflection on how we go about things, was, for me, the most interesting aspect of this beautifully written little book. It lent a quality which went beyond the specifics of the history it reveals.

Sister Carrie By Theodore Dreiser – Restlessly Seeking Peace

The classic American novel, Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, published in 1900, might not seem conducive to modern tastes. Stylistically it’s like a big, nineteenth century novel, which hasn’t caught on to the idea of showing. The author continually pops up to tell you stuff – which chemicals the body produces under stress, in one eyebrow-raising, and scientifically dubious instance. Point of view switches around frequently. On occasion we even see the action through the perspective of random policemen, or half-seen shop girls.

But in its preoccupations, the book actually felt very modern. In the wake of Origin of Species published forty years before, Dreiser uses Carrie’s story to explore evolutionary ideas applied to society. Carrie, a young woman from Wisconsin, moves to Chicago to try and make a better life for herself. We follow her efforts, living for a short period with dull relatives, conducting a relationship with two men, and falling into a career as an actress. Dreiser says at one point, with regard to his heroine’s struggle:

We have the consolation of knowing that evolution is ever in action, that the ideal is a light that cannot fail.

But don’t think this bold statement is Dreiser telling you how it is. Although he is a bit of a proclaimer, Dreiser’s proclamations are multifaceted. Often a consequence of telling rather than showing is loss of subtlety. A reader is told what to think rather than presented with a situation to explore for themselves. That’s not the case here. Dreiser looks at social and personal evolution from all angles, and allows you to draw your own conclusions. For example we see that Carrie’s new city life is in many ways a dark one, involving manufactured dissatisfaction, which forces people to continually chase material gain in an atmosphere of ruthless competition. And yet restlessness of spirit is not always portrayed as a bad thing. The boring relatives Carrie stays with on first reaching Chicago have no restlessness of spirit. That’s what makes them boring.

We then explore the ambivalent goals to which dissatisfied people aspire. People are better and happier when they have a goal to aim for. Leaving behind that stick-in-the mud sister and her zombie husband, Carrie flourishes when she discovers acting ambitions. Conversely, she also discovers that much-desired goals are less attractive in reality than in dreamy anticipation. This suggests the unfailing light of evolutionary development is not as unfailing as it seems. A brightly lit sign, advertising one of Carrie’s Broadway shows, switching off after show-time, might be a good analogy. You reach the destination you worked so hard to achieve, and find yourself not much further on.

An essay at the end of my Simon and Schuster Kindle edition, pointed out the importance of rocking chairs as an image in the book. People retreat to rocking chairs to reflect, in the aftermath of both triumph and disaster, or bewildering combinations of both. The rocking motion neatly describes moving back and forth between contradictions. Evolution is no simple journey to the light. Such a straightforward idea of progress is probably more in tune with the religious world-views that came before. The journey of evolution is presented as one of endless oscillation, which goes nowhere, continues endlessly, and yet on occasion still suggests peace.

So, this book presents a complex and modern scenario to explore in turn of the century America. I ended up really enjoying Sister Carrie.

A Visit From The Goon Squad – Time, Tide And Tenses

A Visit From The Goon Squad is a 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Jennifer Egan. It’s a novel that’s almost a collection of short stories, about a group of characters who are generally involved with the American music scene, either as fans, performers, producers, or tangential staff. Minor characters in one chapter became central in another; or we see characters as contrasting people at different stages in their lives.

The book isn’t really about music, which was my impression when I bought it. The real subject is time and change. Time is the ‘goon’ of the title, sneaking in to build people up and break them down, making them central to the action one moment, peripheral the next. There is interesting use of fiction technique to reflect this changeability. We get tenses shifting between past and present. Then there is the varied style of narration, in first person, third person, with one chapter even in second person, a very tricky perspective that puts ‘you’, the reader, as the central character. You are Rob, a troubled young man involved in a strained love-triangle. After a hectic night of partying, ‘you’ take the unfortunate decision to go for a swim in New York’s East River at dawn. As hypothermia sets in, Rob has an out of body experience, which is one of the book’s most powerful reflections on the way there is no stable, definitive viewpoint in life’s changing story. I was reminded of the ideas of Jung, where individuals might see things from an individual standpoint in their waking hours, only to enter a kind of shared unconscious in their dreams.

Anyway, if this all sounds deep and meaningful, that’s what this book is – an overtly clever reflection on shifting perspective. Obvious sophistication makes A Visit From The Goon Squad a good candidate for a big prize like the Pulitzer. You could easily use this book in a writing class. Impressive as its technical accomplishments might be, they were also the source of potential reservations I felt about the book. After all, some of the best novels are deceptive in their simplicity. Jennifer Egan’s writing, with all its clever fiction tricks, does not have deceptive simplicity.

That being said, I still enjoyed A Visit From The Goon Squad. There was much humanity in the writing – poignant, recognisable moments of seeing others, or ourselves, before and after time has done its work – and those moments made me think of life experience rather than some technical aspect of fiction writing.

This is not one of my favourite books of all time. Too much of the mechanism of writing is on display for that. But it is still a clever and compelling novel.

As I Lay Dying – A Crazy Odyssey

As I Lay Dying is the story of a poor farming family from Mississippi. The matriarch of the family, Addie Bundren, is very ill. Before she dies she asks to be buried amongst her relatives in Jefferson, a long journey from the farm where Addie lives with her feckless husband Anse and her children. Anse is not a man to honour promises or do the right thing, but his stubborn, unreasonable nature latches on to his wife’s final wish. Even though on the night of Addie’s death there is a massive storm which destroys all the bridges in the area, Anse is determined to make it to Jefferson. Against all reason he gathers up the family and they set off in a wagon, braving wild river crossings, burning barns, mental breakdown, and broken limbs treated with terrible, amateur first aid.

The story is told through the point of view of various family members, friends who try to help, and others who encounter the chaotic Bundren progress. A few seem to be what a court of law would call a reliable witness. Most are very much not. I’ve seen the word ‘stream of consciousness’ used to describe the book, which might be a fancy term for writing the first thing that comes into your head. It doesn’t really come over like that. Some of the accounts, particularly from the confused younger children, appear to be a splurge of thoughts. But there are also chapters which remind me of a member of the public speaking to camera about what they have witnessed after the disastrous Bundren show has passed through town.

I have no idea who is supposed to have put all these accounts together. There is no framing device to make sense of it all. You just have to take it as it comes. I think if you read it in that spirit, the book will be by turns bewildering, distasteful, beautiful, pretentious, annoying, tragic, and bizarrely funny. It will all add up to an unholy mess of a journey, which has to happen and is completely pointless at the same time. The book takes its name from a line in Homer’s Odyssey. Maybe the point is that there is no point, no tidy final destination, in Jefferson, Ithaca or otherwise, which is oddly reassuring, for a story where death is a major thing.

Reviews often give a rating to a book. Such a thing is difficult here. As I Lay Dying is indefinable, a quality which includes whether a reader actually enjoys it or not. Undoubtedly this is a tough journey, and some people might be quite reasonable in shouting their advice to give it up. But in the end I was glad I read it.

A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh – Deep Layers Of Dust

Pillars of space dust in the Eagle Nebula (NASA ESA/Hubble)

A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, published in 1934, is the story of country squire Tony Last, who, after the collapse of his marriage, takes a trip into the South American jungle.

I found this a difficult book to get my head around, but it wasn’t hard work to read. Far from it. While there were many jumps in viewpoint, these shifts were so deft that the book read as easily as a country house comedy, which is where I suspected we were as the book opened. Then Tony’s son dies in a riding accident, and it becomes clear that country house comedy isn’t what we are dealing with. The humour takes a dark turn. For example, we have the dreadful Jenny Abdul Akbar getting muddled about the casualty’s name:

‘Quick,’ she whispered, ‘Tell me. I can’t bear it. Is it death?’

Jock nodded. ‘Their little boy … kicked by a horse.’

‘Little Jimmy.’

‘John.’

‘John … dead. It’s too horrible.’

So what to make of it. I had a look at what other people said about the book. There was much debate about Waugh’s conversion to Catholicism which was on-going at the time of writing. Apparently the critic Frank Kermode thought A Handful Of Dust portrayed the awful, frivolous world which exists without religion, specifically the Catholic religion. This seemed ridiculous. The idea that the characters in A Handful Of Dust might have avoided their collective disappointments if only they had converted to Catholicism, was far fetched to say the least.

Besides what good novel has ever been propaganda for a particular religion? So I forgot about Catholicism, and went back to A Handful Of Dust and my reaction to it.

A Handful Of Dust features polished lives hiding all kinds of depth, whether it’s depth of resentment, hurt and depravity on the one hand, or beauty, comfort and stability on the other. Sometimes superficiality is painful, and sometimes it’s light relief from pain. During Tony’s post break-up jungle trek, he falls ill with a fever, and discovers that both poisons and medicines are to be found amongst the tropical trees and flowers. Similarly, back in England, superficiality can be a medicine or a poison depending on how you prepare the raw material.

Although my reading about the background of A Handful Of Dust had mostly been a matter of wading through paragraphs debating Catholicism versus humanism and so on, there was one thing I did discover that interested me. Waugh was an admirer of his contemporary Anthony Powell, author of A Dance To The Music Of Time. Powell is one of my favourite writers. He had a great ability to take the surface elements of life – English life in particular – and plumb hidden depths. I realised that Waugh might be seen as a reluctant Powell, playing with the same themes whilst appearing more uneasy about them. Rather than seeking a religious shortcut to the apparently profound, Waugh might have done better to have gone all-in with the apparently superficial, embracing and enjoying it for good or ill, which is the secret of the wonderful A Dance To The Music Of Time.

Maybe Evelyn Waugh wrote a good novel despite himself. I much prefer Powell’s writing, but I still enjoyed A Handful of Dust, which remains primarily a novel rather than a demand that we look at the world through the lens of a particular religion.