Just finished John Wray’s fine novel, The Right Hand of Sleep, set in Austria in 1938.
Now, you know when you begin reading a novel set almost anywhere in Europe in 1938 that you will spend most of the next few hours or days beset by a dreadful foreboding.
Wray not only brings that to a climax, but he also leaves you there in it, quite consciously, as if there’s nothing more he need say on events after 1939, and their probable impact on his puzzling but somehow vaguely unlikeable protagonists. There are no simple equations here: of right or wrong action; of political answers; of fear versus courage. Kindly old uncles are vicious anti-Semites. Jewish friends are too drunk or fearful to comprehend the new order. Lovers keep secrets, hermits seek company, pacifists lash out with their fists, Nazis charm and cajole.
It’s an interesting contrast – or perhaps complement – to Iain Pears’ The Dream of Scipio, which I read last year and which continues to play on my thoughts. Here, the ethical threads that run through the three narratives are summed up by the book’s conscience, the philosopher Sophia:
We must be just, we must strive, we must engage ourselves with the business of the world for our own sake, because through that, and through contemplation in equal measure, our soul is purified and brought closer to the divine…
You see how its impact carries on? Wray’s may well be the same. We shall see.
So now I’m in my post-novel slump, which may last for an entire afternoon, in which I feel bereft and abandoned (perhaps cast out is a better term) of the imaginative world I’ve inhabited, courtesy of good writing.
But I recently read about a wonderful new translation of War and Peace, and it must be at least a year since I read it last. I’ve never warmed to my current copy, which was purchased in an emergency: all names are Anglicised, so that Nicholas rescues Mary, which doesn’t seem nearly so romantic.
It’s hard to feel the same way about a pale and suffering Prince Andrew. Our plumber is called Andrew. He’s a lovely plumber, too, but I feel a Russian prince really ought to be an Andrei.
And when you get to the dramatic moment when the bandaged general exclaims, “You see before you the unfortunate Mack!” my guy says instead, “Vous voyez le malheureux Mack“. Luckily I know what he means.
I need a long, happy voyage in a book right now, so I’m pushing aside that demanding reading pile and climbing back into the loving arms of Tolstoy.
As soon as I buy a new copy.