Alan Hollinghurst ‘The Sparsholt Affair’

“The evening when we first heard Sparsholt’s name seems the best place to start this little memoir. We were up in my rooms, talking about the club. Peter Goyle, the painter, was there, and Charlie Farmonger and Evert Dax.3B22C1AF-0CA2-4A17-8359-8E3F426D9F8AA sort of vote had taken place, and I emerged as the secretary, I was the oldest by a year and exempt from service”

Alan Hollinghurst’s novel chronicles gay life in a number of distinct episodes in England through two generations of the Sparsholt family. The book begins at the outset of the second world war at Oxford university illustrated at the first meeting of the memoir club in the opening quote where Goyle, Dax and the narrator of the first time period, Julian Green are are present and we hear of Sparsholt, a young freshman keen on rowing coming from an engineering family in Warwickshire with no real interest in books and only really filling in time before he is called up and seems so out of place with the upper class gays in the club:

“Oh, yes, him,” Evert said, as the source of the shadow moved slowly into view, a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights. He did this with no apparent effort – but of course it was hard to tell from this distance, from which he showed, in this square of light, as massive and abstracted, as if shaped from light himself. Peter put his hand on my arm.
“My dear” he said, “I seem to have found my new model.” At which Evert made a little gasp, and looked at him furiously for a second.

Sparsholt is then indeed painted by Peter Goyle, a nude torso which is after Goyle’s death in the war later obtained by Dax. In this well described 1940.s Oxford it is also clear that Sparsholt is a more nuanced charachter than he may first seem and that gays even in these times should not be stereotyped.

In the second time sequence, we follow David Sparsholt’s family on a family holiday in the 60’s, a little before the actual Sparsholt affair, where we see that he has married his girlfriend from before his Oxford years, Connie, has a family but still prefers the company of his friend, Clifford, who is on holiday with his wife nearby, nothing is overt here, homosexuality is afterall still illegal. We are also introduced to his son, Johnny the narrator of the remainder of the book as he suspects nothing of his father but is himself discovering his own sexual tendancies in his early teens as he is infatuated with Bastien his French exchange student.

The second part of the book follows Johnny through his life in London as he first meets Evert Dax and then the rest of the Memoire club, this happens after the Sparsholt affair, a scandal involving his father, and follows Johnny as he matures and the grows older.

First Published in English as “The Sparsholt Affair” in 2017 by Picador.


Pierre Lemaitre ‘Cadres Noirs’

David Fontana
Note FAO Bertrand Lacoste
Subject: Business game “Hostage Crisis” —Customer: Exxyal

As per our agreement, update on the situation.
For the commando, I’ve engaged two associates I’ve worked with many times before and can vouch for.
To play the parts of the Exxyal customers, I’ve chosen two men, a young Arab and a Belgian actor about fifty years old.41BEE058-A535-40C7-96E5-D234CB571A90
For the arms I’ve gone for
— three Uzi machine guns (weighing less than three kilos, firing up to 950 9mm rounds per minute);
—two Glok 17 Basic pistols (635 grams, same calibre, 31 shot chargers);
—two Smith & Wesson pistols
All of the weapons will of course be loaded with blanks…..
The selected managers, minus their cell phones and personal objects will be kept in an office and interrogated one at a time. the scenario allows the possibility to leave the hostages alone for a few minutes to evaluate their ability to organise themselves, or even to organise their resistance as you’ve requested. The head of the commando will carry out the individual interrogations following the instructions of the examiners.
The evolution of the business game can be followed by cameras”***

Alain Delambre 57 years old has been out of work for 4 years, having halted the work already engaged on his kitchen when he lost his job, he and his wife have been living in a temporary situation and slowly slipping further and further into poverty, looked down on by his son in law and pitied by his daughter. He is at wits end, scraping by with demoralising jobs when one day as he is bent over his foreman kicks him in the ass, he rebels, dropping him a headbutt and walking away from the only money keeping them afloat. Things don’t end there as the company decides to take him to court for GBH to obtain damages and the witnesses, all afraid to lose their jobs, won’t speak up.

Delambre an exhead of Human Resources is then unexpectedly called for an interview for a manager‘s job in a large petrochemical firm. How far is he ready to go to obtain security? How low is he ready to stoop to put all the odds on his side? Further than you or I could imagine.

The opening quote tells us something of the imagined selection process, an inhuman test for sure, but what would happen if Delambre were to find out that the dice were loaded and that he had no chance to get the job, and if he knew of the selection process? Well anything could happen and as the hostages are humiliated, Delambre acts but even as we think we understand what has happened as the selection process reaches it’s climax, Lemaitre holds back a twist.

An excellent thriller by a major French author not yet translated into English.

First published in French as ‘Cadres Noirs’ by Calmann-Levy in 2010.
*** My translation

Denis Guedj ‘The Parrot’s Theorem’

The combination of Roman disinterest for things of the mind and the Christian hostility to knowledge not dependant on God or his saints had tragic consequences for the survival of the sciences. The first to suffer the effects was Hypathie, the first great female mathematician in history…7D6756F0-5E15-43C9-A0F7-3F02B50ADF03
One day in 415 AD, the population, prepared over a long period of time by the Patriarch of Alexandria, rushed her charriot, pulled her to the ground, stripped her and dragged her to a sanctuary. She was tortured using razor sharp oyster shells before being burnt alive….
Lea looked towards him, she was pale Mr. Ruche blamed himself for giving too much unnecessary detail.
“A single female mathematician in the whole of antiquity and she’s tortured and burnt to death!”
And in total seriousness, she muttered:
“And we wonder why there aren’t more women studying maths.”***

Denis Guedj was a French novelist and a professor of the History of Science at Paris VIII University and wrote a number of books to try to bring maths to adults. In his Parrot’s Theorem, Guedj sets a murder mystery in a framework to present the history of mathematics from its early beginnings with the Greek mathematicians up to the 1990’s and the demonstration of Fermat’s  Last Theorem.

Pierre Ruche is a retired librarian, in his eighties and confined to a wheelchair living in his converted garage in Paris and he has given over his house to Perrette
And her three children that PIerre hasn’t really got to know since they’ve been living next to him. The story begins with two seemingly unconnected events, Firstly Pierre receives an unexpected letter from the Amazon adressed to him using the name πr, from an ald frind Grosrouvre that Pierre hadn’t seen since the war and learn that the two Had been well known students at the Sorbonne together:

Mr Ruche was reading philosophy; Grosrouvre, maths. While there, both began to write. Ruche published a much-admired essay on being; Grosrouvre wrote a highly acclaimed thesis on the number zero. They were inseparable –other students jokingly called them ‘Being and Nothingness’. When Sartre published his essay some years later, Mr Ruche suspected he had stolen the name, but he couldn’t prove it.

The second event takes place when Max, Perrette’s youngest son, who is deaf, saves a rare Parrot from two gangsters and brings it back to the house.

Grosrouvre sends Pierre Ruche his rare mathematical library before he is found dead in his burned library in Manaus, in trying to solve the mystery of why Grosrouvre should be killed, by whom and why he should send his rare library from Manaus to Paris we embark on a voyage of discovery of the history of mathematics, the initial quote about Rome being typical of the treatment, and pierre Ruche discovers the close links between mathematics and philosophy as well as getting to know the family he lives next to. The centuries of the advancement of mathematics in Bagdad were unknown to me, in the importance or in the scale as the following quote concerning the Beit al Hikma (the House of Knowledge) shows:

—The importance of the house of knowledge came from its translators. There were dozens who came from all over, working on manuscripts coming equally from everywhere. The exceptional diversity of the languages from which the translation took place made up a learned Babel: Greek, Sogdian, Sanskrit, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Copt…..
In the huge calligraphy workshops, armies of scribes worked nonstop. The works, written in Arabic now, began to fill the the bookshelves of the House of Knowledge. The number of copies increased! Everything was ready so that through these works, newly available, the knowledge collected from elsewhere should spread throughout the immense Arabic empire.***

If you are interested in the history of mathematics, this is a light introduction, and what is the probability of the parrot and Grosrouvre being connected? well mathematically speaking highly improbable but not impossible.

First published in French as ‘Le Théorème du Perroquet’ by Seuil in 1998
Translated into English by Franck Wynne as “The Parrot’s Theorem” and published by St Martin’s Press in 2000
*** My translation

Patrick deWitt ‘The Sisters Brothers’

I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job. It was threatening to snow and I was cold and for want of something to do I studied Charlie’s new horse, Nimble. My new horse was called TubEC2DDB73-A815-4577-A8EC-496B350B0A83….Tub was a healthy enough animal but would have been better suited to some other, less ambitious owner. He was portly and low-backed and could not travel more than fifty miles in a day. I was often forced to whip him, which some men do not mind doing and which in fact some enjoy doing, but which I did not like to do; and afterward he, Tub, believed me cruel and thought to himself, Sad life, sad life.

Charlie and Eli Sisters, the Sisters brother’s a famous pair of professional killers are sent by the Commodore from Oregon city to Sacramento in California to find and kill Hermann Kermit Warm in 1851. Patrick deWitt tells us through their eyes of the West around the time of the Goldrush, of the rapidly growing towns of the desperate and lonely 49ers and of San Francisco and he chaos of the time as ships sail into the harbour and are left unloaded with their goods rotting as whole ships companies take to the hills looking for gold.

Into that chaos come Charlie and Eli Sisters, Charlie comfortable with his life as a killer, asking no questions and his brother Eli, tortured by the life he leads but loyal to his brother, Charlie a cold blooded killer and Eli réticent until he loses his temper. The story begins with the opening quote as the brothers are given in part payment for a job The horses they will take on the trip with them, the names say it all as Charlie takes Nimble for himself and leaves Eli with Tub.

Warm has found a way to get gold from the river, he has a liquid which when tipped in large quantities into the river causes gold to shine for a short period allowing him to just wade in and pick it out, but even the loyalist Of killers can be tempted by the promise of gold. What is the liquid? Well it kills anything in the river downstream and you really don’t want to come into contact with it, but then gold is gold and it is lying there waiting to be scooped up.

In his 2011 Mann Booker short listed book, the humour is dry and dark and the setting of the story and the descriptions of the times and the different characters are of more interest than the actual story.

First Published in English as “The Sisters brothers” in 2011 by Ecco.
Translated into French by Emmanuelle and Philippe Aronson as “Les frères Sisters” and published by Actes Sud in 2012

Laurent Bénégui ‘Mon pire ennemi est sous mon chapeau’

—The program is postponed professor Minowski.
—Postponed….until when? I had answered naively, six weeks earlier.AA0AE221-1420-440C-84DF-0E1F480BF3CF
—Sine die, Talbot, the director of genolab, had mumbled.
As if it was less painful for a scientist to be sacked in Latin.
—Your whole team’s fired including you.***

Laurent Minowski’s life is falling apart, in the space of few days, he loses his job as illustrated in the opening quote and his doctor diagnoses him with high blood pressure. Laurent’s albeit unfortunate problems are not exceptional except that Laurent lives with Juliette, who is twenty years younger than him and is afraid that if he does not seem strong he will lose her. He begins by stealing a Vélib bicycle and selling it on at a flea market, leaving his telephone number with the crooks in case they can use him for any small operations. From this opening Bénégui sketches out a wild comedy, My Worst Enemy is Under My Hat, as Minowski gets deeper and deeper into trouble.

Minowski soon learns that success in any new field of endeavour, including larceny, requires experience as he is set up to carry the can for a murder, being sent ostensibly to steal some paintings into an appartement with two corpses in, he gets out just in time but with an abandoned baby!!! Now Juliette so wants a baby…..So after wondering how they will keep the baby they take him to the doctor’s where they are caught out and make up a name on the spot, Mateus:

You’ll seldom find parents who know their child’s head size but not his name…the paediatricians swallowed our story more easily than we could have hoped for.
Sitting behind his desk he looked enthusiastically at us with a beaming smile…
—Well Mateus Minowski, said the paediatrician, the talking’s over let’s examine you now, if your parents would be kind enough to undress you……
—Ok, pass him to me, I’ll Open the parcel joked Doctor Lebillon….I heard him pull back the Velcro on the nappy, and he was silent….
—Is there a problem doctor? Juliette asked.
—Has he dirtied his nappy?

A light, fun read.

First published in French as ‘Mon pire ennemi est sous mon chapeau’ by Julliard in 2012
*** My translation

Martin Suter ‘Allmen And The Dragonflies’

—Never before in his life had he known a woman throw herself at him with the hunger shown by the platinum blonde from the opera. 63ED61CD-00E9-4E8E-B710-CA2DF2B00E28On the back seat of the limousine, in full view through the chauffeur’s mirror, he had just been able to fight off Jojo’s attacks. But on arrival in the  entrance hall of the large lakeside villa, he let himself be pulled, without resisting, first up the  large staircase, then into the diva’s bedroom as if he had been a prey brought back by a lioness.***

Martin Suter’s Allmen and the dragonflies, read for German lit month, is the first book in a series concerning Allmen, a completely decadent Swiss gentleman, who has inherited wealth but, due to his lifestyle, is unable to hold onto it. Allmen owes everyone money but holds back enough to keep up appearances, for instance his opera-house membership from before he had delapidated his fortune gives him access to two cheaper tickets , one of which he sells on to a rich banker for profit and is the starting point for this book’s adventure.

The book gives us a short easy to read and slowly unravelled mystery in which Suter’s character descriptions stand out, such as the opening quote about Joëlle (Jojo), fourty something, Rohypnol taking woman who turns up at the opera with the rich banker’s ticket illustrated in the opening quote, or Carlos the resourceful Guatemalan gardener come man servant who has become indispensable to Johann Friedrich Von Allmen and who he adresses as Don John:

—The evening when he told Carlos that he would have to sell the villa, move to the gardener’s house and let him go, Carlos just  nodded his head and replied ‘very well Don John’ and went back to the house in question
But the next day, whilst Allmen was seated before his breakfast and Carlos was serving him coffee, he said in his usual stiff manner:
‘Una sugerencia nada más’***

Almenn then, who becomes involved in petty art thefts which he sells to his local fence, one evening at Jojo’s father’s villa on the lake, crosses the line from anonymous petty larson to more serious theft when he finds and steels an art nouveau glass with a dragonfly decoration, one of a set of five and sells it to his local fence for 20000 Swiss Francs. All seems well until he returns with Jojo for a second torrid night hoping to get the other four glasses and to his surprise discovers all five glasses in place once again.

Before the end of the book we discover, that the glasses are worth considerably more than the 20000 Swiss Francs, murder, insurance swindles, blackmail and more. Allmen with no small thanks to Carlos skates over the thin ice and of course comes out on top. Is he more of a gentleman thief or more on the side of the law? I guess only Simon Templar would know.

First published in German as ‘Allmen und die Libellen ‘ by Diogenes  in 2011
Translated into French by Olivier Mannoni as “Allmen et les Libellules” and published by Christian Bourgeois in 2011
*** My translation

Peter Stamm ‘Seven Years’

—When she finally arrived we greeted each other as though we hadn’t seen each other for ages, we went for a walk in the snow 614205A4-BFD9-4959-A899-A3400720D22Fand talked everything over again we relished the reconciliation of the night by saying over and over what we’d done wrong and how we’d meant to do better in the future and what our life would be like and how much we loved each other, our words were conjurations as though everything would go the way we wanted it so long as we said it often enough.

Alex, the narrator is a shadow of a man, he exists, but has no real substance. Peter Stamm paints us a picture of the narrator, who through a series of discussions with his wife’s friend Antje tells us about their life over the last seven years and in so doing, through his accounts of the conversations with others and through their judgements, tells us about himself in this story read for German Lit Month,

Alex, an architect living in Munich is married to his business partner Sonia, who is beautiful, but whom in Alex’s honest narration he doesn’t love but wants to please. Alex lives throughout this whole time, on and off, an infatuation with a very catholic polish illegal immigrant, Ivona, to whom he doesn’t feel attracted, with whom he doesn’t really talk, but to whom he returns regularly, mostly just for sex but also to forget himself for a few hours.

Alex strings along both women over this time period, unable to make decisions about who if either of the women he wants in his life. The central element in the story occurs when his wife, Sonia, is unable to have a child and then Ivona falls pregnant. Alex persuades himself and Ivona, but without really persuading the reader that he is acting for both Ivona and the unborn child’s best interests taking the child off of her hands and explaining that it would be better if he and his wife bring up the child. What did Ivona really think of Alex who only rarely saw her afterwards? Her cousin tells us some years later:

‘Ivanna’s wasted her life on me’ I thought.
‘For the past fifteen years she’s been chasing the spectre of an impossible love.’
‘You mustn’t reproach yourself’ said Eva as though she’d read my mind.
‘It has nothing to do with you, in her own way Ivona is perfectly happy she has you, she’s been in love these fifteen years.’

As Alex’s life begins to fall to pieces later on through the pressure of work and alcohol and in a moment of symmetry in the story, Sonia’s parents explain to Alex how it would be better for him and the child, Sophie, if they were to take her of his hands.

The views of Alex by others is confirmed during one of the conversations with Antje during a moment of self doubt:

‘Maybe I really wasn’t good enough for Sonia’ I said.
‘It’s not your fault’ said Birgit
‘You’re not the only people in trouble’.
‘But for me Sonia would have had more of a career’ I said
‘She wanted to go abroad and work in a big architecture company’.
‘She knew what she was getting with you’ said Birgit.

Towards the end of the story in a rare moment of self appraisal Alex tells us:

‘The whole time I felt as though I was standing outside myself watching, disgusted by my own heartlessness.’

This was a chilling tale by its everyday easy conversational form, had it have been a confession there would have been some redemption. There really are people out there like Alex with no colour and no texture, beware.

First published in German as ‘Sieben Jahre’ by S. Fischer in 2009
Translated into English by Michael Hofmann as “Seven Years” and published by Granta Books in 2013