July 29th, 2008

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July Books 23) The History of Richard Calmady

23) The History of Richard Calmady, by "Lucas Malet" (Mary St Leger Kingsley Harrison)

I got hold of this via Project Gutenberg largely because it is supposed to be based on the life of Arthur MacMorrough Kavanagh; I had no idea that I would be so completely captivated by it. The author was the daughter of Charles "Water Babies" Kingsley, and carved out a significant reputation at the end of the nineteenth century. Richard Calmady was one of her major literary successes, a controversial novel which deals frankly with sex, disability and religion, condemned as "vicious" by no less a critic than Charles Francis Adams in the columns of the New York Times. It is one of the best books I have read this year, and I am simply stunned that I had never heard of the author before, and that Richard Calmady never made it into the canon (and is not easily available in dead tree format either). It would make the basis of a great film or TV series.

Richard Calmady is born to a landowning family in the 1860s, with only vestigial legs (differing from his model, Arthur Kavanagh, in that he is English, not Irish, and has full use of his arms). The book traces his psychological journey and his relationships with his mother and three other women; the characters are vividly sketched (as indeed are numerous male foils to the action) and there are numerous beautiful descriptive passages - mostly of the English countryside around the Calmady estate, but also with a memorable section set in and around Naples.

The author's sympathies are clearly with both the spiritually inclined mother and the feminist Honoria St Quentin (who describes herself in one memorable passage as "not what you call a marrying man"). There is also a surprisingly profound undercurrent of spirituality (tarnished, unfortunately, by a slightly naff ancient curse), which would probably be the biggest block to the book's success in today's market - that, and the rather ostentatious wealth of the Calmady family and their friends, the twittish Lord Fallowfeild and his children. It is also a very long book, but it really carried me along. Strongly recommended.
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July Books 24) A House for Mr Biswas

24) A House for Mr Biswas, by V.S. Naipaul.

This was one of the books I bought in order to broaden my acquaintance with the Nobel Prize winners for Literature. It is a rather touching tale of Mohan Biswas, from an Indian family on Trinidad, and his quest to have his own house. There are a lot of interesting cultural and dynastic dynamics - Mr Biswas' clever son Anand is clearly a reflection of the author in some way, so presumably Mr Biswas himself reflects Naipaul's father. The human and physical geography of Trinidad - or at least some small parts of it - is very memorably portrayed.

I found myself dissatisfied with the book on two counts, one minor, one rather more serious. The minor point is that, after a blow-by-blow account of most of Mr Biswas' life, the last few years are telescoped with what feels like somewhat indecent haste, which rather blunts the tragedy of his relatively early death (no spoilers here - it is foreshadowed in the first chapter).

The bigger point is that although we get most of the book from Mr Biswas' own point of view, and most of the rest from Anand's, almost all the women appear as incomprehensible, irrational characters. (With the exception of Mr Biswas' boss during his brief spell as a civil servant.) I regretted that we never heard his wife's voice clearly, and the monstrous mother-in-law presumably would have had her side of the story as well.

Still, at a time when I am struggling through Keay's History of India, I felt that this book set half a world away gave me a much better sense of Indian culture.