Undervalued Dividends

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Topics may vary. Correspondence and criticism welcome: robert@thebrowser.com

This week: Comfort reading

It has been a tough few weeks for readers of this letter, I know; we have lurched grimly from global warming to Russia, from Russia to nuclear weaponry and Nato, and from Nato to the evils of Empire.

The books and ideas and articles discussed in these recent letters have all been memorable, even momentous, in their various ways. But I have to admit that reading so much grim non-fiction was having a cumulative effect on my mood, and perhaps on yours too. The challenge to my joie de vivre was further compounded of late by the gloom and chill of November, which arrives here in the Baltics with winter nipping hard at its heels. The clocks went back an hour this past weekend; just now darkness falls abruptly around five; by Christmas there will scarcely be light after lunchtime; the next twilight evening is a good four or five months away. A time, therefore, for comfort reading. Meaning, almost necessarily, fiction ...

The Lay Of The Land, by Richard Ford (2006)

I have been binge-reading Richard Ford this past week, nudged willingly in that direction by Amazon's offering of all three Frank Bascombe novels in an omnibus edition for Kindle priced at £10.83. I suppose I should describe this as a binge-re-reading of the Bascombe novels, since I had read them individually when they came out, but I forget now so much of what I read, especially novels read years or decades ago, that I might as well be reading them for the first time — save only that I retained from my first reading of the Bascombe novels the fact that I had enjoyed them, loved every line of them, felt at home in them.

My favourite Richard Ford novel is always going to be the one I have read most recently; but having re-read The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay Of The Land in very short order, I am going to hand The Lay Of The Land the gold medal for sheer pleasure.

Frank Bascombe must be about sixty in this last full-length novel (there is also a fourth Bascombe book, comprising four novellas), though I am not sure we ever get his exact age. He has separated from his second wife, started his own real estate company, and moved house from Haddam to the Jersey Shore. He is suffering from prostate cancer, a fact which looms larger as the book approaches its end. There is not really so very much more to the plot than the interior monologue of Frank himself, arranged around two main events, a family reunion and a neighbourhood shooting, all in a span of three days.

The family reunion is for Thanksgiving, at which Frank hopes to assemble his two adult children, their partners, and at most one or two old friends:  

One of divorce’s undervalued dividends, I should say, is that all the usual dismal holiday festivities can now be avoided, since no one who didn’t have to would ever think about seeing the people they used to say they wanted to see but almost certainly never did.

When I looked back at the reviews for clues as to why I loved The Lay Of The Land so much, I found the critics themelves struggling to explain why a book in which so little happened could yet be so compelling and so satisfying. I particularly admired this line from Tim Adams in The Observer: "Often in the book, you feel like you could listen to Frank observing his life for ever; very occasionally, it feels like you are". Which is absolutely correct, and absolutely fine with me.

Another thing that strikes me about The Lay Of The Land is that, although it is not intended as a business novel at all, it is one of the best novels about small business that I have ever read.

Realtors rarely appear as sympathetic figures, whether in art or in life. But Frank Bascombe is the exception, the realtor who likes his work, who takes it seriously, who does it well in a low-key way. His ideal is that "often, at the end of the day, somebody should go home happy". And besides, property just is interesting. Who among us, passing through a strange town, does not stop by a realtor's window to check on local house prices?

Silverview, by John Le Carré (2021)

Silverview appeared nine months after Le Carré's death at the age of 89. So of the course the first anxious question was: "Is it any good?" How sad it would have been for Le Carré's fantastic run of 25 novels, every one of them a marvel, to have ended with a manuscript in a faltering hand better left unpublished.

Happily, the book was good. It was not Le Carré at his strongest throughout; there were a few spare moments; but the set-piece scenes were as good as anything Le Carré had ever written, which was setting the bar very high indeed. There was even something of a new, late style about Silverview, a willingness to take risks with what would otherwise have been familiar characters and situations, a late style which might have evolved profitably over another book or two had the gods been kinder. It was as though Le Carré had bumped into W.G. Sebald (who is mentioned in Silverview) somewhere on his way to the Bardo.

Let us be grateful, then, for Silverview. Lest you are in the happy position of having yet to read it, I can say without spoilers that the story revolves around a provincial bookshop with a foppish owner, an émigré with a mysterious past, an intelligence officer in pursuit of a traitor, and a young woman who may or may not hold the key to everything. We are in classic Le Carré territory, the latter-day Greeneland.

I dare hardly even imagine that you may be new to Le Carré's work in general. To meet a friend who has never read a Le Carré is like meeting a friend who has never driven a car, or owned a mobile telephone — rarity of a high order.

Philip Roth insisted that Le Carré's A Perfect Spy  was the “best English novel since the war”. I rather prefer Smiley's People, which is more heavily weighted towards the tradecraft, the finer points, of spying. But before reading Smiley's People one must read Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy; the former resolves the latter.

After Smiley's People, then, I would say, go on to The Honourable Schoolboy or The Russia House, if you prefer to be gripped by plot, or to A Perfect Spy if you prefer to be gripped by character. But these are secondary questions. The main point is that Le Carré will never let you down. Pack any two of his novels with your eyes shut and then board your aeroplane with confidence.

My only regret is that I do not find very much to enjoy about Le Carré outside his novels. I could not finish the authorised biography, John Le Carré, by Adam Sisman; nor Le Carré's own memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel. But both were well reviewed, so my own judgement is surely at fault here. The collected letters, A Private Spy, are argumentative and stressful. Suleika Dawson's Secret Heart, an "intimate memoir" of Le Carré, sounds faintly nauseating, but I say that on the basis of having read about it rather than having read it. I see it is currently free on Audible, so at worst, the price is right.

The Small House At Allington, by Anthony Trollope (1862)

I know, I know, I have gone on and on about Trollope in the past. But I recall, with a proper sense of shame, having had the temerity to suggest that some of his books were less good than others, and that his lesser works might even be left unread by the reader with other claims on their time.

I must now issue a correction to my own views. At least two Trollope novels to which I referred have slightingly in the past, The Eustace Diamonds and The Small House At Allington, are, in fact, so much better (for comfort reading) than almost any novel by any author save for Trollope himself, that, even if they do fall an inch or two short of the celestial heights of Barchester Towers or The Prime Minister or The Way We Live Now, I have gone to bed with a spring in my step this past fortnight looking forward to an hour or two of Timothy West's voice on Audible each night, reading first the Diamonds, and then the Small House, before sleep can finally claim me.

The weakness of The Eustace Diamonds is that there is no truly likeable figure in all of the cast of characters, nobody whom the reader wants to come out on top. The plot is dominated by what Hitchcock would later define as a McGuffin — a diamond necklace, in pursuit to which a posse of lawyers, various thieves, a family estate and a disingenuous widow all make their various claims. I wonder now if the slightly forced nature of the plot may reflect the fact that Trollope was writing The Eustace Diamonds for first publication in monthly installments, rather than as a complete book; but The Way We Live Now was also written for serial publication, and there, not a seam is visible throughout.

The Small House At Allington might be faulted for being everything which The Eustace Diamonds is not. It has no plot to speak of, save that Squire Dale has an awkward relationship with Mrs Dale, his late brother's widow, who lives at the bottom of his garden. Mrs Dale's two daughters are ill-fitted to their would-be suitors, who are all at first glance too caddish or too dull or too poor. Jane Austen might have written something not wildly dissimilar to the Small House with more grace and humour, at least in its country scenes revolving around the Dales. But Trollope still has the best of it, I think, when it comes to events in London, where the rival suitors are generally to be found doing pettyfogging work in government offices and dining at their clubs while agonising over the relative merits of marrying for love and marying for money. I am seriously tempted to devote the balance of my love to rewriting Trollope's novels in 21st-century settings; the plots  and characters will hold up perfectly well.

I have also read and enjoyed The Match King, about Ivar Kreuger, by Frank Partnoy; Sudden Death, by Alvario Enrigue; and Uncle Petros by Apostolos Doxiadis. I particularly recommend Sudden Death, which defies my capacities for summary save for my saying that it is a novel about Caravaggio and tennis balls.

I can imagine writing more about The Match King in a future week. It is a good book which might, nonetheless, have been much better, if only Partnoy had had more trust in his reader, and gone much more deeply into Kreuger's financial machinations, since these are what made Kreuger interesting in the first place. Finance, properly told, is never boring.

What other books are truly good on big business and high finance, those of Michael Lewis excepted?



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