Tag Archives: Harry Mulisch

A year in books – J. C. Greenway

Books have gone into and out of boxes this year, with the weight restrictions of international travel making it easier to borrow and pass on instead of adding to the permanent collection. I have also had to admit that, despite my early protestations to the contrary, the eReader is a very useful machine.  That said, as last year’s list contained six ebooks while this year I downloaded five, perhaps I am not quite ready to give up on print yet.

stack-of-books

After a cracking start to the year, where at times I was whipping through a book a day (oh, the beautiful reading weather that is England in January!), reality intruded and it became almost impossible to get through one a month (ah, motherhood). And yet I seem to have finished the year only one short of last year’s total and that is without counting the almost nightly re-reads of Beatrix Potter, The Hungry Caterpillar and other joyfully rediscovered childhood favourites.

Here then is my list of books read in 2013, in chronological order, with links to reviews I wrote along the way and some further thoughts following:

  1. Good Behaviour, Molly Keane
  2. Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin
  3. A Life in Letters: P. G. Wodehouse (ed. Sophie Ratcliffe)
  4. Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters
  5. Instead of A Letter, Diana Athill
  6. The White Cities, Joseph Roth
  7. Ellis Island, Kate Kerrigan
  8. The Assault, Harry Mulisch
  9. Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
  10. Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
  11. Homage to a Firing Squad, Tariq Goddard
  12. Racing Through the Dark, David Millar
  13. Ratcatcher, Tim Stevens
  14. Maus, Art Spiegelman
  15. The Diamond Smugglers, Ian Fleming
  16. That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, Ellin Stein
  17. From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
  18. All At Sea, Memories of Maritime Merseyside, Evelyn Draper and William David Roberts
  19. The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, Tim Harford
  20. Call For the Dead, John le Carré
  21. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carré
  22. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carré
  23. Churchill’s Wizards: The British Genius for Deception 1914-1945, Nicholas Rankin

Highlights of the year were Finding George Orwell in Burma, The Assault and Homage to a Firing Squad which all told very personal stories in attempting to unravel great conflicts. In spite of all the plaudits, I found Bring up the Bodies a less enjoyable encounter with Mantel’s admittedly outstanding characters.

In non-fiction, P. G. Wodehouse’s letters were a hoot – as if you would expect anything less – and his thoughts on Mr Orwell raised a wry chuckle. David Millar’s ride on the dark side of Le Tour de France’s peloton and (full disclosure, good friend) Ellin Stein’s whip smart tale of the National Lampoon crew making it from Harvard chancers to Hollywood legends, shared a compelling sense of the shadows concealed within hubris and humour, for all their differing subject matter. Stuart: A Life Backwards will stay with me for many years to come and is a must-read, albeit a harrowing one at times.

I finished the year with a run of gripping, classy and classic spy novels, comparing and contrasting the old masters Fleming and le Carré for a soon-to-be-produced (honest!) ten minutes hate review.

Thanks to everyone who has read or offered their comments on the site over the last twelve months and a very merry New Year to you all. May it be full of great books and the long journeys, bad weather days and cosy tea rooms that allow you to fully appreciate them!

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The Assault by Harry Mulisch

harry mulisch the assault

I am not quite sure by what happy chance Harry Mulisch’s novel The Assault arrived on my ‘to read’ list, but I am profoundly glad that it did. If it was via your recommendation then please accept my unending gratitude. Although it seems premature to crown ‘the best work of fiction I have read all year’, so it must be.

Anton Steenwijk is an ordinary boy – keen on planes and cars, arguing with his older brother – living in the extraordinary time and place of Occupied Holland at the tail-end of the Second World War. Perhaps slightly more thoughtful than some of his peers, with a love of and keen eye for nature which will later see him publish poems on the subject. He is happy to spend time watching the wave patterns created by the motorboats on the canal outside his Haarlem home. He recalls ‘branches… bleached by the sun’, notices ‘bare, ice-coated, impassive trees that were totally unaware of what wartime was all about’, while damaged railway lines stand ‘upright like the horns of a snail’.

The War’s major intrusion into his life is via the hunger of a growing lad, although he also takes a stand for a classmate – perhaps saving a life as he does so – but he acts impulsively, without too much reflection on his motives. The incident remains unrecalled and unremarked upon until one winter’s night, when he is engulfed by terrible events that he neither fully witnesses nor understands, yet which leave him – the only survivor – with the revelation:

Fire and this steel – that was the War.

Despite this knowledge, as he matures he is successful in pushing away his memories in order to survive, before a series of chance encounters force him into unravelling the fate of his family. The secrets of one night of Resistance assassination and SS reprisal are imparted to him throughout his life, in a series of episodes from young student to middle-aged father, shocking Anton out of his attempt to live as passive a life as possible.

It is difficult not to think, on reading this book as we reach the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, of the consequences for the innocent caught up in war; the apparently small events sparked by unseen actors which rapidly take on greater significance. Chasing the tangled stories leads Anton to a semblance of an answer to the question why? as well as a realisation that the answer is both more and less important than he could have guessed. In the end, as the Resistance fighter Takes tells him:

everyone gets killed by whoever kills them, and by no-one else.

Mulisch’s book is a clever blend of taut thriller, historical mystery and psychological study, with plenty to show the reader about reactions to traumatic events experienced by the young. We see how assumptions about the past can colour someone’s thinking so completely, yet later be exploded as resting on a false or misunderstood reading of those events. What appear to be key conversations and actions slip out of the memory, making a nonsense of any attempt to create patterns out of random events. This failure recalling Anton’s doomed attempts to figure out the complexity of the crossing, interlaced waves created by the motorboats passing him by on the canal.

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