Review: The Pull of the Stars

As usual, I ran out of novels to read while on holiday in Sicily. I scoured the English shelves of the local bookstore and this time I found a winner: a novel by Emma Donoghue. The title, The Pull of the Stars did nothing for me but the back cover sounded promising: ‘Dublin1918 . . . unfamiliar flu . . . Best Novels of 2020 Daily Telegraph’.

According to the inside back cover, Emma Donoghue was born in Dublin in 1969 and was an Irish emigrant twice over, having spent eight years in Cambridge, England before moving to London, Ontario. She is best known for her novels, which range from the historical to the contemporary. Her international best seller Room, was the New York Times Best Book of 2010 and was shortlisted for the Booker, Commonwealth and Orange Prizes.

Emma Donohue

Nurse Julia Power, age 30, single, who lives with her younger brother, a shell-shocked casualty of the trenches of World War I, is the principal character. Through staff illness she has been assigned a tiny, three bed ward which is occupied by women in the late stages of pregnancy, and who have the fearsome disease which is taking so many lives. (The virus which causes the disease was not discovered until there was an electron microscope in 1935, and a vaccine was not developed until 1938.) There are two other supporting characters: a young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, from a Dickensian home for orphaned children, and Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a real person, who violently opposed British rule, was Sinn Fein’s director of public health and founder of a free clinic on Charlemont Street. There is a constant flow of new patients onto the tiny ward. Julia and Bridie face seemingly every complication of pregnancy with the occasional help of Dr Lynn. Nurse and volunteer become attached under the continual life and death struggles they face. Bridie becomes ill with the flu and dies. Her loss for Julia (and the reader) is compensated partially by Julia’s spontaneous adoption of the newborn son of an impoverished woman who died of the flu.

This book is a magnificent piece of fiction. Julia, Bridie, Dr Lynn and all of their patients are real in their humanity and their flaws. One feels nearly suffocated in the tiny ward with it’s primitive medications and treatments. My hat is off to Ms Donohue for her compelling descriptions of early 20th century medication, the hospital culture, and the Dublin environment with its grinding poverty. From about page 30, the tension is unremitting and un-contrived. The reader becomes completely absorbed in this altogether different world a century ago, and its strange yet familiar problems.

I have just two comments about the book. The scene-setting which consumes the first thirty pages of the book lacks the powerful tension which engulfs the rest of the book. It is still very interesting reading; perhaps some foreshadowing would have helped increase the tension. When Bridie becomes ill during the last twenty pages, her death becomes a foregone conclusion and some of the tension disappears. It might have been better to introduce Bridie’s illness earlier with some doubtful symptoms and some denials. This could have intensified Bridie’s loss.

Review: Stakeholder Capitalism

I ordered this book some months ago when it first came out, intending to read it while I am in Sicily. It is one of the few non-fiction books I’ll read this year, and it is worth special mention.

It is written by Klaus Schwab who is the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, the International Organisation of Public-Private Cooperation, best known for its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Klaus Schwab

Mr Schwab makes the point that Shareholder Capitalism has failed. The form of capitalism which has been practiced throughout the Western World for the past fifty years is no longer fit for purpose. By focusing all the benefits of business on the owners of the business (the share holders), great injustices have been done to employees, the community, the general public, government and the planet.

In the first part of the book, he describes in some detail evidence against Shareholder Capitalism. The focus on giving shareholders nearly all the benefits has resulted in a shift in power away from labour unions and into the hands of management. Employee pay has stagnated, while executive pay has dramatically increased over the last half century. Communities have been devastated by the closure of local businesses and the relocation of the business overseas in order to improve profits for the shareholders. The general public has been injured by unregulated risk taking and non-competitive behaviour of businesses. Government has been unable to collect the taxes to which it would be entitled by tax avoidance schemes which benefit only shareholders. And insufficient attention has been paid to pollution as a cost saving which benefits only the shareholder.

Schwab argues that it is time to change our form of capitalism to one where the benefits are more fairly distributed, where employees have more of a say in their work and receive fairer compensation, where the needs of the community which houses the business are considered, where the government has a stronger regulatory role, and the life of the planet is given full attention.

This change, Schwab argues, can be brought about by repurposing companies so that they benefit their customers, their employees, society at large and their shareholders. He says, “in September 2020, the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum – comprising 140 of the largest global companies -presented the Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics. They are a core set of metrics and disclosures on the non-financial aspects of business performance, including variables such as greenhouse gas emissions, diversity, employee health and wellbeing.”

The book is well written and certainly persuasive. It is also timely. Although it is early days, I think that more attention should have been given to implementation of Stakeholder Capitalism. More examples of companies which have actually done it, and more about the actual metrics.

Left unsaid – likely for political reasons – is the application of stakeholder capitalism to the Chinese version of capitalism, where the main beneficiary is the Chinese Communist Party and its ideals.

The world would be a very different place if stakeholder capitalism were to be universally adopted.

Pessimistic (but Good)Advice

Harry Bingham, of Jericho Writers, in his email last week, had a rather sad story, and some good advice arising from the story. The key person in the story is Karen Jennings, the South African author.

Karen Jennings: ‘I finished the novel in 2017 and no one was interested.’
Karen Jennings

Harry said, “The Guardian newspaper ran an interview yesterday with a South African author, Karen Jennings.

“In one way, the article offers a standard literary tale. Roughly this: ‘Author writes book, this time about a lighthouse keeper and a refugee who washes up on his little island. Publisher buys book. Publisher publishes book. Book gets nominated for a major prize (in this case the Booker). Book increases its print run ten times over. Author suddenly starts to get a ton of positive attention. Big newspapers like the Guardian run flattering features. Life turns on its head.’

“You’ve already read a version of that story a million times, except that on this occasion there’s more honesty on view. The interview also tells us that Jennings finished the book in 2017. She didn’t (and doesn’t) have an agent. She found it very hard to get a publisher. When she did find one, (British micro press, Holland House), the team struggled to find anyone to endorse the book or give them a quote for the blurb. Prospects were so meagre that Holland House put out a print run of just five hundred copies (and it’s essentially impossible for anyone to make money at that level of sales.) When the book came out it was met, very largely, with silence.

“Loads of writers struggle to get an agent, struggle to get published, struggle to sell books, struggle to get that book noticed. That is pretty much the norm for our odd little industry. And, OK, on this occasion we’re talking about a micro press that is well used to dealing with small numbers. But the same phenomenon is common enough with the Big 5 houses as well. Yes, advances are generally larger and yes, sales expectations are consequently higher. But if your book gets a mediocre cover, it’ll die all the same. You don’t hear a lot about the books that just curl up and die, but there are a lot of them out there.

“This experience often calls for sacrifices. Karen Jennings is quoted as saying, ‘I’ve been really poor for a very long time. I don’t have much of a social life either. You know, I don’t have fancy clothes. I don’t have a car. I don’t have a house. I don’t have a career the way other people have.’

“Now that outcome, it seems to me, is optional. I urge writers – and I mean YOU – to look after your income sensibly. That mostly means: get a job and write in your spare time. Or marry someone rich. Or win the lottery or strike oil in your back yard. Please don’t make the mistake of looking to writing for your livelihood.

“There are a thousand books out there as good as Jennings’s. Most of those will just sell a few copies then be forgotten. It’s perfectly likely that Jennings’s book will perform decently, but not win the Booker Prize.

“Take a book that did win the Booker Prize: Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. That’s a major author winning a massive book prize – so it must be a great book, no? I mean, there can’t be any doubt about that, can there?

“Well, yes there can. Geoff Dyer, writing in the New York Times, commented: ‘This was not one of those years when the Man Booker Prize winner was laughably bad. No, any extreme expression of opinion about The Sense of an Ending feels inappropriate. It isn’t terrible, it is just so . . . average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written.’

“Personally, I agree with Dyer. I think the book was obviously mediocre.

“So why did the book get so heavily praised? Well, the media likes to work with conventions – idées reçues, to use an older term. Once the media has formed an idea about a novelist (or, actually, an anything), it struggles to overturn or challenge that idea.

“Personally, I agree with Dyer. I think the book was obviously mediocre.

“So why did the book get so heavily praised? Well, the media likes to work with conventions – idées reçues, to use an older term. Once the media has formed an idea about a novelist (or, actually,

“So the Julian Barnes convention says, “Julian Barnes is a great novelist. Here he is writing about some Big and Important Topics. So this must be a Big and Important Book. Let’s say how great it is.” Easier to do that than to read the book and do some real critical thinking about it.

“Let’s summarise some of these thoughts.

“One: you can’t trust that excellence alone will bring you to national or international prominence. That may well not happen. Excellence is not enough.

“Two: you can’t rely on critics to determine the value of your book. For one thing, the critics are mostly unlikely to read or comment on your book. For another, what they say is often nonsense or a basket of conflicting opinions.

“Three: once an opinion has formed, that opinion is likely to hold like iron, no matter what the actual reality of the situation.

“It sets out the landscape for us as writers:

  • You need to enjoy the process of writing, because you may not earn money or fame.
  • You need to enjoy the process of publishing, for the same reason.
  • You need to trust your own inner assessment of the book, because you may not get any meaningful external commentary – and what you do get may be unhelpful anyway.

I think Harry makes a vital point: the reason we write is that we enjoy writing, not because we are seeking fame and fortune. If we start writing to achieve fame and fortune, we will almost certainly be disappointed.

Review: Of Human Bondage

Having never read any Somerset Maugham, I decided to read this one. Perhaps I would have been better advised to pick out one of his shorter novels – this one is exactly 700 pages – but as a semi-biographical novel, it gave me an insight into both his writing and his personality.

W Somerset Maugham

Maugham was born in the British embassy in Paris (and was therefore British) to the British lawyer, who handled the embassy’s legal affairs, and his wife. Both his parents died before he was ten and he was put into the care of his uncle, the vicar of Whitstable, Kent. He attended the King’s school in Canterbury, where his small stature and a stutter made him the butt of jokes by his contemporaries. He wrote steadily from the age of 15, and at 16 his uncle allowed him to study in Heidelberg, where he wrote his first book and had an affair with an Englishman ten years his elder. He returned to London, where, after a stint as an accountant, he studied medicine and was qualified as a doctor. In 1897, he published his first novel, Lisa of Lambeth, the immediate success of which persuaded him to abandon medicine and take up writing as a career. Maugham was particularly financially successful as a playwright, but he wrote short stories, travel books and a long list of novels. He was married in 1917 to Syrie Welcome, with whom he had a daughter in 1915. The marriage was unhappy, the couple separated, and Maugham lived most of the rest of his life on the French Riviera with a male partner. In 1962, Maugham sold a series of paintings which he had given to his daugher, Liza, who took him to court and won. The writer descended into mental illness, and unseemly vituperations which hurt his commercial image. He died in 1965.

Of Human Bondage is set in about 1900 and parallels Maugham’s real life until the protagonist, Philip Carey, becomes a qualified physician. As a nine-year-old, Philip is orphaned and put in the care of his uncle, the vicar of Blackstable. He is a shy, introverted boy, with club foot, who is harassed by his classmates at boarding school. Rather than accept a scholarship at Oxford, Philip goes to study art at Heidelberg University. In the company of an assortment of artistic friends, he discovers that he has little talent as an artist, and returns to London where he is an apprentice accountant for a brief spell before entering medical school. He meets Mildred a lower class waitress, who treats him with indifference, but he falls passionately in love with her. Mildred leaves Philip repeatedly for others, and descends into prostitution. While working at a hospital, Philip befriends a family man, Thorpe Athelny. Philip looses all his money on a failed investment and descends into abject poverty. He reconnects with Athelny who has an attractive but ordinary daughter, Sally. Sally and Philip admire each other, but do not profess love. Philip receives an inheritance from his uncle which allows him to finish medical school and be qualified. Sally fears she is pregnant. Philip decides to give up his dream of travelling the world to marry Sally. She tells him she is not pregnant, and that he is free to go. Philip decides to marry Sally and take up a post as a rural doctor.

Of Human Bondage is considered Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece. When it was issued (1915) it was criticized in both the the UK and the US. However, Theodore Dreiser, an influential American novelist and critic called it a work of genius and compared it to a Beethoven symphony. It has never been out of print since. Maugham himself was modest about his talent, saying that he was in the very first row of second class writers. In spite of its seven hundred page length, I found it calling me when I put it down. It is rich in characters, ideas, emotions and events. One has an almost constant desire to find out what happens next, and it is seldom what the reader anticipates. Maugham rarely ‘shows’; he ‘tells’, but most of his telling is about the intricate thought processes and feeling of the characters. In all their complexity they become knowable to the reader. Maugham derived the title from a passage in Ethics by Barch Spinoza: “The impotence of man to govern or restrain the emotions I call bondage, for a man who is under their control is not his own master … so that he is often forced to follow the worse, although he see the better before him.”

I have two criticisms of this novel. First, I find Philip’s passion for Mildred difficult to understand. She is unattractive, rude, selfish and fundamentally stupid. She should have been given one or two redeeming features. Second, the intricacies of Philip’s many friendships are, in only a few cases, contributing to the wealth of the novel. A modern editor would cut heavily in that area. Of Human Bondage has to be read as a great piece of historic fiction, not as a modern novel, which would be judged on today’s very competitive standards.