Tuesday, January 31, 2012

470. The Magus – John Fowles

History: This book was written in 1966.
Plot: The story is written from the perspective of young Oxford graduate and aspiring poet Nicholas Urfe, who takes up with Alison Kelly, an Australian girl he meets at a party inLondon. In order to get away from an increasingly serious relationship with her, Nicholas accepts a post teaching English at the Lord Byron School in the Greek island of Phraxos. Bored, depressed, disillusioned, and overwhelmed by the Mediterranean island, Nicholas struggles with loneliness and contemplates suicide. Finding himself habitually walking the isle, he stumbles upon the estate, and soon the person, of wealthy Greek recluse Maurice Conchis, who may or may not have collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War.
Nicholas is gradually drawn into Conchis' psychological games, his paradoxical views on life, his mysterious persona, and his eccentric masques. At first these various aspects of what the novel terms the "godgame" seem to Nicholas to be a joke, but as they grow more elaborate and intense, Nicholas's ability to determine what is real and what is artifice vanishes. Against his will and knowledge he becomes a performer in the godgame, and realizes that the reenactments of the Nazi occupation, the absurd playlets after de Sade, and the obscene parodies of Greek myths are not about Conchis' life, but his own.
Review: "The Magus" is a stunner, magnificent in ambition, supple and gorgeous in execution. It fits no neat category; it is at once a pyrotechnical extravaganza, a wild, hilarious charade, a dynamo of suspense and horror, a profoundly serious probing into the nature of moral consciousness, a dizzying, electrifying chase through the labyrinth of the soul, an allegorical romance, a sophisticated account of modern love, a ghost story that will send shivers racing down the spine. Lush, compulsive, richly inventive, eerie, provocative, impossibly theatrical--it is, in spite of itself, convincing. It is, in fact, a trick ("magus" means magician or conjurer)--a trick about conviction. The stupefying thing is that Mr. Fowles has pulled it off. The book seems to have its own energy; it reverberates in the mind.
The plot can be only inadequately summarized. Nicholas Urfe, a youngish, charming, intelligent and rather callous Oxford graduate "handsomely equipped to fail," takes up with Alison, an Australian girl he meets at a party in London. Their affair becomes serious ("In our age it is not sex that raises its ugly head, but love"). This is more than Nicholas's effete cynicism can stand, so he leaves Alison to accept a job as an English instructor at the Lord Byron School, a sort of Eton-Harrow enclave on the Greek island of Phraxos, "only a look north from where Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon."
Bored, immeasurably depressed by the self-revelation that he is not, as he had thought, a talented poet ("I felt no consolation in this knowledge, but only a red anger that evolution could allow such sensitivity and such inadequacy to co-exist in the same mind"), out of phase with the throb of the sultry, white-sunned Mediterranean island. Nicholas contemplates suicide, then takes to long solitary walks. On one of these walks he meets a wealthy English-born Greek named Maurice Conchis who may or may or may not have collaborated with the Nazis during the war and now lives as a recluse on his palatial, art- encrusted island estate. Conchis is the magus.
The estate is known as Salle d'Attente (the Waiting Room), and it is here that Nicholas is ushered into the mysteries--Conchis's paradoxical views on life and his eccentric masques which, Nicholas later learns, are called "the godgame."
At first the masques seem a kind of nutty joke to Nicholas, but as they grow more elaborate and intense, his perception of what is real and what is not dims and vanishes. Against his rational will, he becomes a performer in them; painfully he realizes that they are not about Conchis's life--these enactments of an ancient romance of the Nazi occupation, these absurd playlets after de Sade, obscene parodies of Greek myths, pretend meetings of psychoanalysts--but about his own: he becomes a conspirator in his own destruction or psychic rebirth--he does not know which.
The nightmare deepens as he falls in passionate love with the beautiful Lily, who appears in the masques as, incredibly, Conchis's 1915 lover, and then turns out not to be Lily at all, but Julie--or perhaps her twin sister. Nicholas has a brief repeat with Alison in Athens, then learns that she has killed herself.
Now everything becomes conspiracy; the fact that it is all so ludicrous in no way relieves his horror. Fired from the school, Nicholas returns angrily to London intent on ferreting out the reasons for his ordeal, Conchis's real background and the purpose of the godgame. But impossible things continue to happen: Alison turns out to be not only alive but somehow in league with Conchis and his cabal. Slowly, excruciatingly, Nicholas unravels the truth, or truths.
No summary can convey accurately the sense of this extraordinary book. It is not silly, it is fantastical, evocative, imaginative, but it is no self-indulgence. It is original and contemporary; it is intelligent. Most of all, it is great, good, lavish, eerie fun.
Opening Line: “I was born in 1927, the only child to middle class parents, both English, and themselves born in the grotesquely elongated shadow, which they never rose sufficiently above history to leave, of that monstrous dwarf Queen Victoria.”
Closing Line: “And somewhere the stinging smell of burning leaves.”
Quotes: “I had been, and remained, intesely depressed, but I had also been, and always would be,intensely false; in existentialist terms, unauthentic.”
“I do not want politeness. Politeness always conceals a refusal to face other kinds of reality.”
Rating: Very Good.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

469. The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass

History: This book was written in 1959. Initial reaction to The Tin Drum was mixed. It was called blasphemous and pornographic by some and legal action was taken against it and Grass. However, by 1965 sentiment had cemented into public acceptance and it soon became recognized as a classic of post-World War II literature, both in Germany and around the world.
Plot: The story revolves around the life of Oskar Matzerath, as narrated by himself when confined in a mental hospital during the years 1952-1954. Born in 1924 in the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland), with an adult's capacity for thought and perception, he decides never to grow up when he hears his father declare that he would become a grocer. Gifted with a piercing shriek that can shatter glass or be used as a weapon, Oskar declares himself to be one of those "auditory clairvoyant babies", whose "spiritual development is complete at birth and only needs to affirm itself". He retains the stature of a child while living through the beginning of World War II, several love affairs, and the world of postwar Europe. Through all this a tin drum that he received as a present on his third birthday remains his treasured possession, and he is willing to kill to retain it.
Oskar considers himself to have two "presumptive fathers" - his mother's husband Alfred, a member of the Nazi Party, and her secret lover and cousin Jan, a Danzig Pole, who is executed for defending the Polish Post Office in Danzig during the German invasion of Poland. Oskar's mother having died, Alfred marries Maria, a woman who is secretly Oskar's first mistress. After marrying Alfred, Maria gives birth to Oskar's possible son, Kurt. But Oskar is disappointed to find that the baby persists in growing up, and will not join him in ceasing to grow at the age of three.
During the war, Oskar joins a troupe of performing dwarfs who entertain the German troops at the front line. But when his second love, the diminutive Roswitha, is killed by Allied troops in the invasion of Normandy, Oskar returns to his family in Danzig where he becomes the leader of a criminal youth gang. The Russian army soon captures Danzig, and Alfred is shot by invading troops after he goes into seizures while swallowing his party pin to avoid being revealed as a Nazi.
Oskar moves with his widowed stepmother and their son to Düsseldorf, where he models in the nude with Ulla and works engraving tombstones. Oskar decides to live apart from Maria and her son Kurt after mounting tensions. He decides on a flat owned by the Zeidlers. Upon moving in, he falls in love with the Sister Dorothea, a neighbor, but he later fails to seduce her. During an encounter with Klepp, Klepp asks Oskar how he has an authority over the judgement of music. Oskar, willing to prove himself once and for all to Klepp, a fellow musician, picks up his drum and sticks despite his vow to never play again after Alfred's death and plays a measure on his drum. The ensuing events lead Klepp and Oskar and Scholle (guitarist) to form the Rhine River Three jazz band. They are discovered by Mr. Schmuh who invites them to play at the Onion Cellar club. After a virtuoso performance, a record company talent seeker discovers Oskar the jazz drummer and offers a contract. Oskar soon achieves fame and riches. One day while walking through a field he finds a severed finger: the ring finger of Sister Dorothea, who has been murdered. He then meets and befriends Vittlar. Oskar allows himself to be falsely convicted of the murder and is confined to an insane asylum, where he writes his memoirs.
Review: Oskar Matzerath is an unreliable narrator, as his sanity, or insanity, never becomes clear. He tells the tale in first person, though he occasionally diverts to third person, sometimes within the same sentence. As an unreliable narrator, he may contradict himself within his autobiography, as with his varying accounts of, but not exclusively, the Defense of the Polish Post Office, his grandfather Koljaiczek's fate, his paternal status over Kurt, Maria's son, and many others.
The novel is strongly political in nature, although it goes beyond a political novel in the writing's stylistic plurality. There are elements of allegory, myth and legend.
The Tin Drum has religious overtones, both Jewish and Christian. Oskar holds conversations with both Jesus and Satan throughout the book. His gang members call him 'Jesus', then he refers to himself and his penis as 'Satan' later in the book.
World War II is compared with Oskar's art and music. The implied statement is that art has the ability to defeat war and hatred. Oskar escapes fighting through his musical talent. In chapter nine: The Rostrum, Oskar manages to disrupt the Nazi rally by playing his drums. Oskar plays a rhythm which is more complex and sensual than the march step of the rally. Despite his disruption of the activities of the Nazi party, the power of his music remains ambiguous. It seems that the music of the drum is disruptive and not a moral force aligned against the Nazis. This is especially evident in another component of Oskar's music, his voice. As a substitution for singing, Oskar's voice is a terrible scream which exerts incredible power. Oskar's voice has the power to break glass, which he uses as the leader of a gang of criminals to rob stores by breaking their front windows. Grass's magical poetic imagery subtly aligns with political/cultural events and the reader realizes that Oskar is somehow an embodiment of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass which signaled the unmasked aggression of the Nazi Party. Ultimately Oskar remains a complex, magically symbolic character, embodying the wish to dismantle the emergent Nazi party as well as the violence of the party.
Oskar at the young age of three comes to the conclusion that growing up was not something for him. He came to this conclusion based on listening to the conversations of his parents and their fellow shopkeepers. He sees the physical aspects of romance and their effect on his mother. He looks at adulthood has this horrendous world that has no way out so he decides to remain a child. However what Oskar did not realize was that he could only change his appearance he could not alter time. Therefore Oskar eventually realizes that life continues on and that the horrors within in such as romance are pivotal for not growth but survival. Oskar allows himself to give up the drum and eventually grow because he recognizes that freedom is found through decisions not through time. This is meaning that through one's experiences your opinions and decisions become more complex and this is what growth is: experiences. He realizes that time is merely a vehicle for growth to flow through humanity. His freedom is found by experiencing life and therefore being able to make more complex decisions. Ultimately Oskar recognizes that with growth comes freedom. This changes Oskar's whole perspective on life because now he no longer looks at adults as this dastardly beings but rather complex individuals that stimulate society.
Opening Line: “Granted, I’m an inmate in a mental institution.”
Closing Line: “Better start running the black cooks coming. Ha Ha Ha!”
Quotes: "What, after all, is a clock? Without your grownup it is nothing. It is the grownup who winds it, who sets it back or ahead, who takes it tot he watchmaker to be checked, cleaned, and when necessary repaired. Just as with the cuckoo that stops calling too soon, just as with upset saltcellars, spiders seen in the morning, black cats on the left, the oil portrait of Uncle that falls off the wall because the nail has come loose in the plaster, just as in a mirror, grownups see more in and behind a clock than any clock can justify."
Rating: Difficult.

468. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

History: This is a novel written in 1862. The story has been filmed several times and made into a musical by the composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and the librettist Alain Boublil, opening in 1980 in Paris. The English version was realised in 1985 and the Broadway version followed two years later. 
 Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was born to parents on either side of the Napoleonic/Royalist conflict of nineteenth century France. Hugo's father was an officer in Napoleon's army and his mother was a passionate Catholic, loyal to the king. Growing up largely with his mother, Hugo took her rather conservative views as his own. Life experience and personal reflection, however, would eventually bring him to the opposite side of the spectrum. By the end of his life Hugo was both beloved and reviled for his strong liberal views. As a young man, Hugo found success as a poet and playwright, turning to fiction in 1831 with his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It was not until after many years of work that Hugo produced his greatest novel, Les Miserables, which debuted in 1862. Although Hugo's vocal protests against the mid-century French leader Louis Napoleon forced him to live in exile for many years, when he at last returned home in the 1870s, he was celebrated as one of the foremost creative spirits and political figures in France, an honor he holds to this day.
Plot: The story starts in 1815 in Digne. The peasant Jean Valjean has just been released from imprisonment in the Bagne of Toulon after nineteen years (five for stealing bread for his starving sister and her family, and fourteen more for numerous escape attempts). Upon being released, he is required to carry a yellow passport that marks him as a prisoner, despite having already paid his debt to society by serving his time in prison. Rejected by innkeepers, who do not want to take in a convict, Valjean sleeps on the street. This makes him even angrier and more bitter. However, the benevolent Bishop Myriel, the bishop of Digne, takes him in and gives him shelter. In the middle of the night, Valjean steals Bishop Myriel’s silverware and runs away. He is caught and brought back by the police, but Bishop Myriel rescues him by claiming that the silverware was a gift and at that point gives him his two silver candlesticks as well, chastising him to the police for leaving in such a rush that he forgot these most valuable pieces. After the police leave, Bishop Myriel then "reminds" him of the promise, which Valjean has no memory of making, to use the silver candlesticks to make an honest man of himself. Valjean broods over the Bishop's words. Purely out of habit, he steals a 40-sous coin from chimney-sweep Petit Gervais and chases the boy away. Soon afterwards, he repents and decides to follow Bishop Myriel's advice. He searches the city in panic for the child whose money he stole. At the same time, his theft is reported to the authorities, who now look for him as a repeat offender. If Valjean is caught, he will be forced to spend the rest of his life in prison, so he hides from the police.
Six years pass and Valjean, having adopted the alias of Monsieur Madeleine to avoid capture, has become a wealthy factory owner and is appointed mayor of his adopted town of Montreuil-sur-Mer. While walking down the street one day, he sees a gentleman named Fauchelevent pinned under the wheels of his cart. When no one volunteers to lift the cart, even for pay, he decides to rescue Old Fauchelevent himself. He crawls underneath the cart and manages to lift it, freeing him. The town's police inspector, Inspector Javert, who was an adjutant guard at the Bagne of Toulon during Valjean's incarceration, becomes suspicious of the mayor after witnessing his heroics. He knows the ex-prisoner Jean Valjean is also capable of such strength.
Years earlier in Paris, a grisette named Fantine was very much in love with a gentleman named Félix Tholomyès. His friends, Listolier, Fameuil, and Blachevelle were also paired with Fantine’s friends Dahlia, Zéphine, and Favourite. The men later abandon the women as a joke, leaving Fantine to care for Tholomyès' daughter, Cosette, by herself. When Fantine arrives at Montfermeil, she leaves Cosette in the care of the Thénardiers, a corrupt innkeeper and his selfish, cruel wife. Fantine is unaware that they abuse her daughter and use her as forced labor for their inn, and continues to try to pay their growing, extortionate and fictitious demands for Cosette's "upkeep." She is later fired from her job at Jean Valjean's factory, due to the discovery of her daughter, who was born out of wedlock. Meanwhile, the Thénardiers' letters and monetary demands continue to grow. In desperation, Fantine sells her hair, her two front teeth, and is forced to resort to prostitution to pay for her daughter's "care." Fantine is also slowly dying from an unnamed disease (probably tuberculosis). While roaming the streets, a dandy named Bamatabois harasses Fantine and puts snow down her back. She reacts by attacking him. Javert sees this and arrests Fantine. She begs to be released so that she can provide for her daughter, but Javert sentences her to six months in prison. Valjean, hearing her story, intervenes and orders Javert to release her. Javert strongly refuses but Valjean persists and prevails. Valjean, feeling responsible because his factory turned her away, promises Fantine that he will bring Cosette to her. He takes her to a hospital.
Later, Javert comes to see Valjean again. Javert admits he had accused him of being Jean Valjean to the French authorities after Fantine was freed. However, he tells Valjean that he no longer suspects him because the authorities have announced that another man has been identified as the real Jean Valjean after being arrested and having noticeable similarities. This gentleman's name is Champ Mathieu. He is not guilty, but is mistaken. His trial is set the next day. At first, Valjean is torn whether to reveal himself, but decides to do so to save the innocent gentleman. He goes to the trial and reveals his true identity, but Javert does not arrest him. Valjean then returns to Montreuil-sur-Mer to see Fantine, followed by Javert, who confronts him at her hospital room. After Javert grabs Valjean, Valjean asks for three days to bring Cosette to Fantine, but Javert refuses. Fantine discovers that Cosette is not at the hospital and fretfully asks where she is. Javert orders her to be quiet, and then reveals to her Valjean’s real identity. Shocked, and with the severity of her illness, she falls back in her bed and dies. Valjean goes to Fantine, speaks to her in an inaudible whisper, kisses her hand, and then leaves with Javert. Fantine's body is later cruelly thrown in a public grave.
Valjean manages to escape, only to be recaptured and sentenced to death. This was commuted by the king to penal servitude for life. While being sent to the prison at Toulon, a military port, Valjean saves a sailor about to fall from the ship's rigging. The crowd begins to call "This man must be pardoned!" but when the authorities reject the crowd's pleas, Valjean fakes a slip and falls into the ocean to escape, relying on the belief that he has drowned.
Valjean arrives at Montfermeil on Christmas Eve. He finds Cosette fetching water in the woods alone and walks with her to the inn. After ordering a meal, he observes the Thénardiers’ abusive treatment of her. He also witnesses their pampered daughters Éponine and Azelma treating Cosette badly as well when they tell on her to their mother for holding their abandoned doll. Upon seeing this, Valjean goes out and returns a moment later holding an expensive new doll. He offers it to Cosette. At first, she is unable to comprehend that the doll really is for her, but then happily takes it. This results in Mme. Thénardier becoming furious with Valjean, while Thénardier dismisses it, informing her that he can do as he wishes as long as he pays them. It also causes Éponine and Azelma to become envious of Cosette.
The next morning on Christmas Day, Valjean informs the Thénardiers that he wants to take Cosette with him. Mme. Thénardier immediately accepts, while Thénardier pretends to have love and concern for Cosette and how reluctant he is to give her up. Valjean pays 1,500 francs to them, and he and Cosette leave the inn. However, Thénardier, hoping to swindle more out of Valjean, runs after them, holding the 1,500 francs, and tells Valjean he wants Cosette back. He informs Valjean that he cannot release Cosette without a note from the mother. Valjean hands Thénardier a letter, which is signed by Fantine. Thénardier then orders Valjean to pay a thousand crowns, but Valjean and Cosette leave. Thénardier regrets to himself that he did not bring his gun, and turns back toward home.
Valjean and Cosette flee to Paris. Valjean rents new lodgings at Gorbeau House, and he and Cosette live there happily. However, Javert discovers Valjean's lodgings there a few months later. Valjean takes Cosette and they try to escape from Javert. They soon successfully find shelter in the Petit-Picpus convent with the help of Fauchelevent, the man whom Valjean rescued and who is a gardener for the convent. Valjean also becomes a gardener and Cosette becomes a student.
Eight years later, the Friends of the ABC, led by Enjolras, are preparing an act of anti-Orléanist civil unrest on the eve of the Paris uprising on 5–6 June 1832, following the death of General Lamarque, the only French leader who had sympathy towards the working class. They are also joined by the poor of the Cour des miracles, including the Thénardiers' oldest son Gavroche, who is a street urchin.
One of the students, Marius Pontmercy, has become alienated from his family (especially his grandfather M. Gillenormand) because of his liberal views. After the death of his father Colonel Georges Pontmercy, Marius discovers a note from him instructing his son to provide help to a sergeant named Thénardier who saved Pontmercy's life at Waterloo – in reality Thénardier was looting corpses and only saved Pontmercy's life by accident; he had called himself a sergeant under Napoleon to avoid exposing himself as a robber. At the Luxembourg Gardens, Marius falls in love with the now grown and beautiful Cosette. The Thénardiers have also moved to Paris and now live in poverty after losing their inn. They live under the surname "Jondrette" at Gorbeau House (coincidentally, the same building Valjean and Cosette briefly lived in after leaving the Thénardiers' inn). Marius lives there as well, next door to the Thénardiers.
Éponine, now ragged and emaciated, visits Marius at his apartment to beg for money. To impress him, she tries to prove her literacy by reading aloud from a book and by writing "The Cops Are Here" on a sheet of paper. Marius pities her and gives her some money. After Éponine leaves, Marius observes the "Jondrettes" in their apartment through a crack in the wall. Éponine comes in and announces that a philanthropist and his daughter are arriving to visit them. In order to look poorer, Thénardier puts out the fire and breaks a chair. He also orders Azelma to punch out a window pane, which she does, resulting in cutting her hand (as Thénardier had hoped). The philanthropist and his daughter enter—actually Valjean and Cosette. Marius immediately recognizes Cosette. After seeing them, Valjean promises them he will return with rent money for them. After he and Cosette leave, Marius asks Éponine to retrieve her address for him. Éponine, who is in love with Marius herself, reluctantly agrees to do so. The Thénardiers have also recognized Valjean and Cosette, and vow their revenge. Thénardier enlists the aid of the Patron-Minette, a well-known and feared gang of murderers and robbers.
Marius overhears Thénardier's plan and goes to Javert to report the crime. He then goes back home and waits for Javert and the police to arrive. Thénardier sends Éponine and Azelma outside to look out for the police. When Valjean returns with rent money, Thénardier, with Patron-Minette, ambushes him and he reveals his real identity to Valjean. Marius recognizes Thénardier as the man who "saved" his father's life at Waterloo and is caught in a dilemma. He tries to find a way to save Valjean while not betraying Thénardier. Valjean denies knowing Thénardier and tells that they have never met. Valjean tries to escape through a window but is subdued and tied up. Thénardier orders Valjean to pay him 200,000 francs. He also orders Valjean to write a letter to Cosette to return to the apartment, and they would keep her as a hostage until he delivers the money. After Valjean writes the letter and informs Thénardier his address, Thénardier sends out Mme. Thénardier to get Cosette. Mme. Thénardier comes back alone, and announces the address is a fake. It was during this time that Valjean manages to free himself. Thénardier decides to kill Valjean, and he and Patron-Minette close in on him. Marius is in desperation on what to do. He then remembers the scrap of paper that Éponine wrote on earlier. He throws it into the Thénardiers’ apartment through the wall crack. Thénardier reads it and thinks Éponine threw it inside. He, Mme. Thénardier and Patron-Minette try to escape, only to be stopped by Javert. He arrests all the Thénardiers and Patron-Minette (except Claquesous, who escapes during his transportation to prison; Montparnasse, who stops to run off with Éponine instead of joining in on the robbery; and Gavroche, who was not present and rarely participates in his family's crimes, a notable exception being his part in breaking his father out of prison). Valjean manages to escape the scene before Javert sees him.
After Éponine’s release from prison, she finds Marius at "The Field of the Lark" and sadly tells him that she found Cosette’s address. She leads him to Valjean and Cosette's house at Rue Plumet, and Marius watches the house for a few days. He and Cosette then finally meet and declare their love for one another. Thénardier, Patron-Minette and Brujon manage to escape from prison with the aid of Gavroche. One night, during one of Marius’ visits with Cosette, the six men attempt to raid Valjean and Cosette's house. However, Éponine, who was sitting by the gates of the house, threatens to scream and awaken the whole neighbourhood if the thieves do not leave. Hearing this, they reluctantly retire. Meanwhile, Cosette informs Marius that she and Valjean will be leaving for England in a week’s time, which greatly troubles the pair.
The next day, Valjean is sitting in the Champ de Mars. He is feeling troubled due to seeing Thénardier in the neighbourhood several times. Unexpectedly, a note lands in his lap, which says "REMOVE." He sees a figure running away in the dim light. He goes back to his house, tells Cosette they will be staying at their other house at Rue de l'Homme Arme, and reconfirms with her about moving to England. Marius tries to get permission from M. Gillenormand to marry Cosette. His grandfather seems stern and angry, but has been longing for Marius' return. When tempers flare, he refuses, telling Marius to make Cosette his mistress instead. Insulted, Marius leaves. The following day, the students revolt and erect barricades in the narrow streets of Paris. Gavroche spots Javert and informs Enjolras that Javert is a spy. When Enjolras confronts him of this, he admits his identity and his orders to spy on the students. Enjolras and the other students tie him up to a pole in the Corinth restaurant. Later that evening, Marius goes back to Valjean and Cosette’s house at Rue Plumet, but finds the house no longer occupied. He then hears a voice telling him that his friends are waiting for him at the barricade. Distraught over Cosette gone, he heeds the voice and goes.
When Marius arrives at the barricade, the "revolution" has already started. When he stoops down to pick up a powder keg, a soldier comes up to shoot Marius. After, a man covers the muzzle of the soldier's gun with his hand. The soldier fires, fatally shooting the man, while missing Marius. Meanwhile, the soldiers are closing in. Marius climbs to the top of the barricade, holding a torch in one hand, a powder keg in the other. He yells at the soldiers "Begone! Or I’ll blow up the barricade!" After confirming this, the soldiers retreat from the barricade.
Marius decides to go to the smaller barricade, which he finds empty. As he turns back, the man who took the fatal shot for Marius earlier calls Marius by his name. Marius, and the reader, discovers that it is actually Éponine, dressed in men's clothes. As she lies dying on his knees, she confesses that she was the one who told him to go to the barricade, in hoping that the two would die together. She also confesses to saving his life because she wanted to die first (although she does not provide further explanation to this). The author also states to the reader that Éponine anonymously threw the note to Valjean. Éponine then tells Marius that she has a letter for him. She also confesses to have obtained the letter the day before, originally not planning to give it to him, but decides to do so in fear he would be angry at her in the afterlife. After Marius takes the letter, Éponine then asks him to kiss her on the forehead when she is dead, which he promises to do. With her last breath, she confesses that she was "a little bit in love" with him, and dies. Marius fulfills her request and goes into a tavern to read the letter (in consideration that it would be inappropriate to read it beside her corpse). It is written by Cosette. He learns Cosette's new whereabouts and writes a farewell letter to her. The letter is delivered to Valjean by Gavroche. Valjean, learning that Cosette's lover is fighting, is at first relieved, but an hour later, he puts on a National Guard uniform, arms himself with a gun and ammunition, and leaves his home.
Valjean arrives at the barricade and immediately saves a man's life, though he is still not certain if he wants to protect Marius or to kill him. Marius recognizes Valjean upon seeing him. Enjolras announces that they are almost out of cartridges. Overhearing this, Gavroche goes to the other side of the barricade to collect more from the dead National Guardsmen. While doing so, he is shot and killed by the soldiers.
Later, Valjean saves Javert from being killed by the students. He volunteers to execute Javert himself, and Enjolras grants permission. Valjean takes Javert out of sight, and then shoots into the air while letting him go. As the barricade falls, Valjean carries off the injured and unconscious Marius. All the other students, including Enjolras, are killed. Valjean escapes through the sewers, carrying Marius' body on his shoulders. He manages to evade a police patrol. He eventually finds a gate to exit the sewers, but to his disappointment, the gate is locked. Valjean suddenly hears a voice behind him, and he turns and sees Thénardier. Valjean recognizes him but his composure is calm, for he perceives that Thénardier does not recognize him due to his dirty appearance. Thinking Valjean to be a simple murderer, Thénardier offers to open the gate for money. He then proceeds to search Valjean and Marius' pockets. While doing this, he secretly tears off a piece of Marius’ coat so he can later find out his identity. Finding only thirty francs, Thénardier reluctantly takes the money, opens the gate, and Valjean leaves.
At the exit, Valjean runs into Javert, whom he persuades to give him time to return Marius to his family. Javert grants this request. After leaving Marius at M. Gillenormand’s house, Valjean makes another request that he be permitted to go home shortly, which Javert also allows. They arrive at Rue de l'Homme Arme and Javert informs Valjean that he will wait for him. As Valjean walks upstairs, he looks out the landing window and finds Javert gone. Javert is walking down the street alone, realizing that he is caught between his strict belief in the law and the mercy Valjean has shown him. He feels he can no longer give Valjean up to the authorities. Unable to cope with this dilemma, Javert commits suicide by throwing himself into the Seine.
Marius slowly recovers from his injuries and he and Cosette are soon married.
Meanwhile, Thénardier and Azelma are attending the Mardi Gras as "masks." Thénardier spots Valjean among the wedding party heading the opposite direction and bids Azelma to follow them. After the wedding, Valjean confesses to Marius that he is an ex-convict. Marius is horrified by the revelation. Convinced that Valjean is of poor moral character, he steers Cosette away from him. Valjean loses the will to live and takes to his bed.
Later, Thénardier approaches Marius in a disguise, but Marius is not fooled and recognizes him. Thénardier attempts to blackmail Marius with what he knows of Valjean, but in doing so, he inadvertently corrects Marius' misconceptions about Valjean and reveals all of the good he has done. He tries to convince Marius that Valjean is actually a murderer, and presents the piece of coat he tore off as evidence. Stunned, Marius recognizes the fabric and realizes that it was Valjean who rescued him from the barricade. Marius pulls out a fistful of five hundred and one thousand franc notes and flings it at Thénardier's face. He then confronts Thénardier with his crimes and offers him an immense amount of money if he departs and promises never to return. Thénardier accepts the offer, and he and Azelma travel to America where he becomes a slave trader.
As Marius and Cosette rush to Valjean's house, he informs her that Valjean saved his life at the barricade. They arrive to see him, but the great man is dying. In his final moments, he realizes happiness with his adopted daughter and son-in-law by his side. He also reveals Cosette's past to her as well as her mother's name. Joined with them in love, he dies.
Review:   This book is rightfully considered one of the greatest novels of all times.It is difficult to condense the wonders of “Les Miserables” into a single article — this story has it all: love, redemption, revolution, good versus evil and much more. It takes at least 2 months to read.
This is a book about everything – right and wrong, love and hate, war and peace, goodness and evil, rich and poor. The characters are very believable, and in fact developed extremely well. Hugo doesn’t just throw random characters in, any one has his place, and is described sufficiently well for the reader to relate to him. This is true about other facets of the book as well: although being very long, you won’t find needless things in it. Everything has a reason, and Hugo knows how to collect facts and bring them together in a masterful way, sometimes surprisingly.
Les Miserables is, amongst other things, famous for its digressions. These are things that Hugo just felt like writing about and unapologetically shoe-horned into the book. I have endured a 60 page digression on the Battle of Waterloo, 40 pages on convents, 20 pages on sewers, and all kinds of long chapters on various things that are not important to the story. Perhaps it would be easier to forgive Hugo these digressions if he didn’t place them right in the middle of the action, usually leaving Valjean teetering on the brink of catastrophe, closely pursued by Javert. Based on the quality of his writing, I certainly do, because it is incredible.
Opening Line: In 1815, M. Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D—— He was an old man of about seventy-five years of age; he had occupied the see of D—— since 1806.
Closing Line: The thing came to pass simply, of itself, as the night comes when day is gone.
Quotes: “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”
“To love another person is to see the face of God.”
“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”
“If I speak, I am condemned. If I stay silent, I am damned!”
“You ask me what forces me to speak? a strange thing; my conscience.”
Rating:  Awesome.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

467. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens

History: This book, written in the years 1864–65, is the last novel completed by Charles Dickens.
Plot: A rich misanthropic miser who has made his fortune from London's rubbish dies, estranged from all except his faithful employees Mr and Mrs Boffin. By his will, his fortune goes to his estranged son John Harmon, who is to return from where he has settled abroad (putatively in South Africa, though this is never stated) to claim it, on condition that he marries a woman he has not met, Miss Bella Wilfer. The implementation of the Will is in the charge of the solicitor, Mortimer Lightwood, who has no other practice.
Before the son and heir can claim his inheritance, he goes missing, presumed drowned, at the end of his journey back to London. A body is found in the Thames by Gaffer Hexam, a waterman who makes his living from retrieving corpses and robbing them of valuables before rendering them to the authorities. The body is identified from papers in the pockets as that of the heir, John Harmon. Present at the identification is a mysterious young man, who gives his name as Julius Handford and then disappears.
By the terms of the miser's will, the whole estate then devolves upon Mr and Mrs Boffin, naive and good hearted people who wish to enjoy it for themselves and to share it with others. They take the disappointed bride of the drowned heir, Miss Wilfer, into their household, and treat her as their pampered child and heiress. They also accept an offer from Julius Handford, now going under the name of John Rokesmith, to serve as confidential secretary and man of business, at no salary. He uses this position to watch and learn everything about the Boffins, Miss Wilfer, and the aftershock of the drowning of the heir John Harmon. A one-legged ballad seller, Silas Wegg, is engaged to read to Mr Boffin in the evenings, and he tries to take advantage of his position and Mr Boffin's good heart to obtain other advantages from the wealthy dustman.
Gaffer Hexam, who found the body, is accused of murdering John Harmon by a fellow-waterman, Roger "Rogue" Riderhood, who is bitter at having been cast off as Hexam's partner on the river and who covets the large reward offered in relation to the murder. Hexam is shunned by his fellows on the river, and excluded from The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters, a public house frequented by them on the river. Hexam's young son, the clever but priggish Charley Hexam, leaves his father's house in order to better himself at school, and train to be a schoolmaster, encouraged by his sister, the beautiful Lizzie Hexam. Meanwhile, Lizzie stays with her father, to whom she is devoted.
Before Riderhood can claim the reward for his false allegation against Hexam, Hexam is found drowned himself. Lizzie Hexam becomes the lodger of a doll's dressmaker. But she has caught the eye of the briefless and languid barrister, Eugene Wrayburn, who noticed her when accompanying his friend, the Harmon solicitor Mortimer Lightwood, in pursuit of Gaffer Hexam upon the accusation of Riderhood. Wrayburn falls in love with her. However, he has a violent rival in Bradley Headstone, the schoolmaster of Charley Hexam, who is set on marrying her, and believes that Wrayburn will make her his mistress but not his wife. Lizzie Hexam flees both men, getting work up river outside London.
Mr and Mrs Boffin adopt a young orphan, previously in the care of his grandmother, Betty Higden. Mrs Higden minds children for a living, assisted by the gangling foundling known as Sloppy. She has a terror of the workhouse. When Mrs Higden is found dying by Lizzie Hexam, Lizzie is thereby introduced to the Boffins and to Bella Wilfer. But Lizzie has been tracked down by Eugene Wrayburn and also by Bradley Headstone. Headstone assaults Wrayburn and leaves him for dead but Lizzie finds and rescues him. Wrayburn, thinking he will die anyway, marries Lizzie to save her reputation. When he survives, he is glad that this has brought him into a loving marriage, albeit with a social inferior. He had not cared about the social gulf between them but Lizzie had and would not otherwise have married him.
Rokesmith has clearly fallen in love with Bella Wilfer but she cannot bear to accept him, determining that she will marry only for money. Mr Boffin appears to be corrupted by his wealth and becomes a miser. He also begins to treat his secretary Rokesmith with contempt and cruelty. This rouses the sympathy of Bella Wilfer and both she and Rokesmith are turned out of the Boffin household. They marry and live happily although poor.
Meanwhile, Bradley Headstone has tried to put the blame for his assault on Wrayburn on Rogue Riderhood, now working as a lock gate keeper by dressing in similar clothes when doing the deed. Riderhood realizes this and also knows of the assault, and he attempts to blackmail Headstone. Headstone, overcome with the hopelessness of his situation, is seized with a self-destructive urge and flings himself into the lock, pulling Riderhood with him so that both are drowned.
The one-legged parasite Silas Wegg has with Venus, the articulator of bones, discovered a will subsequent to the one which has given the Boffins the whole of the Harmon estate. By the later will, the estate goes to the Crown. Wegg and Venus decide to blackmail Boffin with this will.
It becomes clear to the reader that John Rokesmith is the missing heir, John Harmon. He had been robbed of his clothes and possessions by the man later found drowned and wrongly identified as him. Rokesmith/Harmon has been maintaining his alias in order to see Bella Wilfer before committing himself to marry her as required by the terms of his father's will. Now that she has married him believing him to be poor, he can throw off his disguise. He does so and it is revealed that Mr Boffin's ill treatment of him and his miserliness was part of a scheme to test Miss Wilfer's motives and affections.
When Wegg (abandoned by Venus) attempts to clinch his blackmail on the basis of the later will disinheriting Boffin, Boffin turns the tables by revealing a still later will by which the fortune is granted to Boffin even at young John Harmon's expense. The Boffins are determined to make John Harmon and his bride Bella Wilfer their heirs anyway so all ends well, except for the villain Wegg, who is carted away by Sloppy.
Review: One of the most prevalent symbols in Our Mutual Friend is that of the River Thames, which becomes part of one of the major themes of the novel, rebirth and renewal. Water is seen as a sign of new life, used by churches during the sacrament of Baptism as a sign of purity and a new beginning. In Our Mutual Friend, it has the same meaning. Characters like John Harmon and Eugene Wrayburn end up in the waters of the river, and come out reborn as new men.
Throughout Our Mutual Friend, Dickens uses many descriptions that relate to water. Some critics refer to this as “metaphoric overkill,” and indeed there are numerous images described by water that have nothing to do with water at all.
Dickens also explores the conflict between doing what society expects of you, or being true to yourself in Our Mutual Friend. Much of what society expects of a person may be shown through the influence of one’s family. In many of Dickens’s novels, including Our Mutual Friend and Little Dorrit, parents try and force their children into arranged marriages, which, although suitable in terms of money, are not suitable in other ways.
Opening Line: “In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.”
Closing Line: “When the company disperse—by which time Mr and Mrs Veneering have had quite as much as they want of the honour, and the guests have had quite as much as THEY want of the other honour—Mortimer sees Twemlow home, shakes hands with him cordially at parting, and fares to the Temple, gaily.”
Quotes: “No one has the least regard for the man; with them all, he has been an object of avoidance, suspicion, and aversion; but the spark of life within him is curiously separable from himself now, and they have a deep interest in it, probably because it IS life, and they are living and must die.”
Rating:   Didn't read.

465. The Counterfeiters – Andre Gide

History: This book was written in 1925. The Counterfeiters is a novel-within-a-novel, with Edouard (the alter ego of Gide) intending to write a book of the same title. Other stylistic devices are also used, such as an omniscient narrator that sometimes addresses the reader directly, weighs in on the characters' motivations or discusses alternate realities. Therefore, the book has been seen as a precursor of the nouveau roman.
The novel features a considerable number of bisexual or gay male characters – the adolescent Olivier and at least to a certain unacknowledged degree his friend Bernard, in all likeliness their schoolfellows Gontran and Philippe, and finally the adult writers Comte de Passavant (who represents an evil and corrupting force) and the benevolent Edouard. An important part of the plot is its depiction of various possibilities of positive and negative homoerotic or homosexual relationships.
Initially received coldly on its appearance, perhaps because of its homosexual themes and its unusual composition, The Counterfeiters has gained reputation in the intervening years and is now generally counted among the Western Canon of literature.
The making of the novel, with letters, newspaper clippings and other supporting material, was documented by Gide in his 1926 Journal of The Counterfeiters.
Plot: The plot revolves around Bernard – a schoolfriend of Olivier's who is preparing for his bac – discovering he is a bastard and taking this as a welcome pretext for running away from home. He spends a night in Olivier's bed (where they discuss sexuality with Olivier recounting a recent visit to a prostitute and how he did not find the experience very enjoyable). After Bernard steals the suitcase belonging to Edouard, Olivier's uncle, and the ensuing complications, he is made Edouard's secretary. Olivier is jealous and ends up in the hands of the cynical and downright diabolical Comte de Passavant, who travels with him to the Mediterranean.
Eventually, Bernard and Edouard decide they do not fit as well together as anticipated, and Bernard leaves to take a job at a school, then finally decides to return to his father's home. Olivier is now made Edouard's secretary, and after an eventful evening on which he embarrasses himself grossly, Olivier ends up in bed together with Edouard, finally fulfilling the attraction they have felt for each other all along but were unable to express.
Other plotlines are woven around these elements, such as Olivier's younger brother Georges and his involvement with a ring of counterfeiters, or his older brother Vincent and his relationship with Laura, a married woman, with whom he has a child. Perhaps the most suspenseful scene in the book revolves around Boris, another illegitimate child and the grandson of La Pérouse, who commits suicide in front of the assembled class when dared by Ghéridanisol, another of Passavant's cohorts.
In some regards, such as the way in which the adolescents act and speak in a way beyond their years and the incompetence of the adults (especially the fathers), as well as its motives of developing and confused adolescent sexuality, the novel has common ground with Frank Wedekind's (at the time scandalous) 1891 drama Spring Awakening. The Counterfeiters also shares with that play the vision of homosexual relationships as under certain conditions being "better" than heterosexual ones, with the latter ones leading inevitably to destructive outcomes in both works.
Review: André Gide, reared by strict Protestant women, entered adult life in a state of restless religious captivity, married his cousin, contracted tuberculosis, traveled to Algeria for his health, encountered Oscar Wilde, gave free rein to his repressed homosexuality and, instead of then discreetly perishing like Mann's Gustave von Aschenbach, returned to France, made a public avowal of his sexuality and of his new credo, wrote a notorious book about both, opened himself to sensuality, to life's possibilities, became the apostle of radical individualism, conceived the acte gratuit, embraced public responsibility, rejected narcissism, kept an enormous journal, and, in the fullness of time, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The Counterfeiters is a highly moral book, even in the most old-fashioned sense: there are "good" characters and "bad" ones and, in general, things work out well for the good and badly for the bad. As a moralist with a particular concern for the young, Gide is careful to show how his youths go right or wrong and one way of going wrong is to ignore one's own desires. "There exists no difference between God and one's own happiness," Gide famously wrote. This apparently hedonistic dictum is only superficially scandalous; the license given by "happiness" is withdrawn in advance by "God."
There is a Protestant rigor as well as a natural vigor in Bernard's summer in the Alps, a reminder that Geneva was the home of both Calvin and Rousseau. Gide clearly approves of Bernard's physical exertion and self-discipline, and contrasts them to Olivier's lassitude on the beaches of Catholic Corsica.
So, just as he had freed himself from the tyranny of Calvin's God in North Africa, Gide seeks in The Counterfeiters to liberate his characters from authorial predestination. On page one Bernard is detached from the determination of both home and genetics, fulfilling those twin fantasies of the restless bourgeois child: that he is an orphan and that he can run away. Gide weaves his theme of liberation into the form and content of his novel as well as his brand of moral relativism by making the work "Cubist" in portraying multiple points of view. The Counterfeiters is a pluralistic novel, offering many distinct voices. Even secondary characters like La Pérouse, Rachel Vedel, and Oscar Molinier have their moment at stage center; for Gide's open universe is a sphere with an infinite number of centers. Through the manner of his storytelling he is able to convey his moral convictions directly: that one should put oneself at the disposal of life without prejudices, be tolerant of other viewpoints, and relish the relativity of the modern world rather than deriding or complaining about it.
Not only does Gide liberate his characters to behave as they wish (that is, by making the strings by which he manipulates them invisible), he also frees the reader. So far is the putative author of The Counterfeiters from omniscience that he is actually self-effacing. In contrast to the Victorian clutter of drapes, knickknacks, pouffes, and sofas of Late Victorian sensibility and psychologizing, Gide's novel feels airy and light, a book of springtime and summer. While the novel bites off quite a lot, it is the reader who gets to do the chewing. The author serves as a kind of maitre d'hôtel or as a train conductor, inviting all aboard: though the rails are already laid, the conductor himself does not know the route or the destination any better than we do, and so we are at liberty to discover what is worthwhile on the journey for ourselves.
As the author is not omniscient, so he cannot be omnipresent. One of causes of the openness achieved by the novel is the sense that the characters are pursuing their lives outside our ken. If we are with Bernard in Saas-Fée then we cannot be with Olivier in Corsica. If we are to follow Edouard down a Parisian boulevard, then we cannot also keep our eye on Georges disappearing around a corner. Gide intended The Counterfeiters to take place, as much as possible, in the present tense, like a film. The author may also be compared to a camera with a bland personality. The novel unfolds like music; in order to come to life, a symphony must also be performed in the present.
Opening Line: “The time has now come for me to hear a step in the passage,” said Bernard to himself.”
Closing Line: “And I feel in myself, on certain days, such an overwhelming inrush of evil that I imagine the Prince of Darkness is already beginning to set up hell within me.”
Quotes: "That in itself will teach you. It's a good thing to follow one's inclination, provided it leads up hill"
Rating: Couldn’t read after the first few chapters.

464. The Thirty Nine Steps – John Buchan

History: This book first appeared as a serial in Blackwood's Magazine in August and September 1915 before being published in book form in October that year.
John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps while he was ill in bed with a duodenal ulcer, an illness which remained with him all his life. The novel was his first "shocker", as he called it — a story combining personal and political dramas. The novel marked a turning point in Buchan’s literary career and introduced his famous adventuring hero, Richard Hannay. He described a "shocker" as an adventure where the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe that they really happened.
Buchan's son, William, later wrote that the name of the book originated when the author's daughter, then about age six, was counting the stairs at a private nursing home in Broadstairs, where Buchan was convalescing. "There was a wooden staircase leading down to the beach. My sister, who was about six, and who had just learnt to count properly, went down them and gleefully announced: there are 39 steps." Some time later the house was demolished and a section of the stairs, complete with a brass plaque, was sent to Buchan.
Plot:  Richard Hannay, the protagonist and narrator, an expatriate Scot, returns from a long stay in southern Africa to his new home, a flat in London. One night he is buttonholed by a stranger, a well-travelled American, who claims to be in fear for his life. The man appears to know of an anarchist plot to destabilize Europe, beginning with a plan to assassinate the Greek Premier, Karolides, during his forthcoming visit to London. He reveals his name to be Franklin P. Scudder. Hannay lets Scudder hide in his flat, and returns later the next day to find that another man has been found shot dead in the same building, apparently a suicide. Four days later Hannay returns home to find Scudder dead with a knife through his heart.
Hannay fears that the murderers will come for him next, but cannot ask the police for help because he is the most likely suspect for the murders. Not only does he want to avoid imprisonment, but he also feels a duty to take up Scudder's cause and save Karolides from the assassination, planned in three weeks' time. He decides to go into hiding in Scotland and then to contact the authorities at the last minute. In order to escape from his flat unseen, he bribes the milkman to lend him his uniform and exits wearing it. Carrying Scudder's pocket-book, he catches the next express train leaving from London St.Pancras station; its destination happens to be Dumfries in Scotland, and Hannay, remembering for some reason the nearby town of Newton-Stewart, names this as his destination when he buys his ticket from the guard.
Arriving at the countryside somewhere in Galloway, Hannay lodges in a shepherd's cottage. The next morning he reads in a newspaper that the police are looking for him in Scotland. Reasoning that the police would expect him to head for a port on the West Coast, he doubles back and boards a local train heading east, but jumps off between stations. He is seen but escapes, finding an inn where he stays the night. He tells the innkeeper a modified version of his story, and the man is persuaded to shelter him. While staying at the inn, Hannay cracks the substitution cipher used in Scudder's pocket-book. The next day two men arrive at the inn looking for Hannay, but the innkeeper sends them away. When they return later, Hannay steals their car and escapes.
On his way, Hannay reflects on what he has learnt from Scudder's notes. They contradict the story that Scudder first told to him, and mention an enemy group called the Black Stone and the mysterious Thirty-nine Steps. The United Kingdom appears to be in danger of an invasion by Germany and its allies. By this time, Hannay is being pursued by an aeroplane, and a policeman in a remote village has tried to stop him. Trying to avoid an oncoming car, Hannay crashes his own, but the other driver offers to take him home. The man is Sir Harry, a local landowner and prospective politician, although politically very naive. When he learns of Hannay's experience of South Africa, he invites him to address an election meeting that afternoon. Hannay's speech impresses Sir Harry, and Hannay feels able to trust him with his story. Sir Harry writes an introductory letter about Hannay to a relation in the Foreign Office.
Hannay leaves Sir Harry and tries to hide in the countryside, but is spotted by the aeroplane. Soon he spots a group of men on the ground searching for him. Miraculously, he meets a road mender out on the moor, and swaps places with him, sending the workman home. His disguise fools his pursuers, who pass him by. On the same road he meets a rich motorist, whom he recognises from London, and whom he forces to exchange clothes with him and drive him off the moor.
The next day, Hannay manages to stay ahead of the pursuers, and hides in a cottage occupied by an elderly man. Unfortunately, the man turns out to be one of the enemy, and with his accomplices he imprisons Hannay. Fortunately, the room in which Hannay is locked is full of bomb-making materials, which he uses to break out of the cottage, injuring himself in the process.
A day later, Hannay retrieves his possessions from the helpful roadmender and stays for a few days to recover from the explosion. He dines at a Public House in Moffat before walking to the junction at Beattock to catch a southbound train to England, changing at Crewe, Birmingham New Street and Reading, to meet Sir Harry's relative at the Foreign Office, Sir Walter Bullivant, at his country home in Berkshire. As they discuss Scudder's notes, Sir Walter receives a phone call to tell him that Karolides has been assassinated.
Sir Walter, now at his house in London, lets Hannay in on some military secrets before releasing him to go home. Hannay is unable to shake off his sense of involvement in important events, and returns to Sir Walter's house where a high-level meeting is in progress. He is just in time to see a man, whom he recognizes as one of his former pursuers in Scotland, leaving the house. Hannay warns Sir Walter that the man, ostensibly the First Sea Lord, is about to return to Europe with the information he has obtained from their meeting. At that point, Hannay realizes that the phrase "the thirty-nine steps" could refer to the landing-point in England from which the spy is about to set sail. Throughout the night Hannay and the United Kingdom's military leaders try to work out the meaning of the mysterious phrase.
After some reasoning worthy of Sherlock Holmes, and with the help of a knowledgeable coastguard, the group decide on a coastal town in Kent. They find a path down from the cliff that has thirty-nine steps. Just offshore they see a yacht. Posing as fishermen, some of the party visit the yacht, the Ariadne, and find that at least one of the crew appears to be German. The only people onshore are playing tennis by a villa and appear to be English, but they match Scudder's description of the conspirators, The Black Stone. Hannay, alone, confronts the men at the villa. After a struggle, two of the men are captured while the third flees to the yacht, which meanwhile has been seized by the British authorities. The plot is thwarted, and the United Kingdom enters the First World War having kept its military secrets from the enemy.
A few weeks later, Hannay joins the army with a captain's rank.
Review:  John Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps at breakneck speed in 1914, while suffering from the stomach ulcer that would dog him for the rest of his life. He was staying in a nursing home by the seaside at Broadstairs in Kent and, according to his son, the title of the book came from a flight of wooden steps which led down to the beach from the grounds of the house. The steps were later removed and presented to Buchan.
Writing the book was a way of taking his mind off his bodily pain, and his mental anguish, too, for the First World War had just broken out. Before the book was finished, Buchan might well have been able to hear the guns from Flanders: Ypres is less than 50 miles across the water from Broadstairs. Amid so much calamity it is hardly surprising that Buchan set his story in familiar, well-loved places – the Scottish borders and in particular the countryside of Galloway, where he had often holidayed, fished and climbed with his family and his Oxford friends. And, of course, in the face of a war with Germany, his villain had to be a German, the Graf von Schwabing.
The book he named after the flight of steps was not the first of his “shockers”, as he called his tales of adventure and spying. In 1913, a year previously, Blackwood’s Magazine had published “The Power-House”, a story about a lawyer who stumbles into an international conspiracy, is nearly done to death in an upstairs room in a restaurant in Fitzrovia and then is chased across London by a large gang of ruffians.
The Buchan shockers are hard to pigeonhole as belonging to one particular genre of literature. They are not spy stories in the usual sense, or detective stories or adventure stories pure and simple. Nor are they based on imaginary worlds or bizarre experiences, though elements of the magical come in here and there.
These tasters of sinister evils being practiced in strange foreign places, which are found in all the Hannay books, are a reflection of Buchan’s own beliefs and state of mind. A moderate conservative in politics, a Presbyterian son of the manse and a good Scot, the fey side of him really did believe that civilization’s wheels were coming off due to a clash of cultures, too many greedy men and large doses of human stupidity.
The Thirty-Nine Steps introduces the reader to Richard Hannay, a man of action who puts his own safety second to the safety of his country. Hannay’s activities incorporate much of Buchan’s own experiences.
Like Hannay, Buchan was a skilled fisherman and hill climber, whose early career had been spent riding across the South African veldt in charge of agricultural policy and resettlement at the end of the Boer war.
Many of the characters in the Hannay books are based on Buchan’s friends and colleagues.
All the Hannay books involve a chase across wild country with the life of the hero and/or the villain at stake.
Despite their strange characteristics, there is a kind of psychological reality about these Buchan villains. There is a genuine echo of the political background which created the fascist and communist dictators who were to have such an influence on Europe. They too had their personal idiosyncrasies.
Buchan’s technique as a writer is simple enough and well displayed inThe Thirty-Nine Steps. He understood that in a thriller, as opposed for example to a detective story, what matters above all is to keep the reader focused on what is going to happen next, irrespective of where things may end up. And also to keep him convinced that what he is reading here and now could really happen.
The Thirty-Nine Steps is more like a series of exciting episodes strung end to end than a carefully plotted tale. The speed is breathtaking, with each successive scene gripping the reader’s imagination, and with every place, actor and motive indelibly sketched.
Perhaps he would have been more surprised to learn that nearly 100 years later his book had spawned more than half a dozen films and plays and acquired an enduring literary status.
Opening Line:  “I returned from the City about three o'clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life.”
Closing Line:“But I had done my best service, I think, before I put on khaki.”
Quotes: “I found the place. Thirty-nine steps, I read, and again, Thirty-nine steps -I counted them - high tide 10.17 P.M.”
Rating: Okay