Hazel McHaffie


Historical fiction par excellence

The year is 1785. The place is the centre of Paris. Unusually heavy spring rain causes the bank of the cemetery of les Innocents, crammed full of bodies from the plague and the years since, to give way. The neighbours are overwhelmed by the stench and the effluent washing through their cellars. It’s poisoning the very air of the city.

A young engineer from Normandy, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is called in. The church and the burial ground must be destroyed, he is told; everything must be made sweet again, the poisonous influence of the past must be eradicated. So says no less a personage than the king! Baratte sets about amassing a rag-tag workforce and equipment to achieve this objective, and the macabre task begins. Before long the skeletons become visible … the depths of the many plots are plumbed … a steady procession of horse-drawn carts carries the disinterred bones, under velvet drapes, accompanied by chanting priests, to a newly sanctified quarry for their last resting place … the church and its precious organ are dismantled piece by piece. And gradually, almost imperceptibly, the terrible smell lifts, beautiful flowers begin to grow in the new sanitised soil. But it comes at a price.

It’s a year of
bones, grave-dirt, relentless work. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. … A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of desire. Of love …

The cemetery has been at the heart of life in the area for many people. Their very breath smells of it. Some indeed perceive themselves as its guardians. So what does this clearance mean for them?

There’s pretty Emilie Monnard aka Ziguette, daughter of a prosperous shop owner, whose window overlooks the cemetery. She’s watched burials there for years. Long after the mourners have left, she’s continued to keep watch over the dead like a sister or an angel. Now the man who is to destroy all she holds dear is lodging in her family home, and she will go to any lengths to save her precious heritage.

Then there’s the sweet auburn-haired emissary of death, Jeanne, teenage granddaughter of the aged sexton, who knows the cemetery intimately, and regards herself as custodian of its inmates, her vast extended family. Her affiliation to the dead moves her to be protective of what the project unearths. But her naivety, her dreams, end in smithereens when she’s rejected and then ruined.

Jean-Baptiste, however, from the moment he glimpses her, is unaccountably obsessed by the mysterious Austrian, Héloïs Godard – otherwise known as the town’s whore, nothing to do with the cemetery. No one is more disconcerted than he when she agrees to move in with him in his lodgings.

An unlikely setting for a novel you might think: a rank burial ground; it’s destruction. Especially in an age when justice, mercy, honour, sanitation and medicine are crude concepts. But somehow, the very unlikeliness of the backdrop gives additional heft to the story.

Pure, by Andrew Miller, is beautifully rendered with exquisite turns of phrase, and similies, and descriptions, which are pitch-perfect for the era they capture.

… riding out of the rags of last night’s mist

… the kitchen – that scrubbed and orderly world where even the light seems to lie like lengths of rinsed muslin …

Somewhere between very late and very early, some deep velvet-lined pocket of a winter’s night.

He has a candle in his head, all the light he needs, and he begins to play a Couperin trio from memory, his spine and neck arched slightly backwards as though the organ was a coach-and-six and he was hurtling through the centre of les Halles, scattering geese and cabbages and old women.

I was mesmerised – read it in a sitting!

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The Costa Award goes to …

After last week’s experience I decided I needed to immerse myself in some quality writing to try to lift my own game. There on my tbr shelf was a Costa Award winner: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. (It won the Biography Award in 2010.) Good place to start then.

The Hare with Amber EyesThe author, Edmund de Waal, is a world renowned British artist specialising in ceramics – to call him a potter (as he does himself) is to diminish the heights to which he has risen. In 1994 he inherited from his great-uncle a collection of 264 miniature Japanese sculptures, netsuke: tiny ornaments which are ‘very rich, very simple, very tactile‘; ‘witty and ribald and slightly comic.’ (I recommend a quick pop across to Google to look at images of them.) He was curious to know who had touched and held them, and how the collection had managed to survive so long, so he set out on a search for a lost family and a lost time.

His research was impressive; meticulous and immensely detailed, and it took him seven years to write this family saga-cum-treasure hunt in which he unravels both the story of the netsuke and of the Ephrussi family, over five generations, and against the backdrop of world history.

During the nineteenth-century the Ephrussis were a banking dynasty in Paris and Vienna, as rich and respected as the Rothchilds, moving in the highest social circles; but by the end of World War II, this collection of netsuke hidden from the Nazis in Vienna, was all that remained of their vast empire. It’s a ‘vertiginous descent‘ for de Waal’s family from commissioning works of art to being commissioned; from owning famous paintings to writing about them. His account makes fascinating reading and beautifully captures the mores and magic of the times. He brings both an artist’s sensibilities and a descendant’s curiosity to the task.

Japan features significantly, of course – chiming with my love of Japanese gardens. Indeed on the very day I started reading this book we invested (I use the word advisedly!) in two more gorgeous Japanese acers for our own patch. I just love everything about them.

Japanese acers

The writing is so good I want to allow it to give you a flavour of the book through direct quotes. Here’s an early description of the Japanese people at a time when they were rarely seen in France:

… their skin is lightly bronzed, the beard rare; some of them have adopted the moustache … the mouth is large, conformed to open squarely, in the fashion of masks in Greek comedy; the cheekbones become round and the forehead protuberant on the oval of the face; the external angles of the small bridled eyes, but black and alive, with a piercing gaze, lift towards the temples. They are the Japanese.

The netsuke are central to the tale, visually appealing, endlessly different, collectors’ pieces, children’s playthings. But touch is also a vital part of the experience of admiring them. We see them being carried in pockets and hands and aprons, at once a comfort, a curiosity and a treasure:

The man who handles an object with indifferent fingers, with clumsy fingers, with fingers that do not envelope lovingly is a man who is not passionate about art.

NetsukeThey should always be displayed sympathetically:

Charles bought a black vitrine to put them in, wood polished like lacquer. it was taller than him, just over six foot high. You could see in through the glass door at the front and through the glass at the sides. A mirror at the back let the netsuke slide away into infinities of collecting. And they were all placed on green velvet. There are many subtle variations of colour in netsuke, all the colours of the ivory, the horn and the boxwood: cream, wax, nut-brown, gold in this field of dense dark green. … The vitrines … frame them, suspend them, tantalise through distance.

The author travels far and wide tracking the history of his inheritance – Japan, Austria, France, England, Ukraine, Russia, and he manages to evoke the spirit of these places with his poetic descriptions:

Vienna’s Ringstrasse ‘becomes a musical series of buildings, spaced with parks, punctuated by statues‘, with ‘a rhythm that suits its purpose,’ and a ‘space for progresses, for display’. De Waal realises that ‘I am going too fast, walking as if I had a destination, rather than a point of departure. I remember that this was the street that was made for the slower movement of the daily “Corso”, the ritualised stroll for society along the Kärntner Ring to meet and flirt and gossip and be seen’.

One of his dynastic houses in Austria is observed thus:

All I can see is marble: there is lots of marble. This doesn’t say enough. Everything is marble. Floor, stairs, walls of staircase, columns on staircase, ceiling over staircase, mouldings on ceilings of staircase. Turn left and I go up the family stairs, shallow marble steps. Turn right and I go into another entrance hall. I look down and the patriarch’s initials are set in the marble floor: JE (for Joachim Ephrussi) with a coronet above them. By the grand stairs are two torchères, taller than me. The steps go on and on, trippingly shallow. Black marble frames the huge double doors – black and gold – I push, and I enter the world of Ignace Ephrussi …

… everything gilded and ornate and encrusted and intricate and dripping wealth. No wonder de Waal couldn’t bear to have a portrait of Ignace’s wife Emilie hung on his wall at home, looking down on his domestic life in disbelief! She as so many of his predecessors came from a different stratum of society altogether. They feature in paintings, in newspaper reports, in books. They are mentioned in the same context as royalty. In one such volume where one of his ancestors appears as protagonist, de Waal’s comment was: it was ‘viscous with infatuation‘. How evocative is that!

But when it comes to the family members themselves, he has immersed himself in the detail and conjured up living breathing people. We take a swift intake of breath when great-grandfather Viktor’s elder brother elopes with his father’s Russian Jewish mistress. Of course he is instantly disinherited; Viktor suddenly becomes the reluctant heir to the family’s banking business. We feel his discomfort, so ill at ease in this totally unsuitable new role:

‘I think it might have been at around this point that Viktor developed his nervous tic of taking off his pince-nez and wiping his hand across his face from brow to chin, a reflex movement. He was clearing his mind, or arranging his public face. Or perhaps he was erasing his private face, catching it in his hand.’

Viktor’s wife, Emmy, twenty one years his junior, keeps the vitrine of netsuke in her dressing room. Why, her great-grandson wonders? Why not in one of the many public rooms where they might be admired by visitors as well as the family? The clue seems to lie in the intimacy of the room and the time she spent primping and preening in front of its great panels of mirror:

‘She changed three times a day – sometimes more. Putting on a hat to go to the races, with lots of little curls pinned one by one to the underside of the hat’s wide brim, took forty minutes. To put on the long embroidered ballgown with a hussar’s jacket, intricate with frogging, took for ever. There was dressing up for parties, for shopping, dinner, visiting, riding to the Prater and balls. Each hour in this dressing-room was a calibration of corset, dress, gloves and hat with the day, the shrugging-off of oneself and the lacing onto another. She has to be sewn onto some dresses, Anna, kneeling at her feet, producing thread, needle, thimble from the pocket of her apron. Emmy has furs, sable trimming to a hem, an arctic fox around her neck in one photograph, a six-foot stole of bear looped over a gown in another. An hour could pass with Anna fetching different gloves.’

But there’s another reason too. During the hour of dressing to go out in the evening, she allowed her children in to play with the precious netsuke. How they must have treasured those special minutes; at once close to their otherwise-remote and fractious mother, and also given this golden opportunity to caress the beautiful child-size carvings, re-order them, muddle them up to tease a sister, even listen to mother weaving stories about them!

De Waal includes many delightful personal touches which capture his own experiences as he travelled. Whilst in Vienna tracking the netsuke he’s walking just 400 yards from his paternal family mansion, the Palais Ephrussi, when he drops his glasses. They break, and he sees the irony: he’s looking at this monolith to his own past and he cannot see clearly!

DipladeniaThere’s even a little snippet that resonates particularly with me right now. The Czech poet, Rilke, is giving advice about accepting criticism to Emmy and Viktor’s daughter Elisabeth (de Waal’s grandmother) who is herself a poet and lawyer:

‘… it is not the gardener who is encouraging and caring who helps, but the one with the pruning shears and spade; the rebuke!’

How true!

It’s a fabulous book and lifted my spirits enormously in spite of its harrowing accounts of life in Austria at the time of the Nazi rule and the terrible persecutions and appropriations that led to the fall and poverty of the Ephrussi family. The shifty trips of the maid Anna carrying the little carvings to safety one by one in her apron pocket shine through, a triumph of hope over adversity.

What I didn’t know when I started reading this book was that, this very week, five years after the publication of The Hare with Amber Eyes, De Waal is about to publish his second book: The White Road, which is all about porcelain, the material he works with as a ceramicist. Hard to believe it will find the phenomenal success that The Hare with Amber Eyes did. Time will tell.




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I’m having to eat a large slice of humble pie this week. It all started when I watched the BBC 1 drama, Birdsong, shown the weekend before last, and jumped to far too many conclusions.

It’s almost unheard of for me to read a novel for a second time, but that’s what I’ve felt compelled to do with Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. Strange really to think that it’s taken eighteen years to dramatise this book which received such critical acclaim in 1994. But at least it was shown in a prime time slot at the weekend when it did finally get an airing.

Although it’s come in for its fair share of criticism, I personally enjoyed the film, but nevertheless had a sense of disquiet (as I usually do in these circumstances) about the extent to which the drama differed from the book. How would the author feel seeing his careful creation thus distorted? It’s ages since I read the book, so I couldn’t be sure, but my sense was that the main male protagonist seemed too weak, both as a potential lover and as a military officer; the romance seemed implausibly fast-paced; the response to the child Françoise too chaotic.

However, I still had my paperback – too good to give away – so I decided to check it out for myself while the film was still fresh in my mind. There is inevitably a degree of licence taken, but to my amazement, the BBC version followed the book much more closely than I remembered, and indeed more so than adaptations usually do.

The story has two main elements: the First World War and a romance. In the book the two are compartmentalised; in the film they’re interwoven to excellent effect.

Stephen Wraysford is 20 when he goes to France to learn more about the textile trade. Portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, he seemed a bit of a wimp, a pretty boy who did a lot of staring in a gormless kind of way. And not exactly gifted in the communication stakes either. Surely not the kind of fella who the beautiful and mature Isabelle Azaire (Clémence Poésy) would fall for. But, there it is in black and white. He’s

‘a tall figure with hands thrust into his pockets, his eyes patient and intent, the angle of his body that of a youthful indifference cultivated by willpower and necessity. It was a face which in turn most people treated cautiously, unsure whether its ambivalent expressions would resolve themselves into passion or acquiescence.’

He does indeed do a lot of ‘staring‘, his ‘face expressionless’. I apologise for doubting the scriptwriter (Abi Morgan), director (Philip Martin) and the actor.

So, what of the precipitate pursuit of the lovely but very dignified Isabelle? In the film they’ve hardly got past the coy looks and one touch of ankles before he’s romping in the red room with her, all caution, all decorum, thrown to the winds. Given the discrepancy in their ages and backgrounds, their relative positions, and the protocol of the times, surely not, I thought. But lo and behold, it’s all there, early in the book – ‘the uncontrollable fury of his desire, fully reciprocated by Isabelle‘. Indeed Isabelle is even more abandoned in the written account of their dealings.

The story of the child Françoise coming to terms with a father who is hugely damaged by the war is admittedly very different in the book, but the film version neatly gets over the omission of a chunk of the narrative that centres on Wraysford’s granddaughter. And the essential truth of the account is neither lost nor distorted by the adaptation. So hats off again to the script writer.

Then there’s the war story. Tall order to capture that, but has it been true to Faulk’s narrative? Wraysford on screen seems initially to be far too timid and fearful to command the respect of his men in the trenches or on no-man’s-land. Surely he’d have had to appear more assertive. But no. A sergeant major says of him: ‘he seemed forgetful and distant … as though he was not all there’ He has a ‘blank, remote expression’, a great ‘void in his soul’. Redmayne took this on board faithfully.

And behind that glazed look beats a failing heart. A scared and haunted man, ill-suited to the task of taking his troops into battle. On the night before a major offensive he explains in a letter:

I am frightened of dying. I have seen what shells can do. I am scared of lying wounded all day in a shellhole. Isabelle, I am terribly frightened I shall die alone with no one to touch me. But I have to show an example. I have to go over [the top] first in the morning. Be with me, Isabelle, be with me in spirit. Help me to lead them into what awaits us.’

The depiction of the war itself in the book is even more horrific than the film version and that was graphic enough. Faulks captures the mood and the mounting tension brilliantly. The feelings of the men facing almost certain death in the Somme attack are evident in a series of poignant letters home, full of false reassurances. Then a moving tense and sleepless night of waiting, dreading.

‘Eight hours before the revised time of attack the guns went quiet, preserving shells for the morning.

It was night-time, but no man slept…

Towards four, the lowest time of the night, there was a mortal quiet along the line. No one spoke. There was for once no sound of birds …

Gray, urgent, sour-breathed at the head of the communication trench. ‘The attack will be at seven thirty.’

The platoon commanders were stricken, disbelieving. “In daylight? In daylight?” The men’s faces cowed and haunted when they were told.’

The account of what Stephen Wraysford sees and feels in no-man’s-land when they do eventually go over the top, when they reach the wire, makes heart-stopping reading. The ‘unlivable reality’ as that ‘ragged suicidal line … trudged towards the pattering death of mounted guns’ while all around them ‘packets of lives with their memories and loves go spinning and vomiting into the ground‘. I won’t spoil the effect of the chapter by reproducing parts of it here. You have to build up to it to appreciate the description fully. How anyone returned sane after what they had seen is a mystery.

‘They had seen things no human eyes had looked on before, and they had not turned their gaze away … they had seen the worst and they had survived … they had locked up in their hearts the horror of what they had seen.’ In ‘their sad faces was the burden of their unwanted knowledge. They ‘did not feel hardened or strengthened’ but ‘impoverished and demeaned.’

Stephen himself carries out an act utterly unimaginable except in the First World War trenches – included in sanitised form in the film. And goes on to develop a murderous rage against the people who killed the men he loved; much more poignantly comprehensible in the book. Indeed the rationale for much of what was done needs the slower exploration of the written prose to unravel and explain it.

The bomb blasts and terrible wounds we saw on our screens, too, are multiplied several times in the written word, with its body parts in extraordinary places. Incredibly powerful writing.

‘”Of course,” the lieutenant said with a sigh, “the war has provided all of us with daily lessons in anatomy. I could write a paper on the major organs of the British private soldier. Liver in section. Bowel, extent of when eviscerated. The powdery bone of the average English subaltern.”‘

‘… his head was cut away in section, so that the smooth skin and handsome face remained on one side, but on the other were the ragged edges of skull from which the remains of his brain were dropping onto his scorched uniform.’

‘… there was a roar in the tunnel and a huge ball of earth and rock blew past them. It took four men with it, their heads and limbs blown away and mixed with the rushing soil. … Jack saw part of Turner’s face and hair still attached to a piece of skull rolling to a halt where the tunnel narrowed where he had been digging. There was an arm with a corporal’s stripe on it near his feet, but most of the men’s bodies had been blown into the moist earth.’

After witnessing this carnage in the tunnel, following over six hours of digging forty-five feet underground in pitch darkness with ‘several hundred thousand tons of France above his face‘, Jack Firebrace (brilliantly acted by Joseph Mawie) drags himself over to the dugout, burdened by the knowledge of his own mistake which had led to these deaths. There he is given a letter from his wife but with masterly understatement Faulks writes

‘He folded it away inside his pocket. He could not bring his mind to bear on the distant world her handwriting suggested. He was afraid he would not understand her letter, that she would be telling him something important his mind was too tired to register.’

Firebrace is one of the miners who digs underground tunnels under enemy lines. I hadn’t appreciated their role in the war before. In the book his inner thoughts and conflicts provide vivid insights beyond the scope of any BBC drama, as he worries about his son John back at home suffering, possibly dying, from diphtheria; about his own court martial and probable death; his personal responsibility for interpreting the sounds of enemy action; his need not to form too close a friendship with men who will be blown to smithereens in front of him.

I think I felt the accumulating horror more deeply knowing that my own uncle was one of those whose ‘shattered flesh’ was left to lie in ‘stinking shellholes in the beet-crop soil,’ in that very place in France where Stephen Wraysford fought for king and country. Thiepval memorialUncle Harold’s name is chiselled into that memorial in Thiepval to the unfound, ‘the lost’ – newly cleaned up to preserve it for posterity. I can only hope my grandmother never heard a true account of ‘the hellish perversion’ he must have experienced. Her heart could not have withstood Faulk’s description of the carnage. It moved me to tears on his behalf, and he died before even my mother was born.

So, all in all, contemplating the atrocities of war, the sacrifices these men – boys really – and their families made, and facing up to my own misconceptions, I’ve had a humbling week.

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