Saturday, 16 April 2016

early walk, jo pullen's tree, julian fellowes' belgravia, the girl on the train by paula hawkins, heinrich gerlach's breakthrough at stalingrad, sean sweeney's facing the strange

























On Thursday I had to be at work early and got a lift to the top of the Headington Road. It was great to be walking into the city from a different direction and passing the places where we sometimes used to eat years ago, all of which seem to have closed or changed hands. Time passes but the memories remain.

Opposite Oxford Brookes, I turned into Pullen's Lane and not long afterwards started along the old footpath that runs down Headington Hill to Marston Road. Almost immediately the noise of the traffic disappeared and there was just birdsong, some allotments and the empty park.

I remember we used to go to Café Noir in Headington and would walk back to Osney the long way round via this footpath, Mesopotamia (middle photo) and the Parks.

Incidentally, and in the context of Pullen's Lane, there is a rather majestic engraving that sometimes crops up in the Oxford print shops entitled The South West Prospect of the University, and City of Oxford by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck of 1731. The main buildings and places of interest are numbered. On the horizon on the right-hand side a tree is given the number 47. The key reads, 'Mr. Jo. Pullens Tree.' Find out more about the tree on the excellent Headington website.

I was intrigued to read in the Times that Julian Fellowes was launching a serial novel at the London Book Fair entitled Belgravia. From the book's dedicated website, I followed the Google Play link and signed up for the free first instalment, which came out on Thursday. Set in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo, part one, Dancing into Battle, is competently, if rather efficiently, told. By 'efficiently' I mean that the text has a somewhat formulaic, written-to-order feel. The at times intrusive author is also pretty old-fashioned in tone, which could be thought suited to the project but which I found pedestrian. Not that the story isn't a good read - well, pretty good - and I certainly admired the textbook choice of sympathetic central character (Sophia Trenchard, whose father, James, is Wellington's supplies manager - James is the son of a market trader and is known as 'the Magician').  On the strength of Sophia's fledgling relationship with Lord Bellasis, the family is invited to the Duchess of Richmond's ball on the night before the first military engagements. Will her beloved survive the fighting?

The www is, of course, well suited to serial novels, as Stephen King (amongst others) quickly realised with The Plant (2000), and it is interesting that Fellowes and his publisher Orion are trying their hand at the genre. Will I be reading future instalments? Possibly.

In technical terms, I was pleasantly surprised by Google Play, which I'd not used before. The web version of the ebook displays well on the Blackberry Passport, even though it took me a little while to make the text bigger - the controls being pretty minuscule. I also liked the Recent Bestsellers feature on the homepage, through which I tried a sample from The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Now that is a book I want to read - on the strength of the taster.

Meantime, this morning there was a fascinating article in the Times about the discovery of the original manuscript of Heinrich Gerlach's The Forsaken Army, the tour de force novel about the Battle of Stalingrad, in a Russian archive. Gerlach wrote the original version of the novel when he was a prisoner of the Russians but the manuscript was confiscated. After the war ended, he tried to rewrite the work without success until he underwent hypnosis. Scholars have always wondered how different the highly successful second version was to its predecessor. Well, according to Carsten Gansel, a professor of literature at the University of Giessen, who uncovered the manuscript (the novel's then title was Breakthrough at Stalingrad), the difference is one of tone rather than events. As the Times' David Charter says in his excellently-written piece: 'the hypnosis had succeeded in helping Gerlach to recall almost every episode. What was different was the style.' According to Professor Gansel, '"The original Breakthrough at Stalingrad is more authentic, it was written immediately after the whole catastrophe and Gerlach had the horrors still clearly in his mind. The narrator comments less."' As always, it's a shame the article is behind the Times paywall. It contains a fascinating story of a man who was compelled to write about his horrific experiences and his struggle to recapture his book after the loss of the manuscript.

Last but certainly not least in what has turned out to be a thoroughly bookish post, I am delighted to be publishing the novel Facing the Strange later in the year. You can read more about this terrific book on the StreetBooks Facing the Strange webpage.

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