Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Assistant

I've just finished a novel I'd been meaning to read for some while - Bernard Malamud's The Assistant - and it's left me moved, shaken, and quite convinced that I have encountered a true modern classic.
 Malamud's second novel, The Assistant is set in a poor district of New York, where Morris Bober, a Jewish grocer (who, importantly, has lost a young son) lives with his wife and daughter, and struggles to keep his failing business going. His life hits a new low when his store is raided by two holdupniks, one of whom hits him ferociously over the head. While he is still recovering, a mysterious young man begins to haunt the store, offering to work, for nothing, as an assistant. Morris, against his wife's objections, takes him on, and the grocery's fortunes begin to improve. But who is the young man? Can Morris trust him? And what will happen when he begins to fall in love with Morris's daughter?
 This seems at first like a familiar narrative structure, but in Malamud's hands it serves as the framework for a fascinating and profound moral drama, one in which nothing is simple and everything is difficult. The unfolding events, expertly unwound through a process of revelation and concealment, are never predictable and the ground is never firm beneath our feet - which is to say that this novel feels a lot like life itself. The main characters are, like the story, many-layered - they draw us into their lives, eager to find out more, to know them, though they are ultimately unknowable, even to themselves. None is more compelling than Frank Alpine, 'the assistant', the young man at the centre of the novel, a man set on a terribly difficult path of redemption, one from which he is all too liable to stray, but which is the only thing that can save him from himself - and in saving himself, he might save others.
 This is a wholly convincing tale of suffering and penance, love and forgiveness, the all but impossible making of a new life. It exerts an unshakable grip and feels, from beginning to end, like a classic. I suspect Malamud is better known and more highly valued in the States than over here. I'd previously only read one of his novels - the rather atypical A New Life - but I'll surely be reading more now. Recommendations welcome.

Monday, 24 April 2017


I know the Wandle, my local river - biologically dead in my boyhood - is now very much alive, with enough life in it to support kingfishers, egrets and a large population of herons. Even so, I was amazed and delighted to see, this morning, way upriver, a decent-sized brown trout - maybe a foot long - swimming in the shallow water, and even rising to snap at something, before retreating into the shadows of the riverbank undergrowth. For some reason, it put me in mind of a piece of music... Any excuse for enjoying this joyful performance again.

Sunday, 23 April 2017


As soon as I was safely out of the country, Theresa May cheekily called a snap election - a development not unnoticed by the walking party. One of our number declared authoritatively that she was obliged to do this in order to deal with right-wing 'troublemakers' in her party who wouldn't accept any Brexit deal that didn't precisely meet their demands (he didn't explain how the security of an increased majority would encourage them to pipe down - and I fear by 'troublemaker' he meant anyone who actually wants the UK out of the EU). He also predicted a mighty surge in support for the Lib Dems - who wouldn't accept any Brexit deal that involved, er, Brexit - under their wildly charismatic leader, Tim Thingy. Well, from where they are, the only way is up of course, but it's not likely to make any real difference, is it - unless our friend was looking forward to an unholy alliance of Lib Dems, Scot Nats and others somehow thwarting Brexit. Now there's a depressing thought. Old Nige will call the election result in due course. Meanwhile I hope not to be returning to this subject very often.

Back from Greece...

And mountainous it was - we were walking in the Taygetos range, climbing endlessly along zig-zagging mule tracks, in places reduced to a rubble of rocks, scree and boulders, then at last descending equally endlessly through similarly challenging terrain. But we all survived, without so much as a twisted ankle - and, by golly, it was worth the exertion. The views were immense and dramatic, upwards to the snow-capped peaks of the principal mountains of the range, downwards into immensely deep canyons and river valleys, and all around to rocky and wooded bluffs, flower-covered slopes, distant glimpses of the wide Spartan plain...
 As for the wildlife - the walk began with a yard-long head-to-tail crocodile of Pine Processionary Moth larvae making its wiggly way across the car park of the inn where we stopped en route to our base in Mystras (their huge cocoons were hanging from the trees like grubby plastic bags). On our last afternoon we heard a cuckoo calling in the wooded valleys below us, and on the first day we spotted two wild tortoises resting in the undergrowth. Wild flowers were everywhere - cyclamen and red anemones, muscari (grape hyacinths) and blue pimpernel, sea squill and giant fennel, Judas trees and acacias in full flower, and orchids, orchids galore: I must have seen at least half a dozen spectacular species new to me, and some of the commoner ones were gloriously abundant (there's one in the foreground below).
 All this, and butterflies too - swallowtails both Greek and English, clouded yellows in profusion, small coppers and brown arguses, several species of orange tips and blues, and a number of Greek browns I couldn't name. I must have seen the best part of thirty species in all - it was, when the sun was out (which was more than half the time), butterfly heaven.
 We made no literary pilgrimages this time, but I can report that Patrick Leigh Fermor's house remains just as it was a year ago. Nothing has been put into storage, and no concrete progress made towards the projected Leigh Fermor museum house. This is no great surprise.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Easter Monday

It's been wonderful spending so much time with the grandchildren and their parents, but the undeniable downside is that the brain turns mushier than ever, exhaustion sets in daily, and blogging, among other things, must take a back seat for a while. Hence the sparsity of recent posts here.
  And tomorrow, at a preposterously early hour, I'm flying off to Greece with my walking friends for a few days in a decidedly mountainous part of the Peloponnese.
  I'll leave you with an after-Easter poem by Kay Ryan that takes its title from Wallace Stevens' Of Mere Being...

The Palm at the End of the Mind

After fulfilling everything
one two three he came back again
free, no more prophecy requiring
that he enter the city just this way,
no more set-up treacheries.
It was the day after Easter. He adored
the eggshell litter and the cellophane
caught in the grass. Each door he passed
swung with its own business, all the
witnesses along his route of pain
again distracted by fear of loss
or hope of gain. It was wonderful
to be a man, bewildered by
so many flowers, the rush
and ebb of hours, his own
ambiguous gestures - his
whole heart exposed, then
taking cover.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Sunday

And here, to mark Easter Sunday, is another treasure of the National Gallery, Titian's early masterpiece Noli Me Tangere. Here, as described in John's gospel (my current bedside reading), is the moment when the risen Jesus, having announced himself to Mary Magdalene by speaking her name, warns her to 'touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father'.
  A brilliant showpiece for the young Titian's prodigious skill in figure painting and landscape, this picture was originally conceived as a more straightforward composition, with Jesus in a less dramatically expressive pose - and wearing a gardener's hat (as in my favourite Resurrection painting - Rembrandt's Christ and Mary Magdalene at the Tomb in the Queen's Gallery, below).
  Happy Easter Day, everyone!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Good Friday

This Good Friday morning, with perfect timing, I stumbled on a piece on Raphael's Crucifixion (known as the Mond Crucifixion) that I'd all but forgotten writing. It was on The Dabbler six years ago, and here's the link...