1940s Classics

The Plague by Albert Camus

The Plague (Penguin Modern Classics) Translated from the French by Robin Buss

Five words from the blurb: people, plague, death, isolation, fate

Albert Camus is one of those authors that has always intimidated me. I assumed his writing would be complex and difficult to understand, but eventually my love for disaster based fiction won through and I decided to give The Plague a try. I was surprised by how readable the book was, but disappointed that it lacked the psychological insight I was hoping for.

The book describes the way the Algerian town of Oran copes when a deadly plague breaks out. The first section, describing the emergence of the plague, was promising – it contained intrigue, tension and a dark sense of foreboding.

Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.

Unfortunately everything went downhill after that. The narrative was written in a calm manner that distanced the reader from the distress that individual families went through. The authorities implemented sensible precautions to prevent the spread of the disease, the people coped surprisingly well and everything seemed under control. Perhaps I’m weird in wanting a bit of panic/disaster to spice things up?

The writing quality was very high, but it felt dated. The public behave very differently now and so it was a glimpse into the past rather than a prediction of the future. The main aim of the book appeared to be analysing the way a population would behave under the threat of an epidemic, but since its publication in 1947 many other books have covered the subject. It may well have been ground breaking on publication, but as a reader in the 21st century it was all well-trodden ground – books like Blindness cover the topic in a much more thorough/eye-opening way.

The book occasionally went off on a tangent, preaching about the inadequacy of religion. These sections felt a little out of place amongst the rest of book and may offend those with a strong faith.

The entire book contained a depth that would reward the re-reader, but I’m afraid it didn’t inspire me enough want to do this. I’m pleased that I’ve read The Plague, if only to see the development of the genre, but unfortunately this isn’t a book that stands the test of time.


Have you read The Plague?

Have any of his other books aged better?

1940s Classics

Native Son by Richard Wright

Native Son (Vintage classics)

Five words from the blurb: black, prejudiced, poverty, death, crime

Native Son was originally published in 1940. It became a best seller, catapulting its black American author, Richard Wright, into fame and controversy. The book highlights the deep racism that was present within America at the time and is one of the most important books written within the last century. I only discovered its existence last month, but I loved everything about it.  I’m shocked it isn’t well known within the UK, but I aim to spread the word as far as I can.

The story focuses on Bigger Thomas, a black American who accidentally murders a young white woman. His crime highlights the deep divide between blacks and whites, showing the hatred and prejudice present on both sides.

I know I oughtn’t think about it, but I can’t help it. Every time I think about it I feel like somebody’s poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot-hole in the fence.

Bigger’s character was fantastic. Richard Wright’s skill as an author enabled me to feel immense sympathy for him (and other criminals in a similar situation). By explaining the difficulties Bigger had faced since birth I was able to understand his actions and root for him throughout the book.

Native Son has everything a good novel needs – it is gripping, enlightening and contains vivid characters who are all flawed in a realistic manner. Most of this book reads like a thriller – I was on the edge of my seat throughout, unable to put the book down. Occasionally I wanted to avert my eyes from the disturbing scenes, but all the violence was necessary to explain the problems within the society.

The final section of the book is more political in nature, explaining the history of racism within the US. It slowed the pace of the book down, but by that point I was so invested in the characters that I didn’t mind this unusual change of style. It was fantastic to see a well written piece of fiction given such a strong historical grounding.

This is the best American novel I’ve ever read and I think you’ll struggle to find a book that does a better job of highlighting the racism present within 1940s society.

Highly recommended.


1940s Classics Fantasy

Titus Groan – Mervyn Peake

Titus Groan (Gormenghast trilogy)

You have seen nothing like it before … but after … you see things like it everywhere …. C.S. Lewis




Titus Groan contains the most vivid writing I have ever read. Mervyn Peake has created an amazing cast of characters, each one packed with a range of flaws and their own complex agenda. It is rare to enjoy reading about such unlikable characters, but the quality of the writing means that you can’t help but want to find out what happens to them.

The book is set in a creepy, sprawling castle which is so well described it almost feels alive. Gormenghast castle may be a sparse stone structure, but it contains many intriguing rooms – including the room of roots, the room of spiders and a room packed with white cats. I’d really like to know if JK Rowling has read this book, because I spotted a lot of things that appear to have influenced the Harry Potter books.

Into this dark castle a baby boy is born. This baby is Titus Groan, the heir to Gormenghast castle. His birth sparks a series of events which are impossible to predict, but fascinating to read about.

This is one of those books that defies genre. It is part fantasy, but has strong gothic undertones. The plot could easily have become far-fetched, but Peake somehow manages to ground his weird world in reality, giving a sense that this could even be  a piece of historical fiction.

The only problem I found was that it was occasionally too wordy, but this is a fault that lies with the reader, not the writer. I struggled to read the first few pages and sometimes found this situation repeated if I left too long between readings (especially if I’d read something light in between) but once I became used to the writing style I loved its complexity.

Titus Groan doesn’t come to any real conclusion, but as the first in a series of four books it sets the scene well and leaves me desperate to know what happens next. It is already one of my favourite books and if it continues to maintain this high standard I can see the Gormenghast series becoming my all-time favourite. I highly recommend that you give it a try.



Titus Groan

The Twins Again – Mr Rottcodd Again (p277 -p361)

We’ve reached the end of the first book! I am amazed at how much Peake has managed to cram into 361 pages. Most books manage to combine a few characters and a simple plot into this space, but we have a whole cast of different individuals, a vivid location and a complex plot.

Despite my raving review I did have a minor quibble with this final section. I thought that the “Reverie” for each character was a great idea, but it didn’t quite work. It was interesting to see their thoughts, but these sections jarred with the rest of the book and as I read them I was hoping for a quick return to the omnipotent narrator. Did you enjoy “The Reveries?

I loved the reappearance of the skull, but those twins must be really stupid to have fallen for Steerpike’s ghost costume. In the real world I’m sure that they’d have recognised his voice and the bit of white material and had a good laugh at his silly costume!  I’ll have to suspend my disbelief for this bit of the plot, but I’ll forgive Peake because it was at least entertaining.

I was interested to see Peake’s drawings of the twins. Their long necks remind me of aliens and I no longer think of them as being fully human. Whenever I read about them I am reminded of characters like Dren, from the film Splice. Are you picturing the Gormenghast characters as human? Or do you think of them as a slightly different species to us?

We have always suspected that Gormenghast Castle was an actual character, so I loved the final page in which the castle breathes:

The Castle was breathing, and far below the Hall of the Bright Carvings all that was Gormenghast revolved.

I thought this was a perfect ending and I’m really looking forward to reading the next book.

Did you enjoy reading Titus Groan? Are you looking forward to reading the rest in the series?

1940s Classics

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) – George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a modern classic which has added an impressive number of words to our language. Big Brother and Room 101 are two such words, but it is the ideas and impressively accurate prediction of the future that makes this book so special for me.

The book was first published in 1949 and gives a grim prediction of what the future will be like 50 years on. It describes a totalitarian régime in a world dominated by war and fear.

I first read (and studied) Nineteen Eighty-Four at school, but re-read it recently for my book group.  I remember loving the book as a teenager; being impressed by the number and ingenuity of ideas present. There were so many different themes to discuss that it made the perfect book to study.

Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy re-reading it. I remembered the basic plot and a large number of the ideas from my teenage years, but although it was easy to read, I found it quite dull. The pace of the book was slow and I found myself becoming bogged down in the political descriptions. The book-within-the-book was a particular low point, with every word being a struggle to complete.

Some scenes were beautiful, but overall it was a dark, depressing book. The ending is shocking and I still remember it clearly, 17 years after first reading it –  the sign of a powerful book.

Nineteen Eighty-Four  is a classic, which deserves to be read and admired, but re-reading it in adulthood threw up more flaws than genius for me.


Have you read Nineteen Eighty-Four?

Did you enjoy it?

1940s Books in Translation Historical Fiction Nobel Prize

The Dwarf – Pär Lagerkvist

 Pär Lagerkvist won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951

Translated from the Swedish by Alexandra Dick

Regular readers of my blog may remember the wonderful post, Recommendations from a non-blogger, written by Heidi. In the post Heidi recommended  The Dwarf  by Pär Lagerkvist, which I have never seen mentioned in the blogging world, so was keen to give it a try.

The Dwarf  is set in an Italian City during the Renaissance. The central character is just 26 inches high and is a servant to the Prince. The story follows them as they are drawn in to war and have to deal with death, disease and betrayal.

The Dwarf is probably the most miserable, bitter and twisted character I have ever read about. He seems to be dissatisfied with every aspect of his life – his anger bubbling through onto every page.

It is my fate that I hate my own people. My race is detestable to me. But I hate myself too. I eat my own splenetic flesh. I drink my own poisoned blood.

This made it very different from any other book I’ve read. His bleak outlook on the world meant that he was a very hard character to like and I had little sympathy for him, but despite this I was fascinated by his story. I loved the historical detail about life in an Italian court and found the attitudes of the people really interesting.

This is a quick, easy book to read, but it is packed with messages about the nature of society and the evil that is lurking within us all.



Have you read any books written by Pär Lagerkvist?

1940s Crime

Tragedy At Law – Cyril Hare

Tragedy at Law was originally published in 1942 and P.D. James states that it is

…regarded by many lawyers as the best English detective story set in the legal world.

This book was written during the golden age of crime and it’s Englishness just oozes out of the pages. I was laughing out loud at certain passages, as the society described in this book just doesn’t exist any more. The characters are so posh! There was one section in the book where someone tries to poison the judge with a chocolate which has been cut in half, poison added to the centre and then resealed. It was thought to be a terribly planned crime, and soon discovered, as no-one would be so rude as to eat a chocolate in one mouthful – it is a very good job they don’t see me with a box of chocolates!

The book focuses on Mr Justice Barber, a high Court Judge, who is being threatened with anonymous letters and the chocolates mentioned above. He moves from town to town presiding over court cases in Southern England. We get a detailed look into what the legal system was like during this period of history, and I think that it would be fascinating to anyone in this profession or with a strong interest in the history of justice, but have to admit that some of it went over my head.

The mystery itself is light and fun to read and it was great to be reminded of what life was like 70 years ago, but I think this book is more suited to the older generation who want to reminisce a bit or to real crime fiction fans who like to study the development of the crime novel. I’m pleased that I read it, but don’t think I’ll read any of his other books.


I read this for Cornflower’s Book Group. If you’d like to know what other people thought of  Tragedy at Law then take a look at her blog, as we will be disccusing this book there tomorrow.