Time, History and the Wonders of Chance

Although I like to devote a post to each book I read, with the number of books that pass through my hands in a year, that just isn’t possible at times.  When the burden gets a little too much then, I try to ease the pressure by doing a combined post, usually attempting to twist together two books, often chosen for that very purpose.  But what happens when it’s time to write up two different, randomly-chosen books together?  Well, it’s amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it…

The Trumpet-Major, regarded as one of Thomas Hardy’s minor works, is his only historical novel.  It is set during the Napoleonic wars, taking place in Overcombe, a village near the sea port of Budmouth (Weymouth!), on the south coast of Hardy’s beloved Wessex.  Mrs. Garland and her daughter Anne, gentry fallen on hard times after the death of Mr. Garland, now rent rooms at the back of Mr. Loveday’s mill.  The days pass quietly, if somewhat tediously, until the arrival one day of a large number of soldiers.

The military are encamped in Overcombe both to protect the coast against any possible invasion by the devil in French attire and to keep an eye on the King during his summer holidays.  However, the King is not the only visitor – when Miller Loveday’s two sons, Robert and John, sailor and trumpet-major respectively, appear on the scene, Anne no longer has to complain of a boring life…

…but a boring life is exactly what the characters in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Heimsuchung (Visitation) would like.  The novel is set by a lake just outside Berlin and spans more than a century of local and national history, telling the story of a house and the various inhabitants it receives over the course of its existence.  The location is, of course, all important as its position in the heart of the former German Democratic Republic means that just when the house’s owners feel settled and secure, a change in the political environment is just around the corner…

Heimsuchung is divided into two sets of alternating chapters: one concentrates on the various people who call the old summer house their own; the other focuses on the one character who stays put through all the upheavals, the taciturn, enigmatic Gardener.  By the end of the book, the reader is left wondering just who the house actually belongs to – that is if anyone really can own anything in the long run.

At first glance, these two books may seem very different, impossible to twist together into a cohesive, integrated post.  In fact, the two books have an awful lot in common.  For one thing, both explore the lives of individuals against the backdrop of a greater historical setting.  The Trumpet-Major would be a straight tragi-comic romance were it not for the ever-present threat of a French invasion, a menace which subtly alters how the Lovedays and Garlands interact.  It is the possibility of losing one of her suitors on a European battlefield that pushes Anne Garland into casting her reserve aside – and it is a very real possibility.  One of the genuine historical events taking place during the novel is the battle of Trafalgar…

This sense of the historical intruding on the individual is also present in Heimsuchung.  Many of the people who come to acquire the house live there for decades and expect to live out their days sitting peacefully by the lake.  However, the rise of fascism, the coming of the Russians, the beginnings of a Communist state and legal battles of restitution all eventually conspire to drive the owners away.  While the house’s location may be particularly unfortunate given the hindsight of twentieth-century history, it is a telling reminder that nothing lasts forever…

…which is another concept which links the two novels.  As well as the effect of the political and national on the local and individual, both stories also look at how individual lives contrast with time, on a far greater scale.  In Erpenbeck’s book, there is a prologue which tells of the creation of the lake, describing the advance and retreat of the glaciers in northern Europe, a process which will one day leave a large pool of water next to a fertile stretch of land.  This skillful evocation of geological time has the effect of putting all the petty land squabbles which follow into perspective…

Hardy too contrasts the brilliant, but ephemeral, lives of humans with the land that supplies the backdrop to their existence.  In one passage, he describes a military parade for the King, a dazzling display of English aggression and style:

“…by one o’clock the downs were again bare… They still spread their grassy surface to the sun as on that beautiful morning not, historically speaking, so very long ago; but the king and his fifteen thousand armed men, the horses, the bands of music, the princesses, the cream-coloured teams – the gorgeous centre-piece, in short, to which the downs were but the mere mount or margin – how entirely have they all passed and gone! – lying scattered about the world as military and other dust…” p.76

In setting his story eighty years before the time of writing, Hardy achieves a distance that allows him, and the reader, to see how small and insignificant life can be, even when (at the time) events appear to be of earth-shattering importance.

Two novels chosen without much thought, two entertaining stories – and, as you can see, I did find a lot to connect the two books 🙂  It just goes to show you that, whatever people may say, when it comes to randomly picking books off a shelf, there’s no such thing as chance…

7 thoughts on “Time, History and the Wonders of Chance

  1. I certainly wouldn't have thought you will find that these two books have someting in common but since they are both historical novesl, chances were a bit better.Picking two historical novels may symbolize your wish to counter-balance books like Alice?


  2. Gary – You never know ;)Caroline – No, completely random! The similarity is less due to the historical setting than to the way the writers intentionally set out to show that life is fleeting and time erases all marks eventually – a sobering thought…Tom – It's not one of his best, but it's a favourite of mine. It was written to remind complacent late-Victorian readers that a Napoleonic invasion was not a vague possibility but a terrifying everyday probability, something overshadowing all aspects of daily life.Of course, there is the usual Hardy humour sprinkled throughout – one scene in particular is very reminiscent of the old comedy series 'Dads' Army'…


  3. Excellent review, I enjoy the way you manage to link your readings. Guy reviewed The Trumpet Major, if you're interested. I'll read it when it comes on my chronological Hardy list. Erpenbeck is a writer Caroline recommended to me. I'm not sure this book is available in French…


  4. I like to find a connection when I don't have time to do individual reviews. One thing I didn't mention though is that 'while 'Visitation' is OK, I didn't love it. It was a little repetitive in parts – deliberately so at times, but I still had some issues with the style.Et merci 🙂


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