Friday, 27 August 1999

Leo Tolstoy: Resurrection (1899)

Translation: Rosemary Edmonds, 1966
Edition: Penguin, 1979
Review number: 323

Tolstoy wrote two of the best known novels of all literature in any language, War and Peace and Anna Karenin. His third most famous work, Resurrection, is comparatively obscure, despite being, at the time it was published, extremely eagerly anticipated all over the world.

The major reason for this is that Tolstoy wrote the novel principally as a mechanism to preach at the reader. This always causes problems, being (for example) the reason that Sartre is not as great a novelist as Gide. After Anna Karenin, Tolstoy had given up writing fiction, feeling that to do so was somewhat dishonest. Instead, he turned to a series of philosophical works, putting forward his personal viewpoint as to what life is and how it should be lived. (To some extent, this kind of writing is present in both War and Peace and Anna Karenin, but it is always kept subordinate to plot and character.) After twenty years, he returned to the novel form, but the purpose of Resurrection is to introduce a wider audience to Tolstoy's ideas about society.

The plot of Resurrection is simple enough, and is based on a story Tolstoy read in a newspaper. Prince Nekhlyudov is rich and idle. Called to serve on a jury, he recognises the accused woman as a girl he seduced some years earlier. The seduction ruined her; rejected by those who had brought her up, she was reduced to prostitution. Though innocent of the murder she is accused of, Maslova is nevertheless found guilty through a legal error (the jury omits to add the formula that she was innocent of the intention to kill as well as the actual act). Overcome with remorse, seeing himself as the cause of Maslova's degradation, Nekhlyudov vows to reform his life.

This reformation is, of course, the resurrection of the title. It is a rather dramatic term to use, and immediately gives notice that part of the function of the book is to set something up in opposition to the Orthodox Christian church. In fact, large portions of the book were censored as defamatory of the church, and the full Russian text was actually first published in London.

As Rosemary Edmonds points out in her introduction, Tolstoy is not using the term "resurrection" in the same sense as it is in Christian theology. (This difference is important, since the word would immediately suggest this connotation to the Russian reader of 1899.) Nekhlyudov's resurrection does not involve death, not even the 'death to self' enjoined by the Bible. It is more like the process known as regeneration to Christian theologians, but even that is not a close comparison. The changes in lifestyle and attitudes to the world which are supposed to accompany a Christian conversion in orthodox theology are motivated and empowered by an external spiritual being, the Holy Spirit. Tolstoy's attitude to the church made him unwilling to accept this - he felt strongly that a person's own purity and strength should be the equivalent motivating factor - and so there is no external spiritual influence on Nekhlyudov. In fact, this is one of the strongest aspects of the novel, in a way. It would have been easy to write a sentimental novel on the subject by making Maslova a pure angel to inspire Nekhlyudov, uncorrupted by her degrading experiences. The character given her by Tolstoy, marked, scarred and even coarsened by her experiences, is far more interesting.

A change of heart backed up only by one's own strength is always subject to the temptation of a return to old habits, and such a lapse is much more difficult to return from than if there is a belief in an external force to help sustain you. Tolstoy gives hints throughout that the regeneration of Nekhlyudov may only be a temporary phase, by pointing to other times when a fad has taken hold of him. It is also the case that the path he takes is only open to a man of wealth; no poor man entirely reliant on what he has can give it away without risking starvation, but Nekhlyudov can afford to give away most of his land to the peasants who work on it.

These flaws in Nekhlyudov are interesting, because he is one of the self-portraits which occur throughout Tolstoy's novels. The believable flawed characters are one of the best features of Resurrection (and Tolstoy's work in general). Nekhlyudov, who dominates the novel, is most impressive. It is a pity that there is so much preaching in the work, and much of it is perhaps better skipped. (This is particularly true of the rather childish passages in which the Russian Orthodox church is made ridiculous.)

Thursday, 26 August 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Last Ditch (1977)

Edition: Fontana, 1978
Review number: 322

By Last Ditch, one of her last books, Marsh has had to allow at least some of her serial characters to get older. Ricky, son of Chief Inspector Alleyn, is now twenty-one, though his parents seem to be little older than in the earliest books written some forty years earlier.

Ricky has just completed an English degree and wants to write a novel; he goes to stay on a fictional island with strange geography (it seems to be near both the French and Devon/Cornwall coasts). Being one of the Alleyn family, he gets mixed up with drugs smugglers and a sudden death (nearly all of Marsh's novels seem to implausibly involve one of them innocently becoming involved in a murder).

Despite the familiar problems with the unrealistic plot, and the fact that Marsh can only write a very small range of different stereotyped drugs users which appear in several novels, Last Ditch is enjoyable. For Marsh, it has quite a difficult puzzle, and a fair amount of action.

Robert Heinlein: Citizen of the Galaxy (1957)

Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 321

At one stage of his career, Heinlein wrote a series of novels aimed at what is now termed the "young adult" market; Citizen of the Galaxy is one of the best of these. This is partly because it has something of a message yet is still entertaining escapism.

The moral is hardly a revolutionary one; it has been pretty generally accepted throughout the twentieth century. It can be summed up as "slavery is evil", and though mainly concerned with slavery as traditionally practised, it contains rather subtler references to extend the idea of slavery to cover any life determined by involuntary rules imposed from outside. The central character, Thorby, basically passes through several different sorts of 'slavery' - ownership by another, membership of a ritually constrained culture, the discipline imposed by the armed forces. (I am not sure that Heinlein would have considered this a form of slavery when enlistment is voluntary.)

The plot of the novel is fairly implausible. Thorby, a slave for as long as he can remember, is sold at the market on the planet Sargon VIII, part of a group of planets (the Imperium) where slavery is an important social institution. He is bought - at a knock down price - by an old beggar, Baslim, and adopted as his son. Baslim is not what he appears to be; he turns out to be a spy dedicated to eradicating slavery. When suspected by the Imperium he is killed; but Thorby escapes with the help of the Free Traders Baslim had used as couriers for his messages.

The Free Traders are basically spacegoing merchant princes, who have subordinated their entire lives to ritual designed to maximise profit and make it possible for a large community to live in the restricted environment of a spaceship. When Thorby finds this new slavery constricting, he is able to join the armed forces of the Terran Hegemony, in which Baslim had been an important officer. The identity check performed on new recruits then causes the most implausible twist in the book: Thorby is actually Thor Rudbek, heir to one of Earth's biggest corporate fortunes, presumed dead after his parents' space yacht went missing when he was a baby.

The implausibility is hidden by skilful writing; the characters are believable' and this makes it one of Heinlein's best books.

Wednesday, 25 August 1999

Ann Granger: Asking for Trouble (1997)

Edition: Headline, 1997
Review number: 320

After six or seven Mitchell and Markby novels, Ann Granger has written a detective novel outside the series, almost completely different in tone and background. Her central character, Fran Varady, is about to be thrown out of the condemned building in which she is squatting when one of the others in the house is found dead, hanging from the light fitting in her room. At first thought to be suicide, it soon becomes clear that her death is murder.

Fran starts to look into the murder partly because it soon becomes clear to her that the squatters are the main suspects, and partly because relatives of the dead girl ask her to do so. Fran is not at all like their preconceptions of a squatter; she is well spoken, well educated and from a good background; she is neither a drug addict nor an alcoholic.

This in fact brings us to the heart of the novel, which is to do with the true nature of those who live in what is frequently considered Britain's underclass. None of those who lived with Fran were particularly unusual; they were normal people who for one reason or another had ended up in a squat. Asking For Trouble is unusual among detective stories about people in this type of background in that the squatters are not stereotypes. On the other hand, the police are not attacked either, the main reasons that they come over in a bad light being institutional bureaucracy (ill equipped to deal with the rather unofficial lifestyle of the squatters), and the prejudices of individual officers. So often crime novels reinforce a right-wing view of the world, in which squatters (or New Age travellers, or the homeless) are depraved addicts, and policemen guardians of virtue, and it is nice to see a writer making them all out to be normal, imperfect people.

As well as this point in its favour, Asking for Trouble is well written, in a style which reminded me of Ruth Rendell. Granger is better at writing about young people than either Rendell or P.D. James, and so her main character is not only sympathetic but also believable.

Tuesday, 24 August 1999

J.F.C. Fuller: The Decisive Battles of the Western World (1954)

Edition: Granada, 1982 (Edited by John Terraine)
Review number: 319

General Fuller's analysis of decisive battles and their effects is one of the classics of military history in English. Its editing by John Terraine into two volumes concentrating on those battles fought in Europe and the Middle East has made the work a great deal more accessible. The way that Terraine has done this is to replace the missing sections with much shorter summaries of his own. The book in generals is structured to contain alternating "chronicles", describing the events following one battle and leading up to the next, with detailed analysis of the mayor battles between Salamis and the Normandy landings.

The concept of the book is a fairly old-fashioned one. Historians at the moment tend to assume that warfare never actually decided anything; a war is supposed to have an inevitable outcome pre-determined by economic factors. Even if, say, Napoleon had won the battle of Waterloo - as he could fairly easily have done - his eventual defeat would have only been postponed. This may well be true, but then some other battlefield would have marked Napoleon's defeat and would be regarded as decisive. (Decisive, in Fuller's book, means not so much that the battle itself had a definite outcome, but that it marks the end or shows the inevitability of the end of a period of history.)

Fuller was well qualified as a military analyst, being one of those who, during the First World War, saw the significance of the tank and whose ideas were influential in the German development of blitzkrieg. His experience tells him that no general, no matter how brilliant,. is infallible, and that military campaigns are often catalogues of mistakes on both sides. (Even if the generals never made mistakes, they are always at the mercy of an incomplete knowledge of enemy intentions.)

That doesn't mean that he didn't have his heroes (Napoleon was one), but he certainly realised that they weren't perfect. Fuller too has faults, though he avoids some of the worst ones into which any kind of historian can fall. One is an unquestioning attitude to sources, which can lead to such absurdities as a statement I heard on TV the other day, that the US entered the First World War as a moral duty, to "safeguard democracy". The other is that which M.I. Finley has spent much of his career attacking in ancient historians, a blindness to anything outside their speciality. Fuller is aware that he is not just concerned with strategy and tactics, weapons and equipment. There are economic and political backgrounds to every war, and to some important wars (such as the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary wars or the Thirty Years' War), the history of ideas can be involved as well. He also manages to avoid the trap that many British establishment figures fell into after the Second World War - though Fuller could hardly be described as establishment - of thinking that Churchill was to be praised as a god. He is extremely critical of both Churchill and Roosevelt, whose political decisions he believed extended the war by some time and led inevitably to the Russian triumph in Eastern Europe and the Cold War.

One attitude Fuller shared with many other historians of the twentieth century is an anti-religious bias. (This stems from the belief many non-scientists have that science has disproved religion.) This is particularly apparent in his one sided picture of Luther and Calvin in the chronicle of events leading up to the Thirty Years' War.

The book ends with a fairly accurate prophecy of how the Cold War would develop - Fuller died long before this became obvious. The developments he did not see were the ability of guerrillas and minor powers to hold out against the major nations - Vietnam and Nicaragua for the US, Afghanistan for the USSR - and the rise of China as a major power.

Saul Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

Edition: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1954
Review number: 318

Like Henderson in Henderson the Rain King, Augie March is a misfit. Neither character is willing to accept the constraints imposed by the society around them. Henderson is a larger than life, socially simple-minded individual who cannot understand society's barriers, that behaving as he pleases makes him unacceptable, unfit for company. March, on the other hand, is a misfit because he has an unconventional ambition - he is looking for an "acceptable fate" - and is willing to walk away from anything that he feels is tying him down. Instead of just acting as he wants and accepting the consequences as Henderson does, he wants to establish his right to be himself.

March's problems occur principally because his ambition is too diffuse. He doesn't know what his acceptable fate will be, so seeking it is unlike the single-minded desire of his brother Simon to make money in any way he can. This aimlessness, together with what he describer as an "adoptive air" means that others keep on suggesting how he should live his life, how he should make his way in the world. So he ends up in a succession of bizarre jobs and relationships, all of which is short term because he turns out to be unable to be himself. He cannot bring himself to compromise his independence.

The reason that Bellow writes about people who don't fit into conventional society is to get his readers to think about the relationship between the individual and the community in which they live. This is particularly aimed at an American readership, for in the United States there has for some time been a very strong tension between ideals of liberty and individualism and the way in which people live their lives in the country which invented the production line. To fit into society both costs us something and brings us benefits, as there is no way that industrial civilisation could survive without the individual subordinating themselves to the whole. Bellow's purpose is to question how much compromise is desirable and how much is necessary, and what make us think about which parts of ourselves do we want to remain individual.

Monday, 23 August 1999

O. Henry: Options (1905)

Edition: Doubleday, Moran & Co
Review number: 317

Options, O. Henry's sixth short story collection, marks a retreat from the experiments of Cabbages and Kings and Roads of Destiny. The stories in Options are all typical Henry, masterfully put together short stories perhaps a little sentimental for modern tastes. Unlike earlier collections, Options lacks any unifying themes. It contains stories set in each of the venues established as Henry's location in these earlier collections: the big city and the West of the United States, and South America. This diversity is reflected in the collection title.

Options is perhaps the most unsatisfactory of the collections published in Henry's lifetime, having the thrown together feel that characterised the ones made of stories not previously published in book form that appeared after his death. Its diversity does make it reasonably interesting to read through in one sitting, but I prefer the virtuosity apparent in the earlier collections where Henry continually finds new variation on a theme (most obviously in The Gentle Grafter).

Friday, 20 August 1999

Anthony Powell: Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (1960)

Edition: Penguin, 1964
Review number: 316

With the fifth volume of Dance to the Music of Time, Powell reaches the mid-thirties, when conversation in England was dominated by the abdication crisis and the Spanish Civil War. These events form the background to the novel, and yet these hardly concern the narrator Nick Jenkins. Casanova's Chinese Restaurant is about marriage.

Powell makes a change to the way that his characters interact for this novel. In the earlier volumes in the series, the reader's attention is focused on Nick's continuing relationship with his schoolfriends, and their periodic encounters in London society form the basis for the books' plots. Here, though, Templer does not appear at all, and Stringham and Widmerpool only have cameo roles. Instead, two completely new characters are introduced, the composer Moreland and the music critic Maclintock. It is their marriages, as well as Nick's own, that Powell uses to illustrate some of the ways in which this institution can develop.

Each relationship is seen mainly from the masculine point of view; after all, the narrator is a man and, in London society in the thirties, more likely to have close relationships with other men rather than their wives. Nick himself says little about his own marriage, Isobel being a fairly minor character, but from what we see it seems placidly happy in a low key kind of way, despite Isobel's miscarriage near the beginning of the novel. The Morelands have a more complex relationship, in which they remain together even though he ends up committing adultery. The Maclintock's marriage has almost completely broken down before Nick becomes acquainted with them. They live in a state of perpetual warfare which is unpleasant for everyone, themselves and their friends.

The main difference between Dance to the Music of Time and Remembrance of Things Past, to which it has often been compared, is that Powell's aims seem to be much simpler than Proust's. (The comparison is often made, I suspect, by English-speaking critics who feel that Remembrance of Things Past should have an English equivalent.) Proust's work has a philosophical side; he is trying to give the reader an insight into the true underlying nature of his themes, particularly the main one of memory. Powell, on the other hand, is more concerned to paint an effective picture of life in English society in the twenties, thirties and forties.

The name of the novel comes from the bizarre (fictional) restaurant in Soho in which Nick first met Maclintock. Originally an Italian restaurant decorated with pictures commemorating the famous lover, it was taken over by a Chinese restaurant further up the street, and the name and décor retained. Powell introduces a rare note of foreboding into the novel at its beginning, where Nick revisits Soho after the restaurant has been destroyed by wartime bombing, which causes him to remember the events of this time.

Thursday, 19 August 1999

Ian Stewart: From Here to Infinity (1996)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1996
Review number: 315

Ian Stewart has written several versions of a survey of the current state of mathematics, dating back as far as 1975 with Concepts of Modern Mathematics. The more snappily titled From Here to Infinity, published in 1998, is the latest version of his 1987 book, The Problems of Mathematics. As mathematics progresses, the important and interesting areas change rapidly, as new breakthroughs come and new applications and connections spark renewed interest in hitherto obscure areas. Thus a considerable revision has been made with each new incarnation.

The original book has had a considerable influence on my own life. It helped confirm my desire, as an A-level student, to study mathematics at university. From Here to Infinity is as inspiring as this suggests, and made me want to return to some of the books I have not opened for years.

Stewart tends to focus on those areas which are of interest to him personally, and his enthusiasm helps to make his account more accessible. There is one part of the book which reads as though it was included because he felt he had to rather than because he wanted to, and that is the section on Fermat's Last Theorem. However, his writing is never opaque, and should be comprehensible to the (more or less) general reader. He gives a picture of the mindset behind modern mathematics, something very difficult to obtain in the English and American school systems, where little more recent in date than 1900 is taught even under the "new maths" banner. The change between school and undergraduate mathematics is marked, and at a very fundamental level, as proof rather than correct calculation becomes the important skill.

Wednesday, 18 August 1999

Lawrence Sterne: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759)

Edition: Penguin, 1970

It is difficult to know where to begin in describing Sterne's famous work, as many commentators have remarked. It is not really a novel, such plot as it has being far too loosely structured for that. It purports to be an autobiography, but by the end of it we still know hardly anything of the life of Tristram Shandy. (Apart from scattered remarks, all we get are descriptions of the day of his birth, a day when he suffered an accident at the age of five, and a trip through France. We aren't even told enough to be definite whether the woman Jenny, mentioned in several places, is his wife or not.) In describing his opinions, the title is rather more accurate, though we probably get more of the opinions of Tristram's father than of Tristram himself.

I suppose Tristram Shandy is basically a parody of the memoirs of an eighteenth century gentleman. It is hilariously funny in places, though it requires some concentration to catch the jokes - I know a couple of people who found it impossible to get into. It certainly pays to keep a finger in the notes at the back of a copy, unless you speak Latin and Greek and are familiar with a vast range of literature from the classical period onwards, and know a fair amount about the wars of the early eighteenth century.

Tristram Shandy's importance in the development of the novel was in its narrative style, which prefigures many of the experimental writers of the twentieth century. It is not really concerned with the subject that it is meant to be about - which is why we learn so little of Shandy's actual life - but instead it is about whatever takes the fancy of the supposed author. It is full of digressions, imagined conversations with readers and critics, and Shandy as narrator gives a convincing impression of disorganised brilliance. Sterne, of course, has to be far more disciplined, so that Shandy never steps out of character. In an odd sort of irony, in fact, we are totally conscious of Shandy as narrator but never really aware of Sterne as his puppeteer.

This structure is meant to give us insight into the mind of Shandy, and is a direct precursor of one of the most important literary styles of the twentieth century, stream of consciousness. The book is full of conversations with readers and commentary on what is going on (statements like "I promise that the chapter on buttons will be written eventually, but I must give you the chapter on chambermaids first"). This may seem a little arch (though fashionably post-modernist) to our tastes today, but it can be very funny.

The work in the canon of English literature which is perhaps most like Tristram Shandy is Joyce's Ulysses. Both are universal in scope (Ulysses more subtly so) though apparently parochial; both establish a complex relationship between writer and reader. Both are funny and bawdy, though Tristram Shandy lacks something of the serious and pessimistic nature of Leopold Bloom; one is a product of the eighteenth century, the other of the twentieth.

Tuesday, 17 August 1999

Thornton Wilder: The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927)

Edition: Longmans, 1934
Review number: 313

In 1714, a bridge collapsed in Peru, and five people were killed. This may seem fairly trivial on the scale of human tragedy, but Thornton Wilder uses it as the peg around which his best known work is hung. He explores the lives of these five people up to the point where they came to this sudden stop; the small scale of the disaster means it can be given a human dimension rather than being reduced to statistics.

Thus each part, except for the introductory and concluding sections setting things up and dealing with later events, occurs simultaneously with all the others. Since Lima was a fairly small town in the eighteenth century, the same characters appear over and over again, and we gain further insights into the fatalities on top of what we see of them in their own sections.

One of the most remarkable properties of The Bridge of San Luis Rey is its brevity. Wilder manages to pack his portraits of these five people, as well as a fairly complicated structure, into only one hundred and forty pages. He does it so skilfully, too, that his prose does not seem overly densely packed with information, nor his portraits sketchy.

Wilder makes you see something interesting in each of the people who died on the bridge (with the possible exception of Don Jaime, who is so young that his most interesting features are his relatives). You really feel that each was a loss to the human race. And yet, as we are reminded at the end of the book, their fate is to be forgotten within a few years of their deaths. Thus while Wilder is saying that there is something worth preserving in us all, he is reminding us that (in the vast majority of cases) nothing will preserved of ourselves for long after we die.

Monday, 16 August 1999

George MacDonald Fraser: Flash for Freedom! (1971)

Edition: Fontana
Review number: 312

By the third volume of 'the Flashman papers', George MacDonald Fraser has settled down into the style and mannerisms that mark the rest of the series to date. Indeed, from this point on there is an air of interchangeability about the novels.

The chronology of Royal Flash and Flash for Freedom leaves a gap of six or seven years (between parts one and two of Royal Flash), which will be filled in by later volumes in the series. The events of Flash for Freedom immediately follow the second part, and fall in 1848-9.

Flashman becomes involved in the slave trade, forced by his father-in-law to take a passage on a slave ship that he owns. As usual, he stumbles from one scrape to another, driven by his absolute cowardice. Although not an abolitionist - he considers them hypocrites, condoning the maltreatment of children in British mills and mines while pretending a concern for Africans who they have never seen - Flashman is surprised and horrified by the conditions on board the slaver. He is of course too cowardly to do anything about it, but he does give Fraser an opportunity to recount some of the more unpleasant stories of the trade at this period, based on his (as usual) meticulous research.

Being called to the deathbed of another crew member, Flashman discovers that Comber is in fact a naval officer, a spy on the slavers. (The Navy has been trying, since the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, to stamp out the British-owned vessels involved in slave trading.) When the ship (named the Balliol College as a gesture against the Oxford college which had thrown out the captain after a scandal) is captured by an American warship in the Caribbean, Flashman escapes the fate of the others by pretending to be Comber and to have important information about the influential backers of the trade. (In the 1840s, the US slavery laws were rather complicated, as the division over the issue which eventually led to the Civil War became apparent. Though slavery was legal, to bring in new slaves from overseas was not. Thus the crew of the Balliol College had to stand trial for doing so, even though they had already unloaded their slaves - even empty, to sail a ship equipped as a slaver was a crime.)

From this point, Flashman gets involved with the underground railroad, the network of abolitionists helping slaves to escape to Canada and freedom. All the while, the only thing on his mind is to find a way to avoid danger and get back to England in one piece.

Friday, 13 August 1999

John Barth: The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991
Review number: 311

John Barth's writing, though always worth reading, suffers from several faults. The most important of these is perhaps the way that everything else he has written pales into insignificance next to Giles Goat-Boy. In that novel, he handles his themes more tellingly, with a background more extraordinary, than in the other novels he has written, and by making it partly an allegorical account of the Cold War increases its interest.

A second problem in Barth's writing is in his obsession with his major themes. These are to do with the nature of fiction, the various people involved in narrative art (author, reader, characters), and the relationships between them and the rest of the world's literature. Thus, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor takes the form of a narrative within a narrative within a narrative within a narrative, the third story about the subject of the outermost story. (The character named Behler tells a story about Scheherezade telling a story about Behler telling a story about himself). This is inspired by the structure of the Arabian Nights, which frequently uses the device of characters in one story telling other tales.

The Arabian Nights form one obvious part of the relationship of this novel with world literature in general. The innermost story juxtaposes the tale of Sindbad the Sailor's seven voyages with the life of the American author William Behler, who has found himself stranded in the world of the Nights after nearly drowning in a sailing accident. Each section has a series of interludes which tell the story of the developing relationship between Behler and Sindbad's household, and contain the tales told by Sindbad of his own voyages. Each is then followed by Behler's retelling of part of his story - and thus the narrator of the outside level is also a narrator of the innermost stories. The structure is further complicated by resonances between Behler's life and aspects of Barth's, making the whole thing a commentary on the storytelling process and the way in which the author is usually both part of and separated from the stories s/he tells, particularly in a first person narrative.

The use, and retelling, of the stories of Sindbad from the Arabian Nights is similar to the adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus the King in Giles Goat-Boy. Like Barth's earlier reworking, Sindbad's tales are twisted, used to produce moral lessons distinctly reminiscent of Tristram Shandy (Sterne is clearly an influence on Barth) and show the main characters of the tales in a far less positive light than in the original.

Another important theme in Barth's writing is the character of the innocent. He is of course the stock in trade of the satirist, enabling the writer to point out the absurdity of human affairs with ease. Behler is not quite such an innocent as the central character of Giles Goat-Boy or The Sot-Weed Factor, yet he has a naivete shared with both of them.

The third problem in Barth's writing is its lengthiness. The complex structure of The Last Voyage needs a considerable length to work itself out; to tell Behler's story straight would probably require many fewer pages than the five hundred and seventy actually filled with twenty-eight interludes, two introductory sections, and a conclusion. In Giles Goat-Boy the length does not feel like a problem, yet here, and even in The Sot-Weed Factor, it is tempting to begin skipping pages.

It is really, then, the grandeur of the design and the fact that it does not succeed as well as the author's best work that stand against this novel. It contains entertaining ideas, such as the description of a dancer speaking by her art rather than words (another facet of Barth's fascination with the mechanics of narration), Sindbad's duplicity, and Behler's revelation to his then wife of his infidelities not through his guilty appearance but by writing a series of best selling articles about it.

Thursday, 12 August 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Black As He's Painted (1974)

Edition: Fontana, 1981
Review number: 210

'The best Ngaio Marsh for a long time' is how the Daily Telegraph greeted the appearance of Black As He's Painted (according to the front cover). By 1975, she have produced quite a long string of disappointing novels, and it wouldn't have taken a great deal to deserve this tag; but in fact Black As He's Painted is one of the best of all Marsh's novels.

The story concerns a visit made by the President of the Commonwealth nation of Ng'omwana, known as "Boomer" to his friends, to London. He insists on dealing with the London police through Alleyn, an old public school friend of his, rather than allowing Special Branch to work directly with him on his security. Special Branch is not happy at his unwillingness to co-operate with their wishes, particularly as the Boomer had survived an assassination attempt only a few months previously. And then the Ng'omwanan ambassador in London is killed at a reception early in the visit, apparently in mistake for the president.

Black as He's Painted is not only a slightly unusual mystery - assassination is usually the province of the thriller, with little difficulty pinning down the identity of the killer. It contains two of Marsh's most appealing characters. The Boomer is a rather larger than life caricature of the post-colonial African politician, but he is great fun. A tendency to patronise the Africans is a flaw in the book, but its attitude towards them is at least of the seventies rather than the thirties.

The second character is the cat Lucy Lockett, whose portrayal will certainly make this book the favourite among those of Marsh's readers who love cats. Rescued from neglect and maltreatment, she not only takes over the life of her new owner but also discovers important clues in the investigation (as cats need no search warrants).

Wednesday, 11 August 1999

Michael Moorcock: The Champion of Garathorm (1973)

Edition: Grafton, 1986
Review number: 309

Though this trilogy is entitled The Chronicles of Castle Brass, the castle itself features very little. Moorcock's interest is in the adventures of Dorian Hawkmoon, which take place on journeys far from the marshes of the Kamarg. His purposes in writing this second series featuring Hawkmoon seems to be to link him more explicitly into his idea of the Eternal Champion. The first stirrings of this idea can be seen in the Runestaff series, but it had developed considerably by the time this trilogy came to be written.

Moorcock's idea of the Eternal Champion is inspired by the ironic juxtaposition of ideas from psychology and comparative mythology with the uninventive duplication of standard characters and plots across the fantasy genre. All heroes are aspects of the one Eternal Champion, doomed to fight to preserve the balance between Chaos and Law across the centuries and in a multitude of worlds. He has a standard group of companions, is inspired by his love for a beautiful lady, and his battles take the form of a small group of heroic comrades fighting faceless and diabolical science or sorcery.

The concept, and particularly this trilogy, is heavily dependent on the idea of parallel universes. This is a highly problematic idea in science fiction, as it has been overused to get a lazy writer out of a difficult situation; it easily can become equivalent to the 'he woke up and it was all a dream' ending which is virtually unusable. By allowing the author to bring together characters from otherwise incompatible backgrounds, it leads to self-indulgent writing, as in Robert Heinlein's late novels. The concept, though, has been of great importance to Moorcock throughout his career, right from the very early Rituals of Infinity onwards. He works hard to keep his use of the device within self-imposed limits: for example, different aspects of the Eternal Champion are not allowed to meet or have conscious knowledge of each other. (This does not apply to his companions, particularly the Champion's guide, under any of his names.)

Having made this restriction, an attempt to get around it is the inspiration for the plot of The Champion of Garathorm. After returning from the adventures detailed in Count Brass, making the wish that he would give up anything to see the Count alive and well again, Hawkmoon is stunned to discover that he had returned to a version of his world in which the companion who survived his earlier adventures was Count Brass, rather than his beloved wife Yisselda. Driven almost out of his mind by the loss of his wife and children (who had been born after the battle, so in this world never existed), he pines away, spending his time making models, recreating the battle of Londra to try and come up wish a version in which Yisselda also survives.

In another universe, the forces of Chaos, mustered by the demon Arioch (who appears in a number of Moorcock's stories) have overwhelmed those of Order. Because this has happened, a scientist from another universe has been able to imprison the soul of the incarnation of the Champion there, the warrior queen Ilian of Garathorm. This could mean disaster for the Balance across all the universes, and the companion Jhary has the idea of taking Dorian's soul, which he is hardly using, and temporarily animating Ilian with it.

My feeling about this is that it is not self-indulgent plotting, but an interesting way to get around a restriction that was, after all, imposed by Moorcock. It is using the restriction in a creative way, and that is the opposite of indulgence. The way in which Dorian's soul becomes immersed in the being of Ilian, forgetting his own separate existence is quite fascinating.

However interesting from the point of view of seeing how Moorcock puts together his imaginary worlds, though, I think he is a better writer when he is not being so explicitly clever. He is very good at using subtle hints to tell us something - this is why the backgrounds to his novels are so compelling, even though they are only lightly sketched in.

Tuesday, 10 August 1999

Christopher New: Goodbye Chairman Mao (1979)

Edition: New English Library, 1979
Review number: 308

There are two opposing tendencies in Western popular literature that is about China and the Chinese, both of which have, to my mind, some racist overtones. The first is to portray them as hardly human, completely (and proverbially) inscrutable to Western minds, motivated by incomprehensible objects, capable of both unearthly beauty and fearsome brutality. This is the world of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu stories, or Robert Heinlein's The Day After Tomorrow. The other extreme, towards which this book tends, is to ignore the differences in culture, education and so on completely - to present the Chinese characters as Westerners. Clearly, as far as it is possible to generalise about a fifth of the world's population - so not far at all - the truth must lie somewhere in between. It is equally clear that neither extreme takes any account of the difference that the events of the twentieth century must have made. This century has seen the downfall of the political and religious systems that have formed the backbone of Chinese life for millennia; then Japanese occupation of large parts of the country, and two further upheavals with hardly less effect - the Communist and the Cultural Revolutions.

Goodbye Chairman Mao is a thriller based on an attempt to overthrow Mao towards the end of his life, with Russian help. British intelligence are baffled by a new highly secret Russian code, used only in two fragmentary messages that have fallen into their hands. They need either a clue to how it works or more substantial text to analyse. It is clearly important, as the Russians are refraining from using it until whatever operation it is to be for is ready.

British intelligence persuade the mathematician John Coombs, an expert in cryptography, to help them and, despite his lack of training, send him to Russia to learn more. This is unlikely, as is his agreeing to help them at all: his beloved daughter is dying of leukaemia, a consequence of his wife's over-exposure to radiation while working for the US Atomic Energy Commission when pregnant. This has turned him into an ardent anti-nuclear campaigner; why would he help the British government? And why would he be willing to be separated from his daughter in the last few weeks of her life?

Despite these gaping holes in his plot, and his unimaginative portrayal of his Chinese characters, Christopher New has written a moderately gripping thriller.

Monday, 9 August 1999

Marcel Proust: Albertine Disparu (1925)

Translation: C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, 1981, as The Fugitive
Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 307

The Fugitive, as a title, neatly matches that of the previous novel in Remembrance of Things Past (The Captive), yet it is clearly not a translation of the French title. Since it is the second of the three volumes put together by others following Proust's death, it is impossible to know what title he would have used for the eventual published work, if he had lived to make the final revisions.

The penultimate novel in Proust's cycle is entirely concerned with the narrator's obsessive relationship with his lover Albertine. We begin the novel where The Captive left off, with Albertine having fled back to her aunt in the country. The narrator makes a huge effort to bring about her return to Paris, but this never happens: Albertine is killed in an accident. Just after hearing the news, the narrator is shattered to receive a letter sent off just before Albertine's death, in which she says that she will return to him.

An important part of remembrance - the central theme, of course, of the whole series of novels - is the way in which we think of those we no longer see, particularly those at one time close to us who are now dead. It is inevitable that Proust would spend some time analysing the progress of this aspect of our memories. In more abstract terms, Sartre discusses the same issue in his Psychology of Imagination, and the ideas of the two writers on the subject are closely related. (Sartre in fact refers to Proust for illustration of his philosophical ideas on the subject.)

Their views are based on the idea that our imaginary pictures of people are of necessity only pale reflections of the living person, requiring frequent refreshment by renewed acquaintance with them. As the length of separation increases, our imagined version of the person becomes more divorced from the richer reality, and more and more sketchy. This is partly because the most real part of the imagined version is centred on our interaction with them.

I do not wholly agree with this analysis, which seems a little self-centred. However, Proust's narrator is an extremely self-centred person, and his mourning for Albertine follows this course. As is the case throughout the series, his analysis and record of his internal life is convincing, giving the distinct impression that he would not be an agreeable person to meet. He is self-dramatising and obsessed with the romance of his inner life. His internal viewpoint is here perhaps more melodramatic than in some of the earlier novels, and this can presumably be attributed to either a missing final revision or the strong emotional effects of bereavement.

On a fairly superficial level, the title chosen by the translators may seem misleading: it is only for the first few dozen pages that we think that Albertine has run away. But then both the French title and The Fugitive have a deeper meaning, as the narrator's memories of his lover begin to disappear from his imagination, becoming fugitive thoughts.

Friday, 6 August 1999

Michael Frayn: A Very Private Life (1968)

Edition: Fontana, 1981
Review number: 306

Michael Frayn is so well known today as a playwright that it is strange to realise that he was first a journalist and then a novelist. And his novels are very different from his plays, often being science fiction and written in a whimsical manner. Despite the tone in which it is written, A Very Private Life wants to say some fairly serious things about Western culture in the second half of the twentieth century.

The novel is set a fair way into the future, when humanity has split into two classes, Insiders and Outsiders. Insiders live in sophisticated houses, in which every necessity for life is provided through holovision and drugs - instead of feeling emotions at the whim of nature, when they could distress or embarrass, they take drugs to produce or suppress feelings when their expression is socially desirable. Even their holidays are taken in this way; they never go out of their houses into the real world. Why should they, when the holograms they experience can have the real world's imperfections removed?

The Outsiders, by contrast, live among the ruins of less up to date houses, and take on the manual labour of the world. They continue to wear clothes, abandoned by the Insiders, and are thought of as animals by the other class. (In a neat inversion, they wear dark glasses to be considered decent - so that others cannot know what they are thinking.)

Uncumber is brought up as a privileged Insider, but never really fits in. She craves real experience, refusing to take the drugs with her family, switching off the holographic representations of visitors. Eventually, she manages to go Outside, but then finds she cannot fit into Outsider society either.

The clear targets of A Very Private Life are the ways in which modern Western society cuts each one of us off from true human companionship. I once met some people who had worked in West Africa. When talking to a group of Ugandans about life in England, they described shopping in a supermarket. The idea of a building in which you could find all your shopping did not surprise them, for they believed England a land of marvels. They could not believe, however, that it was possible to do all your shopping there without speaking to anyone - and not only was this a fantastic idea, but it was almost immoral in their eyes.

The Insiders do not even experience anything directly; part of their withdrawal from human contact is through the use of holovision and drugs as a substitute for interaction with the potentially unpredictable real world. It is hard not to see this as a comment on the modern TV culture, not to mention the escapist side of drug taking.

How little Frayn approves of these aspects of modern life is shown by one particular incident. After some time outside, Uncumber unwittingly gets involved with a group of criminals; she is put into what is a prison for Outsiders, yet it turns out to be almost identical to the home in which she was brought up.

Thursday, 5 August 1999

O. Henry: Cabbages and Kings (1904)

Edition: Doubleday, Moran & Co.
Review number: 305

Cabbages and Kings is still a rather unusual book, even after the experimentation with narrative form that has characterised much of twentieth century literature. With Roads of Destiny it was clear that O. Henry occasionally wanted to do new things with the short story form, and not just continue to produce the slightly sentimental shorts which had brought him popularity.

He experimented with the form of the short story while continuing to write about the same sorts of subjects in the same accessible style. In Cabbages and Kings it is the idea of a collection of short stories that Henry plays with, writing what is in effect a novel consisting of short stories. Some parts of the book amount to chapters put in to glue the stories together, while other stories have little relevance to the main plot.

This main plot is concerned with revolutionary politics in the fictional South American state of Anchuria, particularly the involvement with them of American citizens resident in the country. The President of Anchuria, Miraflores, has fled the capital with $100,000 from the treasury; he must be captured before he reaches the coast. In the coastal town of Coralio, he and his mistress are discovered, Miraflores kills himself, but the money disappears. The only two people who could know anything about it, the American Goodwin who found him, and Miraflores' mistress, now married to Goodwin, are too important to be suspected, and Goodwin is well known for his honesty.

As the new president, Losada, begins to show signs that his rule will become oppressive even by the standards of South America at the time, opposition grows; and this forms the background to Cabbages and Kings. However, the best stories as short stories are those which have little relationship with this background, such as the sequence starting with Shoes centring on the young US consul John de Graffenried Atwood.

This indicates that in the end Cabbages and Kings fails as an experiment; Henry's craft is so wedded to the short story form of which he was one of the greatest masters that the extended structure does not come at all naturally. The single background is a bit of a straightjacket, and it tends to fragment whenever Henry has an idea which interests him.

Wednesday, 4 August 1999

E.L. Doctorow: Ragtime (1974)

Edition: Picador, 1985

Ragtime is about the true nature of the United States. Doctorow chooses an important time in the development of the modern USA (the 1900s), chooses some emblematic real people (Harry Houdini and Henry Ford, among others), adds some fictional characters, and uses them to say what he wants to about the basis of American society. His account is not comfortable to read; a major part of what he has to say is related to injustice. Thus we see the ordeals faced by immigrants, the oppression of the working class, and discrimination and racism.

At the centre of all this is the Family, consisting entirely of nameless individuals (Father, Mother's Younger Brother, and so on). The writing style, which seems to me deliberately naïve, gives the impression of a world built of simple building blocks. It is like one of those paintings where everyday scenes are depicted in a small number of fairly bright colours, a sort of cartoon world.

I don't know enough of the history of American civil rights to even have an idea whether some of the characters are historical or imaginary - Coalhouse Walker, the black musician who undertakes a campaign of violent revenge on those who have humiliated him; Nateh, the Jewish immigrant artist; Emma Goldman the agitator. Real or not, they all assume symbolic qualities, representing all those like them, just as Ford and J.P. Morgan represent capitalists and Houdini represents entertainers. In a similar way, the family without names seems to represent the generic American family, the mainstay of the "American Dream".

It is with this simplified version of reality that Doctorow sets out to depict the USA. The title gives us another way to look at the US which fits in with Doctorow's themes, though this is never emphasised in the actual body of the novel: through ragtime. This music became popular at the time in which the book is set, and was one of the earliest expressions of the consciousness of the opressed which genuinely transcended boundaries of race and class. (That is why Coalhouse is so upset when asked to play some "coon music", for that is a form of music derived from black culture which has been made acceptable - by being emasculated - and which is played by white musicians in blackface.)

Tuesday, 3 August 1999

Michael Jecks: The Last Templar (1995)

Edition: Headline, 1995
Review number: 303

After reading the three immediate sequels, it is nice to be able to get my hands on The Last Templar. Like many medieval historical novels, and other novels with an interest in the esoteric, The Last Templar deals with the suppression of the Templar order by Philip IV of France and Pope Clement. The motive of greed was hidden by sensational accusations of heresy and witchcraft against the order. (See the review of P.C. Doherty's Ghostly Murders for more about these events and their fascination for writers and readers.)

As introduction to the book, Jecks describes the dramatic scene at Notre Dame, when leading Templars are led out from torture to publicly confess to the awful crimes of which they have been accused. But they all denounced their accusers, claiming to be true sons of the church, until hurriedly returned to prison.

Then we move forward twenty years, to Simon Puttock's appointment as bailiff in the Dartmoor area. Almost immediately he is called to investigate a death in a tiny village on the edge of the moor. Although Puttock is inclined to dismiss it as an accident, the owner of the village, who is recently returned from living abroad, insists that it must have been murder. This man is Sir Baldwin Furshill, quickly befriended by Puttock. Other deaths follow, but Puttock cannot let himself be convinced that they are all connected, even after a group of the vicious outlaws known as trail bastons move into the area, beginning a reign of terror.

The Last Templar has the same virtues as the remainder of the series, having a meticulously researched and atmospherically presented background of medieval Devon. Since this is the first in the series, and thus the series characters need to be properly established, the characterisation is less perfunctory than in some of the later novels.

Monday, 2 August 1999

Anthony Powell: At Lady Molly's (1957)

Edition: Penguin, 1963
Review number: 302

For the fourth novel in Dance to the Music of Time series, first of the second trilogy, we once again jump ahead a few years, to 1934, with the narrator Nick Jenkins now around thirty. His affair with Jean Templer over, Nick is earning a living writing scripts for cheap British films, made to allow cinemas to fulfil "the Quota". (At this time, British cinemas had to show the same number of minutes of British films to match the crowd-pulling Hollywood features.)

The style of Dance to the Music of Time is for each individual novel to concentrate on a few weeks of Nick's life, with gaps of up to several years in between. These weeks are those in which significant events happen to him and he meets up with the friends he had at school once again. At this particular period, the significant events in Nick's life centre around the parties held by Lady Molly Jeavons, and Nick's relationship with her vast family. Like any reasonably small society, in the circles in which Nick moves everyone is somehow connected to everyone else. This means that as the particular focus of Nick's life changes, we are presented with characters from earlier books in slightly different guises, as seen through their relationships with new groups of people. An example of this in At Lady Molly's is left-wing writer Quiggin.

In this novel, one aspect of the series becomes clearer. Through a friend of Jenkins' parents, interested in psychology, we are given an analysis of one of the recurring characters, Kenneth Widmerpool. This seems to imply similar analyses of the other main characters, and perhaps shows their origins in Powell's mind, with the idea that the novels would show the reactions of these different types to the events of the twentieth century as they affected London society. This would explain the slight feeling of eccentricity when any of Stringham, Templer or Widmerpool are being portrayed. Jenkins, of course, is meant to be the balanced, impartial observer - how everyone narrator thinks of their view of the world around them.