Friday 11 December 1998

Dornford Yates: Red in the Morning (1946)

Edition: Dent, 1986
Review number:  179

Red in the Morning is one of the Classic Thrillers series, though not written to as high a standard as Yates' Fire Below from the same series. Red in the Morning shows its age rather more, being very much "of its period". The characters are more stereotypical and less interesting, from the villainous Gedge to the upper class heroes. There is much casual chauvinism about the French (it is set in France) in the manner of the more offensive parts of Agatha Christie.

The two heroes, the friends Richard Chandos and Jonah Mansel interrupt and foil a robbery at the house of a friend of theirs. This robbery was organised by the gang chief Gedge, with whom Mansel has already clashed. Gedge is furious, and declares a war to the death against the two of them, which commences when he abducts Chandos' wife. The remainder of the novel details the battles between Gedge and his gang, holed up in a seemingly impregnable castle, and the two men. The castle belongs to Baron Horace, victim of Gedge's blackmail since the latter discovered that his image as an aricstocratic recluse was just a front for an international counterfeiting operation, and his neice, the beautiful Mona Lelong. Much of what happens is fairly predictable; Mona falls in love with Chandos (who is of course too honourable a married man to do anything about it) and defects to the opposition; amazing feats of physical derring-do enable Chandos and Mansel to attack the castle, avoiding the inevitable booby traps.

The two faults mentioned above, the casual chauvinism and the predictability, are the reasons this novel falls below the standard of Fire Below. Red in the Morning is still a gripping thriller by a master of the genre, even if not his best.

Thursday 10 December 1998

Molière: The Sicilian, or Love the Painter (1667)

Translation: John Wood, 1959
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 178

The Sicilian is one of Molière's one act entertainments dashed off for the pleasure of Louis XIV, complete with scenes for dancers and musical interludes. Despite their slight plots, they are usually fun to see or read, and The Sicilian is no exception.

Adrastes and Don Pedro are both in love with Isidore, a slave girl owned by Don Pedro. He has freed her so that they can get married, but his intense jealousy means that she has even less freedom than she had before. Meanwhile, Adrastes is plotting to gain opportunities to spend time with Isidore, which he does by pretending to be a painter commissioned to paint her portrait by Don Pedro. The best scene in the play is the sitting for this, consisting of outrageous complements poaid by Adrastes to Isidore, to Don Pedro's jealous rage, not assuaged by Adraste's assurances that as a Frenchman he pays such compliments to every woman he meets. The play ends as Adrastes abducts the willing Isidore, leaving Don Pedro furious.

The play leaves, at least on the page, the impression of not really having an ending; you could easily envisage further acts detailing Don Pedro's attempts at revenge. The introduction of a new character, a magistrate who is a friend of Don Pedro's, in the last lines of the play makes such a continuation seem even more likely. Yet what we have is quite delightful; you are certainly left wanting more.

Tuesday 8 December 1998

Molière: The Misanthrope (1661)

Translation: John Wood, 1959
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 177

The Misanthrope has two juvenile leads, who represent different aspects of human nature - indeed, as surmised by John Wood in his introduction, different aspects of the personality of Molière himself.

On the one hand, we have Alceste, disgusted with the hypocrisy of the world, who has declared that there is no good in man, and who has vowed never to lie about the virtues of others. He is, of course, the misanthrope of the title. This attitude gets him into a considerable amount of trouble, including a law suit which he loses because he refuses to flatter the judge and the enmity of Oronte, whose poetry he cannot bring himself to praise. His big problem is that he is in love with the flirtatious and shallow Célimène (as is his rival Oronte), and continues to be so despite his knowledge of all her faults, ones which he despises in others.

On the other hand, we have his friend Philinte, who has the instincts of a courtier, always ready to find a word in praise of others. Molière manages to make him sufficiently sympathetic that the audience will not blame or despise him for this in the way that it will some of the other characters. Nevertheless, the main interest for both Molière and for us is the character of Alceste, which is only natural given that there are more possibilities for comedy in a character who is different from everyone else around him (and from the audience too - a major part of the point of the play), and who refuses to moderate his principles in any way whatsoever.

We all know both the impulse to be the courtier and that to reject all hypocrisy, and this is one reason why The Misanthrope succeeds so well. John Wood describes it as Molière's masterpiece, and that is certainly a judgment that his translation bears out.

Monday 7 December 1998

Frank Herbert: Children of Dune (1976)

Edition: New English Library, 1977
Review number: 176

The third of Herbert's Dune novels marks the end of the first section of the series, with thousands of years now set to elapse before the next novel, God Emperor of Dune. With the exception of the classic first book, Children of Dune is probably the best of the series.

The psychological centre of this book is an investigation of what it would mean to be one of the "pre-born". These are three of the four descendants of Duke Leto Atreides and his concubine Jessica, the culminations of a centuries long breeding programme set up by the sinister Bene Gesserit sisterhood. The pre-born, their consciousnesses enhanced in the womb by the addiction of their mothers to the drug melange, break through into a new world as they gain access before birth to the accumulated memories of their ancestors.

There are distinct problems with this idea. Clearly, there is no feasible mechanism to pass on memories following the conception or birth of the child - which depends on the sex of the ancestor - but Herbert often seems to assume that all the memories from the whole life of the ancestor becomes available. Apart from this, it is difficult to think of a way in which the memories could be stored physically in the body and become part of the genetic inheritance of the children - it's a Lamarkian rather than Darwinian form of evolutionary biology. Also, the total number of ancestors would be huge - even going back a thousand years would produce tens of thousands, and the pre-born have memories from several millennia in the past. Just to store a full set of memories physically would be a feat, but being able to sort through, access and comprehend them is even more unlikely.

For the purposes of the story, these difficulties are virtually ignored. The main concern of the characters is with "abomination", where the pre-born personality is taken over - possessed - by one of their ancestors from what is described as "the clamour within". One, Alia, sister of the former emperor Paul and regent to his children, has fallen victim to the strong personality of her grandfather, the evil Baron Harkonnen who was the villain in the first novel in the series. The other two, Paul's twin children, undergo a variety of tests and rituals designed to find out whether or not they are abominations.

An important character in the book is the Preacher, a blind old man who comes to the capital to preach against the policies of Alia's regency and the way the religion centred around Paul has decayed in the few short years since the Emperor was blinded and walked out into the desert. Most people, including Alia, believe that the Preacher is Paul himself.

The fact that the pre-born and Paul also have a degree of prescience, knowledge of important possibilities in the future, is the other main mystical element in The Children of Dune. The conflict between their visions and the failure of Alia to receive new vision cause them to be the subject of many political plots and schemes, which are elements common to every book in the Dune series.

The two elements in which Herbert interests himself in most of his novels, not just the Dune series, are politics and psychology (particularly the psychology of religion). Here, these elements are skilfully woven together, the peg of the general abhorrence providing a natural way to do this. This is why the book works rather better than some of his others, which make the weaving together seem rather artificial.

Thursday 3 December 1998

Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse (1927)

Edition: Panther
Review number: 175

To The Lighthouse is the story of one woman, Mrs Ramsay, and the influence she has over her family, a large one with eight children, and her house guests. The Ramsay family live on a Hebridean island during the summer, where all three parts of the novel are set. In the first part, set before a war, she is carefully organising the lives of her children, her house guests and her neighbours. (She is an inveterate matchmaker.) Her husband is more interested in his work (something left undefined of an intellectual nature) than in his family, and often undoes much that she has been working towards by a casual remark. We see this in the proposed trip to the lighthouse on a small island off the coast, a treat for the Ramsay's son James and an opportunity for Mrs Ramsay to send her charitable aid to the lighthouse keeper. James has set his heart on going, encouraged by his mother, and then Mr Ramsay points out that given the time of year and the falling barometer there is no way the trip can be made safely. His remark is the occasion for much resentment, to which he is completely oblivious.

The second part chronicles the war through the decay of the now abandoned house; in the third part, the family return, depleted by the deaths of Mrs Ramsay and three of her children. In this part, it is the elderly Mr Ramsay who wants to go to the lighthouse, reluctantly accompanied by James and his sister Cam, now teenagers. The book ends with two significant events: they finally reach the lighthouse, and James' rowing is praised by his father, the first word of praise he has ever received from him.

The most obvious question about the book is "What is signified by a trip to the lighthouse?" Why is it that different characters at different times want to go there? The way that the eventually arrival at the lighthouse occurs at the moment when James receives the word of praise from his father is not a coincidence, nor is the way that the arrival brings the end of the book, no description of the actual visit being written by Woolf. The purpose of a lighthouse is to warn ships away from the rocks around it, effectively to point the way that travellers should go. That aspect of a lighthouse is not really mentioned in the book; the characters are more concerned by the difficulty of getting there and the isolation of those who live there. However, is this is the significance then the only way I can think of to relate this to the plot of the novel is to suggest it shows the way to a better relationship between James and his father, which can only be attained when the influence of Mrs Ramsay is overcome. That fits in with the way that James wants to go in the first part, encouraged by his mother but prevented by circumstances, and with his father wishing to go in the third part while James and Cam no longer want to.

One of the great strengths of this novel is the way the Woolf suggests a symbolic meaning while writing a novel which is rigorously naturalistic. In that sense, it is the opposite of Orlando, the only other Virginia Woolf novel I have read; there, the novel appears full of symbols, but few of them mean anything outside of themselves or only hark back to the main themes, longevity and sexual development.

Friday 27 November 1998

C.S. Forester: Hornblower in the West Indies (1958)

Hornblower in the West Indies coverEdition: Pan, 1966
Review number: 173

Hornblower in the West Indies consists of five episodes from towards the end of his career, when he was an admiral and during a four-year term as Commander-in-Chief in the West Indies. Other than this background, and the fact that they are arranged chronologically, the stories are virtually independent; each one could certainly be perfectly comprehensible if read on its own. In these stories, Hornblower deals with an attempt to rescue Napoleon from St Helena (they take place around 1820), captures pirates, gets involved in Simon Bolivar's rebellion in South America that led to the independence of the Spanish colonies there, is kidnapped and survives a hurricane.

Hornblower's personal heroism is still there; much of the plot of these stories is set up to justify him being in situations where such an important and senior officer could display this characteristic. The short format (each section amounts to about fifty pages, so they are longish short stories) makes Forester skate over many of the strengths of earlier Hornblower stories and his characterisation of the character almost perfunctorily - the eccentricities which made him both human and more acceptable to modern tastes (such as his opposition to hanging and flogging, his famous daily baths and his tone deafness) are really only there as gestures. It is the earlier novels, dealing with his time as a captain, which are the strengths of the Hornblower series.

Thursday 26 November 1998

Peter Tremayne: The Subtle Serpent (1996)

The Subtle Serpent coverEdition: Headline, 1996
Review number: 174

By the fourth of Tremayne's Sister Fidelma novels, she is well-established in the affections of fans. Having a female detective in a medieval crime novel is rather unusual, given the general attitude to women in the period. Fidelma is hardly a normal woman, being a king's sister, a nun, and a highly trained advocate in the Irish courts. Although Tremayne continually emphasises the humanity of traditional Irish law - particularly as a contrast to its rival Roman church law - I find it a little unconvincing. I don't know much about sixth century Irish life (and the blurb does say that Tremayne is an expert), but no matter how humane the legal code was, I suspect it was considerably less so in practice. The whole setting appears to be considerably idealised, though as I know much more about Ireland after the Viking raids which are supposed to have severely damaged the country's economy according to some sources, it may well have been a much richer place than the squalid barbarianism reported from later on in the Middle Ages.

The recurring characters are well-drawn and charming, the puzzles are actually quite difficult, and they are written in a pleasant prose style.

In this particular novel, Sister Fidelma is summoned to investigate the discovery of the headless, naked body of an unknown woman, found in the well of an abbey with a cross tied to one hand and a pagan curse to the other. All is not well in the abbey; its imperious abbess, Draigen, has a great hatred of her brother Adnár, who is the local secular authority. He and his spiritual adviser, Febal, in turn make accusations about her. When Fidelma discovers that Febal was once Draigen's husband - the story is set before the Irish chuch really accepted the supremacy of Rome, and before even the Roman Catholic church ordered its priests and nuns to be celibate - she realises that there is a long history of problems at the abbey. With the death of a second victim, the abbey's librarian Síomha, and the near lynching of a disabled nun as a witch believed to have caused the deaths by magic, Fidelma realises that this is a mystery which must be solved quickly.

Friday 20 November 1998

Graham Greene: The Comedians (1966)

The Comedians coverEdition: Bodley Head, 1966
Review number: 172

The Comedians is about three men, Smith, Jones and Brown, a shifty sounding set of names, as the narrator remarks. They meet on a ship bound for Papa Doc's Haiti, each travelling there for a very different reason. Brown, the main character and narrator, owns a hotel there which he has been trying to sell in the US because it has become a liability rather than an asset through the vagaries of the Duvalier regime; Smith and his wife are evangelists of vegetarianism, rich Americans who have a vision of a vegetarian centre in the Caribbean, possibly in Haiti; Jones is someone with a somewhat murky past, about whom the captain of the Medea has received warning telegrams.

Through their time in Haiti, each is shown to be, to some extent, playing a part and putting on a show. (This is the reason for the novel's title.)

The background of third world sleaze and corruption is something that Greene was a master at; imitators include Len Deighton (MAMista) and John le Carré (The Tailor of Panama), both of whom are perhaps rather heavy-handed by comparison. (A nineties thriller is perhaps expected to be more violent and sordid, which would also explain this difference.)

Thursday 19 November 1998

Jill Paton Walsh: A Piece of Justice (1995)

Edition: Coronet, 1995
A Piece of Justice coverReview number: 171

A Piece of Justice is the second of Walsh's detective novels to feature Imogen Quy, nurse at St Agatha's, a fictional Cambridge college. As you would expect from a Booker shortlisted author, it is well written, though it doesn't have a particularly difficult puzzle.
Imogen has taken a lodger, a postgraduate student named Fran writing a thesis on the nature of biography. To be able to live while working on this, she asks her supervisor if he has any suggestions of paid work she can do. He offers her the chance to ghost a biography he has been asked to write, of a prominent St Agatha's mathematician, Gideon Summerfield, about to (posthumously) receive the Waymark Prize, the (fictional) mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

When Fran receives the papers which have been amassed about this man, she and Imogen discover something rather odd. In the rather dull chronology of his life, there is a month which cannot be accounted for. Not only this, but there have been three previous biographers who have begun to work on the project, all of whom have disappeared when they tried to investigate the missing month.

The major characters are well-drawn, and (unusually for genre fiction) even the minor ones are individualised. Only the standard crime novel problem of unbelievable coincidence mars the plot in places.

Wednesday 18 November 1998

Thomas Browne: Religio Medici (1643)

Edition: Renascence Editions, 1998
Review number: 170

Ever since reading Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night for the first time, and seeing how much pleasure the metaphysical poets and Thomas Browne gave her (through the enjoyment she assigned to her characters), I have wanted to read these works for myself. This year I have finally got round to doing so, and was not disappointed. They provide much the same kind of pleasure, in the images used and the linguistic invention in which the writers take such joy. This is perhaps to be expected in poetry, but much less so in prose (even seventeenth century prose), particularly when the subject under discussion is philosophy and theology.

There are many parallels with Gide's Fruits of the Earth, which I read only a short time before Religio Medici: both are written mainly in prose, a prose which reads like poetry; both have similar subject matter; both were written by comparatively young men. Browne's work is, naturally (given its date) more orthodox and (given Browne's nationality) more Protestant in outlook. However, Browne was not completely orthodox; he thought for himself and was not afraid to come to different conclusions from mainstream seventeenth century Anglican theology. (He is much more tolerant of Catholicism and other religions, for example.)

The joys of Religio Medici are in its beautiful language and Browne's humanity, his understanding and his insight. It is not surprising that it was loved by Lord Peter, and by many others.

Tuesday 17 November 1998

Robin Hobb: Royal Assassin (1996)

Royal Assassin coverEdition: Voyager, 1996

Review number: 169  

Royal Assassin is the second of Hobb's Farseer trilogy, and it is a novel which very definitely points the way to part three. At its beginning, the situation is difficult for the Six Duchies and for Fitz, the illegitimate royal prince who is the hero of the series. The kingdom is being invaded by the Outislanders, who turn many of its subjects into the Forged (virtually mindless beings who live only to satisfy their desires, whatever the cost to any others). The crown prince Verity, recently married, is forced to neglect his new queen to try and save his kingdom; the king, Shrewd, is incapacitated by a terminal illness. Verity also has to defend himself against the machinations of his half-brother, Regal, who wants power but lacks the morality and indeed the intelligence to use it for the good of the kingdom. It is through working against his plotting that Fitz has already fallen victim to a poison Regal administered, one which if it does not kill can ruin its victim's health for life. In addition, he willingly gave up much of his strength telepathically, to help Verity stave off a mental attact from a Skillmaster loyal to Regal rather than the kingdom. (Magic in this series is basically divided into two branches, the Skill, which is telepathic contact between humans, and the Wit, a bond between man and animal considered unnatural.)

This is the situation at the beginning of Royal Assassin, and the book consists of Hobb thinking up ways in which it can get worse (with considerable inventiveness). A desire for a happy ending - which is a major reason why people read genre fiction, where they are almost guaranteed - impels the reader to move on to part three. (I suspect that in this case the desire may be disappointed.) Basically, Royal Assassin is well written and involving, but distinctly depressing.

Monday 16 November 1998

Simon Frith: Performing Rites: On The Value of Popular Music (1996)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1996
Review number: 167

Performing Rites is an academic analysis of the meaning and role of music from the standpoint of a cultural studies expert who has also been a well-known rock-music critic (he was the chairman of the judges for the Mercury Music prize for some years, for example). Though ostensibly about popular music, much of what Frith has to say is based on classical musicology (for the obvious reason that there is far more material available in this field).

As a cultural theorist, Frith is fascinated by non-musical aspects of popular music culture - performance conventions, the role of intermediaries from producers to record shops, and so on. That he manages to pull such disparate material as that which covers these areas together with that of musicology is something in a triumph in itself.

Considering his background, Frith's eventual conclusion is not a huge surprise: popular music, like other aspects of popular culture, is important to people because it confers identity, membership in a particular community. This may seem a little strange if it is a new idea, but you will probably find (as I did) that thinking back on when you first started liking particular kinds of popular music will confirm it to at least some extent. Certainly, to be a fan of top forty bands when I was at school would not have been a good way to become popular.

The idea is really that if we regard different genres of popular music as equal in merit, musicality and power - and comparing the things people write about them, this seems almost inevitable to Frith - the major difference between reggae, heavy metal and disco (for example) is in the community of the genre's fans. Frith identifies companionship in such a community - conversations and arguments about the merits of different artists in a pub, fanzines, ideas of authenticity (the subject of arguments even in such artificial genres as eurodisco), and so on - as one of the main pleasures of popular culture. In a sense, this reverses an idea of C.S. Lewis (in The Four Loves), that the particular pleasure of friendship is in shared interests. To Lewis, the interests bring the friendship; to Frith, the desire for friendship determines the interests.

The book is thought provoking throughout; worth reading for anyone interested in popular music culture who feels they can keep up with the dense academic style.

E.E. "Doc" Smith: Grey Lensman (1951)

Edition: Panther, 1973
Review number: 168

By the second Kimball Kinnison Lensman book, the fourth in the series overall, the path to the final conflict between the Arisians and the Eddorians is set. Each remaining book now contains the downfall of one or more of the races in the lower echelons of the Eddorian scheme of things, with Smith bursting his imagination to come up with every more spectacular weapons to destroy the planetary headquarters of these races. In Grey Lensman, these consist of a planet sized sphere of negative mass, drawn in ever faster by the frantic efforts of defenders to push it away and eating into the planet to leave rubble (none of the vast explosive release of energy which is actually the consequence of the interaction of matter and anti-matter); and a pair of planets released to crush Jarnevon, planet of the Eich, between them.

The ethics of such a destruction are taken entirely for granted, as was generally the case in science fiction of the time; the justification is the self-evident evil nature of the Eddorians and their henchmen (henchbeings?). Human beings are the only species in significant numbers on both sides (this is something that clearly worried Robert Kyle in his series of authorised Lensman sequels); all other species are either black or white as a whole, with no exceptions. The tendency to paint with a broad brush in this way is common even today; there must be many decent Serbs, for example, but we never hear about them and crimes are attributed to "the Serbs" by the media, as though they were all equally culpable.

One cannot really fault Smith for being of his time and not of now; and he does allow Kinnison a moment of self-doubt, for leading good men to their deaths. It is for the exuberance of his story-telling that people still read Smith's space operas, not for his moral philosophy.

Friday 13 November 1998

Michael Dobbs: The Buddha of Brewer Street (1998)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1998
The Buddha of Brewer Street coverReview number: 165 

The Buddha of Brewer Street is the second of Michael Dobbs' new series about politics, featuring Thomas Goodfellowe, MP (whose name formed the title of the first book). Clearly disenchanted with the biting satire of his first political series, the House of Cards trilogy, Dobbs has embarked on something far gentler in that respect with the Goodfellowe novels. A word of warning, though: The Buddha of Brewer Street contains some explicit and extremely unpleasant torture scenes, making the book not one for the squeamish.

The plot concerns Goodfellowe's involvement with the Tibetan Dalai Lama, in the last few weeks he spends as a Foreign Office minister before resigning to attend to family affairs. When the Dalai Lama dies as the result of a terrorist attack, his closest followers begin the search for his reincarnated successor. (The treatment that they, another Tibetan monks, receive at the hands of the Chinese is what forms the unpleasant side of the book, mentioned above.) When they realise that the portents say the child has been born in Britain, Goodfellowe becomes involved.

As in the earlier book, the character of Goodfellowe is the mainstay of The Buddha of Brewer Street. The other people gain in realism the closer they are to him and the more they are involved in the chaotic private life which is so important in the portrayal of his character. (This is by no means an uncommon device, because it mirrors the way in which each person knows and understands more about those who are closest to them.) Dobbs writes well, and understands Westminster thoroughly, a combination which has produced much success for him and which ensures that many will continue to read his books in the future.

Julian May: Intervention (1987)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1987
Review number: 166

In terms of publication date, Intervention falls between the Saga of the Exiles series and the Galactic Milieu trilogy; in terms of the internal chronology, it comes before either (time travel making later events in the lives of May's characters happen millions of years before earlier ones). It is May's longest work, and has an expository character, filling in much of the background of the other series.

Intervention is the memoirs of Rogatien Remeillard, one of the first of that family to discover their mental powers, and a fond great-uncle reluctantly pushed into action to manipulate his family toward greater mental operancy. (The pushing is done by an invisible presence, which Rogi calls the Family Ghost.) As the mental powers of human beings over a century or so, the excitement of watching aliens mounts; they are waiting for a certain level of operancy to be reached before making their presence known and inviting the human race to apply for membership of the Galactic Milieu.

Intervention is long, sufficiently long that I think the US edition was split into two parts published separately. May manages to keep the interest of the reader, but the book's character is definitely explanatory and is much more aimed at those interested in the two related series rather than those yet to read them.

Wednesday 11 November 1998

Veronica Stallwood: Oxford Mourning (1995)

Edition: Macmillan, 1995
Review number: 164

Oxford Mourning is the third of Veronica Stallwood's series featuring the novelist detective Kate Ivory - it is strange that so many crime novelists write about novelists as detectives. In this novel, Kate is writing a lurid historical romance about Oxford butcher's wife Maria Susanna Taylor (whose sister was Charles Dickens' mistress and may have had an illegitimate child by him). When she discovers that new material on this subject - letters between the sisters - has been discovered and is being investigated by an Oxford academic, she attempts to gain an introduction to Dr Olivia Blackett through her on-off lover, Liam Ross, music tutor at the same college.

When, repulsed by Blackett, Kate sneaks into her rooms to see - and remove - some of the letters, she witnesses from behind a door a massive argument between Liam and Olivia, with whom he clearly has a far closer relationship than he let on to Kate. Kate also meets a young woman named Angel, clearly rather unstable, who has an obsession with Leicester College and Dr Blackett. When Blackett is discovered murdered later that day, Kate finds herself in a position where she is the only person who knows about all the threads which came together on the day of the murder (though there is much about each of them which she doesn't yet know).

Oxford Mourning suffers even more than most crime novels from unbelievable coincidences - the complications to a plot made necessary by supporting a puzzle of sufficient difficulty make them a ubiquitous weakness of the genre. The fact that Kate and Olivia have two unsuspected connections (in their working interests and Liam), and that these form part of their lives at the same time is one; the way that all this drama happens on one day is another. In both these cases, a little bit of extra work could have removed the incredible nature of these events, by making the day significant for another reason which made it natural for the unconnected events to happen then, and by separating Liam's love affairs in time, for example.

In fact, Oxford Mourning shows signs of lazy writing throughout. Angel and her homeless friends, for example, are a group of stereotypical homeless people: the mentally disturbed, the amoral hustler, the alcoholic from a posh background and so on. Another revision would have immensely improved this book, as it does at least also show signs that Stallwood can do better - the character of Kate is well drawn.

Ngaio Marsh: Scales of Justice (1955)

Edition: Fontana, 1976
Review number: 163

This is, I think, the first Ngaio Marsh novel which is reminiscent of Agatha Christie's village-set murder mysteries; even those which have a village setting (such as Death at the Bar) have had a rather different atmosphere. That this book is more like Christie is largely due to the upper-class nature of the main characters and the mechanism of the underlying puzzle.

The village of Swevenings has had the same group of upper class families for hundreds of years: the Lacklanders, the most important, the Carterettes, the Syces and the Phinns. The head of the Lacklanders, Sir Harold, as he lies dying, entrusts the publication of the memoirs of his distinguished ambassadorial career to Colonel Carterette, who is specifically instructed not to leave anything out. This is because the memoirs contain the confession of a scandal over which the young Ludovic Danberry-Phinn killed himself though the real villain was in fact the ambassador. The Colonel is also currently embroiled in a dispute about fishing rights with his neighbour, Octavius Danberry-Phinn.

Naturally, the Colonel is murdered; found by the river, the huge trout whose pursuit caused the dispute lying by his body. Alleyn is called in to investigate.

Scales of Justice is a conventional murder mystery, but is well-enough done to rank it among Marsh's better novels; this is a little unusual because she normally writes better when her plot takes her outside the bounds of the conventional novel in imitation of Agatha Christie. The upper-class houseparty, which she had used to death in her earlier novels, has grown distinctly stale; perhaps the fact that the village setting was new to her helps.

Tuesday 10 November 1998

Frank Herbert: Dune Messiah (1969)

Dune Messiah coverEdition: New English Library, 1980
Review number: 162

The second book in Herbert's Dune series is a bit of a disappointment. Dune itself is a major classic of the science fiction genre, and succeeds admirably with its portrayal of a galaxy full of political and religious manipulation, complicated rules and conventions, Byzantine plots and schemes. But Frank Herbert never managed to repeat its success (in the literary, rather than the sales sense); the closest he came was in a completely unrelated novel, The Dosadi Experiment.

Dune Messiah is set several years after the end of Dune. Paul has unleashed his followers in the holy war he worked to avoid; he has conquered the old empire and extended its frontiers to rule over more of the human race than anyone has done before. Yet without an heir, all this will mean nothing. The powerful forces of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, the Tleilaxu technocrats, and the Guild (who control space travel) have united to ensure they have control of a yet-to-be born heir; and they seek a long minority through a plot against the emperor himself.The problem Herbert has is to recover the atmosphere of Dune, one of that novel's major strong points. It was there created with a huge mesh of carefully worked out and deliberately unexplained allusions, with events and objects referred to in passing as though the reader was supposed to know all about them. In the far shorter Dune Messiah, this technique couldn't work as well, though it is attempted. The subtlety is lost, and you end up picking up jarring ideas about how well things could work in this universe, and this immediately shatters the atmosphere. That the first scene is particularly weak in this respect - the language that is used between the participants in the discussion cannot really support the analysis that they make of it - is perhaps the root of the problem, as it throws the suspension of disbelief off course for the whole of the novel.

Monday 9 November 1998

Arthur Bryant: Set in a Silver Sea (1984)

Edition: Collins, 1984
Review number: 161

In his introduction to Set in a Silver Sea, Arthur Bryant says that he believes that each generation needs its own popular history, a book based on recent scholarship to help people understand the past and its particular relationship to the times. In particular, the general histories available before the eighties were still very concerned with political history, ignoring the social and economic history that has proved so important in academic history over the last fifty years or so. In some ways, Arthur Bryant was ideally placed to write such a history of England, having recently completed a large multi-volume academic history of the country, which he drew on for Set in a Silver Sea.

The fact the Bryant was retired when he began to write Set in a Silver Sea has both positive and negative consequences for the book, at least as it affected me while I read it. After a long and illustrious career as a historian, he could certainly speak from a position of knowledge. But as an old age pensioner, could he really be said to be writing for the generation of the eighties? I would consider myself to have passed my formative years in the eighties, and I must be over forty years younger than Bryant. My perspective on history is certainly somewhat different, at least a few steps further removed from the chivalric adventures that filled histories of the middle ages written in the nineteenth century.

And that brings me to another problem; this history, ostensibly covering the period from the earliest prehistoric settlements to the end of the fourteenth century, is really a history of the middle ages. The whole period up to the reign of Alfred, thousands of years, is covered in forty pages; the five hundred years of the middle ages from that date takes the remaining four hundred or so. If Bryant was uninterested in the earlier period, it would perhaps be helpful to say so; if this is meant to be a general history, a more general coverage is necessary. That is not to say that the history of the five hundred year period which takes up the major part of the book is not excellent; Bryant succeeds in giving an insight into the medieval mind which does not usually come through in this sort of work.

Friday 6 November 1998

Michael Jecks: The Crediton Killings (1997)

The Crediton Killings coverEdition: Headline, 1997
Review number: 160

The fourth of Michael Jecks' medieval Devonshire mysteries has a sombre tone, particularly as it starts with one of the major series characters, Simon Puttock, and his wife mourning the death of their young son. Throughout the novel, the bulk of the detection falls on the other major character, Sir Baldwin Furnshill; Simon is much less able to maintain an equal partnership as he mourns - a realistic touch which really helps deepen his character. (The lack of a third dimension to the series characters has so far been a bit of a problem for Jecks.)

The mystery itself is straightforward enough. A troop of mercenaries, led by the false knight (false in that he pretends to have been knighted) Sir Hector de Gorsenne, are staying in the small town of Crediton on their way from Edward II's Scottish wars to the south coast and France. They take over an entire tavern, and one of the tavern wenches, obsessed by dreams of a rich husband, ignores the warnings of the owner of the tavern that mercenaries are dangerous. From the first moment she appears on the scene, it is obvious that she will be a murder victim. Her character doesn't work so well; surely no woman in a tavern in the fourteenth century could have been stupid enough to believe that a mercenary possessed the virtues of one of the knights of the Round Table?

So, for a change, the series characters are more convincing and the medieval background less so. Jecks has now shown that he can manage to write both well; all he has to do is succeed with both at the same time. (Mind you, Ellis Peters managed to be hugely successful with the Cadfael series, which managed to do neither as far as I was concerned.)

Thursday 5 November 1998

Gerald Durrell: The Mockery Bird (1981)

The Mockery Bird coverEdition: Collins, 1981
Review number: 159

Zenkali, the imaginary tropical island on which The Mockery Bird is set, is described by Gerald Durrell as a place which attracts eccentrics, people who wander the world as square pegs in round holes until they end up on Zenkali and find themselves at home. These eccentric characters, distilled from people Durrell himself met on his own travels, are the principal charm of this ecological fable. They provide a variety of comic viewpoints on life, just as some of their originals do in Durrell's books about his animal collecting.

The story of The Mockery Bird concerns the rediscovery of the bird of the title, believed long extinct, in a remote valley that will soon be flooded as the result of a hydroelectric scheme. This naturally causes an immense political furore, particularly since the mockery bird is the ancestral god of the larger of the two main tribes on the island, which recently gained independence from Britain.

The Mockery Bird is a very funny, warm and uplifting novel, rather better than Durrell's earlier work of adult fiction, Rosie is My Relative. It helps if you share some of his ecological concerns, but today there are few people who do not at least pay lip service to them.

Molière: Don Juan (1665)

Translation: John Wood, 1953
Edition: Penguin, 1984
Review number: 158

Molière's version of the Don Juan story is cast as a comedy, however bizarre that may sound to those more familiar with the Mozart opera than any other treatment of the tale. The grim material - Don Juan being dragged off to hell when he refuses to repent of his lust even after warnings received from an animated statue - doesn't really fit into a comedy, but does at least provide a change from Molière's standard plot.

The main comic elements used by Molière are the stereotyped device of the imprtinent serving man (in this case aghast at his master's lifestyle but lacking the courage to say so to his face) and Juan's attempt to seduce two very rustic peasant girls simultaneously. Unfortunately, these scenes make the play seem like a poor imitation of a Shakespeare tragedy with the clown scenes particularly inappropriate to the main plot. Basically, for Molière to attempt this was an interesting experiment, but which moved out of his realm of genius.

This may sound like I've been saying that Molière should have written something outside the genre of commedia dell'arte plays, but then I condemn a play which is about as far removed from this genre as is possible. However, Molière was clearly gifted in the style of comedy which he made his own; his greatest plays are those where he subverts the genre and goes beyond its standard plot and character elements, which he usually did by creating a monstrous central character (like Harpagon in The Miser) who completely overbalanced and dominated the play. Don Juan is rather different; it is so far outside the genre, it cannot be said to be transcending it; it is more ignoring it completely.

Wednesday 4 November 1998

C.S. Forester: Hornblower and the Crisis (1967)

Edition: Pan, 1974
Review number: 157

This posthumously published collection of Hornblower stories includes the last story Forester wrote, which is an incomplete first draft, and the last Hornblower story in their internal chronology. The incomplete story, which fills the bulk of the book and gives it its title, is Forester filling in a gap in Hornblower's past. A newly appointed captain, he captures a ship and takes possession of secret papers from Napoleon, bearing his new seal as Emperor of France. This, the Admiralty decides, is to be used as the model for a forged order to the French admiral Villeneuve, to entice him out of his refuge so that the British fleet could attack (the scenario of the battle of Trafalgar). Hornblower volunteers to travel into Napoleon's empire and take the fake dispatch to Villeneuve; then the draft ends, left uncompleted on Forester's death.

The problem with all of this lies in a kind of inconsistency with the rest of Hornblower's career, caused by the fact that the internal chronology of the stories does not match the order in which they were written. Such an important event, besides opening up the possibility of promotion in a completely different way, would surely have resonances to be picked up later, particularly in Flying Colours, in which he is again travelling secretly through French territory (this time as an escaped prisoner of war). But because these books were written earlier, neither Hornblower himself nor any of the other characters ever mentions the scenario of this story.

The book is filled out with two earlier short stories. One features Hornblower as a kind of detective, where the solution to the problem he has been set seems to me to be rather too contrived. The other is set right at the end of Hornblower's career, in the year of revolution 1848 when he entertains an unexpected guest whom he thinks is a madman because he is announced as claiming to be Napoleon; of course, he turns out to be Louis Napoleon (later Emperor Napoleon III) on his way to Paris to seize power. Forester was not a master of the short story, and these two stories are competent pieces of craftsmanship without really having even the ambition to be anything more.

Overall then, this book is for Hornblower fans and competists, not the casual reader.

Tuesday 3 November 1998

Molière: L'amour Médecin (1665)

Translation: As Love's The Best Doctor by John Wood, 1953
Edition: Penguin, 1984
Review number: 156

A short introduction by Molière explains a lot about this play; he wrote it in five days in response to a demand from Louis XIV for something to amuse him. The rapid execution is quite apparent; important aspects of the plot are missing, and the opening (a discussion between the arts as to which of them is to entertain the king) is weak. The plot itself is the standard Molière one of the father opposing the marriage of his daughter; what is missing is any motivation for him to do so. She feigns illness; her lover disguises himself as a doctor to visit her; he prescribes a fake wedding to cure her of an obsession with marriage; the revelation that it was a true wedding ends the play.

In the end, it reads like a first draft; amusing enough, but one to work on.

Molière: The Miser (1668)

Translation: John Wood, 1953
Edition: Penguin, 1984
Review number: 155

The Miser is one of Molière's best known plays, an original variation on the commedia dell'arte models which form the basis for his work. The elements are the young lovers withing to marry - a brother and sister with their chosen spouses - who are unable to because of the opposition of a parent. By making the reason for Harpagon's refusal to let them marry his extreme miserliness, Molière is able to ring the changes on his threadbare plot (shared by almost all his plays).

Harpagon dominates the play, and is splendidly grotesque. He is entirely one dimensional, avarice to the core - always wanting to run to check his store of money, yet afraid to do so in case thieves see him do it. There is a wonderful scene where he is trying to cut the costs of a banquet he wishes to hold in honour of his own impending marriage - to the young woman his son loves.

As in The Would-Be Gentleman, the idiosyncrasies of the title role are what raise the play above the standard attained by Molière's less well known plays.

Monday 2 November 1998

Marcel Proust: Within a Budding Grove (1919)

Translation: C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, 1981
Edition: Penguin, 1985
Review number: 154

The second volume of the massive Remembrance of Things Past tells of the adolescence of Proust's narrator; hence the title. Each part of this novel tells the story of a love affair, both extremely typical of adolescence and particularly of the rather hot-house society of late nineteenth century France in which it is set. There are common features to both love affairs, the first with Gilberte, daughter of M. Swann and Odette who feature strongly in the first volume of the series, Swann's Way, and the second with Albertine, who will go on to feature prominently in the rest of the narrator's life. In both cases, the affair begins with worship from afar, continues as the narrator gets to know the object of his desire, receiving with what perhaps seems an exaggerated joy the slightest imagined sign of favour and being cast down by the slightest sign of indifference. It is the somewhat monomaniacal obsession with the beloved that gives the reader a feeling that there is something unhealthy about the narrator's internal psychology. He lives his entire life looking for a way to gain an extra glimpse of his beloved, and carries out extremely tortuous plots in order that this can be done in a way which seems "natural". The distractions provided by Albertine's group of friends makes that affair seem slightly less obsessive. Neither affair has a prominent physical aspect, though both have moments of physical contact beyond that permissible in society at the time.

An argument over nothing leads to the break with Gilberte, giving rise to a period of feigned indifference which gradually turns into real indifference. Proust's analysis and portrayal of the process of forgetting here is one of the cleverest and best done parts of his long work about memory.

Friday 30 October 1998

Molière: Les Fourberies de Scapin (1671)

Translation: As That Scoundrel Scapin, by John Wood, 1953
Edition: Penguin, 1984
Review number: 153

That Scoundrel Scapin is definitely not an exact translation of the title of Molière's play, but it is difficult to imagine an alternative which doesn't sound a little odd in English - a fourberie is a deceit, or lying trick.

In Molière's output, there are about five really well known plays, and then lots of others which are very obscure, particularly in English. Among the obscure plays, most are very stereotypical commedia dell'arte standard plots - in fact, most of them have identical plots. This makes Molière's plays, like those of Marivaux, seem to me to be rather interchangeable and anonymous, however much fun in themselves. As so often with genre writing, as this kind of comedy is (though a genre now pretty much extinct), it is only when the conventional gestures are transcended that a true masterpiece results.

To anyone with a passing acquaintance with the genre (i.e. anyone who has read more than one or two plays by either writer), it will not come as a surprise to learn that Scapin is a reascaly servant, or that his tricks are played to bring about the marriage of his young master Octavio against the opposition of Octavio's father. The tricks in fact have little to do with the resolution of the plot, which rests on a conventional (and most unlikely) revelation that the girl he loves is in fact secretly the very woman his father wants him to marry. Not Molière's best.

Hazel Holt: The Cruellest Month (1991)

Edition: Pan, 1993
The Cruellest Month coverReview number: 152

The Cruellest Monthis Holt's second novel to feature Sheila Malory. It is set in Oxford, where she is doing research in the Bodleian. Oxford, where she was a student in the fifties, inspired by Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night. Oxford is a place special to her heart, particularly the Bodleian, where she met her first love. Now it is thirty years later, and she is a widow with a son studying at the university himself. She also has a godson, Tony, who works at the library, the son of her closest friend, with whom she is staying. Just before Sheila's arrival, Tony has had the unpleasant experience of discovering a body in the library - one of his colleagues, apparently killed in an accident with some collapsing shelves.

As he has continued to think about it, Tony has become convinced it was not an accident; various little things like her glasses being left at her desk point that way. In order to help him, Sheila decides to find out the truth. As she does so, she is also forced to confront her own past and the roots of her love for Oxford.

Oxford, as has perhaps been suggested by the plot summary above, plays an extremely important part in this novel. Perhaps this is even more the case than in Gaudy Night, which contains a good deal of background (and which is about three times as long); certain knowledge is taken for granted by Holt. This sounds as though it's a drawback to the reader who hasn't been to Oxford, but I'm not sure that it would be. A knowledge of the city and university is not necessary to unravel the mystery, even if some of the force and interest of the novel is lost.

Thursday 29 October 1998

Arthur Koestler: Darkness at Noon (1940)

Darkness at Noon coverEdition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 151
Revised:  13 July 2004

If twentieth century literature is to be remembered for anything in particular, it is likely that novels like Darkness at Noon will be considered typical of one of its major distinctive themes. Like other great works of this century, it deals with the relationship of the state and the individual. There is perhaps an inherent similarity between these tales of dehumanisation and despair; and few people would want to be stranded on a desert island with such depressing fare as provided by Kafka, Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, and Koestler.

The parallels between Darkness at Noon and (the later) 1984 are particularly strong, both dealing (at least in large measure) with the interrogation, torture and breakdown of one man by another. Koestler - who wrote earlier, just before the Second World War - even goes so far as to remark that the one thing the totalitarian state does not do to maintain the illusion of its own righteousness is to doctor the back issues of its newspapers, which is of course Winston's occupation in 1984.

While 1984 is set in a fictional dictatorship, Darkness at Noon is set in the real world contemporary with its date of writing. The main character, Rubashov, is fictional, but he is a companion of Lenin from the days of the Russian Revolution who has become disillusioned through the rule of Stalin. (Neither Lenin nor Stalin is given his real name, but it is clear who is represented by both "the Founder" and "No. 1".) Rubashov's main problem is with the cynical traty between Stalin and Hitler, and the way that this seems a betrayal of the Communist cause, not just to him but to members of the party cells that he works with outside Russia. His time in prison and the torture he undergoes - sleep deprivation, interrogations at unexpected times, refusal of medical treatment, bright lights and so on - makes him think about his life, his dedication to Communism and where it all went wrong.

In short, Darkness at Noon is a perceptive novel, though a depressing one. Like all this style of work, it is about human nature under great stress, and uses this to show us things about ourselves.

Having written the main part of this review before discovering the existence of the allegations about Koestler's life (basically, that he was a serial rapist), I was in two minds about whether I should put it up. In the end, I felt that this novel was a major piece of work, whatever the personal life of the author. I do not condone his actions, which hardly seem to have been those of a normal member of society. I end up dithering between the point of view that his private life and his art are separate things, so that one can be ignored while enjoying the other; and the view that there is a close connection between them, and that enjoying one is condoning the other.

Wednesday 28 October 1998

Steven Weinberg: Dreams of a Final Theory (1992)

Dreams of a Final Theory coverEdition: Radius, 1992
Review number: 149

Steven Weinberg, winner of the Nobel prize in physics for his work on elementary particle theory, wrote this book while involved in the campaign by American physicists to obtain a grant for the Superconducting Super-Collider (SSC). This campaign colours the book, a lot of it being Weiberg's responses to the type of questions both physicists and non-physicists asked about the project and its aims, or an outcome of his own background thought as he marshalled his arguments for his testimony to the Congress committee involved.

Because of the nature of the project, however, the book goes far beyond arguments for one particular particle accelerator. For the SSC was intended to test theories of the fundamental nature of the universe in which we live, to help physicists formulate a final theory, or "theory of everything". Thus the kind of questions which are being asked include: What do physicists mean by a final theory? What indications are there that such a theory may exist? How close are we to one? What sort of things might such a theory say? How could we tell it is indeed final? What would be the role of God in a universe governed by such a theory?

The last question is the one which is always asked by non-physicists, though it is perhaps not so interesting as some of the others, from either a philosophical or scientific viewpoint. Weinberg has written this book as an attempt to answer all these questions from the point of view of a professional physicist; he doesn't pretend to a vast understanding of the academic philosophy of science, the vast majority of which is seen as of no use or interest to those involved in scientific research. Indeed, some sociological analyses of science are positively inimical to the practice of research, because they assert that accepted scientific theories are a purely human construct, with no relationship to "truth" or "reality" (whatever these terms may be taken to mean). There clearly is some cultural influence on devising and interpreting experiments, but there is no motivation for doing so if you believe that there is no other factor involved. Such sociological theories have the same problem as naively expressed logical positivism - their pre-suppositions are destroyed by their application to themselves. In other words, the idea that scientific research is a cultural phenomenon should apply to itself, assuming that sociologists believe that what they do is scientific (and I believe that they do). (The statement that has the same problem in logical positivism is the idea that only verifiable statements should be considered as true - a statement which is not verifiable.)

The fact that in the end the battle for continued funding for the SSC was lost does not mean that this is a book only of interest in the mid-nineties. In the end, the debate was more an example to be quoted in the book and a motivation for writing it than its absolute centre; the questions it raised and Weinberg's discussion are of far wider interest.

Christopher Stasheff: Her Majesty's Wizard (1986)

Her Majesty's Wizard coverEdition: Legend, 1995
Review number: 150

There has been a subgenre of light fantasy as long as there has been fantasy. The novels in this subgenre have an air of gentle humour and some elements of parody, though the comedy is not usually so broad as in the currently more fashionable novels of Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt and Craig Shaw Gardner. In my opinion, the master of such fantasy, generally written by Americans, was L. Sprague de Camp; more recent books of this type include Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom series, the dragon books of Gordon R. Dickson and Piers Anthony's Xanth series.

Her Majesty's Wizard is particularly reminiscent of Dickson's The Dragon and His George with a dash of Alan Dean Foster's Spellsinger. It tells the story of Matt, a second-rate graduate student at an American university, who abandons his research to try and decipher a fragment of parchment which has accidentally come into his possession. As he finally cracks its peculiar linguistic structure, he finds himself magically transported into a world where the recital of verse acts as a magic spell.

This is a pretty typical opening for this kind of novel. Generally, the novel does not stray far from the paradigm, but where Stasheff differs from every other fantasy writer I have ever read is in the way he takes the Catholicism of a medieval setting seriously. In some ways he is not quite successful in this - the ease with which the prayer of a churchman affects events causes some problems in the plot - but it makes the mindset of his characters a lot closer to those in the ultimate source material of a fantasy novel, the medieval romances about Arthur, Charlemagne and so on. He is able to avoid the embarrassment about religious issues which makes so much fantasy rather coy on the subject; it is really unusual to see religion given something of the place it had in the medieval mindset. I particularly liked the way that the Catholic sacrament of confession was given such a strong and influential role, as it maybe should be in works based around a society in which every important person would have their own confessor.

Tuesday 27 October 1998

Lindsey Davis: Three Hands in the Fountain (1996)

Three Hands in the Fountain coverEdition: Century, 1997
Review number: 148

Three Hands in the Fountain is a slightly disappointing addition to the generally excellent series of Falco novels by Davis. Returning to Rome following an investigation in Spain and the birth there of his daughter (A Dying Light in Cordoba), Falco soon becomes involved in one of the most gruesome mysteries of his career when decomposing severed limbs begin to be found in Rome's drinking water supplies.

The mystery is to the same standard as in the other Falco novels, but to me the humour that was so enjoyable is missing here. This is partly because Falco's girlfriend, Helena, takes a far less prominent role in proceedings, being rather more taken up with the duties of motherhood in Roman society. It also perhaps indicates something of a "series fatigue" in Davis; maybe it is time for her to move on. (The problem is not, of course, unique to this series; it is a commonplace of genre fiction, where the financial incentives to continue recycling a proven formula often mean that it is used until after the author has anything new to say within it. Ngaio Marsh, for example, seemed to suffer from this problem every seven or eight books, though she solved it not by abandoning her well-worn characters but by introducing a new element.)

Graham Greene: Travels With My Aunt (1969)

Edition: Hamlyn
Review number: 147

Henry Pulling meets his Aunt Augusta at his mother's funeral, after many years without seeing her. Travels With My Aunt is the account of how she inexorably drags him into her strange, hedonistic lifestyle, a lifestyle more generally associated with teenagers than with a woman in her eighties and her retired bank manager nephew. In her company, he travels bemusedly, first to Istanbul on the Orient Express, becoming involved with drugs and currency smugglers. In Aunt Augusta, Greene has created one of the great eccentric characters of modern fiction, with a wry humourous touch. Travels With My Aunt reads like a gentler version of one of Joe Orton's plays.

The book - and, indeed, musical and film - it reminds me most strongly of is Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame and its sequel, Round the World With Auntie Mame. While both the main characters in these books are considerably younger than those in Travels With My Aunt (the narrator of Auntie Mame is, at the beginning, a schoolboy), the similarities are quite obvious. Since Auntie Mame was published in 1955 and Travels With My Aunt in 1969, it is likely that Greene at one point thought it would be fun to write a similar book but with the characters a lot older. There is certainly more pathos in a man of fifty discovering the world for the first time than there is in the similar experiences of a teenager.

Ngaio Marsh: Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954)

Edition: Fontana, 1973
Review number: 146

Much though I think Ngaio Marsh writes better when she goes beyond the standard situations of the crime genre, Spinsters in Jeopardy doesn't really work. It is a thriller rather than a detective story; the identities of the bad guys are known from the start and it is just a matter of accumulating evidence, which is done by infiltrating their headquarters - a medieval castle now the home of an exotic cult which is a cover for a drugs cartel - and catching them in their vile activities. In fact, she has exchanged the conventional gestures of Agatha Christie for those of second-rate thirties thrillers, and she should really have left them alone.

Aside from this, Spinsters in Jeopardy has a distinctly stereotypical view of the French character, which reminds one of more chauvinistic writes such as Christie, and it also suffers by reusing several elements from earlier - and superior - Marsh novel about a conman running a cult as a front for drug smuggling (Death in Ecstasy).

All in all, this is one of her books that is perhaps best avoided.

Friday 23 October 1998

John Brunner: The Jagged Orbit (1972)

Edition: Arrow, 1972
Review number: 145

Brunner's four most famous novels take an aspect of today's society and exaggerate it, to create dystopias which are compelling because of the way they relate to our fears for the future. Stand on Zanzibar, the best known, is about the population explosion; The Sheep Look Up environmental pollution; Shockwave Rider computers and privacy; and Jagged Orbit race relations. They all use a similar technique, with news items interrupting the narrative and with a strong involvement from whistle-blowing academics. The Sheep Look Up and Jagged Orbit even share a character, the idiot US president Prexy, whom I have been told is an exaggerated picture of Ronald Reagan, then governor of California.

Of the four, Jagged Orbit perhaps works least well. It doesn't match the power of Stand on Zanzibar, the chilling realism of The Sheep Look Up or the narrative interest of Shockwave Rider. It has the interesting difference that as well as including fictional news stories from 2018, when it is set, it has chapters which are reprints of real news stories from 1968, concerning race riots and what might be done about them. Brunner's idea is that nothing is done to help the disadvantaged non-white population of America's innner cities, which leads to increasing militancy and eventually an arms race as arms dealers begin to exploit the market potential provided by individuals terrified by the threat of the other side of the racial divide.

The reason that Jagged Orbit is less successful is that the plot depends on the introduction of two far fetched elements, which are not given the meticulous background of the rest of the novel. These are a woman whose mind interferes with television broadcasts and a time-travelling computer. Neither would be impossible in a science-fiction novel, but the lack of justification given them compared to everything else is a big problem, making them appear to be random devices introduced only to provide an ending to an out-of-hand plot line.

Despite the careless plot, Jagged Orbit is worth reading for is mainly convincing background and its spirited attack on racism.

André Gide: Fruits of the Earth / New Fruits of the Earth (1897/1935)

Edition: Penguin, 1970
Review number: 144

Fruits of the Earth is a strange little book - or, in this edition, two books, since New Fruits of the Earth is also included. Forty years separate the two parts, the first being written in Gide's twenties and the second in the late 1930s during his Communist phase. They both have a similar structure, consisting of anecdotes, poetry and exhortation apparently aimed at a certain Nathaniel, the personification of the reader. (The name is actually rejected in the second part as too mournful, a comment which I was unable to find a justification for looking in the Bible, the original source for it.) The purpose of the writing is to give instruction on a philosophy of life, a subject that Gide felt qualified to write about at such a young age because he had recently recovered from near-fatal tuberculosis.

The philosophy Gide is seeking to put forward us a kind of hedonism; it rejects the sophisticated urban pleasures, however, and counsels a joy in the simple things of life, particularly the countryside. The method Gide uses is a literary rather than pedagogic one; his most stringent exhortation is extremely poetic. In this, he comes across as the opposite in talents to Sartre, whose literature frequently fails to come across as anything more than propagandist exhortation.

The writers who most frequently came to my mind as I read this excellent, though strangely unattributed, translation, are D.H. Lawrence and Joris-Karl Huysmans, because of the subject matter, and Lawrence Durrell, because of the style. It also read as I would expect French poetry at the turn of the century to read, though my French is certainly not up to reading poetry. Done as well as this, the book is a better argument for its worldview than any logical exposition; it was certainly a stimulating yet comfortable one to read.

Thursday 22 October 1998

John Gielgud: An Actor and His Time (1979)

An Actor and His Time coverEdition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 143

John Gielgud's memoir covers roughly the first sixty years of his life, and is adapted from a series of radio talks. A large part of the book is taken up with Gielgud's impressions of the other actors he met during this period, beginning with those from his grandmother's famous family, the Terrys. (A major part of the adaptation to book form is the addition of comprehensive notes detailing the careers of the actors mentioned; very useful if you don't know a great deal about the famous actors of the early part of the twentieth century.)

Gielgud is unfailingly modest about his own talents and generous about those of others. As a writer, he is better at - and clearly more interested in - recounting amusing anecdotes than in detailed analysis of acting technique. This is particularly the case in dealing with his own career; he is not introspective in the least. This is not a real problem; if you want insight into how an actor carrys out his craft, this is not the book you would choose to read. The anecdotes are delightful and well-told, and it is valuable to have a record of the memories of one who through the length of his career and his family connections provides a link with a long bygone age of the British theatre.

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenin (1876)

Translation: Rosemary Edmonds, 1954
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 142

This novel is one of those which is pointed out as the greatest novel every written. It is the quintessence of the Russian psychological novel, stripped of the melodrama of Dostoyevsky and having more to say than Turgenev (and not being heavy on extraneous military history like Tolstoy's other great novel, War and Peace.

It is essentially the story of the psychological development of two characters, Anna herself and Constantine Levin, in many ways a self-portrait of Tolstoy. They are connected through their various relationships with the Scherbatsky family. Levin's best friend, Oblinsky, is married to the middle of the three Scherbatsky sisters, Dolly, and he himself is in love with the youngest, Kitty. But Kitty prefers a younger, more dashing suitor, the soldier Vronsky.

Anna is also a friend of the Oblonskys, and she undertakes to reconcile the two of them following an estrangement which occurs when Dolly discovers that her husband is unfaithful. In the process of doing so, the encounters Vronsky, and the violence of their attraction to each other provides the focus of the novel. Anna abandons her husband and son to live with Vronsky and carry on a fatal affair, which ruins both of them in society and brings great unhappiness as well as a measure of fulfilment.

As has been mentioned, Tolstoy is principally interested in the psychological development of his characters, as he chronicles Anna's disintegration and Levin's parallel growth in maturity following his eventual marriage to the jilted Kitty. The structure of the novel highlights the parallel events in their development, even though they are headed in opposite directions. Levin's story also shares many episodes with Tolstoy's own, and we share something of his increasing understanding of the Russian character as Tolstoy saw it at this period of his life. The chapters dealing with Levin's attempts to modernise his estate are just as important in this as his relationship with his wife.

Tolstoy's genius is such that he keeps your interest for almost three hundred chapters; you are left with an intimate knowledge of a small group of people and the relationships between them.

Julian May: The Adversary (1984)

Edition: Pan, 1984
Review number: 141

In the final book of the Saga of the Exiles series, the rebel metapsychic Marc Remeillard plays a large part; the title of the novel itself is one of his nicknames. His children, and the others of their generation, inhabiting the small settlement set up by the rebels, have gone to Europe, with the intention of setting up a copy of the time gate at the Pleistocene end so that they can return to the future. They were too young to have been involved in the rebellion, and hope for acceptance by the Concilium which rules the human polity.

Marc, however, has his own plans for them The roots of his disagreement with the Concilium were his plans for Mental Man, an entity purely of the mind. He wanted to accelerate human evolution to achieve this, using his own genes as a basis (as a member of the strongest human family of metapsychics, with a unique gene giving self-rejuvenation, he was a not unreasonable choice). But the death of his wife in the fighting occasioned by his refusal to accept the Concilium decision to discontinue his research led to a psychological infertility (his germ plasm no longer appeared to be fertile). Thus his plans relied on the availability of germ plasm from his children, hence his determination not to let them travel six million years into the future. He has been unable to bring himself to tell them, partly because he doesn't know what he would do in case of refusal, and partly because he hopes he himself might recover.

Naturally, the various factions with political interest in the Many-Coloured Land all wish to explot this scenario for their own ends. This provides the main interest of the novel.

Friday 16 October 1998

Dornford Yates: Fire Below (1930)

Edition: Dent, 1988
Review number: 140

Fire Below is one of Dent's series of Classic Thrillers, reprints of the best of their back catalogue from the twenties and thirties. I have yet to pick up a member of this series which does not equal its best modern counterparts; and the thrillers often seem less dated than many written in the seventies.

I've not read any Dornford Yates before, and Fire Below has the distinct air of a sequel, with several references to earlier adventures. (When the series originally started, the re-issues all contained an introduction telling you something about the author and this novel in relation to the rest of his work; Dent have obviously stopped doing this.) It is strongly influenced by the Ruritanian novels of Anthony Hope, being the story of the involvement of a pair of upper class English gentlemen in the affairs of the fictional mid-European grand duchy of Riechtenburg. (It is even possible to trace a close correspondence between most of the main characters and those of A Prisoner of Zenda.)

Richard Chandos is married to Leonie, the Grand Duchess, who rejected the ruler of Riechtenburg, Prince Paul, to who she was destined to be married had he not turned out to be a cowardly blackguard. The story of this marriage is the earlier adventure referred to.

Unable to go to Riechtenburg because of Prince Paul's emnity, the couple are holidaying on one of Leonie's estates just over the border in Austria, with their friend George Hanbury. There they have arranged to meet up with Marya Countess Dresden of Salm, a friend still remaining in Riechtenburg. They receive a telegram from Marya saying she won't be coming and warning of an obscure danger. This telegram immediately gets Richard and George to smuggle themselves across the border, so they can go to Marya and help her escape from this danger. It is only when they reach her house and she tells them that she never sent the telegram that they realise that they have walked into a trap set by Prince Paul.

Thursday 15 October 1998

Anne Fleming: Death and Deconstruction (1995)

Edition: Robert Hale, 1995
Review number:  139

Death and Deconstruction has a setting which probably seems excellent for a detective novel: the annual conference of a prestigious literary society full of eccentrics, the Coleridge and Other Romantic Poets Society (known to its members as the RPS but not using the full initials CORPS which is obviously intended as a joke). At a hotel near Norman Abbey (where Byron lived), a group of individuals with nothing in common but an obsession with romantic poetry meet up; an ideal place for feuds and academic jealousies to flare up.

Before this particular conference, the society has been affected by a series of dangerous or embarrassing hoaxes and tricks - the sinking of a boat during a trip to Venice, an extra speaker invited to give a talk, destroyed manuscripts belonging to members. Sophie Charter, peripherally involved with the society, persuades her ex-husband John, a policeman and the hero of two books by Anne Fleming already, to go along to the conference incognito to try to find out what's happening.

The problem is that despite being a third published novel and with a subject close to the author's heart (she has been on the committee of the real-life Byron Society), Death and Deconstruction is very badly written. The accounts of the hoaxes are unconvincing, the strange characters in the society distinctly overdone, the academics exaggerated (you especially get the impression of a bee in the bonnet about feminist Marxist criticism). Even the quotations heading each chapter would have been better left out; not even a majority are from romantic poets as would be most appropriate. The quotes mainly come from Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets, which gives an air of a desperate search in a book of quotations. The best quotation, rather taken out of context, is Sir Thomas Browne's "I love to lose myself in a good mystery".

Literary conferences are not uncommon places to set mysteries; there are many better ones than this to choose from. My favourite is also possibly the silliest, Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb, a spoof set at a science fiction convention.

C.S. Forester: Flying Colours (1938)

Edition: Penguin, 1965
Review number: 138

This Hornblower novel follows on immediately from The Happy Return, at the end of which he had been forced to run down his colours and surrender following the death of three-quarters of his crew in an attempt to bring victory for his admiral, the husband of his beloved Barbara. Thus, Flying Colours opens with Hornblower imprisoned by the French, along with the remainder of his crew. Finally, the order arrives for his transfer to Paris, where he and Liuetenant Bush will face trial for piracy followed by death before the firing squad. During a difficult journey (for Bush is still recovering from a wound received in the battle as a result of which he has lost the lower half of one leg), the two officers and the coxwain Brown brought as a servant to them manage to escape.

The remainder of the novel tells of their journey as fugitives across France while Hornblower torments himself with the knowledge that even should they get back to England, he will still face a court martial because of his surrender.

While not the greatest Hornblower novel, and lacking the interest brought through the detailed description of shipboard life and the excitement of the war at sea, Flying Colours still exhibits the qualities which mark out the series as a whole - the attention to the authentic background, the well drawn characters of Bush and particularly Hornblower himself.

Ann Granger: A Touch of Mortality (1996)

Edition: Headline, 1996
Review number: 137

A Touch of Mortality is another of Ann Granger's well-written Mitchell and Markby crime novels, in much the same vein as the others in the series. It's basically a case of like one, like all. By this point in the series, the relationship between the protagonists is well-established, so there is less about that here and more to establish the puzzle.

Like the others, A Touch of Mortality is a village murder, a successor to those Miss Marple mysteries which were actually set in St Mary Mead. The village setting here is not the gentry and vicars world of Agatha Christie's novels, but a nineties village with modern problems of rural poverty, overspill housing estates and resented outsiders with money.

The central characters in this novel are Sally Caswell and her husband Liam. They have moved from London into the country for peace and quiet for Liam to write a book. She works in an auction house in a local town and he is a biologist at an institute of Oxford University. Because of (now finished) experiments on animals, Liam starts receiving threatening letters from animal rights activists, but it is not until Sally opens a parcel that turns out to be a letter bomb that they involve the police in the person of Alan Markby.

Other than an over-reliance on coincidence common in crime novel series - it's incredibly dangerous to be a friend of Meredith Mitchell - there is nothing to really criticise in this well-written novel.

Wednesday 14 October 1998

Molière: The Would-Be Gentleman (1670)

Translation: John Wood, 1953
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 136

Molière's delightful exposé of the world of the rich bourgeois aspiring to take a place in upper class society never fails to delight. M. Jourdain is so anxious to fit into that society where he never can; he will always be an outsider there because he is only aping a way of life which the others above him have led from the cradle. He would be better off to imitate the Boffins in Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, who continue to talk of their disreputable trade in fashionable drawing rooms because it is inconceivable to them that the dust heaps could fail to be an object of passionate interest.

The Would-be Gentleman is certainly not perfect; it is really a series of sketches, almost as though Molière was writing a series of treatments for a sit-com season. This is because of a distinct lack of overall plot, the main plot seeming almost tacked on. This is the courtship between Cléonte and Jourdain's daughter Lucille. Jourdain refuses to allow Cléonte to marry her because he comes from Jourdain's old background; he wants Lucille to marry a noble. Cléonte takes advantage of Jourdain's extreme snobbishness by disguising himself as a Turkish prince who has heard of Lucille's famous beauty.

The best parts of the play are the episodes at the beginning, completely independent from the Cléonte/Lucille plot, concerning Jourdain's attempts to better himself at the hands of his dancing master, music master, fencing master and a philosopher. Molière makes much comedy from his lack of aptitude for these arts, which is only equalled by his incomprehension of them. (They include the famous scene in which Jourdain is amazed to discover that he has been speaking prose all his life, when he thought he was just talking.)

In a later age, Molière would surely have integrated these scenes more closely with what comes later, and into the overall plot of the drama. Since The Would-Be Gentleman is actually quite a short play, this could have been acheived without losing anything; but the tightly plotted farce was not Molière's genre, and we must be grateful for what his genius did leave us.

Tuesday 13 October 1998

Hanif Kureishi: The Black Album (1995)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1995
The Black Album cover
Review number: 135

Like Kureishi's earlier novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, The Black Album deals with the issues surrounding growing up in London as a young man of Asian background. It is set just over a decade later, in the summer of 1989. It is a darker novel; the setting is rather more sordid (student digs in Kilburn rather than a rich house in West London), and the forces of racism against Sahid are now matched by the growing strength of Islamic fundamentalism, in the year that the fatwah was declared against Salman Rushdie.  

The clash between Islam and Western liberal culture is one of the main themes of the novel. As a student, Sahid is being taught the value of the intellect, that censorship is a crime, and the vague Marxism common among British intellectuals. At the college, there is a group of Islamic fundamentalists; to begin with, Sahid values being part of their group, as it is putting him in touch with the religion and culture of his forbears (though, as his sister-in-law reminds him, the upper classes in Pakistan viewed Islam mainly as a way to keep the lower classes under control). The third force in his life is the drug culture which came out of the raves that made 1988 known as a second 'summer of love'.

The forces confusing Sahid are symbolised and concentrated in the three most important people in his life: his tutor and lover Deidre (Deedee) Osgood; Riaz, the guru of the Islamic group' and Chili, his brother. His conflicting loyalties come to a head over a demonstration by the students at which the Satanic Verses is to be burned; this arouses Sahid's unhappiness with some of the ideas of Riaz's group, as a book lover and an admirer of Rushdie's earlier Midnight's Children. The tensions this creates lead to the group discovering his relationship with Deedee and the drug taking, neither considered to be actions appropriate for a committed fundamentalist Muslim.

It is clear that Kureishi has little sympathy for the fundamentalists; this antipathy of a provocative author of fiction towards anyone who advocates book-burning is understandable. It is quite easy to provoke contempt for them in his readers - a scene where one of the other members of the group asks Sahid to tell him what value a book has, and responses to the reply that they make you think by questioning the value of thinking is one example. The novel generally is a convincing portrayal of the rootlessness probably felt by many British Asians.

The title comes from an album by Prince, itself a response to the Beatles' White Album, proclaiming his own racial identity.

Monday 12 October 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Opening Night (1951)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 133
Revised:  21/01/2000 (Thanks to Kevin Davenport for pointing out errors in the original version of this review)

Opening Night, something of a return to form for Ngaio Marsh after a series of somewhat disappointing stories, is closely related to the short story I Can Find My Way Out, with which it shares a setting. Following the murder at the Dolphin Theatre which is the subject of the earlier story, it has lain empty for the best part of fifteen years. In the superstitious business of acting, nobody wanted to reopen such an unlucky theatre.

Eventually, it is acquired by well-known actor Adam Poole, to put on a new play by the distinguished author John James Rutherford. He is joined in this by Helena Hamilton, famous as the leading lady to many of Adam Poole's performances though rather older, and her husband, the once great now alcoholic actor Clark Bennington, resentful of the old love affair between Adam and Helena.

The play calls for an actress who resembles Adam, and Bennington insists that his neice Gay Gainsford is cast. This suits no one other than Bennington, for she is not interested in the type of symbolical drama Rutherford writes, is helplessly out of her depth, unhappy about having to change her appearance to more closely resembly Adam (whom she is not very like and finds it difficult to give the impression of resembling by apparently unconsciously copying his mannerisms on stage). She was far happier playing in regional rep, doing parts she could understand and which suited her. She becomes even more uneasy after the appearance on the scene of Martyn Tarne.

Martyn Tarne, a young actress from New Zealand seeking work in London, is really the main character in the novel, which is told from her point of view (though in the third person). She is distantly related to Adam, but doesn't wish to presume on their kinship, so that his theatre is the last that she goes to looking for work. She has missed the auditions, but overhears a conversation by chance and volunteers to replace Helena's usual dresser, who is ill.

That in itself would not be a problem, but she rather unfortunately possesses a startling resemblance to Adam, sufficiently so to provoke rumours that she may be a result of a love affair of Adam's from a tour of New Zealand twenty years ago. Her appearance and her aptitude for the part earn her the role of Gay's understudy, and pressure mounts for her to play the part outright, particularly from Rutherford. This culminates when Gay refuses to go on for the first night, and Martyn has a great triumph.

The theatrical fairy story is immediately overshadowed by the death in his dressing room of Bennington, in a marder got up to look like a suicide inspired by the earlier Dolphin murder.

Perhaps a little on the soft-centred side to rank with Marsh's best novels, Opening Night is nevertheless an excellent example of the crime fiction genre; reading it is an enjoyable experience.