Tuesday 31 March 1998

Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances

Edition: Everyman
Contents: Erec et Enide, Cligés, Yvain and Lancelot 
Translation: W.W. Comfort, 1914
Review number: 16

This Everyman volume contains the four romances Erec et Enide, Cligés, Yvain and Lancelot, translated into prose. It's always interesting to read the early source material for the Arthur legends. Although I had read both the Mabinogion and Malory's Morte d'Arthur, these romances were new to me, though they are even earlier than the Welsh legends and I had known their importance for ages.

One of the most interesting parts of these tales is the way that the attempts made by Chrétien to remove the more grossly supernatural Celtic legends in his source material (trips to the underworld, encounters with Celtic deities) has led to the introduction of small inconsistencies and justifications which later turn into important parts of the legend.

There are two difficulties in reading these stories. The first is that they are written throughout in the present tense, which to a modern reader is rather clumsy and wearing. The second is the translation, which is not into modern English, but into the sort of English which Ivanhoe made generations think the right way of writing medieval English. (I've expanded on what I think of this in my review of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sir Nigel.)

The stories themselves concern standard ideas from the Arthurian background; Erec et Enide is about a knight who becomes sufficiently uxorious to neglect his knightly duties; Cligés and Lancelot concern young men seeking to prove themselves as knights; and Yvain is a balance to Erec et Enide, about a knight who neglects his wife for jousting.

Friday 27 March 1998

Leslie Charteris: The Saint Abroad (1969)

Edition: New English Library
Review number: 15

This is one of the later Saint books, based on the TV series (Roger Moore period) rather than coming before it. It contains two novellas, The Art Collectors and The Persistent Patriots; both were among the better TV episodes. However, like the other late books, Leslie Charteris neither wrote the screenplays nor adapted them for the book. He was never a man who believed in doing anything when someone else was willing to do it for him.

The Art Collectors is about a young woman who is trying to sell some old masters looted by her father during the war. Pretty much everyone she meets is trying to get hold of the pictures without paying, until Simon Templar lends a hand. It is quite absurd - a collection of five old masters more or less randomly acquired contains no previously documented works, and this seems to me rather unlikely. The number of different groups involved also makes the whole thing rather farcical.

The Persistent Patriots concerns assassination and blackmail attempts on the leader of an African country during a visit to London and how Simon Templar foils them and lays bare the plot behind them. While not overtly racist, the fact that this leader is white and that he is described as the sort of strong leader that Africa needs is now a bit close to that. However, it should be remembered that at the time it was a common perception in the former colonial powers that independence for many countries was an invitation for them to descend into anarchy. It remains one of the less creditable stories to appear under Charteris' name, particularly given his earlier attacks on the far right.

Neither story is particularly original in plot, but they are easy and fun to read. My advice to anyone who wants to read the Saint is to aim for the early books, which are very much better. Try The Saint in New York for a very good example.

Tuesday 24 March 1998

Robert A. Heinlein: I Will Fear No Evil (1970)

Edition: New English Library, 1972

This long, latish Heinlein novel is a below-standard example of this period of his writing. It has an interesting, classic, science-fiction premise: it is the story of a rich old man who arranges an experimental brain transplant to try and avoid death, only to discover himself waking up in the body of a beautiful young woman. The theme of human interaction with, and response to, the challenges of new technology is at the very heart of much science fiction, particularly from the immediate post-war period when Heinlein really began to be a major force in the SF world.

The problem with this book is not with the theme but with Heinlein's treatment of it. He has the attitude toward sex of a twelve year old boy, and this seriously distorts the motivation of the main character. He brings in, without any justification, an idea of the survival of the mind which makes it possible for the transplanted brain to have internal conversations with the mind of the woman whose body it now inhabits. These conversations really highlight the paucity of Heinlein's ideas about human character. Basically, the woman goes around having sex with anyone she can get hold of, and the mind of the former occupant reassures the new mind that this is the normal state of affairs.

Bad as things are, they get worse when her new husband is killed, and his mind joins the two of them...

It would help if there was at least some attempt at a justification of some of this, but none is given at all. I quite enjoyed it when I first read it, when I was about 13, but re-reading it now has persuaded me to donate it to the nearest charity shop.

Thursday 19 March 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Artists in Crime (1938)

Edition: Fontana, 1978
Review number: 13

Like Vintage Murder, this seems to me to be one of the very best of Ngaio Marsh's detective novels. By the time this book came out, the characters in her series (Alleyn, Fox, Bathgate and so on) were well-established, old friends. In Artists in Crime, another important series character is introduced, the painter Agatha Troy.

As so often happens in Ngaio Marsh's stories, one of the series characters interacts with one of the new characters before the murder happens. This follows on directly from the previous novel in the series, Vintage Murder, as the interaction takes place on the ship on which Alleyn returns from New Zealand to England. One of his fellow travellers is the artist Agatha Troy.

On her return to England, Troy is running a school for several pupils. It is at this school that the murder takes place; of the model they are using. She is a particularly infuriating person, and manages to severely annoy just about everyone. She defaces one of Troy's best portraits, is such a difficult sitter for another portrait that it has to be abandoned, is blackmailing at least one of the pupils, is pregnant by another; basically, no one is really going to miss her.

The way in which she is murdered is typical of Marsh; a trap is laid which leads to the actual murder being committed by someone who didn't necessary set the trap (similar plots where the actual killer may not be the murderer include Enter a Murderer, for example).

The book includes one of the most unpleasant murdered bodies in the whole of classic detective fiction, but otherwise is an impeccable example of the art at its very best.

Tuesday 17 March 1998

Arthur Conan Doyle: Sir Nigel (1906)

Edition: John Murray
Review number: 12

Of all Arthur Conan Doyle's works, this one has perhaps aged least well. It's set in the Middle Ages, or, rather, it's set in a world imitating that of Scott's Ivanhoe. It seems today very in-authentic, particularly in the speech and descriptions.

Sir Nigel is the story of a young man, Nigel Loring, of noble birth but reduced circumstances, who sets out to win renown equal to his ancestors' and to do three deeds worthy of his lady love. He travels to France as squire to Sir John Chandos, and takes part in Edward III's French wars, where he wins renown and does brave deeds.

Nigel is a most annoying young man. He is not terribly intelligent; indeed, his choice of fiancée is probably the only remotely intelligent act he performs throughout the book. Even then, it is only by chance that this happens, for he prefers the sister, who is dishonoured through her own flirtatiousness at the crucial moment.

Nigel's big problem is his excessive devotion to the epics of chivalry. Even though the virtues of chivalry were still admired in principle by the fourteenth century, they were rarely used in practice in the warfare of the time, which was as savage as any before or since. Indeed, following medieval accounts of the battles of the French wars, which Doyle at least does, means that actions of extreme barbarism are excused by warping the chivalric ideals. In fact, there are occasions in this novel where a practice is condemned on one page when practiced by brigands, but this condemnation is ignored and the results of it praised when perpetrated by the English soldiers only a few pages later.

I remember quite enjoying this book when I first read it at the age of thirteen or so; now that I have read more widely (particularly Chaucer and Malory) and grown up a bit, I found it difficult to take to. My feeling now is that there are Conan Doyle novels better forgotten, and this is one of them. Stick to the Sherlock Holmes series, or Lost World, or the Firm of Girdlestone.

Monday 16 March 1998

Michael Innes: Silence Observed (1961)

Edition: Gollancz, 1961
Review number: 11

The only other Michael Innes novel I have read to date is Operation Pax, which reminded me strongly of some of J.B.Priestley's thrillers, though I felt that Innes' pace was rather less well-crafted than Priestley's, particularly in the first half of the book. This novel, however, even though it shares the same detective, Sir John Appleby, reminds me rather more of one of Margery Allingham's Campion novels. Again, this resemblance is most marked in the early chapters, where Appleby acts in a most Campionesque (if there is such a word) manner.

Two people approach Appleby in his club one evening, with curious tales of the art world - one is a collector of forgeries, whose latest acquisition is a forgery of the work of a famous forger; the other is a respected dealer who has just been offered a previously unknown Rembrandt. This second man has a young assistant, who over the next two days is twice discovered with newly shot corpses, revolver in hand.

The book is certainly more along thriller lines than puzzle lines. There are not enough people seriously involved to make it difficult to work out the identity of the villain. By today's standards, the book is very gentle as a thriller, which makes it a pleasant, relaxing read.

Peter Cotterell: Is God Helpless? - Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (1996)

Edition: SPCK, 1996
Review number: 10

The author, formerly head of London Bible College is well qualified to write a book on a Christian view of suffering, having been a missionary in Ethiopia at the time of the famine there. He comes over as a lot more sensitive than a lot of authors on this subject, and I found the book a helpful read.

I didn't agree with all he had to say, particularly not his ideas on hell and judgment. This doesn't mean that he was un-Biblical, more that I find the traditional idea of judgment difficult to accept emotionally. It was interesting to see his own emotions disagreeing with his intellectual conclusion; although he ended up supporting a fairly traditional viewpoint, most of his arguments were in favour of
destruction rather than everlasting punishment.

Cotterell is particularly keen to refute any view of suffering which denies its reality or which assigns its cause to a righteous God of anger. This is one of the reasons why this book is valuable, as the first of often put forward in a disguised fashion to explain the second, and neither is terribly helpful.

Thursday 12 March 1998

Jean-Paul Sartre: Les Mouches (1943)

Translation: As The Flies by Stuart Gilbert, 1946
Edition: Penguin, 1960

The Flies is a three act play telling the same story as Sophocles' Electra, but from a thoroughly twentieth century point of view. The familiar story concerns the return from exile and revenge by Orestes of the murder of his father, Agamemnon, by his mother and her lover (Clytemnestra and Aegisthus). For his murder of his mother, he faces punishment by the Furies (or Flies), who are the mythological guardians of the family.

In Sartre's version of the story, the kingdom of Argos has become a place of permanent penitence, where the people bewail their sins in an atmosphere full of flies, showing their corruption. The gods encourage this, realising the value to them of a nation that is truly "god-fearing". Zeus, transformed from his role in Greek myth as king of the gods and ruler of the sky, visits Argos as god of the dead and of flies. The purpose of his visit is to dissuade Orestes from his attack on Clytemnestra and Aegisthus.

Orestes is already not very keen on revenge; he feels that he has no reason to care for Argos (having been brought up in comfort in pleasant Athens); he feels nothing but disgust for what he sees of the lifestyle followed in Argos. It is only when he speaks to his sister, Electra, who is treated as a servant in the palace, and when Zeus tries to dissuade him, that he actually decides to go ahead.

The play is basically an attack on the idea of religion as Sartre saw it, and particularly on the idea of religious guilt. The gods are presented as immoral beings who delight in human suffering, which brings people back to belief in them. Orestes makes his choice without reference to the gods and begins the process by which rationality defeats and destroys religion. He uses his unbelief to defeat the Furies; he alone is the judge of his conduct.

Sartre has basically made religion out to be something easy to discredit, and proceeds to discredit it. It is all to easy, too glib to be at all convincing.

Georgette Heyer: Behold, Here's Poison (1936)

Edition: HarperCollins
Review number: 9

This seems to be one of the best of Georgette Heyer's dozen or so detective novels (I haven't read quite all of them, so I can't be definite about it.) It has a much better plot than most of her novels in this genre, though it still doesn't live up to the motto they still insist on putting on her detective novels even today ("Queen of Mystery and Suspense" - a title that could be far better applied to any of Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers among Heyer's contemporaries).

The Matthews family are an unpleasant group of people with whom it is difficult to feel any sympathy. The murder victim, Gregory Matthews, is an overbearing old man prone to blackmail, who lives with his miserly sister, avaricious sister-in-law and her two children. One of these, Stella, is the only remotely likeable member of the family, along her cousin Randall. Randall is more intelligent than the lot of them put together, and he alternately helps and hinders the police before a solution is arrived at. The puzzle is fairly clever, and the solution unexpected.

The title, by the way, is from Shakespeare's Pericles, and, in the context it originally comes from, it doesn't seem very apt.

Wednesday 11 March 1998

Jean-Paul Sartre: Morts sans Sépulture (1940)

Translation: Kitty Black, 1949
Edition: Penguin, 1960

This is a gruelling three act play about the horrors of war. The standard Sartrean philosophical subtext of free will and choice is there, but the play seems rather more heart-felt than some of his others. The effect of the war on people's humanity is the major theme of the play.

Towards the end of the war, a group of partisans has carried out an attack on a village which horrifically killed many innocent people; they have been caught by a unit of the collaborating French army. One man has escaped, and the partisans (both men and women) are tortured to find out his whereabouts. One partisan kills himself, another is killed by the others before he can talk.

Both the partisans and their torturers are presented as capable of human compassion and inhuman callousness. This makes the pointlessness and horror of war more apparent than the myriad of Second World War stories which make one side out to be worse than the other. (This is one reason why the First World War, where there were no excuses of the level of that provided by Adolf Hitler, is more emotionally upsetting to me.) The play is not a pleasant read, and could be extremely unpleasant to see, but I feel that I have gained something by having read it.

Tuesday 10 March 1998

Jean-Paul Sartre: Les Séquestrés d'Altona (1960)

Translation: As Altona, by Sylvia & George Leeson, 1960
Edition: Penguin, 1960

As with Sartre's other plays and novels, Altona deals with the practical outworkings of his philosophical ideas - the play reads almost like a thought experiment from, say, Being and Nothingness, but crucially missing the surrounding explanation. It is, however, not clear, at least to me, exactly what he is saying here.

The direct subject matter is also based around a theme common to much else written by Sartre: the reactions people had to the Second World War. It starts with a meeting of a rich German family following the announcement that the family's patriarch is dying. Some unpleasant facts about the family history are brought to light; the eldest son, Franz, thought to be dead since the war and the perpetrator of various crimes during his service, is revealed to be living hidden away in an upstairs room that he has not left for years. He refuses to see his father, whom he feels (with some justification) is responsible for his position. Remaining in his room, he has only a distorted picture of the outside world, which has been fabricated by his sister, Leni.

Once the story has been set up, the remainder of the play concerns the attempts of Franz's sister-in-law Joanna to get to know him, and Leni's attempts to prevent this. The whole situation is manipulated by the dying father to try to get Franz to see him, but when the meeting finally happens, it doesn't go as either of them anticipated it.

So what is the play about? The question of free-will and choice is clearly fairly important. How much choice did Franz have during the war? How much was he forced into committing his crimes by his father's manipulation and collaboration with the more unpleasant aspects of the Nazi regime, not to mention the way in which he was brought up. The way in which he has been imprisoned in one room and has been unable to get an accurate picture of the world outside no doubt has something to say about perception. But my overall impression was that the philosophical content was not clear enough to make a point, while the play read too much like a philosophy essay to succeed as a play.

Ngaio Marsh: Vintage Murder (1937)

Edition: Fontana

This is one of Ngaio Marsh's best crime novels, and was the fifth to feature Roderick Alleyn as the detective. He is travelling in New Zealand on holiday, and meets up with a touring theatre company from England. At a birthday party in honour of the leading lady, her husband is killed when a surprise he had planned goes horribly wrong: a jeroboam of champagne which should have lowered from above the stage to land in a nest of ferns in front of him crashes down onto his head.

Naturally, Alleyn (politely) takes charge of the ensuing investigation and finds the killer. The book is a classic thirties detective story, and is well-written for the genre. Alleyn is not as annoying as many of the detectives who abound in such fiction, which certainly helps, though one of the features which I find most difficult to swallow is present: the way in which the detective becomes coincidentally involved in so many murders. With a detective who is a policeman, this is not usually so much of a problem, but for him to become involved with the troupe before the murder while on holiday requires a stretch of the suspension of disbelief. (This happens a lot in Ngaio Marsh, mainly so that the main characters are introduced and have some relationship to the series principals before the murder takes place rather than being first encountered in the course of the police investigation.)

That said, the book is an interesting puzzle, and far better written than the average. This is partly due to Ngaio Marsh being interested in her characters (unlike Agatha Christie), and partly because of the stage setting. A touring company makes an ideal background for this kind of puzzle, and is far less hackneyed than the country house-body in a library school. Of course, Marsh was very interested in and involved with the theatre; two out of the five Alleyn novels published by this date have theatrical settings (the others having murders in a country house, an operating theatre and a cult's place of worship).

Monday 9 March 1998

Christopher Morris: The Tudors (1972)

Edition: Fontana

This book forms part of a series surveying English history not by cataloguing political events or analysing economic and social trends but by attempting to fathom the personalities of the kings and queens. The Tudors form one of the best periods of English history to understand with this approach, with rulers of strong personality better documented than in preceding centuries, who had real power with which they made immense changes to the country.

The book is on a popular level and is easy to read. It manages to be so without being patronising or losing its academic rigour. Christopher Morris does not sentimentalise his flamboyant subjects, nor does he succumb to the propoganda written by and about them in their lifetimes. Clearly, it can only offer an overview, covering five major figures in only 170 pages. An extensive bibliography means that further reading is easy to find for those who want greater detail.

Friday 6 March 1998

Terry Pratchett: Guards! Guards! (1989)

Edition: Corgi, 1990

This is the seventh of Pratchett's incredibly popular Discworld novels. It is quite remarkable how the standards of the series have been kept up; in my opinion, the first novel, The Colour of Magic, is the weakest. This is in contrast to the usual deterioration of science fiction and fantasy series as the series lengthens, especially for series like the Discworld which are more groups of linked works set in a common world rather than a planned sequence.

The plot is a simple one concerning an attempt to sieze power in the city of Ankh-Morpork by summoning a dragon to terrorise the population, then arranging for a hero to kill it and be crowned king, with the plotter as power behind the throne. The plan is foiled by the generally despised city guard, described as being not so much 'rank and file' as merely 'rank'. The plot is not particularly important, acting as a springboard to Pratchett's imagination.

As usual, the book is full of great jokes and references to popular culture (I like the guards' motto: fabricati diem, punc). Altogether, a fun, worthwhile read. This is probably not news to anyone; I read recently that Terry Pratchett makes up over 50% of the science fiction and fantasy sales of a leading UK retail chain, WH Smith.

Wednesday 4 March 1998

Henrik Ibsen: Emperor and Galilean (1870)

Edition: Methuen, 1986
Translation: Michael Meyer, 1986
Emperor and Galilean is Ibsen's longest play, consisting of two five act parts, Caesar's Apostasy and Julian Emperor. It is also the last history play he wrote, being a fairly accurate account of the career of the Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate.
Julian was brought up a Christian and as heir (Caesar) to the Empire by Constantius, who had murdered most of Julian's family for political reasons. He was sickened by the hypocrisy and pettiness of the Christian church of the time, much as Ibsen was in his own day, and was attracted by the comparitively virtuous pagans. He became involved with a pagan mystic, Maximus, who told him that he would be the founder of the "third empire", following the pagan Roman empire and the Christian empire of the Galilean, Jesus.
He became Emperor and began to restore the pagan religion of Rome. His persecution of the church brought unity, purity and virtue back to it. He found that he might rule men's bodies, but the Galilean ruled men's hearts. Evenutually he was killed in a campaign against the Persian empire, and was succeeded by the Christian Jovian, so that his reforms came to nothing.
Emperor and Galilean occupied Ibsen over many years. It doesn't seem to me to be as great as many of his other plays; perhaps the historical nature of the play constrained him too much, making it impossible to alter the plot to make his points more telling. It deals with the themes of choice and freedom which were extremely important to Ibsen, and which it shares with other plays from the same period, notably Brand and Peer Gynt. Both these plays work better in my opinion, and Ibsen's abandonment of the historical form from this time onwards perhaps shows that he agreed.

Tuesday 3 March 1998

Henrik Ibsen: Brand (1866)

Translation: Michael Meyer, 1960
Edition: Methuen, 1960

Brand is a fairly early Ibsen play, in this translation part of the Methuen plays series. This and its companion in the volume Ibsen Plays 5, Emperor and Galilean, are among the earliest Ibsen translations attempted by Meyer, and are clearly meant for performance rather than publication. Both plays are fairly severely cut; in Brand's case, this is to remove the discussion of nineteenth-century Norwegian politics which is likely to be tedious to a modern, non-Scandinavian audience.

The central character is a pastor of the Norwegian state church. He returns to his ancestral home, a small, remote village in a valley overshadowed by the dangerous mountains which surround it. As he arrives, the villagers are on the verge of starvation, and he shows no pity for their state, refusing to give them the food they crave. He blames them for putting the needs of the body above the duty of the spirit, which in his mind is due to a hard and vengeful God. He does, however, show great personal courage in crossing the fjord in a storm to give a householder his last rites. This act leads the villagers to ask him to become their pastor. He is mocked by the gypsy girl, Gerd, who tells him that the "ice-church" up in the mountains is far greater and more beautiful than the ugly village church.

In the second act - Brand has a lot of plot! - he has married a woman named Agnes and has a son, Ulf. The son is dying, and the doctor tells Brand and Agnes that he will live if they leave the village and move to the south. After a struggle within himself, viewing this as temptation to give up his calling, Brand refuses to leave the village, and Ulf dies. The third act takes place the following Christmas, when Agnes decorates their house in the way that the child loved. Brand tells her that she must give up her attachment to the dead child and devote herself to his calling, as he (and, indeed, society in general) believed a wife should. A gypsy woman arrives, begging for clothing to warm her freezing young son, and Brand makes Agnes purify herself by giving up all the clothing she has left which belonged to Ulf, her last reminders of her child.

By the fourth act, Agnes too has died, and Brand is putting his energy into building a larger and more beautiful village church. As the work comes to completion, Brand falls into despair as he realises that the church can never be big enough or beautiful enough. He rejects the building, at the moment which everyone around him thinks is his time of triumph. He leads the villagers away from the church into the mountains. Up in the mountains, the villagers abandon him when he is unable to minister to their physical needs - there is a clear contrast with the story of Christ feeding the five thousand, where the gospels say he had compassion on the crowd because of their hunger. Finally, he is left alone with Gerd, who leads him to the ice-church. She fires a rifle and the noise breaks the balance that keeps the ice and snow in a church-like shape, and Brand is destroyed by an avalanche to end the play.

Brand is an incredibly bleak play. There are really no admirable characters; Agnes comes closest perhaps to being so. It is of course a strong attack on the human consequences of the hard-heartedness that so often characterises evangelical Protestantism. Brand has an inadequate picture of God, one which perhaps reflects his own personal inadequacies. Even he, at times, finds the self-sacrifice that he feels his God demands of him almost two much to bear, notably in the second and third acts.

Ibsen's feelings about religion and personal freedom (characters are constantly asked to make choices when they feel there is no choice) play a major role. The ice-church probably represents the negation of love; Brand's uncompromising devotion to duty completely kills off the love which he should feel towards Agnes and Ulf, to the villagers, and above all to his God. (Contrast Peer Gynt in Ibsen's next play, who abandons all that might be considered duty for extreme self-indulgence.)

Altogether, Brand is a challenging play to read, but I felt it was well worth it.