Thursday 30 April 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Death at the Bar (1939)

Edition: Fontana
Review number: 39

Given the normal upper class settings of classic detective stories, you might well expect Death at the Bar to be set in the legal world of the Temple. In fact, it is set in the public bar of a pub in a small Cornwall village.

The main protagonists are a group of friends from London, who often spend their holidays in the village: Luke Watchman, an eminent lawyer (so that type of bar does come into it a bit), Sebastian Parish, actor, and Norman Cubitt, painter, who is painting a portrait of Parish in the countryside near the village.

A newcomer to the village since the previous summer is Robert Legge, who makes his living as agent for a philately company, and who is secretary of the Polperro Left movement. The other members of this extreme socialist group include Will Pomeroy, son of the owner of the pub, and Decima Moore, a farmer's daughter who is now engaged to Will and who the previous summer had an affair with Watchman.

As well as stamp collecting, Legge is an expert darts player; he has a trick which involves putting darts between the fingers of a hand held up on the darts board. He attempts this trick on Watchman, and things go very wrong when Legge cuts one of his fingers and Watchman dies, apparently poisoned by cyanide smeared on the head of the dart.

As you would expect, a thoroughly professional crime novel, spoilt perhaps by the implausibility of the initially accepted method of murder (how much cyanide could have got into the body from the dart tip?). It is not as good as some of the preceding Alleyn novels, and it does seem rather less believable. Maybe Ngaio Marsh was less familiar with Cornish pubs than with fashionable painters' studios.

Wednesday 29 April 1998

Colin Forbes: The Stone Leopard (1975)

Edition: Hamlyn
Review number: 38

This Cold War thriller, written in the mid-seventies, is more than a little remniscent of Frederick Forsythe's Day of the Jackal. It reserves a neat twist, however, which makes it well worth reading.

The world in which it is set is made even more paranoid than a strictly historical Cold War setting; in Forbes' world, the recession caused by the oil crisis led to Communist coups in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and increased isolationism in the US. In this atmosphere, a young woman tries to assassinate the new President of France. In the investigation that follows, the Paris Prefect of Police Marc Grelle (who has been personally made responsible for the safety of President Florian) finds leads to a Communist resistance leader, the Leopard, supposedly dead since 1944.

He quickly realises - though he cannot immediately begin to believe - that the Leopard is not in fact dead, but has managed to become a high ranking member of the cabinet. There he has been making things ready for a Communist coup to bring him to power. The only problem is that Grelle does not know which member of the cabinet it is.

Colin Forbes maintains the suspense to make The Stone Leopard a tense political thriller. You do get the impression that there is really only going to be one thriller's worth of ideas in the author - but I'll find that out when I read another.

Tuesday 28 April 1998

Henrik Ibsen: The Master Builder (1892)

Translation: Michael Meyer, 1961
Edition: Methuen
Review number: 36

The Master Builder is one of Ibsen's later plays, and presumably shares some of the themes and preoccupations of The Lady From the Sea, with which it shares the character of Hilde Wangel.

Halvard Solness is a well known builder, a master builder, who has driven many of his rivals out of business in the course of his long career. He is currently building a house for himself and his wife, Aline, to be a home to properly replace Aline's family house which burnt down some years ago killing his twin baby sons. This is to be the culmination of his artistry, and will be an unusual house with a tall spire - Solness has become more and more obsessed with spires as he has got older. (The obvious psycho-sexual idea is clearly intended here.)

Solness also has a predilection for the society of young women. His book-keeper is Kaja Fosli, who is engaged to Ragnar Brovik. Brovik is the son of one of the men forced out of business by Solness, and acts as a draughtsman to Solness. Brovik has completed some excellent designs for a new house, and Solness' approval will enable him to set up on his own and marry Kaja, neither of which are events Solness wants to happen. He has a morbid fear of young men coming up and overtaking his business, as he did to older men some years before. (There are shades of Ibsen's distrust for the younger generation of playwrights in this.)

This situation of building tension is suddenly interrupted by the arrival of Hilde Wangel. Ten years before, when only fourteen, she watched Solness climb the spire of the new church in her home town. She managed to get him to promise to return to take her away in ten years time, a promise instantly forgotten by Solness but the mainstay of Hilde's emotional life. The ten years up, Solness did not appear, so Hilde came in search of him.

Now, though, she discovers that Solness is no longer the man she thought him to be. He has become terrified of heights, and will no longer climb spires as he used to - indeed, he has difficulty remembering that he ever did. She persuades him to climb the spire of the new house, but he falls, and is killed to end the play.

As can be seen, the play is full of symbols and resonances with Ibsen's own life. Apart from the distrust of young people, Ibsen also enjoyed the company of young women in his old age. It is thus more personal than many of his other plays, which deal with perhaps more universal themes. Having said that, the theme of aging is one which comes to us all in the end.

Monday 27 April 1998

Henrik Ibsen: The Wild Duck (1884)

Translation: Michael Meyer (Methuen, 1961) /Una Ellis-Fermor (Penguin, 1959)
Edition: Methuen, 1961 / Penguin, 1959
Review number: 35

The Meyer translation of this play is one of his poorest, and leaves it quite difficult to understand what it is about at all, even when familiar with several of Ibsen's plays. Ellis-Fermor makes it much clearer, partly because the Penguin Classics translations are principally intended to be read rather than performed.

The Wild Duck tells the story of two families, the Werles and Ekdals. The Ekdals are poor, Old Ekdal having been ruined in business by Haakon Werle. The young, idealistic Gregers, son of Haakon Werle comes to stay with the Ekdals after a quarrel with his father. He is aware, though the Ekdals are not, that Gina, wife of his contemporary Hjalmar Ekdal, was previously his father's mistress and that is why Hjalmar was provided with the funds to enable him to set himself up as a photographer. He reveals his knowledge, for he believes that no true marriage can be based on a lie as this one has been, and this causes the destruction of the household.

One of the strange things about the Ekdal household, and the idea with which The Wild Duck stops being a naturalistic play similar to the plays that had immediately preceded it, is that they have an attic containing all sorts of animals, and in particular a wild duck rescued from the hunting of Haakon Werle, unable to fly because of the injuries it received from his dog.

The other member of the household is Hjalmar and Gina's young daughter, Hedvig, who is going blind. The symbols of the wild duck and of Hedvig's blindness (due to a hereditary complaint, a common theme in Ibsen's work) are crucial to an understanding of the play. The wild duck symbolises something to do with freedom, which Old Ekdal has lost in his disgrace and which his son's household can never have because of his economic dependence on Werle. The bird has been crippled by Werle, and in its company Old Ekdal seeks his former happiness, as he carries out mock hunts, killing rabbits in the attic instead of the bears he once sought in the forest.

One thing is clear even in Meyer's translation: Ibsen was being distinctly critical of the idealistic view that ends justify means, and of insufficiently thought-out idealism. that places principles above psychological understanding. Gregers' revelations, made with excellent intentions, destroy the Ekdal family, particularly bringing misery to the innocent and doomed Hedvig, who cannot understand why her father is suddenly repulsed by her; she is too young to be told that he has just discovered that he might not be her father. The play is her tragedy, and her story is a powerful one.

Friday 24 April 1998

Henrik Ibsen: Ghosts (1881)

Translation: Michael Meyer, 1962

Edition: Methuen
Review number: 34

At the time when Ghosts first appeared, it was considered extremely dangerous and indecent. The themes it contains of inherited illness (siphylis, though this is never directly stated) and hypocrisy were unacceptable to the later nineteenth century audience, even to those who considered themselves liberals and had championed Ibsen's earlier plays.

The story of the play is that of a young man, who returns home from the bohemian life of an artist because he is suffering from a mysterious illness. He has been brought up abroad, and has always believed, as the world in general has believed, that his father was a pillar of the community. He begins to fall in love with his mother's maid.

His mother is extremely alarmed when she realises what is happening. She is the only one who really knows what her dead husband was like, and she knows that he was in fact the father of the serving girl. There are parallels between her past history and the story of Nora in The Dollshouse; she too tried to leave her husband, though he was far more unpleasant than Nora's. She, however, was persuaded to return by the local church minister, with whom she had sought refuge. For the sake of her son, she spent the rest of her life covering up the truth about her husband.

The story very powerfully brings out its themes, but is very much less shocking than it seemed over a hundred years ago. It is still a play which makes one think about what you really inherit from your parents, anticipating Philip Larkin's famous poem by many years.

Jane Langton: Divine Inspiration (1993)

Edition: Penguin, 1994
Review number: 33

This is a rather unusual detective story, featuring a detective who apparently turns up in a whole series of Jane Langton books, ex-policeman Homer Kelly. The plot concerns sabotage of the organ at a church in Boston, Mass., starting with a fire and the simultaneous disappearance of an organist living in an apartment block next to the church. Even though Homer Kelly is the series character, he isn't the hero of the book; that honour goes to the organist who installs a new organ at the church to replace that destroyed in the fire.

His interest in the vanished organist and her abandoned baby lead to a wealth of complications over about a year (hence the book's structure based on the liturgical year), well handled by Langton who leaves you guessing until just before the end. The book is illustrated with pictures of Boston and excerpts from the organ chorales of Bach, which fit in with the book's structure and help develop the sense of atmosphere.

Thursday 23 April 1998

Terry Pratchett: Moving Pictures (1990)

Moving Pictures coverEdition: Corgi, 1991
Review number: 32

I think this is probably my least favourite of all the Discworld novels. Reading it again, I found that I did pick up more of the film references than I did the first time around (the benefits of several more years of film-watching).

Briefly, the plot is that the idea of movies invades the Discworld, sending people mad in ways that mimic various Hollywood characters - Sam Goldwyn, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino and so on. There's even a (dumb) super-dog called Laddie. The hole this has made in reality is, of course, ready to be taken advantage of by horrendous monsters, and it is up to the hero, an apprentice wizard turned film star, to save the world singlehanded.

The best joke in the book is the animals who, affected by the magic near the holes in reality, start to talk; they insist on being called things like "Definitely not Sweetums" and "Don't call me cute". Generally, though, the multiple film references are far better done by authors like Tom Holt and Craig Shaw Gardner; it's a Discworld novel for completists only.

Jane Austen: Persuasion (1818)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 31

Persuasion is the shortest of Jane Austen's completed novels, and is famous for being one in which nothing happens. In some ways, it doesn't feel as much a finished work of art as some of the others; there are parts which are far more fully written than others - some events are glossed over, other similar ones gone into in detail.

Anne Elliott is another Jane Austen heroine with intelligence but from an incredibly stupid family. Her father and eldest sister are obsessed with the status of the family, and they are no judges of personality at all.

The plot of the book is simply that of the return of a formerly rejected lover (Captain Wentworth) after many years, causing Anne to realise that she had made a great mistake in not accepting him at the time. This would have been a match which would have incensed her family, as he was a penniless sailor, and she the daughter of a (spendthrift) baronet. The book is the story of the realisation dawning, and then the hope that he will not now be indifferent to her.

As usual with Jane Austen, the characters are well drawn, though those you dislike are slightly more caricatures than usual. I feel reasonably sure that she would have wanted to revise this book again, though I'm glad to be able to read it.

Ben Watson: Frank Zappa - The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play (1994)

Edition: Quartet, 1994
Review number: 30

This massive volume, over five hundred pages, is a detailed analysis of Frank Zappa's life and work, from the point of view of a long-term dedicated fan. Even so, there is space for fewer than ten pages for each album released by Zappa, so the amount of analysis possible is a little limited.

The fan background means that Watson attempts to defend Zappa wherever possible, even in cases where many people (including myself) find his work pretty difficult to take (see particularly the information on ThingFish, for example). The author is also involved in the Socialist Workers' Party, and sometimes his politics get rather in the way of the music. (The criticisms throughout the book of Zappa for treating his band members as employees are an example of this.) The first five chapters were written earlier than the rest of the book, and some of the later parts do have a rather piecemeal look to them.

I enjoyed the book, despite these quibbles, and it made me want to go out and listen to some of the Zappa albums I haven't heard. I was particularly interested in the discussions of xenochrony (putting together bits of music with different time signatures, in Zappa's case using recording technology) and the contrast between extreme preparation in advance and the use of chance events, both of which are features in Zappa's music. In the latter context, Watson tells a wonderful anecdote, which I want to repeat here. When Samuel Beckett was working as secretary to James Joyce and taking down dictation for the carefully planned Finnegan's Wake, they were interrupted by a knock on the door. Beckett noted down the "Come in" uttered by Joyce; when reading the passage back made them realise that these two words had crept in by chance, Joyce decided to keep them, and wove them into his plans for the book.

Wednesday 22 April 1998

Anne McCaffrey: The Masterharper of Pern (1998)

Edition: Bantam, 1998
Review number: 29

This is the biography of the character Robinton, who appears in many of the Pern novels and appears to be one of McCafferey's favourite characters. It takes the story of his life up to the events of the first half of Dragonflight, the earliest written Pern novel. Even though she's now spent some time writing novels in the pre-history of the original Pern series, I've felt that its still best to read McCafferey's novel's in publication order.

I also felt that her style softened somewhat after Dragonflight, became more "young adult". Masterharper of Pern marks a return, after quite a few novels, to a novel where important issues are worked through rather than romanticised. This novel is centred around Robinton's relationship with his parents, particularly with his distant father, Petiron. Petiron is so engrossed in his music that he doesn't notice anything about his son. Masterharper of Pern is not a book where everything turns out right in the end; it is more mature than that. It is a little difficult to get started, but I felt it was well worth the effort.

Arthur Conan Doyle: The Poison Belt (1913)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1913
Review number: 28

This is the first sequel to The Lost World. It describes the adventures of the same group of men, centred around Professor Challenger, together with Challenger's wife, when the earth passes through a poisonous belt of ether which wipes out (as they think) all life but the five of them.

The science of the book is rather outdated; the idea of the existence of the ether (postulated originally as a medium for light waves to propagate in, of a different order of existence to the material world) was exploded early this century - before, I think, even the date when the book was written. Because of the centrality of death in the book, it also provided Conan Doyle with a mechanism for promoting his spiritualist ideas, though this is done on a sufficiently subtle level to be overlooked unless you know beforehand that that is what he believed.

As a book to stand on its own, The Poison Belt is not great; viewed as part of the Professor Challenger series it is much more interesting to read.

Tuesday 21 April 1998

Robert A. Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)

Edition: New English Library, 1970
Review number: 27

This is one of the classics of science fiction, and was hailed in the early seventies as the novel of the hippie era. It is easily Heinlein's best known work, and his later attempts to regain its tone mark, to me, the beginning of a lengthy decline.

The story is basically an attempt to analyse human (and specifically American) culture from an alien point of view, to look at is as though absolutely none of the commonly held beliefs were true.

The hero, Michael Smith, is a child born on Mars to two of the crew of the first human expedition to that planet; he is raised by the Martians when a catastrophe wipes out the adults of the expedition. Years later, another expedition to Mars results in contact with the Martians and Michael's return to Earth, completely innocent of knowledge about the planet. The greater part of the novel details his attempts to understand human nature from his Martian philosophical perspective (which is rather like that of Eastern philosophy); these end in his foundation of a new religion to help human beings achieve their full potential which hitherto has been impossible because of the straitjacket of human culture.

Some parts of the book seem rather dated now, principally Heinlein's rather patronising attitude to one character who is a Moslem. The attacks on Western culture don't seem quite so shocking as they must have done on first reading, and the New Age hippy culture of free love a less radical alternative. But the book continues to be a good read.

A.A. Attanasio: The Dragon and the Unicorn (1994)

Edition: New English Library, 1994

Review number: 26

This is an Arthurian tale, the first of a series, telling the story of Merlin up until the birth of Arthur. It is apparent from the first page of the very long prologue that it is not a simple story, as it becomes when told by Mary Stewart, for example. Her approach was to minimise the supernatural as much as possible; Attanasio seeks to maximise it, while having some sort of pseudo-scientific justification for it. (For example, "demons" are alien creatures composed of energy rather than matter.)

Bleys, the teacher of Merlin, is a Chinese sage who finds a unicorn, another creature of energy, and steals its horn to gain immortality by losing his mortal body. He travels from Tibet, where the encounter happened, to Britain, in an attempt to escape the attention of the dragon, the energy-creature which inhabits the earth, and the source of the energy he used to become an immortal. He is also chasing the unicorn, whose help he needs to get free of the earth's magnetic field.

Merlin himself is a demon who is born in human form to defeat the Fury, which is the name Attanasio uses here for Odin, chief of the Norse gods (worshipped by the Saxons invading Britain). This he does by raising up Uther to be king over Britain in place of the corrupt Vortigern; the rest of the story will be pretty familiar to readers of other Arthur-related fantasy novels.

What Attanasio manages to do is to create an Arthur-myth completely different from any other retelling. (It is perhaps closest to that of Nikolai Tolstoy.) It can be rather heavy-going, but it is not surprising that it won awards; worth working to get into. It could definitely do with some trimming, particularly the prologue.

J.B. Priestley: Daylight on Saturday (1943)

Edition: Heinemann
Review number: 25

This is a wartime propaganda novel, one of several written by Priestley. The others that I have read are more part of the thriller genre (about tracking down black marketeers and saboteurs, for example); this is a tale of ordinary people working in an armaments factory. It is clear that Priestley had decided where his patriotic duty lay, and he subordinated his art to the demands of the state. (If he had done this in Germany, of course, he would be attacked in the way that musicians such as Karajan and Strauss have been for their actions.)

I cannot help feeling, even though I have read few wartime propaganda novels, that Priestley would have produced ones among the best of the type, in much the same way that Laurence Olivier's Henry V would be expected to be among the best wartime propaganda films. There are parts that jar to a modern reader, particularly the way that the novel aims to persuade you that submission to the state is the best way; it is difficult to take that seriously in the late nineties.

An interesting feature of this novel is the narrative method, which is a variant of the multiple viewpoint; each chapter is written from the viewpoint of the person who was in the thoughts of the narrator of the previous chapter. It is not stream of consciousness; the style does not change between a chapter from the point of view of a middle aged university educated manager and one from that of a completely uneducated teenager machine operator, but it does create some interest.

The title, by the way, refers to the way the intensive work of the factory means that the workers only get to see daylight at weekends.

George Bernard Shaw: Saint Joan (1924)

Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 24

This is Shaw's play based around the life of Joan of Arc, who was canonised by the Catholic church just before the play was written. The story is well known. Joan was a young farm girl (not, as Shaw is at pains to point out, a peasant), inspired by visions of saints, who gave new heart to the French and caused a complete change of fortune in the Hundred Years' War with the English at a time when it seemed as good as lost. She was eventually caught by the English and burnt by the church as a heretic. The story allows Shaw a whole play (and, in this edition, a long preface as was his custom) to expound his ideas about religion.
As you would expect from Shaw, his ideas are interesting. As I didn't expect, he doesn't deny the reality of religious experience (and specifically, the reality of Joan's visions, at least to herself); he looks upon it as a way to rationalise the irrational. In Joan's case, visions of saints giving instructions was the natural way for a fifteenth century farmer's daughter to understand the ideas she had. This is far less patronising than to declare those who experience these visions to be insane, as many rationalists would do, though it doesn't explain the source of the ideas rationalised as visions.

In the introduction, Shaw also writes perceptively about the various retellings of Joan's story from Shakespeare to the publication of the heresy trial transcripts in the nineteenth century. He is scathing about how strongly these accounts are affected by the ideas of the time in which they were written rather than by those of the time in which Joan lived; this taint is clearly impossible for a writer to avoid, but is something they should at least be aware of. Many writers of the currently fashionable genre of medieval mysteries completely ignore the differences between modern thought and medieval thought, and present twentieth century people in medieval dress.

Shaw's major thesis is that Joan was effectively a Protestant martyr, whose error as seen by the church of her day lay in putting the content of her visions above the authority of the church and its churchmen. The play itself, particularly with the strange epilogue where the ghosts of several of the characters reflect on their lives, argues persuasively for this point of view. (In the introduction, Shaw attacks the playing of his work without the epilogue, saying that to leave it out as an embarrassment shows a complete lack of understanding of what he was trying to do.) He ignores the major difference between Joan and the Protestant reformers; they did not rely on direct inspiration for their ideas, but advocated a return to the Bible, which the Catholic church acknowledged as the foundation of the faith (though abuses had arisen which took it a long way in doctrine from the Bible). To look instead to one's own inspiration encourages arbitrariness and megalomania; just look at the doctrines of some of today's cults. That is not to say that Joan suffered from this. She was far too much a daughter of the fourteenth century church to stray far from accepted teaching, but the church recognised a threat in the insistence she made on her visions and her unwillingness to submit to the conventions of the time where these differed from what she had seen (for example, in the wearing of masculine clothing).

The play is certainly thought provoking, and provides one of the biggest female roles in modern theatre. However, I myself found the introduction more interesting, perhaps because Shaw has to present his thought more clearly and provide more justification; fiction and drama are good for rhetoric but it is easier to see the strengths and weaknesses of Shaw's arguments when they are presented directly.

Tuesday 7 April 1998

Richard P. Feynman: Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman - Adventures of a Curious Character (1985)

Edition: Vintage, 1992
Review number: 22
As the subtitle suggests, this is the story of an unusual man, a Nobel Prize winning physicist who worked on the atomic bomb who was also an amateur artist who had a successful one man show - among many other talents. It is an interesting read, even to those who (like me) don't normally enjoy (auto)biographies.

The book presents an honest picture of Richard Feynman, based mainly on taped conversations with a friend. This means that his personality comes through strongly, showing both the admirable traits and the less than admirable traits. I didn't like Richard Feynman practical joker, but found Richard Feynman indefatigable science educator more to my taste. (I particularly enjoyed the story of his evaluations of school physics textbooks for the state of California.)

As well as thinking that people in general could benefit by better understanding of science (and better science education), I also think that many scientists would benefit from being able to write as well as Feynman, and the public would probably have a better understanding of science if they did!

Monday 6 April 1998

J.P. Kenyon: The Stuarts (1969)

Edition: Fontana
Review number: 21

The Stuarts are interesting as perhaps the most devastatingly unsuccessful series of English monarchs. They managed to combine political stupidity with a belief in their own greatness, hardly a recipe for success, particularly not in the changing world of the seventeenth century.

This book follows on from The Tudors, and is part of Fontana's excellent series on English history understood through the personalities of the monarchs who have ruled the country. They have a popular feel, but don't compromise on the historical accuracy and scholarship. In the case of the Stuarts, for example, issues of sexuality are neither ignored nor sensationalised, and an intelligent assessment is made of the effects their activities had on policy (not as much as you might think).

None of the rulers, from James I to Anne, come over as terribly pleasant, and the book gives you the feeling that the English did the Scots a great service by causing the early death of so many Scottish Stuart kings in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Friday 3 April 1998

Henrik Ibsen: The Pretenders (1864)

Editions: Methuen, 1964; Oxford University Press, 1962
Translations:Michael Meyer (Methuen); Evelyn Ramsden & Glynne Wickham (OUP)
Updated: 11 February 2000
Review number: 20

The Pretenders is another early Ibsen play, the earliest included in the Methuen series of Ibsen plays translated by Michael Meyer. It is a historical play dealing with a thirteenth century civil war in Norway. (The fact that it deals with Norwegian history is an explanation for its much greater popularity in Norway than elsewhere, though no knowledge of Norwegian history is needed to understand the play.)

Basically, the plot concerns a young king of slightly dubious legitimacy and the powerful nobleman who has acted as his regent since his birth. After his coming of age ceremony (at which his mother dramatically submits to trial by ordeal to prove his legitimacy), the King Haakon and his ex-regent Earl Skule start to drift apart, aided by the political manoeuvrings of the head of the Norwegian church, Bishop Nicholas.

Haakon has a radical new idea - to unite the whole of Norway as a country, to inspire people to care for the country as a whole rather than only their local neighbourhood; up to this point, the king has been viewed as the head of a group of local chieftains. Skule is enthralled by the idea, and seeks to make it his own. He is frustrated to realise that just as Haakon is more politically advanced than he is - as the man who conceived the idea - so Earl Skule is more advanced than his associates, who are unable to comprehend the idea of a united Norway. (After all, haven't the men of one town always been enemies of those of another?)

One of the main themes of the play is the meaning of patriotism, and the eventual victory of Haakon shows the capacity of the national idea to inspire. As an early work, there is not much criticism of nationalism, as you would perhaps expect of Ibsen later on, though the parochialism of the various parts of Norway could be seen as a criticism of the parochialism of Norway as a whole in Ibsen's time. Ibsen is perhaps most critical of the church; the bishop is the only character with no real nobility.

In some ways, Michael Meyer's translation is beginning to seem rather dated, yet Evelyn Ramsden and Glynne Wickham's does not, despite its greater age. This is because the OUP translation is much more aimed at production. (Meyer's translation has been staged, but I would imagine that it would seem rather stilted without further adaptation.) Ramsden and Wickham use stronger, more melodramatic words to emphasise the character of Bishop Nicholas, and the pivotal scene is much more clearly seen to be the one in which his spirit returns from hell to tempt Earl Skule into an act which will destroy the kingdom. The scene is distinctly like that in Peer Gynt in which Peer meets the ominous figure of the button moulder, also representing death and judgment.

Thursday 2 April 1998

Arthur Conan Doyle: The Lost World (1912)

Edition: Project Gutenberg, 1994
Review number: 21

This is one of the very best stories Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote, excluding some of the Sherlock Holmes series. Professor Challenger is one of his most memorable characters, though verging on the side of a caricature. (He is a scientist with no patience for those who do not understand science.)

He believes he has discovered, in the midst of the South American jungle, an almost inaccessible plateau where prehistoric plants and animals, including dinosaurs, have survived. His theory is ridiculed by the scientific establishment in London (not something which serves to help his bad temper), and he eventually agrees to an expedition setting out to test his ideas. The expedition includes Professor Summerlee, one of his most outspoken critics, Lord John Roxton, a famous sportsman and big game hunter, and Malone, a journalist, from whose point of view the novel is written.

Suffice it to say, Challenger's views are completely vindicated, and the party has several adventures on the plateau before they are eventually able to return to civilisation.

The simple plot is developed well, and the suspense never flags; it is a book that Michael Crichton could have used more as a model to improve the pretty dire Jurassic Park. (But then, I've never liked anything Crichton has written.)

It hasn't dated in the manner of some of Doyle's other books, and sometimes reads more like a modern "steampunk" novel than something more of the period. It is of as good a quality as the best of Well's science fiction, which was probably a model for this book (I'm not certain of the chronology, but I think that this is after War of the Worlds and Time Machine.)

Henrik Ibsen: Peer Gynt (1867)

Edition: Methuen
Translation: Michael Meyer, 1963
This is one of the best known of all Ibsen's plays, though perhaps more for the music by Grieg than for the actual play. It's an early play, and is not at all like Ibsen's later works; it is very full of images and not at all realistic; a large part of the action is dramatisation of the imaginings of the main character.
In many respects, the play examines, in Peer, the opposite side of human nature to that scrutinised in Ibsen's previous play, Brand. The character of Brand is too inflexible, too unyielding, too focused on ideals while the character of Peer is almost totally concentrated on the life of the imagination and the stories that he tells. No ideals, almost no morals, no conventions enter his mind. He seduces the bride at a wedding, sets up a new religion in the Arabian desert, attempts to become king of the trolls.

The trolls are an important part of the play, symbolising what Peer so nearly becomes - totally amoral and self-centred. He is offered citizenship (along with the hand of the troll-king's daughter), but refuses to allow himself to be maimed in the way they insist (harming his eyes). So far he will go - wearing a tail, acting in a troll-like way - but no further. What saves Peer is the love of two good women - his mother, Aase, and the pure and innocent Solveig. She ends up waiting her whole life for him to return from his trip abroad, which leads him to an insane asylum in Egypt as well as the Arabian desert.
One perennial critical question about Peer Gynt is to name the moment at which Peer dies - is it in the lunatic asylum, or in the shipwreck on the journey back to Denmark, or after returning to the arms of Solveig. Michael Meyer thinks it is the asylum, because afterwards he is continually meeting characters symbolising death (the button-moulder, who remakes unworthy souls, and the stranger on ship who appears during the storm which wrecks it). I'm not sure I agree. There are so many things which take place in the imagination of Peer before this that to say something cannot really be happening doesn't make much sense.

Ngaio Marsh: Death in a White Tie (1938)

Edition: Fontana
Review number: 18

This is one of the saddest of the Alleyn novels, and has the most sympathetic murder victims in crime fiction. A blackmailer is attacking prominent society women, and Alleyn asks a friend of his, Lord Robert Gospell, to investigate. After a party during which Lord Robert makes an interrupted phone call to Alleyn to reveal the identity of the blackmailer, he is murdered by an unknown person who shares his cab home.

The important question is, was Lord Robert murdered by the blackmailer (or an accomplice) or by a victim of the blackmailer (some of them thought the questions asked as part of his investigation marked him as the blackmailer).

This is a worthy member of the series, though not perhaps up to the highest standard attained (e.g. by Artists in Crime). The puzzle is not particularly difficult, but it is enjoyable to read. It does suffer from the usual Marsh problem of creating unbelievable situations by introducing the murder through the series characters; for each individual book, this isn't a big problem though it's unhelpful when you read several in the series in a short space of time.

Wednesday 1 April 1998

Margery Allingham: The Case of the Late Pig (1937)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 17

This is an unusual member of Allingham's Campion series, as it is told in the first person from Campion's point of view. This, to me, makes it immediately more successful than some others in the series, by avoiding what I consider to be Campion's most annoying fault. In many of the books, I find there is too great a credibility gap between Campion's silly-ass public persona and the true, intelligent crime fighter underneath. ("Mild mannered janitor by day, Hong Kong Fuey...")

Campion receives a cryptic anonymous note which invites him to the funeral of a man he knew from school (and disliked), R.I. Peters, known as "Pig". (Few other writers would name the corpse in a detective novel with the initials RIP - this is before the days of Reginald Iolanthe Perrin.) He attends the funeral, intrigued by the note.

A few months later, Campion receives another note, and then is asked by a friend to go to the village of Kepesake where a man has been murdered. The corpse turns out to be Pig, who is already dead. So Campion has to work out how he was buried the first time round, how he came back to life, and why he died again. And then the corpse goes missing...