Wednesday 30 September 1998

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Edition: Heinemann, 1983
Review number: 124

Steinbeck's famous novel of the collapse of rural America in the depression still packs a punch today. It is the story of the Joad family, dispossessed by a big town bank from land made unproductive by drought and over-farming, joining the streams of similar families heading west to California, lured by rumours of work on farms there. Arriving in California, they discover that they're the victims of a scam - attract five hundred people to jobs for twenty, and you will find twenty who are desperate enough to work for virtually nothing.

The families live in growing desperation and poverty, moved on from county to county at the whim of landowners and corrupt policemen, any who protest accused of being Communists and lynched, blamed for unrest and any petty theft. The central character is the eldest son of the Joad family, Tom; if he gets into any trouble he will be in for a very hard time, as he broke parole for murder (killing a man in a drunken fight) to come with his family.

The Grapes of Wrath is an incredibly depressing novel of human injustice and helplessness; I feel that it was good to read it once, but I probably won't want to repeat the experience for a long time.

For those non-Americans who don't know (and I was one until I looked it up), the title is from the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which talks of the storing up of God's wrath against evildoers: 'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: / He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.'

Peter Tremayne: The Return of Raffles (1981)

Edition: Severn House, 1990
Review number: 123

Seventy years after E.W. Hornung killed off his famous upper-class burglar hero, Raffles, by involving him in the Boer War, Peter Tremayne resurrected him for a new series of stories. The idea is that Raffles used the fact that everyone thought him dead to create a new identity, free from the suspicion that surrounded his own name.

In the next few years, his accomplice and devoted friend Bunny Manders has married Alice Devenish, who met him and Raffles on one of their last adventures together, and has taken up a respectable lifestyle. Staying with his brother in law while Alice is in Paris, he comes downstairs in the night to disturb a burglar, who turns out to be Raffles. (This coincidence is one of the most contrived parts of the plot, but Tremayne had to get Bunny and Raffles back together, and Raffles would have been avoiding those who knew him in the past.

As they resume their friendship, Raffles once more tempts Bunny to take up a life of crime, only to find themselves caught red-handed by their old enemy, Chief Inspector Mackenzie. After an unpleasant night in custody, the pair are suddenly taken to see the Prime Minister, of all people. There, they are offered a pardon if they will aid the government to recover a packet of letters, hidden in the German Embassy and with contents that could plunge Europe into war. In other words, the two men are recruited as spies.

One of the major reasons for the success of Hornung's original stories has now been jettisoned by Tremayne: the shock of a hero who is both an amoral thief and a member of the upper classes (and a famous cricketer who played for England on many occasions). Of course, the shock of this is far less in the last quarter of the twentieth century than in the first, and the spy plot at least enables Tremayne to put the characters he has inherited in new situations; the lack of new ideas must have been a major motive for Hornung to kill Raffles off in the first place.

In most respects, though, Tremayne's writing is a major improvement on Hornung's. Indeed, the low quality of Hornung's work - there is perhaps the biggest discrepancy between his literary merit and the fame of his characters than with any other crime writer (with the possible exception of Agatha Christie) - is jokingly referred to by Raffles, who disapproves of Bunny's low taste in fiction. (These references are great fun for anyone who knows the originals at all well, and include mention of stupid mistakes that Hornung made like having a character jump out of a window of the Albany onto the roof of a carriage, when this would have been impossible from the side of the building on which he placed the window.)

By making Bunny grow up and lose some of his rather excessive admiration for the extremely selfish Raffles Tremayne makes the whole scenario more plausible. (Hornung was, I think, trying to imply a homosexual attraction he was unable to make explicit in popular fiction in the early years of this century.)

Tuesday 29 September 1998

Alessandro Manzoni: The Betrothed (1827)

Translation: Bruce Penman, 1972
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 122

The Bethrothed is probably the most famous work of Italian literature not by Dante or Petrarch. The introduction to this Penguin Classics edition compares its influence on Italian culture to an English scene where Dickens wrote only one novel and Fielding and Thackeray had never existed. Its revision by Manzoni into the Tuscan dialect was a major turning point in the establishment of that dialect as the standard literary Italian.

It is a long historical novel (written in the nineteenth but dealing with the early seventeenth century) with a somewhat melodramatic plot which to an English reader is distinctly reminiscent of Scott. In the early seventeenth century, the duchy of Milan was ruled by Spain, though the Spanish viceroys were unable to check the excesses and crimes of the upper classes, who employed large numbers of thugs known as bravos to get their way. Italy was also subject to famine and periodic epidemics of plague, both of which play a part in The Betrothed.

Two villagers, Renzo and Lucia, are on the point of marriage when Lucia catches the eye of local tyrant Don Rodrigo, who threatens the village priest into refusing to marry them. As they flee from Don Rodrigo's bravos, they become separated and get involved with the turbulent events of the Thirty Years' War as it affected Milan. Manzoni mixes his invented characters with real historical figures and their stories with great skill.

The main charm of the narrative is not the plot, but Manzoni's ironical tone and frequent asides to the reader. He manages not to overuse this device (unlike most authors who make use of it), carefully controlling his writing so that the reader is not put off.

Monday 28 September 1998

Caryl Brahms & S.J. Simon: No Bed for Bacon (1941)

Edition: New English Library, 1964
Review number: 120

Caryl Brahms & S.J. Simon wrote four humorous historical novels together; and this is probably both the silliest and funniest. They have taken a sort of general idea of the Elizabethan period, as though culled from second-rate popular histories and a good knowledge of the literature and stirred it all together as though everything in the period happened in a rush rather than during a reign of over forty years. Characters from the 1560s rub shoulders with others from the 1600s and later (playwrights right through until the closing of the theatres in the 1640s are often described as Elizabethan).

The plot is dominated by the two best known parts of Elizabethan society, the theatre and the court. Francis Bacon is desperate to be given a secondhand bed by the queen, a sign of great preferment. He commissions Shakespeare to write a play to be performed for the queen and court, to captivate her. (Shakespeare holds out for a fee of £40 when, as Bacon points out, you can get Beaumont and Fletcher for a ten pound note, and there are two of them.) Meanwhile, new lady-in-waiting Viola Compton has annoyed the queen by an accurate imitation of Mary Queen of Scots; she has discovered the stage. As in many stories dealing with the theatre of the time (I can think of two novels and a play without even trying), she disguises herself as a boy to become an actor in Shakespeare's company. (The commoness of the theme is probably because it is prompted by the many girls who disguise themselves as boys in Shakespeare's own plays.)

Across the town, the rival theatre company of Philip Henslowe sets out to destroy the Burtbages and Shakespeare, with various ham-fisted attempts to destroy their theatre: inciting the Puritans to close it down, sending out bravos to burn it - they get lost and burn down Henslowe's theatre instead, and finally sabotaging the props for a performance of Henry VIII. (In fact, the Globe did burn down after an accident with cannon in Henry VIII.)

It's the small touches that make this book so successful - the nightwatchman with ambition, Shakespeare's continual attempts to begin his masterpiece Love's Labour Won, Raleigh's potato tasting and so on. It helps if you know something about Elizabethan history and drama, but the novel is still riotously funny even if you don't know that much. The tone of the whole thing is a little like a student revue (up to including a "Warning to scholars: This book is fundamentally unsound" at the beginning), but it is a good student revue.

Julian May: The Non-Born King (1983)

Edition: Pan, 1983
Review number: 121

The third of May's Saga of the Exiles follows on from the climactic events of The Golden Torc, which ended with the Atlantic flooding in past Gibraltar to begin the creation of the modern Mediterranean. The three communities, Tanu, human and Firvulag, are all seeking to rebuild in various ways, the different factions among them trying to use the chaos - coming more from the deaths of a large proportion of the Tanu ruling class than from the other damage done - to seize power and influence events.

The major factions are the main body of the Tanu, led by the extraordinary human Aiken Drum (a test-tube baby, the non-born king of the title); the traditionalist Tanu, looking for a return to the old ways of before the arrival of the humans; the Firvulag, who escaped from the catastrophe relatively unscathed but in uneasy alliance with Drum; the Howlers, deformed Firvulag who have finally discovered that the radioactive stone around their country is causing their problem and desiring re-integration with the main body of Firvulag society; a peace faction, led by the human operant Elizabeth; and the remnants of the Lowlives, human rebels against the Tanu, who have discovered that the aliens are poisoned by iron.

Into the political bickering of these well-established factions erupts a new force. Marc Remeillard is familiar to those who have read May's later published (though earlier conceived) novels, Intervention and the Galactic Milieu trilogy. I don't remember his introduction into the story being confusing the first time I read The Non-Born King, without the benefit of reading the later books, but I can easily see that it might cause a great deal of difficulty for a reader. The story is that after the rebellion's failure (detailed in the Galactic Milieu trilogy), a band of the metapsychics involved escaped through the time gate, lead by Remeillard, who was the main instigator of the rebellion. (Hence, to the people of the Milieu he is known as Abaddon, or the Adversary.) This group settled in Pleistocene Florida, where they have been searching for the early civilizations of the other species who make up the Galactic Milieu. The disorganisation of Tanu society has now convinced some of the younger members of the group that they can take advantage of the confusion to take over the time gate and construct a mechanism to enable them to return to the future.

As The Many Coloured Land was a preparation for the dramatic events of The Golden Torc, this novel is a scene setter for the climax of the series in The Adversary. The plot is less exciting, though the alien politics are interesting. The focus of the book is on establishing new characters and deepening our understanding of old ones. This process does reveal some limitations in May's ability to create characters that differ in depth as well as on the surface; many of the alien characters are extremely sketchy.

Friday 25 September 1998

E.E. "Doc" Smith: Galactic Patrol (1937)

Edition: Panther, 1977
Review number: 119

With the third of his Lensmen series, Smith introduces the man who will be the hero of the next four books - Galactic Patrol, Grey Lensman, Second Stage Lensmen and (to a lesser extent) Children of the Lens. Kimball Kinnison is the one for whom the Arisians have been waiting and working, the culmination of the human breeding programme they set up many centuries earlier. Galactic Patrol deals with the earliest stages of his career, from his graduation as a Lensman from the Patrol's cadet academy.

His graduation comes at a hard time for civilization. Organised pirates, known as Boskonians, have gained a great advantage in a new kind of space drive, making their ships far faster than anything the Patrol can build. That is, with the exception of one ship, the Britannia. New and experimental, she has abandoned the traditional ray armament of a space ship for an offence even older - explosive artillery, fired at an opponent held in place by unbreakable tractor beams. Her mission is to capture a Boskonian ship of the new type intact enough to get the secret of her speed (hence the artillery, which the scientists of the patrol think can damage another ship enough to disable it without destroying the information they want to have). Her experimental nature means that she would be useless to a man with the amount of experience normally required to captain a space ship, so she is given to Kinnison to command.

Galactic Patrol is science fiction of the old heroic, pulp fiction type, and is unashamedly so. It is immensly exciting if you can ignore the over-florid writing style; it is traditional comic book hero material as a novel, but great fun for all that.

Thursday 24 September 1998

John le Carré: The Looking Glass War (1965)

Edition: Pan, 1975
Review number: 118

The Looking Glass War, classic John le Carré, is a damning indictment of an amateur attitude in a professional world. It is about a small intelligence agency, a left-over from the war that by the late sixties had been over for more than twenty years, which is virtually defunct but valued for its archives. A rumour of odd troop movements in East Germany prompts it to an overflight by a pilot of a commercial aircraft to take photographs while pretending to go off course. The man from the agency trying to collect the film he has taken is killed, apparently from a hit and run accident, though the film has been taken from the body.

His death prompts Leclerc, in charge of the agency since the war, to consider running an agent for the first time in twenty years. This agent is prepared and equipped in the fashion appropriate in 1945; no one has any idea that things have changed. The equipment he is given includes a drastically obsolete radio transmitter. The agent is a bitter loner, himself left over from the war when he was betrayed to the Germans in its last days. The whole proceedings are watched by the naive Avery, new since the war; he is the centre of the book. His admiration for Leclerc and what he acheived during the war tuens to horror as he realises that the agent is being sent to his death. In their enthusiasm for a return to the operational days of the war, none of the others even begin to see this. The only person who does is Smiley, observing what is going on (from a distance) for the Circus; but Control will not let him interfere in what is bound to be a disastrous mission and which will probably bring an end to an agency which is (however ineffectually) in competition with the Circus.

This is one of le Carré's greatest novels, the air of impending doom so well done that it is a struggle to read. It is a book not just about cynicism and disillusionment but also about the dangers of misplaced enthusiasm and stupidity.

The title is a reference to the distance between the dreams of the spymasters and the reality of the sixties cold war by relating it to the adventures of Alice (Through the Looking Glass).

Wednesday 23 September 1998

David & Leigh Eddings: Polgara the Sorceress (1997)

Polgara the Sorceress coverEdition: Voyager, 1997
Review number: 117

Polgara the Sorceress is the second prequel to the Belgariad and Malloreon series. The different author attribution of this and Belgarath the Sorcerer apparently reflects not a change in how David Eddings' books are written, but is more an overdue acknowledgement. The story of the world of Belgarath and his family now occupies twelve books, though the two prequels match in length any two of the others.

The first prequel tells a first person narrative of the life of Belgarath, 'the Eternal Man'; this second one is the same, courtesy of his daughter, Polgara. There is naturally some overlap (as Belgarath has been alive through the whole of his daughter's life), but they concentrate on different aspects of the history of the Eddings' world.

Even though they come first chronologically, the prequels would not be a very interesting read before the remainder of the series. The place to start is with the first volume of the Belgariad, Pawn of Prophecy (which was published first). If you enjoy that series and the Malloreon, then come back to the two prequels. (Their scene-setting introductions follow on after the end of the main series.)

Myself, I would be pleased to see the Eddings abandon the arch tone that they take in the whole series, and which is particularly annoying in the prequels. There is a distinct sentimental vein to David Eddings - I once read an interview in which he referred to J.R.R. Tolkien rather nauseatingly as "Papa" - but he is able to jettison it when he desires to do so. His contemporary novels, High Hunt and The Losers, are much better written because in them he assumes a rather different style which works well. To sum up, Polgara the Sorceress is probably for fans only.

Tuesday 22 September 1998

Robert A. Heinlein: To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987)

Edition: Ace, 1988
Review number: 116

To Sail Beyond the Sunset was Robert Heinlein's very last novel, published just before his death. Like his other late novels (I think this applies to every one published after Job), it brings together many of his favourite characters. It is a sequel to The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, though you will have needed to read several other Heinlein novels to really understand what's going on (notably The Number of the Beast and Time Enough For Love; there is a full list of characters and the novels they come from at the end of the book.)

To Sail Beyond the Sunset is a first-person account of the life of Maureen, the mother of Woodrow Wilson Smith, otherwise known as Lazarus Long and the hero of Methuselah's Children and Time Enough for Love. She is apparently supposed to be autobiographical, but she reads more like a twelve year old boy's dream of what women should be like. This is a characteristic of many of the women in Heinlein's later books, and no doubt explains the popularity of these books with teenage boys.

Monday 21 September 1998

John Ford: 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (1633)

Edition: Everyman

John Ford's most famous play deals with the taboo theme of incest, prompting the writer of the introduction to this edition (first published in 1933) to disapprove of the decadence of the writer and audience.

The incestuous affair begins with Giovanni seducing his sister Annabella. He is a student, she on the verge of being betrothed. Their problems begin when Annabella discovers that she is pregnant; an attempt to get her quickly married off leads to her death at the hands of Giovanni, to preserve her honour. (Honour is a major theme of the play; the contrast between public reputation and private morality fascinated the Jacobeans as it did later playwrights such as Lorca.)

Some light relief from the grim plot is provided by Donado and Bergetto, his nephew. Donado wishes his nephew to court Annabella, but Bergetto is very stupid; he could almost be taken for a younger Sir Andrew Aguecheek. His idea of courtship involves innuendo and stupidity in equal measure (he talkes of showing her his "best parts", for example, but cannot bring himself to compliment her appearance).

The subject matter is not what has made this play survive for the four hundred years or so since Ford wrote it, though iots notoriety has obviously helped it to remain in the public consciousness. Ford's treatment is well thought out, avoiding the silly contrivances of Beaumont and Fletcher's forgotten incest play King and No King, where the discovery that one of the characters is a changeling allows a happy ending. Incest is the most condemned type of forbidden love, and is in fact a reasonably common theme (Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night are two important twentieth century novels to deal with it, for example). The difficulty in writing about it is not to trivialise the effects it can have, the guilt it can bring; here Ford, Faulkner and Fitzgerald succeed, while Beaumont and Fletcher and Heinlein fail.

Tuesday 15 September 1998

John Ford: The Broken Heart (1633)

Edition: Everyman
Review number: 114

Of the four plays in this Everyman volume (the others being Webster's The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, and Ford's own 'Tis Pity She's a Whore), this tragedy is by far the least known. It deals with the tragic consequences of an arranged marriage, with a sub-theme of fortitude in the face of personal tragedy.

It is appropriate, then, that the scene is set in Sparta, famous for the physical fortitude of its citizens. At the start of the play, Orgilus is explaining to his father Crotolan why he has suddenly decided to leave Sparta to study in Athens; he wants to get away from Penthea, the girl he loves who has been married to the jealous Bassanes; Orgilus has decided that for her welfare, to spare her the rages of Bassanes, he must leave.

The other plot concerns Ithocles, brother of Penthea and heroic general. He is loved by Calantha, daughter of the king Amyclas; yet she is going to be married to Nearchus, Prince of Argos, for dynastic reasons.

The tragic element to the plot comes about when Orgilus, unable to stay away from the woman he loves, returns to Sparta in disguise.

This is a carefully thought out tragedy, which deserves to be better known; there are some wonderful poetic moments (including Ithocles' set piece speech on ambition in the second act, and the sorrows of Calantha towards the end).

John Webster: The Duchess of Malfi (1623)

Edition: Everyman
Review number: 113

Webster's story of the Duchess of Malfi may be a Jacobean tragedy, but it is also a psychological horror story as well told as any modern novel in the genre.

The Duchess inherits her realm as a widow, and is urged by her broothers Ferdinand Duke of Calabria and the Cardinal to marry again. Although at first she vows never to remarry, she eventually falls for her steward, Antonio Bologna. Because he is her servant and not noble, they hide their marriage until she becomes obviously pregnant and is delivered of a son. When her brothers discover this, they assume that the child has been born out of wedlock. Ferdinand eventually discovers the truth, and the duchess realises that he and the cardinal will not be willing for her land to descend to her children by Antonio. They attack her lands and take her prisoner, then torture her by showing her signs as though Antonio and the children are dead.

It is the captivity of the duchess which is the greatest part of the play. The attempts by her brothers to drive her insane are treated in a way guaranteed to move even the most heartless; the proceeeings themselves move her jailor, steeped in crime though he is. This justly ranks as one of the best known non-Shakespearean plays of the period.