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.

Anne Stevenson: Mask of Treason (1979)

Edition: Hamlyn
Review number: 134

The Mask of Treason is a competent thriller, very much in the mould of Mary Stewart. An innocent young woman gets caught up in terrible events - that is the essence of this plot as of many of Stewart's.

Fiona Grant is a costume designer, in the throes of her first major success, the costumes for an important and well-received production of Der Rosenkavalier. As this transfers from London to Edinburgh to form an important part of the International Festival, she takes advantage of the few days' rest while everything moves north to visit her parents on the West Coast of Scotland.

Asked by her rich uncle to bring his Mercedes north from Glasgow for him, it is during the car journey that her adventures begin, as she comes out of a fog bank and brakes just in time to avoid an accident with a stationary pair of cars, one containing a dead man.

As she travels on north with Wyndham, the naval commander who was in the other car, she becomes involved in a shadowy world of espionage centred around the navy research base on the island opposite the small town in which her father runs a boatyard.

Mask of Treason is an interesting, if gentle, thriller, which is another reason that it reminds the reader of Mary Stewart. If Stewart had continued to write in the same vein as Nine Coaches Waiting, Airs Above the Ground and Wildfire at Midnight instead of moving to a more mystical vein which produced the excellent Arthur novels and the more insipid romances she has written in the last few years, then Mask of Treason is the sort of novel she could easily have gone on to produce.

Friday 9 October 1998

P.C. Doherty: Ghostly Murders (1997)

Ghostly Murders coverEdition: Headline, 1997
Review number: 132

I rather like the idea behind this series of Doherty's, very different from the Hugh Corbett mysteries or the Brother Athelstan books he writes as Paul Harding. The characters are the pilgrims of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and the idea is that in the evenings, resting from the day's journey, each pilgrim in turn told a murder story to match the tales told during the day and recorded by Chaucer. The stories so far (I believe this is the fourth) all have much the same format, third person narratives which turn out to be thinly disguised autobiographical accounts interspersed with comments from the other pilgrims. Each individual story is much longer than the ones in the Canterbury Tales, and they connect together several of the pilgrims (so that the final number of books in the series will be fewer than twenty-four, the number of Chaucer's tales).

Ghostly Murders is the tale of the poor priest, and it brings in the cook and the ploughman. It is extremely unusual among modern historical novels dealing with the Middle Ages in that it includes supernatural events which do not admit of rational explanation - visions of ghostly horsemen, physical attacks by spectres. Naturally, just about everyone in the fourteenth century would believe in such phenomena, but it is almost a convention of historical writing to allow a get-out for the modern sceptic.

The plot also involves a theme to which just about all writers of novels depicting the fourteenth century - and indeed many others - eventually turn: the downfall of the Templars in 1308. The overnight destruction of the richest and most powerful order of fighting monks (so rich and powerful as to amount to virtually a separate state within Europe) by Philip IV of France, and the acquiescence in its destruction by the Pope and other monarchs including Edward II of England is an irresistibly romantic mystery, with questions such as how justified were the accusations made against them? How complete was the destruction? Why did they just fold up and let it happen to the? (An interesting novel to read if you want to know more about the bizarre theories devised to answer these questions is Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum; Lawrence Durrel's Avignon Quintet looks at the issue from a rather different angle.)

Clearly (and this is one of the few clear aspects of the event), the destruction of the Templars was less swift and less complete in England than in France. The premise of Doherty's novel is that a group of Templars were fleeing from their London headquarters with treasure, when they were lured into the Kentish marshes and killed from a distance with longbows. Over the next generation, the priests of the nearest village have a tendency to feel they are fighting the forces of evil, and to see spirits of both the knights and those who attacked them; then to become obsessed with the treasure and die raving. The novel deals with two men, brothers and priests, sent by the Bishop of Rochester to the village.

Ghostly Murders is an interesting ghost story, not particularly a mystery. Doherty manages his usual authentic feel, the characters not falling into anachronistic Freudian psychoanalysis as is only too common in this sort of novel. It is not written with the genius of Chaucer, so the various storytellers are rather similar to one another - strangely enough, their recitations fall into the same literary style - but it is entertaining.

Thursday 8 October 1998

Norman Lebrecht: When the Music Stops (1996)

When the Music Stops coverEdition: Simon & Schuster, 1996
Review number: 131

When the Music Stops is Norman Lebrecht's notorious attack on the classical music business and what he views as its virtually terminal decline. As music critic for the Daily Telegraph he is in a good position to know the current state of the industry, and he is not afraid to be critical or to name names. Condemned by many when it came out - particularly those with an interest in the kind of activities he criticises - When the Music Stops is vitriolic and extremely entertaining.

Lebrecht's thesis is basically twofold. The large agencies gained too great a share in the market for musicians, leading to corruption ("If you want such and such a star, the rest of your opera cast must also be my clients"), particularly as these agencies were also connected with broadcasting, recording and performance venues. The concurrent concentration on a few star names has led to overpriced big fee performers, and this means lower wages for other musicians and an inability on the part of venues and recordings to make a profit. Many artists and managers come in for criticism along the way, but Lebrecht seems to want to reserve his strongest criticism for Herbert von Karajan, with his dubious Nazi past and demand for ever greater control in his autocracies of the Salzburg festival and the Berlin Philharmonic.

There is certainly some truth in the generalities of what Lebrecht says; large fees do not guarantee a good performance. Not even perfection does that; Karajan turned in many soulless performances on record in which not a wrong note could be heard. (I don't really like Karajan's conducting myself either.) It is difficult for one outside the music profession to have a complete enough picture to be able to judge how one-sided Lebrecht's view of things actually is. As he himself points out, there are record labels doing good things and even making money - Lebrecht cites Nimbus and Hyperion among others.

No matter whether or not you agree with his argument, When the Music Stops is great fun to read, as it dissects the music business fearlessly, from the time of Mozart to the present.

Wednesday 7 October 1998

Frank Herbert: The Dragon in the Sea (1956)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 130

Frank Herbert's first science fiction novel, set in about 2020 and written in 1956, today reads more like a contemporary thriller than science fiction, even though it is set in a somewhat different world to the real one. It is set during a length, drawn out nuclear war (it was written at a time when comparatively little was known and much less public about the effects of a nuclear attack). The West is running short of oil but cannot easily obtain it while the East controls much of the world's oceans; this is a war in which air power is virtually non-existent because of the lack of fuel. The Western military have come up with a daring plan to obtain oil: sending nuclear powered submarines underwater all the way to Eastern oilfields on their continental shelf, towing oil tanks into the Arctic coastal waters and drilling there to remove cargoes of oil. Putting it baldly like this makes it easier to see the technical difficulties which are skated over - and skilfully hidden from the reader - in the longer explanations in the novel itself.

After some initial success, things have begun to go wrong, until there have been twenty missions in a row that have failed. This is partly because the Easterners have to some extent caught on to what is going on, and partly because of infiltration of submarine bases and crews by carefully hidden sleepers, not yet active spies and saboteurs.

The hitherto most successful crew has been in port for some time. In their last mission, they lost one of their four-man team, the electronics officer. Now they are to go to sea again, with a new electronics officer who is a trained psychologist from security. He is there to investigate what makes this crew successful and to ensure that none of the others are sleepers.

The tense atmosphere of the submarine, underwater and completely isolated because of the need to keep radio silence, is well-portrayed. The issue of the importance of religion to the men on the ship is handled with particular interest and sensitivity. The beginning and end of the book, which take place ashore, are rather less immediately convincing.

Tuesday 6 October 1998

Jean-Paul Sartre: Huis Clos (1944)

Translation: As In Camera, by Stuart Gilbert (1946)
Edition: Penguin , 1960
Review number: 128

Huis Clos is probably the best of Sartre's drama. Here he chooses a form in which his philosophical arguments fall more naturally than in the situations set up in his other plays, and this means that the philosophy is less nakedly apparent. By setting the play in a hell of his own creation, he can mould the setting to fit in with the main points he wishes to make, while in his other plays the setting is either naturalistic (as in Les Sequestres d'Altona and Morts sans Sepultures) or based on a well-known myth (as in Les Mouches).

There are three main characters in Huis Clos, each, recently deceased, shown in turn into the Second Empire drawing room in which they are destined to spend eternity together by the valet, the only employee of hell they will ever see. Garcin is a South American journalist who claims to have died a hero for standing up for the freedom of the press; Inez is a lesbian killed by her lover who committed suicide by gassing them both; and Estelle is a socialite who lives only for the company of men. Each of them slowly realises that they are there to torment each other, leading to Garcin's famous remark, "Hell is other people". They also come to know more about each other than they want to, as they are able to see what is happening on earth when someone is talking or thinking about them, and they narrate what is happening almost involuntarily.

What is revealed about the three of them is that their crimes are essentially existential in nature; and here Sartre very wisely chooses not to interrupt the flow of the play to explain or analyse them. Garcin is in fact a coward obsessed by bravery and honour, killed in an attempt to flee the country. Estelle revels in her power over some kind of men - not Garcin, who is too self-obsessed to be interested in women - and yet she killed her baby to be able to carry on her life in the style which she enjoyed. Inez killed her lover's husband in order to be with her.

The three are believable characters, and the more we know about them the more we see how they have been cleverly selected to torment one another for eternity.

The French title refers to the vacation period when the courts are closed; thus it means that there is no way for the characters in the play to change their fate: no appeal. The English title chosen for this translation is also a legal term, but with a somewhat different meaning. In a sense it is also appropriate to the play; the characters are on trial, but only the judge and jury (and indeed executioners) in the persons of the other characters are present.

George MacDonald: Phantastes (1853)

Edition: Wm. B. Eerdmans

Today MacDonald is perhaps best known for his childrens books, particularly The Princess and the Goblin, but (like Hans Christian Andersen) he also wrote for adults. He was one of the nineteenth century precursors of the modern fantasy genre, along with William Morris (whose work Phantastes closely resembles) and collectors and writers of fairy stories such as Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, and the Celtic revivalists. Through his influence on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, MacDonald has come to have an effect on twentieth century literature rather greater than his innate literary merit deserves.

Part of what doesn't quite come off about Phantastes is that it is almost completely devoid of plot. The narrator stumbles into Fairy Land, where, after several adventures in a wood he gains a shadow (beyond his natural one); the remainder of the book is spent in an attempt to perform good and valiant deeds to remove it. It is akin to the individual quest which is part and parcel of the fantasy genre (deriving from medieval epics detailing the adventures of knights), mainly because Tolkien used it in The Lord of the Rings. But the journey is not really sufficiently purposeful here to be called a quest; the reader gets the distinct impression that the narrator is wandering aimlessly from one adventure to another.

The positive side to this lack of plot is that it gives Phantastes a dreamlike, poetic quality (though the actual poetry that appears in the book is best skipped, as in so many later fantasy novels). This is particularly true of the best episode in the novel, the time spent by the narrator in the castle of the Fairy Queen, trying to catch a glimpse of the courtiers invisible to normal human eyes.

A major aspect of Phantastes, and one strong influence on Tolkien and particularly Lewis, is the allegory. Many of the episodes have an allusive, symbolic quality, typical of medieval allegories such as Piers Plowman, though the symbols used by MacDonald here are sufficiently personal to make interpretation difficult if not impossible. From clues in the text, and given that MacDonald was an ordained (if somewhat eccentric) clergyman, it is reasonable to guess that part of the thems of the novel is to allegorise the Christian life. Fairy Land represents the spiritual world in which the Bible insists a Christian lives, with both good and evil spirits; the shadow is the soul's load of sin (as in The Pilgrim's Progress). Beyond this it is difficult to go, though there is an extremely clear picture of death and the resurrection towards the end of the book.

Monday 5 October 1998

Ugo Betti: The Queen and the Rebels (1949)

Translation: Henry Reed, 1960
Edition: Penguin, 1960
Review number: 127

The Queen and the Rebels is a play which reminded me of Shaw, particularly of Arms and the Man. That may be partly to do with the setting, a middle European war, or may be to do with the translation; it is always difficult to know anything about the tone of a play when it is translated from a language which one does not speak. In this case, I suspect that Henry Reed has chosen to write in a Shavian style, for, other than superficialities of setting, The Queen and the Rebels is not a comedy nor does it have a strong didactic purpose.

The play itself concerns a group of travellers stranded by the war and suspected by the side controlling the village where their train has been stopped of being spies. One of the leaders of the other side was a woman of noble extraction known to both her followers and her enemies as "The Queen". She is believed to have escaped the destruction of her headquarters and to be attempting to flee the country, in disguise.

Once this is established, the theme of the play begins to become clear: it is to do with identity. There are two women in the party of travellers, a peasant woman and a girl who is apparently a wealthy call-girl named Argia. The latter is suspected of being the queen, but she herself treats the peasant woman as though she is the queen. Relying on the villagers' interpreter, Raim, who knew her before the war, to establish her identity, she has the ground pulled out from under her when he refuses to do so for fear of the authorities (who might then decide he is an accomplice).

All the questions which arise are about real identity. Which of the two women is the queen, if either of them are? (If Argia is the queen, what she says to the peasant woman could be just in case she's overheard, and Raim could indeed by a former accomplice.) The other question of identity left unanswered is which side is formed by the rebels of the title?

Friday 2 October 1998

Jean Anouilh: L'Invitation au Chateau (1948)

Translation: Published as Ring Around the Moon, by  Christopher Fry, 1950
Edition: Penguin, 1960
Review number:126

This play is here translated as Ring Around the Moon, a title which conveys something of the atmosphere of L'invitation au Chateau, but which is neither true to the original title nor connected to any part of the action. L'invitation au Chateau falls very definitely into that comparatively light-hearted group of plays by Anouilh known as pièces roses. The action takes place at a rich party, in the course of a single evening, and revolved round a pair of twin brothers, played by the same actor. Hugo and Frederic are very different people, despite their identical appearance; Frederic is soft and gentle while Hugo is hard, cynical and manipulative. It is hard not to feel that they symbolise the contrasting sides of a single character.

Both twins are in love with the same woman, the heiress Diana Masserschmann. Frederic appears to have won her, as they are engaged, and Hugo invites the ballet dancer Isabelle to the ball, paying her to captivate Frederic. The play is very much a comedy, and comes across as distinctly influenced by Oscar Wilde (though this may possibly be Fry rather than Anouilh). Even if I have criticisms of the title, the translation does Anouilh more of a service than those in the Methuen volume of his playes, which seem more designed to put you off the playwright than to encourage you to read or see more of his work.

Thursday 1 October 1998

David Thomson: England in the Twentieth Century (1905-63) (1965)

Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 125

The final volume in the Pelican History of England covers easily the shortest period, less than sixty years. It has a slightly different focus than the other books in the series, concentrating on the relationship between Britain and the rest of the world, and perhaps containing less about the social developments of the period. Thomson combines economic, social and political history into a single narrative, so it is a little bit more difficult to tell what proportion is being given to each type.

In some ways, this may seem a cop-out, as in most periods the economic and social pictures are far more difficult to piece together than the political. This doesn't apply to recent history to the same extent, because these formerly hidden parts of history are far less so: economic and social measurements and data are far more sophisticated, systematic and complete and, even more important, almost immediately available to inform comment and action, so that the affect the political scene far more obviously. (In the eighteenth century, it wasn't possible for the government to know such things as the total wealth of the country, for example.) The history of the labour movement is a fairly obvious case in point; it is clearly a major social and economic phenomenon of the twentieth century, yet it can be fairly adequately documented through its political effects.

No history written two thirds of the way through a century can possibly be considered the seminal popular history of that period; it will probably be another fifty years before historians will be far enough away from its events to look back objectively and see what its truly important trends and events were. In this book, Thomson managed to make a good start; he even avoided the rather ridiculous Churchill-worship which seemed endemic amongst sixties historians.