Friday 27 November 1998

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

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

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

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

Thursday 26 November 1998

Peter Tremayne: The Subtle Serpent (1996)

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

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

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

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

Friday 20 November 1998

Graham Greene: The Comedians (1966)

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

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

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

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

Thursday 19 November 1998

Jill Paton Walsh: A Piece of Justice (1995)

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 18 November 1998

Thomas Browne: Religio Medici (1643)

Edition: Renascence Editions, 1998
Review number: 170

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

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

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

Tuesday 17 November 1998

Robin Hobb: Royal Assassin (1996)

Royal Assassin coverEdition: Voyager, 1996

Review number: 169  

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

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

Monday 16 November 1998

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

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1996
Review number: 167

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edition: Panther, 1973
Review number: 168

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

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

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

Friday 13 November 1998

Michael Dobbs: The Buddha of Brewer Street (1998)

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

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

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

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

Julian May: Intervention (1987)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1987
Review number: 166

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

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

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

Wednesday 11 November 1998

Veronica Stallwood: Oxford Mourning (1995)

Edition: Macmillan, 1995
Review number: 164

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

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

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

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

Ngaio Marsh: Scales of Justice (1955)

Edition: Fontana, 1976
Review number: 163

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 10 November 1998

Frank Herbert: Dune Messiah (1969)

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

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

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

Monday 9 November 1998

Arthur Bryant: Set in a Silver Sea (1984)

Edition: Collins, 1984
Review number: 161

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

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

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

Friday 6 November 1998

Michael Jecks: The Crediton Killings (1997)

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

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

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

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

Thursday 5 November 1998

Gerald Durrell: The Mockery Bird (1981)

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

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

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

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

Molière: Don Juan (1665)

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 4 November 1998

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

Edition: Pan, 1974
Review number: 157

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 3 November 1998

Molière: L'amour Médecin (1665)

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

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

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

Molière: The Miser (1668)

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

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

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

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

Monday 2 November 1998

Marcel Proust: Within a Budding Grove (1919)

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

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

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