Friday 11 December 1998

Dornford Yates: Red in the Morning (1946)

Edition: Dent, 1986
Review number:  179

Red in the Morning is one of the Classic Thrillers series, though not written to as high a standard as Yates' Fire Below from the same series. Red in the Morning shows its age rather more, being very much "of its period". The characters are more stereotypical and less interesting, from the villainous Gedge to the upper class heroes. There is much casual chauvinism about the French (it is set in France) in the manner of the more offensive parts of Agatha Christie.

The two heroes, the friends Richard Chandos and Jonah Mansel interrupt and foil a robbery at the house of a friend of theirs. This robbery was organised by the gang chief Gedge, with whom Mansel has already clashed. Gedge is furious, and declares a war to the death against the two of them, which commences when he abducts Chandos' wife. The remainder of the novel details the battles between Gedge and his gang, holed up in a seemingly impregnable castle, and the two men. The castle belongs to Baron Horace, victim of Gedge's blackmail since the latter discovered that his image as an aricstocratic recluse was just a front for an international counterfeiting operation, and his neice, the beautiful Mona Lelong. Much of what happens is fairly predictable; Mona falls in love with Chandos (who is of course too honourable a married man to do anything about it) and defects to the opposition; amazing feats of physical derring-do enable Chandos and Mansel to attack the castle, avoiding the inevitable booby traps.

The two faults mentioned above, the casual chauvinism and the predictability, are the reasons this novel falls below the standard of Fire Below. Red in the Morning is still a gripping thriller by a master of the genre, even if not his best.

Thursday 10 December 1998

Molière: The Sicilian, or Love the Painter (1667)

Translation: John Wood, 1959
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 178

The Sicilian is one of Molière's one act entertainments dashed off for the pleasure of Louis XIV, complete with scenes for dancers and musical interludes. Despite their slight plots, they are usually fun to see or read, and The Sicilian is no exception.

Adrastes and Don Pedro are both in love with Isidore, a slave girl owned by Don Pedro. He has freed her so that they can get married, but his intense jealousy means that she has even less freedom than she had before. Meanwhile, Adrastes is plotting to gain opportunities to spend time with Isidore, which he does by pretending to be a painter commissioned to paint her portrait by Don Pedro. The best scene in the play is the sitting for this, consisting of outrageous complements poaid by Adrastes to Isidore, to Don Pedro's jealous rage, not assuaged by Adraste's assurances that as a Frenchman he pays such compliments to every woman he meets. The play ends as Adrastes abducts the willing Isidore, leaving Don Pedro furious.

The play leaves, at least on the page, the impression of not really having an ending; you could easily envisage further acts detailing Don Pedro's attempts at revenge. The introduction of a new character, a magistrate who is a friend of Don Pedro's, in the last lines of the play makes such a continuation seem even more likely. Yet what we have is quite delightful; you are certainly left wanting more.

Tuesday 8 December 1998

Molière: The Misanthrope (1661)

Translation: John Wood, 1959
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 177

The Misanthrope has two juvenile leads, who represent different aspects of human nature - indeed, as surmised by John Wood in his introduction, different aspects of the personality of Molière himself.

On the one hand, we have Alceste, disgusted with the hypocrisy of the world, who has declared that there is no good in man, and who has vowed never to lie about the virtues of others. He is, of course, the misanthrope of the title. This attitude gets him into a considerable amount of trouble, including a law suit which he loses because he refuses to flatter the judge and the enmity of Oronte, whose poetry he cannot bring himself to praise. His big problem is that he is in love with the flirtatious and shallow Célimène (as is his rival Oronte), and continues to be so despite his knowledge of all her faults, ones which he despises in others.

On the other hand, we have his friend Philinte, who has the instincts of a courtier, always ready to find a word in praise of others. Molière manages to make him sufficiently sympathetic that the audience will not blame or despise him for this in the way that it will some of the other characters. Nevertheless, the main interest for both Molière and for us is the character of Alceste, which is only natural given that there are more possibilities for comedy in a character who is different from everyone else around him (and from the audience too - a major part of the point of the play), and who refuses to moderate his principles in any way whatsoever.

We all know both the impulse to be the courtier and that to reject all hypocrisy, and this is one reason why The Misanthrope succeeds so well. John Wood describes it as Molière's masterpiece, and that is certainly a judgment that his translation bears out.

Monday 7 December 1998

Frank Herbert: Children of Dune (1976)

Edition: New English Library, 1977
Review number: 176

The third of Herbert's Dune novels marks the end of the first section of the series, with thousands of years now set to elapse before the next novel, God Emperor of Dune. With the exception of the classic first book, Children of Dune is probably the best of the series.

The psychological centre of this book is an investigation of what it would mean to be one of the "pre-born". These are three of the four descendants of Duke Leto Atreides and his concubine Jessica, the culminations of a centuries long breeding programme set up by the sinister Bene Gesserit sisterhood. The pre-born, their consciousnesses enhanced in the womb by the addiction of their mothers to the drug melange, break through into a new world as they gain access before birth to the accumulated memories of their ancestors.

There are distinct problems with this idea. Clearly, there is no feasible mechanism to pass on memories following the conception or birth of the child - which depends on the sex of the ancestor - but Herbert often seems to assume that all the memories from the whole life of the ancestor becomes available. Apart from this, it is difficult to think of a way in which the memories could be stored physically in the body and become part of the genetic inheritance of the children - it's a Lamarkian rather than Darwinian form of evolutionary biology. Also, the total number of ancestors would be huge - even going back a thousand years would produce tens of thousands, and the pre-born have memories from several millennia in the past. Just to store a full set of memories physically would be a feat, but being able to sort through, access and comprehend them is even more unlikely.

For the purposes of the story, these difficulties are virtually ignored. The main concern of the characters is with "abomination", where the pre-born personality is taken over - possessed - by one of their ancestors from what is described as "the clamour within". One, Alia, sister of the former emperor Paul and regent to his children, has fallen victim to the strong personality of her grandfather, the evil Baron Harkonnen who was the villain in the first novel in the series. The other two, Paul's twin children, undergo a variety of tests and rituals designed to find out whether or not they are abominations.

An important character in the book is the Preacher, a blind old man who comes to the capital to preach against the policies of Alia's regency and the way the religion centred around Paul has decayed in the few short years since the Emperor was blinded and walked out into the desert. Most people, including Alia, believe that the Preacher is Paul himself.

The fact that the pre-born and Paul also have a degree of prescience, knowledge of important possibilities in the future, is the other main mystical element in The Children of Dune. The conflict between their visions and the failure of Alia to receive new vision cause them to be the subject of many political plots and schemes, which are elements common to every book in the Dune series.

The two elements in which Herbert interests himself in most of his novels, not just the Dune series, are politics and psychology (particularly the psychology of religion). Here, these elements are skilfully woven together, the peg of the general abhorrence providing a natural way to do this. This is why the book works rather better than some of his others, which make the weaving together seem rather artificial.

Thursday 3 December 1998

Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse (1927)

Edition: Panther
Review number: 175

To The Lighthouse is the story of one woman, Mrs Ramsay, and the influence she has over her family, a large one with eight children, and her house guests. The Ramsay family live on a Hebridean island during the summer, where all three parts of the novel are set. In the first part, set before a war, she is carefully organising the lives of her children, her house guests and her neighbours. (She is an inveterate matchmaker.) Her husband is more interested in his work (something left undefined of an intellectual nature) than in his family, and often undoes much that she has been working towards by a casual remark. We see this in the proposed trip to the lighthouse on a small island off the coast, a treat for the Ramsay's son James and an opportunity for Mrs Ramsay to send her charitable aid to the lighthouse keeper. James has set his heart on going, encouraged by his mother, and then Mr Ramsay points out that given the time of year and the falling barometer there is no way the trip can be made safely. His remark is the occasion for much resentment, to which he is completely oblivious.

The second part chronicles the war through the decay of the now abandoned house; in the third part, the family return, depleted by the deaths of Mrs Ramsay and three of her children. In this part, it is the elderly Mr Ramsay who wants to go to the lighthouse, reluctantly accompanied by James and his sister Cam, now teenagers. The book ends with two significant events: they finally reach the lighthouse, and James' rowing is praised by his father, the first word of praise he has ever received from him.

The most obvious question about the book is "What is signified by a trip to the lighthouse?" Why is it that different characters at different times want to go there? The way that the eventually arrival at the lighthouse occurs at the moment when James receives the word of praise from his father is not a coincidence, nor is the way that the arrival brings the end of the book, no description of the actual visit being written by Woolf. The purpose of a lighthouse is to warn ships away from the rocks around it, effectively to point the way that travellers should go. That aspect of a lighthouse is not really mentioned in the book; the characters are more concerned by the difficulty of getting there and the isolation of those who live there. However, is this is the significance then the only way I can think of to relate this to the plot of the novel is to suggest it shows the way to a better relationship between James and his father, which can only be attained when the influence of Mrs Ramsay is overcome. That fits in with the way that James wants to go in the first part, encouraged by his mother but prevented by circumstances, and with his father wishing to go in the third part while James and Cam no longer want to.

One of the great strengths of this novel is the way the Woolf suggests a symbolic meaning while writing a novel which is rigorously naturalistic. In that sense, it is the opposite of Orlando, the only other Virginia Woolf novel I have read; there, the novel appears full of symbols, but few of them mean anything outside of themselves or only hark back to the main themes, longevity and sexual development.