Friday 17 December 1999

Margery Allingham: Black Plumes (1940)

Edition: Granada
Review number: 410

Allingham's novels which are not about Albert Campion tend to have a dark and eerie atmosphere. Black Plumes is one of the best of them, and is almost totally mystifying as a detective story. The point of view from which it is written is to a large extent responsible for this, because the central character is one of the witnesses, who has almost no idea of what is going on. Allingham uses Frances Ivory to convey something of the fear and confusion which must surround becoming involved in a murder investigation, placing the story on a more human footing than is often the case with novels following the detective at work.

Frances belongs to an old London family, owners of a private art gallery and art dealers. In recent times strange things have begun to happen: a series of attacks on the gallery, strange behaviour by the head of the business, Frances' brother in law Robert Madrigal, and his encouragement of the obnoxious Henry Lucar. Then Madrigal's body is discovered, Lucar having disappeared, seemingly the obvious (and welcome) suspect.

Characteristically, Allingham populates the novel with grotesques. As well as Lucar, there is the redoubtable ancient Gabrielle Ivory, Frances' grandmother, applying the standards of a forgotten erat; Frances' invalid stepsister, Phillida; and the hearty explorer Godolphin, rescued from the Tibetan prison where he has lain for years, believed dead.

Thursday 16 December 1999

Diana Wynne Jones: Deep Secret (1997)

Edition: Gollancz, 1998
Review number: 409

There is a simplicity about Deep Secret which reminds the reader that Diana Wynne Jones made her name as a children's author. Despite this, it contains themes which are definitely aimed at an adult audience. Its biggest weakness is the background, which is perhaps not sufficiently differentiated from other fantasy novels. The Earth is one of a collection of worlds arranged in a figure eight - the universal signifier for infinity. One side is Aywards, and magic dominates these worlds; the other is Naywards, worlds where science is supreme. Each world has men and women appointed as Magids, to nudge the world's subconscious to keep it at the appropriate level of magic/science (Earth should be far more Aywards than it is). They do this by releasing parts of the Deep Secrets which underly the universe, in forms such as nursery rhymes which subtly affect the whole culture.

One of Earth's Magids dies, and Rupert Venables begins the task traditional to the most junior of a world's Magids, to find and train a successor. This search becomes caught up with another of his responsibilities, the succession in the Koryfonic Empire, the group of worlds straddling the cross point of the collection of worlds. Both of these sides to the plot come to a head at a science fiction convention in a hotel at a point of occult power, where Rupert has brought the Magid candidates so he can make a decision as to which should be appointed.

The story draws the reader in, and though the background is fairly childish, turns out to be an excellent variation on its theme.

Wednesday 15 December 1999

Paul Feyerabend: Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975)

Edition: Verso, 1993
Review number: 408

Possibly Feyerabend's best known book, Against Method is basically an attack on the idea that science has a single, monolithic 'method', one which has stood the test of time and produced the 'advances' (the advance of science is a subsidiary target) leading to the science we know today. Instead of the close connection between ideas of rationality and scientific method on which many thinkers would base their understanding of science on, Feyerabend points out contradictory and irrational ideas, to his mind not just part of science but at its very core. They are particularly important, he believes, in the challenging of fundamental assumptions which leads to 'revolutions'.

A major part of the book is taken up with brilliant analysis of the example he uses to underpin most of his argument, the writings of Galileo in which he sought to establish the Copernican system as against the accepted Ptolemaic one, and in particular to prove that the earth moves despite immediate appearances.

Feyerabend exposes the logical poverty and propagandist nature of Galileo's argument most convincingly. However, there are reasons which make it a bad example to use as a paradigm of scientific practice. Firstly, it comes from an early period of modern science in which mathematics was not established as the language of argument. Galileo's writing has a literary nature more akin to what would today be considered philosophy rather than physics (the major work quoted by Feyerabend, the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, is modelled after the Socratic dialogues of Plato). To carry conviction, modern scientific reasoning is expected to be couched in mathematical terms, even if new mathematical ideas have to be introduced to express it. (Strong arguments can be introduced against this, though it is not Feyerabend's theme here; not least of these would be the important question as to why mathematics seems to so successfully model the universe.)

Secondly, few (if any) practising scientists today would cite Galileo as a paradigm for scientific reasoning. A hero, yes, but an example, no. To use him as the principal prop on which to base an attack on the scientific method does not make the attack significantly more convincing, particularly as Feyerabend occasionally tends to follow Galileo into propaganda. He does use examples other than this one, but they are not particularly convincing and often trivial (several optical illusions among them).

Feyerabend does have important things to say, but he has a tendency to make rather too much of them. The way in which scientists work is of course not monolithic, nor has it remained changeless over the last four centuries. Of course the assumptions underlying scientific thought need to be made clearer and are not unchallengeable. Of course scientists do not think as clearly in the heat of the moment as they may do later when formalising what they want to say for public consumption.

Leslie Charteris: The Holy Terror (1932)

Alternative title: The Saint Versus Scotland Yard
Edition: Hodder & Stoughton
Review number: 407

By mid 1932, Charteris must have been tired; and The Holy Terror was only in the middle of an amazing burst of work which produced most of the early Saint stories in just a couple of years. The strain shows here, slightly, in the way that some of the originality of earlier stories is missing. While he cannot be said to be just going through the motions, there is little in the three stories in this book that is not standard and by this time well established in the Saintly canon.

The first story, The Inland Revenue, sees Simon Templar pursuing a blackmailer known as 'the Scorpion' for a contribution towards his income tax bill; The Million Pound Day concerns Simon's rescue of an Italian diplomat and subsequent foiling of a plot to destabilise the Italian economy; finally, The Melancholy Journey of Mr Teal is a race between Chief Inspector Teal and the Saint to find some stolen diamonds.

The middle story is one of my favourites of all the Saint stories. Though it contains no new elements, it is an expertly put together, typical Saint story. It could be cited as a paradigm of the early Saint. The most interesting aspect of any of these stories, however, occurs in The Melancholy Journey of Mr Teal when Simon carries his "favourite sport" of baiting Teal a little too far. He miscalculates to the extent that his expected triumph is no triumph at all, and this makes him a more human character.

Tuesday 14 December 1999

Anne Perry: A Sudden Fearful Death (1993)

Edition: Headline, 1994
Review number: 406

The first of Perry's William Monk detective stories to be published in the U.K., A Sudden Fearful Death does not read like the first of a series. The reader is given the impression that they should already know some of the characters, and be familiar with other events and cases. I do not know if there is a precursor to the novel, but if there is not, it is an interesting way to make the reader feel part of something ongoing.

Unfortunately, A Sudden Fearful Death is rather a weak novel, as Perry gets carried away by her mission to expose the unpleasantness of Victorian England. There is no denying that for many people, particularly women, it was a place with much suffering. But the hypocrisy of the period is what marks it out, and it is what obsesses Perry in her other series, featuring Inspector Pitt. Here, it is exposed more publicly, in a trial scene which would surely have become one of the most celebrated cases in the nineteenth century, with at least one extremely unlikely aspect to it dictated by a desire to provide a dramatic ending. (There were surely mechanisms, even then, to present new evidence which comes to light after the conclusion of the prosecution case.)

The other weakness of the novel is that several characters behave inconsistently, particularly the man accused of the murder and his family. Things become known which a much greater effort would have been made to hush up, where Pitt should have a much harder time breaking through the veils of secrecy to find the clues he needs to work out the solution. Most disappointing.

Monday 13 December 1999

Henry James: The Wings of the Dove (1902)

Edition: Bodley Head
Review number: 405

Henry James is generally reckoned to have had a late burst of creativity out of which came The Wings of a Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. This may be the case, but I suspect that his earlier works are more frequently read today.

The title, and a fair amount of imagery in the novel, comes from Psalm 55. That psalm speaks of the experience of terror, and the desire for wings to fly to the place of shelter. (This is, in the original, distinctly spiritual rather than just a banal idea of physical escape; the presence of God is the place of shelter, and the dove symbolises the Spirit of God.) James secularises the idea, transforming it to fit his story.

The dove, in the novel, is a rich young American women, Milly Theale, who travels to Europe when she is diagnosed as suffering from an incurable disease. There she meets the Englishwoman Kate Croy, and they become friends. Kate has a lover, Merton Densher, but they are unable to marry because neither has any money. The opposition of Kate's relatives means that their engagement is a secret, and Kate conceives a calculating and unpleasant plan. Densher will pretend to fall in love with Milly, to inherit her money so that their marriage can take place.

The scheme works, except that Densher's friendship with Milly and her gentleness and goodness mean that he is strongly affected by her death. The idea of profiting it through his deception becomes abhorrent to him. Though he did not fall in love with Milly, he is accused by Kate of loving her ghost, and she perceptively realises that the wings of the dove will always overshadow their relationship. (She was the driving force behind the whole of the deception, Densher being rather passive, like many of James' male characters.)

There are several problems with The Wings of the Dove as a novel. The plot lends itself to detailed psychological study, but James never seems to quite decide which of the three central characters he should concentrate on: Milly dies before the point where Densher is transformed mentally, he is too much of a cipher to be interesting, and Kate is not physically present for the most important part of the book, when Densher pays an extended visit to the dying Milly in Venice. James seems to be most interested in Milly, but she is a little too sweet and good, one of the last of those nineteenth century heroines in English literature.

James' treatment of the story is also very slow, over three hundred rather tedious pages being used to set the plot in motion. This has the effect of making Densher's change of heart towards the end seem very sudden, which is interesting, but it does mean that most of the book is peripheral to the psychological heart of the novel. The Wings of the Dove is based on an interesting idea, but I think it could have been better handled.

Friday 10 December 1999

William Morris: The Wood Beyond the World (1894)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1980
Review number: 404

The earliest of Morris' fantasy stories, The Wood Beyond the World is short and simply told, in the style derived from medieval romance that is his trademark. The story is one which emphasises the psychological world at the expense of the plot, and has the curious feature of an ending which seems to forget about the beginning.

Driven from his home by an unhappy marriage, Walter Goldn is haunted by a recurring vision of a lady, an attendant maid wearing the iron ring of thralldom on her thigh, and a hideous dwarf. Attempting to return home for revenge when he hears news that his father has been killed by his wife's relatives, his ship is blown off course to a deserted region. He makes his way into a primeval forest, the wood beyond the world, where he meets the people from his vision.

It is easy to see Freudian ideas at work in this book, particularly in the scenes with the lady in the wood, hunting dangerous animals together, stalked by the dwarf. (As in many medieval authors including Thomas Malory and Chretien de Troyes, the dwarf stands for impurity and evil.) Yet Morris was writing before Freud's theories about dreams were published, and his images will have come from his medieval sources and his own imagination. They are still disturbing, particularly with the strange resolution in which Walter forgets his revenge totally, being crowned the king of an entirely different nation.

Thursday 9 December 1999

Tom Shippey: The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories (1994)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1994
Review number: 403

This collection of short stories aims to be representative of the history of the modern fantasy genre, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The authors include many important shapers of the genre, though there are odd omissions - Tolkien, Morris, MacDonald and Donaldson, for example. The selection concentrates on the earlier years, probably because the average reader of fantasy relies on the selection in the local bookshop and only ever sees relatively recent literature. The introduction explains something of the importance of the writers, though its thematic rather than historical arrangement makes it difficult to gain a coherent understanding of the history of the genre from it. (It is clearly intended as a discussion of what makes a story fantasy and what elements are contained in a fantasy story.) The book would have been improved by giving a short editorial introduction to each story, to set it into the context of the author's work - some are entirely typical, like Robert Holdstock's Thorn, others not at all, like Mervyn Peake's Same Time Same Place - and to describe the author's role in the fantasy genre in general.

For my taste, the selection ran rather too close to the horror end of the genre, and one or two of the stories are very unpleasant indeed, while few have the lightheartedness so typical of another side of the genre, a tradition running from Pratchett back to de Camp and beyond. (The most humorous stories are the first and last, The Demon Pope by Richard Garnett from 1888 and Troll Bridge by Terry Pratchett from 1992.)

Wednesday 8 December 1999

Michael Jecks: The Leper's Return (1998)

Edition: Headline, 1998
Review number: 400

The treatment of lepers in the medieval period is something distasteful to a modern viewpoint, an example of extreme inhumanity driven by fear. It is a part of our history which makes the homophobia sparked by AIDS pale into insignificance (though parallels can be drawn); and it went on for hundreds of years. Such a terrible disease, not just incurable (at the time), but bringing horrific deformity, must have been (they thought) a punishment from God, a judgement for some terrible sin. It didn't take much imagination to make the assumption that lepers were monsters of depravity. This provided the excuse for persecution, as the supposed extreme infectiousness of the disease provided the excuse for making lepers into outcasts.

The official attitude of the church was slightly different, and it was thought to be a duty to provide some sort of shelter, in the form of leper hospitals. These were often pretty squalid, and little care and treatment could be provided. They also formed focal points for persecution, and massacres of lepers are recorded in times of misfortune, alongside persecution of Jews.

This is a sombre subject for a crime novel, and is reasonably well handled by Jecks. It is the attempts to relieve the mood with low comedy that are the biggest failures - a clumsy dog and its battle with a tyrannical maidservant. In the end, they (and the romantic subplot) spoil the novel. Of course, it is intended as a piece of entertainment, and it succeeds on this level, but it could have been much more without the soft edges.

Romain Gary: The Dance of Genghis Cohn (1969)

Translation: By the author
Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1969
Review number: 402

Romain Gary's novel of the Holocaust is like no other. Instead of directly portraying the suffering of the Jews, it looks at the effect it had on those who carried out the tortures, the massacres. Depending on how you look at it, the novel has either one or two major characters, and both they and those around them are symbolic of other things. Police Commissioner Schatz of the small German town of Licht has a shameful secret in his past, shared with hundreds of other Germans of his generation: during the war, he was a sergeant in the SS, and ordered the massacre of Jews. But now he is haunted by the ghost of one of the men whose death he ordered, a comedian who had the stage name Genghis Cohn. A constant reminder of his guilt, Cohn has driven Schatz to the point of secretly keeping Jewish festivals and eating kosher food. At the moment, he is also under severe stress because a mass murderer is at large: over twenty men have been discovered in the forest of Geist around Licht, with no trousers on and expressions of ecstasy: they have been loved to death.

Gary is looking at how, towards the end of the sixties, the Holocaust began to be forgotten as new injustices took its place in the public consciousness: the civil rights movement in the US, the Vietnamese villagers massacred by American soldiers. Jews are no longer the victims they have been throughout history. They are even being invited to accept brotherhood with those who once persecuted them (and Gary quotes the Pope and Charles de Gaulle to show that this was really happening). Cohn is suspicious of this offer, for he realises that this means sharing the guilt of the oppressors.

This is the serious side of the novel, which is also hilariously funny, with a very black style of humour. A comedian in the Warsaw ghetto can hardly have been a "feel good" act, and Cohn's ghost continues to make the reader uneasy even when laughing at his wisecracks.

Dennis Kay: Shakespeare: His Work, Life and Era (1992)

Edition: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1992
Review number: 401

As yet another biography of Shakespeare, a book needs to have something different about it to fight its way through all the others. Apart from his eminence which means that there is much competition, his life also suffers from a scarcity of hard facts as opposed to legends. Kay's particular slant is to aim to place the plays and poems in the context of the life and the times. It is almost more a work of literary criticism than a biography, if unfashionably centred on the author rather than the reader. He has little to say about the life that isn't well known, his descriptions of Elizabethan and Jacobean politics and theatrical history are more interesting, but it is his summaries of the themes and circumstances of the plays themselves that are the finest parts of the book. Each play gets about four pages, little enough space to describe them; but Kay is able to illuminatingly set out the themes which show Shakespeare's concerns and development as a writer. He is unfailingly orthodox, keen to avoid the strange obsessive flights of the imagination that characterise many writers on Shakespeare, most obviously (recently) Ted Hughes. He does not want to use the writings to illuminate the life, a dangerous but common practice, but vice versa.

The book has a terrible index (but even that is more than Hughes' Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being). Every play is given space in the book, but some are not listed at all in the index.

Tuesday 7 December 1999

Colin Renfrew: Archaeology and Language (1987)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1987
Review number: 399

It is very obvious that Romance languages such as Italian and Spanish are very similar, and the reason that this is the case is not hard to find - Roman domination leading to Latin dialects becoming the main languages spoken over much of south western Europe. It was only from the beginning of this century that scholars began to realise that many more languages were related to a lesser degree, covering most of Europe and, surprisingly, India - the Indo-European group of languages. This realisation immediately begs the question of what the reason for this might be, and this has been the subject of much speculation ever since.

By the thirties, the theory that became the consensus view was established. This was that there was a single race, the Indo-Europeans, which had, at some point in the prehistoric past, suddenly exploded from their homeland (thought to be in the Russian steppes) and established rule over a large area, changing the local language through a process known as "elite dominance". This theory rather unfortunately gained the attention of Adolf Hitler, and formed the justification (such as it was) for his view of the Aryans (from the name Aryas given to Indo-European speakers in the Sanskrit oral tradition in India) as a superior race.

By the seventies, the traditional view was strongly questioned, though the alternatives presented also seemed rather implausible. The problem is basically that the connections between the linguistic and archaeological evidence is tenuous at best, and often involves circular reasoning (the linguistic ideas are assumed when the archaeology is interpreted, and the results are then cited as evidence for the linguistic theory). Many of the arguments originally used to establish the theory are now considered simplistic, such as the assumption that a change in culture (in the archaeological sense of a distinctive style of surviving material goods) implies a change of language, and vice versa. In particular, no real evidence has been found of the destruction that would accompany a successful invasion of the type proposed.

Renfrew used this book to propose a new theory, one which seems a lot more convincing than those it sought to replace. Instead of elite dominance, which doesn't always change the language (think of India post independence, for example), he looks at other mechanisms by which the language of an area could change.

His theory is to do with the ways in which agriculture could well have spread in the early Neolithic period. Instead of conquest, this would have been more by infiltration as each successive generation created new fields a few miles beyond their parents'. As agriculture would have brought a vast increase in population density, the dominant language of a region would become the farmers', rather than that of the hunter gatherers they replaced. Pockets of non-Indo-European languages in Europe - the Basque still survives; others such as Etruscan were still spoken in historic times - mark places where the Mesolithic peoples learnt agriculture for themselves.

Renfrew puts forward many arguments to support his hypothesis, but the most telling is that it doesn't suffer from the problems of the standard theory. He says that it is untestable, but I suspect that useful evidence could perhaps today be obtained through DNA testing of prehistoric human remains.

Wednesday 1 December 1999

Michael Moorcock: The Condition of Muzak (1978)

Edition: Fontana, 1988
Review number: 398

Michael Moorcock waited several years before completing the Jerry Cornelius series. In it he underlines the themes of the series as a whole, without really bringing things to a conclusion. He also brings out a new emphasis, the identification of Jerry with Harlequin, and the other characters with traditional Harlequin roles, and the relationship between Jerry and Moorcock's concept of the Eternal Champion.

There is very little plot in The Condition of Muzak. Even more than the preceding stories, it is made up of unrelated and inconsistent tales - fantasies, in more than one sense - of Jerry's adventures. In the earlier novels, these are different dystopian ideas of the sixties and seventies, but now he also turns up in the past, in the Boer War or the Indian Raj. The episodes containing his brother Frank and his mother are now more mundane, as though these are fantasies more closely related to reality (a North Kensington estate). (At the same time, both characters are more exaggeratedly unpleasant.) His sister Catherine is almost totally a symbol rather than a person; she spends almost the entire novel unconscious, a Galatea to be admired by her brother.

This series had a strong emotional effect on me when I first read it a decade ago. It is still one which could do this, though re-reading it I have tended to admire the way that Moorcock produces his effects rather than letting them act on me. This is partly because I have read it before, and partly because I am rather older. Despite never writing about the real sixties and seventies, the novels have a strong sense of that period. That doesn't mean they have dated, but that one of the most importa nt themes they explore is the replacement of the optimism of the sixties with disillusionment.

Wednesday 24 November 1999

Anthony Trollope: Phineas Finn (1869)

Edition: Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library
Review number: 397

Phineas Finn is one of Trollope's most enjoyable novels. It is here that the so called Palliser series of political novels really gets under way, Can You Forgive Her? being more of a prologue introducing some of the characters. (The overlap between the two novels is actually quite small, and it is not until later that characters from them really begin to interact.)

Finn is a young Irish barrister tempted from his legal career by the offer of a seat in Parliament. Without an income, this was a perilous course, for MPs were not paid at this time; only in office would a politician receive public money. Having accepted, he becomes involved in the reforms which took place in British politics in the mid nineteenth century, and is torn between his desire to support the abolition of abuses and the fact that this would result in his own seat disappearing. The tumultuous politics are mirrored in a confused private life, as Finn becomes involved with one woman after another.

Trollope's sentimentality and conventional morality are lesser obstacles in Phineas Finn than they are in some of his other novels - he even goes so far as to condone separation between married partners on grounds of incompatibility, contrary to the law of the time. The main characters are engaging and the political background fascinating.

Tuesday 23 November 1999

George Holmes: The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe (1988)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1988
Review number: 396

This history, in tone somewhere between a popular and an academic exposition, divides Europe into two zones (north and Mediterranean) and the medieval period into three sections (500-900,900-1200,1200-1500). Each division is covered by a lengthy essay by a different author, making six in all, topped and tailed by short editorial commentaries.

The strength of the editing is indicated by the fact that there is no obvious stylistic change from one chapter to another; the writing is sufficiently uniform to be the work of a single writer. Rather than following political events, the emphasis is on developments on the social and economic fronts, to show the reader a broad outline of the way in which the ancient world transformed itself into the medieval and thence to the modern. English language medieval histories tend to concentrate on England and France; this one has more about Italy and Germany, making a refreshing change.

The illustrations are interesting and well selected - not just the standard pictures which are reproduced endlessly. It would be nice if a few more of them were in colour. There is a small problem with proof reading - in the genealogical table of the kings of Castile, for example, the date of death of Alfonso XI is given as 1350, while in the text a point is made of its being 1349 (he was the only major ruler to die in the massive plague epidemic of that year).

Monday 22 November 1999

Paul Doherty: The Demon Archer (1999)

Edition: Headline, 1999
Review number: 395

It is a pleasure to read this new Hugh Corbett novel. Paul Doherty, with a doctorate in medieval history, knows the early fourteenth century extremely well and, moreover, conveys the background convincingly and unobtrusively. Corbett is a good central character, and the mysteries he investigates usually interesting and complex enough to please any crime fiction aficionado.

This particular novel is set in Ashdown Forest, in Kent, then thickly wooded. ("Forest" in medieval English refers to land set aside for hunting, usually but not always covered with trees.) One of the foremost nobles of the kingdom, Henry Fitzalan Earl of Surrey is killed here by an assassin who has only made a minimal attempt to disguise the death as a hunting accident. Since he was about to lead an embassy to France to negotiate the treaty accompanying the marriage of Prince Edward (later Edward II) and Isabella daughter of Philip IV of France, his death could have important political consequences, but his private live could equally provide a motive for murdering him, as seduction was his chief hobby. In addition, he had just refused to pass on some of the family estate to his brother and heir to make him financially independent, a move not calculated to endear William to him.

William Faulkner: As I Lay Dying (1935)

Edition: Chatto & Windus
Review number: 394

The title of this Faulkner novel may seem a little misleading. The motivation for the plot is a death, in the remotest parts of the south of the US, but it is about what follows the death, not what led up to it. Well known to his neighbours as lazy and feckless, Anse Budren is suddenly galvanised into activity by the death of his wife. Recalling a wish that she had expressed to be buried in her native town, he and his children set out on a cart with a home made coffin for Jefferson. The journey becomes an epic struggle as heavy rain has destroyed bridges and the river they have to cross is running at an unprecedented level. Despite the attempts of his neighbours to persuade him to wait for a few days or bury Addie locally, Anse insists on making the journey, nearly destroying his entire family in the process.

The story is told from the viewpoints of the various family members and the people that they meet. Short sections are used, written in the first person. The writing is not exactly stream of consciousness, there being more of the air of a narrative. It reads more like a transcription of each person's verbal description of the journey. The narrators range widely in intelligence and education, from the local doctor to Anse's simple daughter (whose chapters are full of delightful childish logic).

Faulkner has written a book which seems to convey admirably what it felt like to live in backwoods America in the twenties. (I say "seems to" because I don't have first-hand experience to compare it with.) The two inventions of television and the car have changed society to such a huge extent that the world in which Anse lives seems far more foreign than, say, modern India.

Friday 19 November 1999

Agatha Christie: Elephants Can Remember (1972)

Edition: Collins
Review number: 393

One of Christie's very last novels, Elephants Can Remember sees Hercule Poirot solving a case from the past. The crime novelist Ariadne Oliver is approached by a stranger at a literary lunch and asked to tell her about a scandal years in the past concerning Ariadne's god-daughter Celia Ravenscroft, who is about to marry this woman's son. Celia's parents were discovered dead at the top of a cliff, apparently having shot one another as a suicide pact. The police could not work out what had motivated this, but no other explanation seemed possible so they accepted it. That didn't stop gossip, and the woman is concerned in case there could be some sort of hereditary madness involved that could affect Celia. Although disliking the approach, Ariadne is intrigued by the mystery. She consults her friend Hercule Poirot, and then goes "elephant hunting". Her feeling is that although human memories are not as permanent as proverbial elephant ones are, people remember bits and pieces; she and Poirot hope to be able to sort out the nuggets of truth from the elaborations, mistakes and conjectures.

The mystery is interesting, though easy by Christie standards. Elephants Can Remember has the same faults as most of her novels - poor characterisation and dreadful dialogue; it doesn't have the racism common in her books. (There is one offhand phrase which might well be considered offensive, but that is all.) The dialogue all reads as though it is an interrogation, all probing questions on one side, though it is clearly intended to be normal conversation with an interrogatory subtext.

Thursday 18 November 1999

Paul Kearney: The Iron Wars (1999)

Edition: Gollancz, 1999
Review number: 392

The third of the Kingdoms of God series is rather shorter than the first two and, like The Heretic Kings, contents itself with carrying forward the plot without resolving issues or creating new ones. It concentrates on two of the story lines, the aftermath of the civil war in Abrusio and the war in Torunna, to the virtual exclusion of the others (such as the return voyage of Captain Hawkwood). So The Iron Wars is less complex, more single-minded than the earlier novels. There is also less magic in it; only the names really mark it out as a fantasy set in another world.

Wednesday 17 November 1999

Ivan Turgenev: First Love (1860)

Translation: Isaiah Berlin
Edition: Penguin, 1980
Review number: 391

First Love, a novelette rather than a full length novel, is a study of adolescent love. When sixteen year old Woldemar first falls in love, he experiences a passionate desire for the daughter of his family's new next door neighbour. A beautiful girl, Zinaida does not lack other suitors, and we are taken through Woldemar's rapidly changing emotions: exaltation, jealousy, despair, hatred, renunciation and renewed devotion. His fervour is only heightened by Zinaida's capriciousness and the way in which she plays off each would-be lover against the others. Then, Woldemar is devastated to discover that the successful rival is his own father, a truly shattering revelation.

Turgenev's depiction of the agonies of an unrequited first love is vivid and convincing. The dramatic climax is perhaps rather less so, even though skilfully prepared (Woldemar is aware of, though he does not understand, increased tension between his parents, for example). The translation is vivid and lively, perhaps more so than many Penguin Classics which as a series tend towards stodginess.

Tuesday 16 November 1999

Michael Dibdin: Vendetta (1990)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1991
Review number: 390

The case at the centre of the Aurelio Zen novel Vendetta is quite a baffling one, a close relative of the locked room mystery. Rich business tycoon Burolo had a spectacular villa built in Sardinia, using the latest in electronic surveillance and deterrence - as well as a pair of lions bought from a struggling safari park - to keep out unwelcome visitors. An obsessive film maker, his huge cellars are used to store thousands of video tapes recorded both surreptitiously and openly, including film of his wife's affair with the lion keeper. However, not only does an intruder penetrate through the estate to the house, but they also shoot Burolo and his dinner guests in front of a video camera. But, as the pictures are of the dying, there is no clue as to the identity of the killer.

For political reasons, there are influential people dissatisfied with the eventual choice of murderer made by the police, and so Zen is asked to reopen the case. The scarcely spoken implication is of course that he must find the "true" killer, politically acceptable, with enough evidence to let their man off the hook. The expectation is that Zen will manufacture whatever evidence is needed.

The background of corruption gives a dark feeling to the novel, and as with the other Dibdin story I have read, it is centred around a not particularly likeable character. It is well written, though I think that Dirty Tricks is better still.

Monday 15 November 1999

Frederick Forsyth: Icon (1996)

Edition: Corgi, 1997
Review number: 389

Frederick Forsyth always has interesting ideas, but his writing never does them justice. Icon is no exception to this rule. The idea - a new Hitler attempting to take power in the chaotic ruins of a Russia devastated by mega-inflation and uncontrollable organised crime - is excellent. The major problem is the narrative style. The story takes second place to exposition of the idea - the reader does not really need pages of description of fictional Russian politics, for example. Such diversions break the tension which is needed in a thriller.

The primacy of the idea also overcomes any serious attempt at characterisation, an accusation usually levelled at science fiction rather than thrillers. Icon's characters are just ciphers and stereotypes, from Igor Komarov to the Western agents trying to prevent him from gaining power. Forsyth has bought into the idea that Western is good, Eastern bad; the Russians are corrupt, the British and Americans fighting for an ideal (except of course for Russian controlled double agents).

Like the best of Forsyth's novels, The Day of the Jackal, the idea of Icon is centred around a person. In the earlier book, this forces Forsyth to overcome his limitations as a writer of characters, but Komarov does not do this. The idea is sufficiently interesting and well enough done, however, to keep you reading to the end.

Friday 12 November 1999

V.S. Naipaul: A Bend in the River (1979)

Edition: Andre Deutsch, 1979
Review number: 388

Many parts of Africa in the seventies must have been bewildering, terrifying places to live. The driving forces for instability were very strong, based partly on the conflicting feelings of the recently independent nations towards the former colonial powers: hatred of what they had stood for, jealousy of their wealth, and a desperate desire to be as "advanced". The need for the West to provide the status symbols the new nations desperately wanted combined with hatred for those who provided them, together with corruption on a vast scale caused massive instability socially and economically, as the influence of foreign corporations fought the new feelings of nationalism.

Naipaul dramatises this conflict through the story of Salim, a member of one of the trading families of Arab descent from Africa's east coast. When nationalism in his home country destroys the family business, he travels into the interior of the continent to an unnamed town on a bend of an unnamed river flowing through an unnamed country. There, he takes over one of the businesses of a family friend, the man whose daughter everyone expects him to eventually marry.

Through Salim, Naipaul has a character who is both an insider and an outsider: African rather than European, yet still foreign. This means he can be more involved in African society than any European, yet still observe it from the outside. He can stand back from anti-colonial antagonism and also sympathise with it.

With this carefully chosen central character, Napaul tries to convey something of what Africa was like in the mid seventies (the book being written at the end of that decade). He manages to show the reader the Africa behind the corrupt politics, the self-glorifying dictators, the poverty that are the common images of the continent.

Thursday 11 November 1999

Charles Dickens: Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 387

Barnaby Rudge was originally planned as Dickens' first novel. The success of The Pickwick Papers and his development of the serial publication of novels in his magazines - as opposed to the two or three volumes of contemporary practice - meant that writing a novel about the Gordon riots was delayed for some years. And yet Barnaby Rudge still reads like a very early work.

The influence of Scott - novels like The Heart of Midlothian - is fairly obvious, and this is one thing which marks out the novel as the work of a young writer. Later Dickens reads like no one but himself.

The character of Barnaby is a nice idea, imperfectly realised. A simpleton possessed of a benevolent, trusting attitude to the world around him, he is an easy prey for those who want to involve him in the riots as a sort of figurehead to hide the extent of their own involvement. The parallels with Lord George Gordon, whose naive extreme anti-Catholicism sparked off the riots, is a nice touch: the Gordon family at this time were famous for having less than common sense, even for madness. But Barnaby is not convincing; he is rather sentimentalised (to a modern reader, Dickens' greatest fault), and attempts to create humour through his character do not really come off.

Barnaby Rudge is interesting because we can see in it where Dickens started from, and because the riots themselves are a dramatic subject.

Elizabeth Peters: Die For Love (1984)

Edition: Souvenir Press, 1985
Review number: 386

The third Jacqueline Kirby novel is one of Elizabeth Peters' most outrageous. Setting a mystery at a romantic novels conference enables her to write several over the top spoofs of a genre almost beyond parody. Like her heroine, she clearly enjoys the bad taste piled on in such huge amounts; enough kitsch becomes fun.

Yet there are aspects of the romance industry of which Peters does not approve, and which this book criticises: the deceptions carried out on the readers, the bad treatment of the only slightly less naive authors. (As in many genre fiction, most authors start out as fans.)

As a crime novel, Die For Love has an easy puzzle, though it helps if you know some Shakespeare reasonably well. It is the background which makes it fun, along with the acerbic quality of Jacqueline.

Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things (1997)

Edition: Flamingo, 1997
Review number: 385

Roy's first novel is wonderfully evocative, both of what it is to live in modern India and also of the world of a small child. It revolves around the return to the town of Ayumenem of Rahel after years away, and a longer period without seeing her fraternal twin brother Estha. The experience of the small child is explored through their memories of the events that led up to Estha being sent away to join the twins' distant father.

This childhood world is evoked through unusual ways of looking at things, the interest in silly word games (such as reading backwards), the reuse of half understood phrases that adults have been heard using. It is very well done, never descending to the level of cuteness that is such an obvious trap here: Roy takes her child characters very seriously.

The India that she portrays is one of rapidly changing culture. Like the European characters in Kipling and Forster novels set in the country, Roy's children are to a large extent outsiders, coming from an upper class family of Syrian Christians educated in Western style schools. They are far more able to associate with the Hindus around them than an English child would have been in the days of the Raj, of course. Another way in which they are different is that they come from a "broken home"; their mother, Ammu, having returned with them to her family after her husband descended into alcoholism and wife beating.

There is a lot of tension built into the novel, and this is done through the two timelines: the adult reliving her childhood memories knows that something terrible is going to happen. The terrible events are directly driven by the contrast between old and new driven by the relentless drive to modernise: the inequalities a Marxist government can do nothing about the caste system and the despised status of the Untouchables, legally abolished but still at the root of the culture.

The symbol used to represent traditional India is the kathakali dancer, also the logo of the company owned by the family. They perform drastically cut down, popularised versions of their traditional dances telling stories from Hindu legend in the tourist hotels, working off the guilt they feel for the prostitution of their sacred art at the temples, while their children look for other careers more in tune with the times. This sad story encapsulates the message Roy has about the whole of traditional India: it is doomed, unable to survive in a country which wants to Westernise, become "modern".

Tuesday 9 November 1999

Leslie Charteris: She Was A Lady (1931)

Alternative title: The Saint Meets His Match
Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1951
Review number: 384

Returning to the full length novel, She Was A Lady boasts, in addition to the usual qualities of a Saint story, one of the best final pages in any thriller. Its story is quite simple. Jill Trelawney is the (beautiful) daughter of an Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard who died a broken man after being disgraced for bribery. Believing him to have been framed, she sets out to embarrass the police by helping captured criminals to escape while trying to find out who was the real corrupt officer. Naturally, her activities soon interest the Saint.

Generally speaking, I prefer the original titles to the new ones given to these early books after the Saint stories became successful in the USA. Nowadays, it would perhaps be described as "dumbing down", changing (almost) all the titles so that they contain the word "Saint". It's clearly done to remind people who are used to pulp fiction series with multiple authors or who cannot remember the author's name that each new book has the hero they enjoy at its centre. In this case, I don't like the original title much, either; neither of them are really closely related to the content of the novel.

Monday 8 November 1999

Aldous Huxley: Point Counter Point (1928)

Edition: Albatross
Review number: 383

Point Counter Point is about contrasts (hence the title) as well as Huxley's perennial themes of dehumanisation and futility in the modern world. It is full of mismatched couples, people committed to psychological and political opposites. It is one of Huxley's longest novels, and is full of philosophical argument.

There is no single central character. Rather, it is about a dozen or so equally important people, vaguely connected through mutual acquaintance. They are mainly English upper class, though popular politics is an important part of the novel. It is set in the thirties, possibly the heyday of extremism in British politics, and includes both Fascist and Communist characters.

The plot is virtually non-existent; this is a novel of ideas, of characters. The events that happen - deaths, affairs, separations - are there to parade a series of people before the reader, to show us their differences. It is superbly written, and rather more subtle than (say) Brave New World. The philosophical discussions, mainly revolving round the question of whether human beings are purely mechanistic of whether there is more to life than that, have dated somewhat, but are at the core of the contrasts which are the heart of the novel.

Friday 5 November 1999

Ann Granger: Where Old Bones Lie (1993)

Edition: Headline, 1994
Review number: 381

An early Mitchell and Markby mystery, Where Old Bones Lie is set at an archaeological dig. It starts when Meredith Mitchell is rung up by an old friend. Ursula has just ended a disastrous affair with a colleague. Dan is still saying that he loves her, and now his wife has disappeared and Dan is obviously lying about her whereabouts, making Ursula worry that he has murdered her. The two of them work for a Trust which is funding a dig near Bamford, where the stories of this series are set. They hope to find the grave of an early Saxon chieftain. As the dig has recently been surrounded by an encampment of New Age travellers, the Trust wants someone to sleep on site, and Meredith volunteers to keep Ursula company in a caravan there. Then the body of Dan's wife is found on a rubbish tip near the site.

A dig is a good setting for a crime novel; they are often isolated camps on farmland, offering plenty of opportunity for tensions to rise in small groups of people. (Though it is apparently now the case that the majority of UK archaeology consists of 'rescue' digs, to discover as much about a site as possible before developers move in and destroy the evidence: hardly isolated.) The puzzle is good, the characters are good. The New Age travellers are the biggest problem. Granger tries not to stereotype them, but their very presence in the story is something of a stereotypical device, using common fears of the middle class reader - and I suspect that most crime fiction readers would consider themselves middle class - to distract them from the real solution to the crime. They include stereotypical figures, such as the upper class girl most concerned to keep her activities unknown to her family. I think we are still yet to see a sympathetic and accurate portrayal of these people in a novel.

Wednesday 3 November 1999

William Morris: The Well at the World's End (1896)

Edition: Ballantine, 1971 (in two volumes)
Review number: 381

William Morris' late nineteenth century romances have proved very influential in twentieth century popular literature, yet they are probably rarely read today. There is a strong case for arguing that they mark the origin of the modern fantasy genre. The Well at the World's End is the longest, and amply illustrates why his work has become both so influential and so obscure.

The story is a simple one, telling the tale of the quest undertaken by Ralph of Upmeads to drink from the well at the World's End, which gives a renewed life - both physically and morally - to those who do so. It tells of the perils and wonders of his journey, of his friendships and loves as he also moves from being a boy to an adult man.

So what is it that made Morris an inspiration? The principal features of the background to the novel have become the principal features of just about every fantasy novel of the twentieth century: an imaginary world, a medieval culture, and magic. Morris' work shared these aspects with other novels of the nineteenth century - they are present to some degree in many Gothic novels - but Morris combined them with an optimistic tone which makes his work more escapist. This tone is related to that of the medieval romances of Walter Scott and Arthur Conan Doyle, but these are firmly set in (an idealised version of) the real world. Of course, part of this comes from the fact that Ralph's quest fits fairly snugly into the mould of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey; setting it in an imaginary world is what's new.

Morris is perhaps closer to the medieval romance than most of the authors mentioned, hints of (say) Malory or Chretien de Troyes being constantly present, while the allegorical sounding place names recall such works as Piers Plowman.

This medievalism is the foundation of the reasons for the neglect of Morris, as well as conveying the other-worldly atmosphere which was another vitally important legacy to the genre. There are two aspects of it which led to its rejection as a model. First, the prose is full of archaisms which make it difficult to read; second, his similarity to allegorical Christian writings together with his rejection of religion - given a remarkably peripheral part to play compared to his models - means that the whole quest is poorly motivated.

The archaisms and pseudo medieval style are grating to a modern reader, and make Morris a slow read. They are derived, I suspect, from Scott's ideas of medieval prose, and is about as authentic as a Neo-Gothic castle. It is, thankfully, something most fantasy writers have abandoned. (A few still use "thee" and "thou" for effect, and there are few more annoying things than reading a writer who has got this wrong...)

The lack of motivation is a more serious problem. It is possible to read The Well at the World's End as a pure adventure story, if a slow and sedate one, but the allegorical side of things leads the reader to start wondering what the the main symbols (especially the well itself) actually mean. It is possible to come up with meanings - I would say that the well is there to show that we need something outside our normal existence to give our lives true meaning, for example - but none are insisted on or even important to Morris.

Paul Kearney: The Heretic Kings (1996)

Edition: Gollancz, 1996
Review number: 380

In the second of Kearney's series, The Kingdoms of God, the background and characters have been established. The book develops the plot with few surprises within the main situations that have been set up, following the lives of the characters as they react to the new surroundings in which they find themselves as the result of the fall of the holy city of Aekir. In other words, The Heretic Kings performs the traditional function of the second novel in a fantasy series.

The most interesting parts of the novel get most space: the adventures of Hawkwood, Bardolin and Lord Murad on the Western Continent, not as empty as they had expected; the military career of Corfe on the eastern edge of the Ramusian kingdoms. The seed of great events to come is sown in the discoveries made by monks in under the main Inceptine fortress, of knowledge suppressed by the church for centuries, knowledge which could wreck the foundations of the religion of the West. No loose ends from the first novel are tied up; the read must continue if they have any desire to know where things are leading. The Heretic Kings could stand as a paradigm of (good) mid-series fantasy writing.

Tuesday 2 November 1999

Alison Fell: The Mistress of Lilliput (1999)

Edition: Doubleday, 1999
Review number: 379

In something of the manner of John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, The Mistress of Lilliput is a twentieth century novel masquerading as an eighteenth century one. It is written in a pastiche of the style of many novels of the period, though it is informed and driven by modern concerns (particularly with reference to the role of the sexes). The major influence is of course Swift, though Sterne and Fielding are also important, the former explicitly quoted at one point.

The Mistress of Lilliput tells the story of Mary Butler, the wife of Lemuel Gulliver of Gulliver's Travels. An ardent wife, who expected bliss from married life, she was rather unhappy when her husband announced that he was to leave on a voyage that would take him from her for several years. Then she receives the news of the loss of his ship, but believes that Lemuel continues to live; and then he returns, rewarding her faithfulness with revulsion, for she to him is a brute Yahoo. To find that he prefers to spend his time in the stables with the horses (and Fell makes more specific hints of miscegenation than Swift does) is a bitter blow, only to be followed by another when he runs off again, to set out on another voyage.

At last Mary has had enough, and so she herself takes ship for the South Seas, aiming to find her husband and to get him to return to her. The main part of the book tells of her adventures and discoveries, both about herself and her relationship with her husband.

The message of the novel is overtly feminist (to do with the fulfilment of women in a patriarchal society), yet Fell manages to avoid polemic. The point is made principally through the general outlines of the plot, but it is not allowed to stand in the way of the characterisation or the narrative flow; it is never insisted upon. To do this well is one of the most difficult feats in fiction writing, and Fell has certainly achieved it.

Steven Saylor: Catilina's Riddle (1993)

Edition: Robinson, 1998
Review number: 378

The third novel in Saylor's series about Gordianus the Finder - a series also including several short stories - tells of one of the most famous events of the last years of the Roman Republic, the Catiline Conspiracy. Now well into middle age, Gordianus has retired to a farm north of Rome, inherited from a friend in the teeth of opposition from the friend's family, who own all the farms surrounding Gordianus' new one.

Gordianus rejoices in leaving behind the corrupt politics of the city, but starts to find that there is something missing from his new life. Then he receives a visitor, who is an agent of Cicero, now consul of Rome, and also of Catilina, his populist opponent. Catilina is looking for somewhere to stay outside Rome, and Gordianus' farm would be an ideal location. Catilina has come up with a political riddle, about whether the current head of the Roman state is to be preferred to the headless body (the common people); Gordianus is to use this as the basis of a message to send to Rome to signify his acceptance or rejection of the proposition. But then a headless body is discovered in the stables. Gordianus takes this to be a threat from Catilina because of the riddle, and so, frightened for his family, he sends the message that he prefers the headless body, thus accepting the proposal.

The investigation in this crime novel is into the provenance of the headless corpse. This is in fact a fairly obvious mystery; Catilina's Riddle has one of the easiest to unravel plots that I have read. It is the political aspect of the story which is more interesting, and this is very well done indeed. It is common to regard the Roman Republic as virtuous by comparison with the Empire; Saylor reminds us that the last years of the Republic were hardly commendable. As well as the rather seedy machinations of the politicians, the way they flattered and manipulated, there are also more petty, private, sordid matters that Saylor highlights. The treatment of slaves, for example, often served as an outlet for both cruel and depraved appetites.

From a historical point of view, it is hard to know the true events of the Catiline conspiracy. The only accounts we have come from his political enemies and could hardly be said to be models of reporting, consisting to a large degree of rhetorical denunciations. Saylor has created a plausible story, with none of the historical characters painted as pure black or white.

Monday 1 November 1999

Paul Kearney: Hawkwood's Voyage (1995)

Edition: Gollancz, 1995
Review number: 377

It's impossible to tell today what exactly the connection was between the fall of Constantinople, the heyday of the Spanish Inquisition, the voyages of discovery and the Reformation. All these events took place in a relatively short time, and some are definitely connected (one of the spurs to the voyages of exploration was the closing of trade routes to the East by the Turks).

Kearney has taken these events and made them the basis of his fantasy series, The Kingdoms of God. The setting is clearly based on fifteenth century Europe (with, for example, the gun and handgun beginning to become important in warfare) and equivalents of these events occur (I suspect that the Reformation is left for a later book, but the way is paved for it here.) Geography and history have been transformed, but much of the background is recognisably the real world. The names used are allusive rather than direct appropriations. (The holy city, lost to the eastern Marduks at the beginning of the novel, is named Aekir rather than Constantinople; but it stands on the Ostian River, and Ostier was the port of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber, and Constantinople was the new Rome.)

The book begins with the fall of Aekir, a city which is like a combination of Rome, Jerusalem and Constantinople in the real medieval world. The destruction of the city and the enslavement of its inhabitants are vividly described - the standard of the writing is high throughout the novel - making a point of the horrors that could accompany medieval warfare without lingering too long on them.

Instead of despondency and desperation, or a heroic crusade, the fall of Aekir prompts the hardline elements of the church to begin a purge in the kingdoms of the West of those suspected of heresy (or even tolerance) or witchcraft. In the busy trading nation of Hebrion, melting pot of cultures and races, this is proving a disaster for the kingdom. Abeleyn, king of Hebrion, organises a voyage of discovery and colonisation, to hunt for the fabled lands over the Western Sea; only by sending away all those who practise magic can he hope to save them.

The strongest aspect of the novel is the evocation of background, particularly of the fanatical Inceptine order of monks, led by men wanting to use that unbending fanaticism to serve their own ambition. The bigotry of religion is likely to have a vivid meaning to anyone of any sensitivity who has lived in Northern Ireland, and I suspect that this is what has powered Kearney's impressive writing.

Friday 29 October 1999

John Horgan: The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (1997)

Edition: Little, Brown, & Co.
Review number: 376

John Horgan originally set out to write a book of profiles of the most eminent scientists of the late twentieth century, based on interviews he had carried out as a journalist for Scientific American. But he became fascinated by a theme he perceived in these interviews, the question of whether we might have almost reached the end of what science can discover about the universe.

The first thing he has to do is to define the various ways in which science might end, to establish criteria against which the ideas scientists have about science can be measured, and it is rather unfortunate that this is the least clear section of the book. (This is really because Horgan does not separate this out and state it in an orderly fashion, in one place.)

There may be theoretical limits on what can be known, a physical equivalent of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. The problem with this is that attempts to apply this mathematical result to science are never very convincing, as Horgan points out. He goes on to argue for this point of view in certain branches of science, where the major theories discussed are not empirically testable. This is clearly the case in historical fields of study, such as cosmology and evolutionary biology, where we cannot prove that any particular theories of the origins of the universe and of life are wholly correct, because these were one off events (as far as we know) in the distant past. All we can do is see if the theories we have come up with match up with what we see around us now (the microwave background and the distribution of matter, the fossil record and Earth's ecosystems).

There may be limitations affecting science in general, if a final "theory of everything" is discovered. Then there would be no more fundamental revolutions to come in science; it would only be a matter of filling in the details. This is the attitude that nineteenth century scientists are accused of holding, though (again as Horgan points out) historical investigations have tended to disprove specific allegations (Kelvin's supposed speech in which he said that all that there was left to do was to discover physical constants to more decimal places; the patent office official who resigned because nothing was left to be discovered). There is of course the possibility that a revolutionary new discovery will be made, a new theory will be proposed, but even today, Horgan says, the evidence is against it. There has been a dearth of revolutionary ideas since the sixties; most of theoretical science since then has continued steady development of those of the first half of the century (relativity, quantum mechanics, subatomic structure, the synthesis of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian evolution) or from that decade (DNA, the standard model, the Big Bang). Theories currently touted as the next revolution (such as superstrings and various inflation scenarios) contain ideas that may be inherently untestable. This means that we may be moving into an era of what Horgan calls "ironic science", a term borrowed by analogy from Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence, an analysis of poetry in the seventies. Lacking new discoveries to make, scientists move away from traditional science to reinterpret older theories and to discuss metascience. In other words, science loses its independent existence and becomes part of philosophy once again.

The third reason that science may end is that we no longer have the power to invent deeper theories; science becomes beyond human cognitive abilities. There is, after all, no obvious reason why human beings should be able to grasp the universe of which they form part; in fact, the vastness of the universe by comparison with our minds makes it unlikely. The universe is a complex object; why should it be governed by a simple set of rules? Evidence for this point of view comes from the difficulty of grasping current ideas, increasing specialisation and the length of time needed for becoming a fully fledged researcher in a modern scientific discipline.

The fourth reason is more mundane: scientific research is becoming too expensive. Governments, always parsimonious towards pure research, have become even more so since the end of the Cold War. Projects like the Superconducting Super Collider have failed to receive funding because the cost is perceived to outweigh the benefits, and the propaganda value gained from big science projects is less (would the US fund a moon programme today with the same urgency as granted the Apollo project?). In fields like particle physics, bigger and bigger experiments are needed if more fundamental discoveries are to be made, and even then there is no guarantee that they will be made (much of the last twenty years has been spent just confirming the details of the standard model rather than advancing any further). And then applications are not at all obvious; we may not be able to do exciting new things as a result of these experiments, and without applications (results, so far as governments and corporations are concerned), no one is going to fund the research.

The first three reasons are interesting philosophical speculations, but it is the fourth that is in my opinion most likely to bring an end to the scientific search for meaning in the universe. The scientific establishment has naturally attacked Horgan's book, because it is negative about the future of science. Yet we live in a world where science is still to some extent seen as the universal panacea that will bring enlightenment and truth, and eliminate all evils (even though some of these evils, such as pollution, are consequences of earlier scientific 'advances'). In this environment, a negative voice is perhaps a good thing; nobody is attacking science strongly enough to destroy public confidence in it in the way that scientific blunders are doing (through food scares like the BSE crisis, for example). There is a tendency towards arrogance among successful scientists, and many could do with thinking a little harder about what they are doing.

It is this arrogance which comes over most strongly from Horgan's book; the profiles (which still form the bulk of the material) stay in the mind a lot better than the philosophical argument. Either Horgan doesn't like eminent scientists, or they are a uniformly unpleasant bunch of people. I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in between. Scientists are not benevolent, absent minded, white-haired men in white coats; to be successful in the field can require many of the same qualities as it does to be successful in, say, high finance. The way that people look up to scientists, viewing them as a race apart, can breed arrogance; specialism can lead to an obsession with hobby-horses and blind misunderstanding of other fields. On the other hand, a few interviews with people like this are hardly likely to give you high expectations about meetings with others. So the interviews make the book more interesting, but they do present a rather one-sided view of scientists as a group of people.

Neil Gaiman: Neverwhere (1996)

Edition: BBC Books, 1996
Review number: 375

The television series on which this novel is based was not greatly liked by critics; a little strange, for it was one of the more innocative pieces of TV science fiction/fantasy to be shown for a long time. Most SF on TV, from Star Trek onwards, is rather backward looking, reflecting ideas that were new and interesting in written works over a decade earlier. Neverwhere , on the other hand, starts from an interesting idea. Having a fantastic world which is around our real one but beyond our perception in some way is not a new basis for a fantasy novel - it is hinted at in parts of The Hobbit, for example - but to equate that fantastic world with the lives of the urban homeless is a bold stroke.

This background enables Gaiman to subtly shame the viewer/reader for the way that most in our society ignore the homeless; no one is more invisible than a beggar in the Strand. It also gives a gritty realism to London Below, to contrast with the rather fanciful personifications of tube stations found there (the angel, Islington; the earl who holds court on a train; the black friars).

However, this came over better in the original series, which was incredibly well designed. The book version seems rather thin on plot by comparison. Without the direct images from the screen, the suspension of disbelief becomes harder, and some parts of the story become a little too reminiscent of Gaiman's comic book background (the exaggerated violence of Croup and Vandemar, for instance).

Neverwhere is a worthwhile novel, but the TV version is better.

Thursday 28 October 1999

Vera Mowry Roberts: The Nature of Theatre (1971)

Edition: Harper & Row, 1971
Review number: 374

This book, a description of the forms and development of drama, came out almost thirty years ago, and its age shows, especially in the chapters on cinema and television. Its analysis is very conventional, based around the ideas traditionally associated with Aristotle's Poetics.

Roberts is particularly keen to distance live theatre from cinema and television, partly because there are clear similarities but principally I suspect because she has a somewhat elitist agenda and wants to make the reader feel that theatre is "better" without explicitly saying so. All three are indeed dramatic arts, involving an interaction between actors and audience. It is the nature of that interaction which is different in each one (ignoring the existence of documentary films, news and other non-dramatic forms in television especially). In television and film, a performance is mediated through the screen, allowing the use of techniques such as multiple camera viewpoints and location shooting which cannot readily be utilised in theatre. The almost universal use of recorded material as opposed to live performance is another source of difference, as is the fact that the actor is performing to a host of machines and their operators rather than an audience; both these change the relationship of the actors to their work. The major difference between film and television is the intimacy achieved by the latter with small screens inside the home. In the theatre, the actors and the audience are physically present in the same space, each constantly reacting to the other. This produces a different kind of intimacy, though it makes impossible most of the commonplace effects of film and television.

Having put the relationship between actors and audience at the heart of the theatrical experience, Roberts spends most of the book discussing theatre from a different point of view, the analysis of playscripts. There are several reasons for this. Scripts are permanent, while performances are not. Verbal descriptions of performances can convey little, and even films of a performance cannot communicate all that is happening (which is why watching a video of a stage show taken through one stationary camera is not as satisfying as being present at the performance and seeing it from the same viewpoint). Scripts (together with performing spaces) constitute the raw material from which theatre is made - in almost every case. There is a vast body of criticism already in existence analysing theatre through scripts, from Aristotle onwards, some of which has in turn influenced the writing of plays through the ages. Yet, given where Roberts places the central aspect of the theatrical experience, such a description is rather unsatisfying. It would be interesting and unusual to read an analysis of what passes between actor and audience, though it would be much more difficult to write.

The vast amount and variety of drama means that in a book that attempts a holistic description of theatre the reader can probably find exceptions to almost every generalisation. The conservative nature of Roberts' book makes this even more likely. She doesn't talk about non-Western theatre traditions at all, and religious ritual, out of which Western theatre developed, is only mentioned in the historical survey. Nevertheless, it is an interesting summary within its limitations.

Wednesday 27 October 1999

Iain Pears: The Last Judgement (1993)

Edition: Gollancz, 1993
Review number: 373

I presume that this is the third of Pears' Jonathan Argyll series. It is a little difficult to tell given the evidence presented with this edition, which is perhaps something Gollancz should have done rather better. (It's a hardback, likely to be bought by libraries, where readers cannot always see all the books by a particular author on a single visit.)

I would not have thought there were so many reasons to connect fine art with murder, but Pears has been consistently inventive throughout the series. The repeated characters are charming, well drawn and interesting, the mysteries nicely constructed, and the art world background adds a touch of glamour. Like most crime fiction series, the details of the puzzle are the only elements undergoing major change from one book to the next; the relationship between Jonathan and Flavia slowly develops. But I expect the series to provide consistent entertainment for some time before it starts to pall.

Michael Moorcock: The English Assassin (1972)

Edition: Fontana, 1988
Review number: 372

The third novel in the Jerry Cornelius tetralogy explores the series themes of dissolution and anarchy in a rather different way from the earlier books. Here, protagonist and storyline fragment as well as the background.

The novel starts with the discovery of a dead body in Merlin's Cave, beneath Tintagel Castle in Cornwall. The body belongs to Cornelius, but he doesn't stay dead long. Each section of the novel sees Jerry initiating a different apocalypse set in a different version of the Earth. Moorcock establishes each background quickly, in a manner clearly learned from the best science fiction short story writers. Recurring characters (from earlier novels) crop up again and again in slightly different guises, and Mrs Cornelius, Jerry's monstrous mother, takes a more central role than she did before. Self references (and external ones) abound; characters from other Moorcock novels, ideas from The Final Programme and A Cure for Cancer - particularly the idea of total destruction as a cure for the cancer eating away at society - reappear.

Realism is brought back by the use of real newspaper quotations about violent death, mainly of young children. This is an effective method of stopping the effect of each catastrophe being like Hollywood special effects - a spectacle which does not have any real consequences.

The English Assassin is one of Moorcock's best novels, admirably fulfilling its role as the penultimate volume in a series by never quite containing a satisfactory conclusion, always leaving the reader wanting a bit more.

Tuesday 26 October 1999

Victor Canning: The Immortal Wound (1978)

Edition: Heinemann
Review number: 371

The Immortal Wound brings Canning's Arthurian trilogy to its conclusion. Unfortunately, the novel is no more satisfying than the earlier stories and the annoying little touches which I found so jarring continue - the poems, and the way that descriptions of characters' thoughts are continually interrupted by the exclamation "Aie!".

This novel tells the story of Arto's progression from young leader of a small war band to high king of Britain to his death, with length gaps. Much of the force of the legendary material is dissipated, the more Freudian touches (Arthur's unknowing incest with his sister, the symbols in the quest for the Holy Grail, the betrayal by Lancelot) being fairly ruthlessly suppressed. Only Guinevere's adultery is mentioned at all, and that is excused by her motivation: to produce an heir for Arto in defiance of a prophecy that he will "throw no seed".

The best of the three novels is the first, The Crimson Chalice, perhaps because it has least connnection to the well known legends.

A.A. Attanasio: The Perilous Order: Warriors of the Round Table (1999)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999
Review number: 370

The third of Attanasio's Arthur (Arthor in these novels) series tells the story of the first few years following the moment at which Merlin proclaimed him king, when he had just pulled the sword from the stone. It is the most difficult time of his reign, when he has to persuade the minor British kings to follow him, an untried teenager whose kinship to Uther is only attested by Merlin, against the Saxon invaders.

To bring about an alliance between these kings is Arthor's aim: this is the perilous order of the title, because of its fragility. But there is another reference in the legend, which Attanasio does not explicitly mention, to the idea that one of the seats at the Round Table is the Siege Perilous, in which to sit means death except to the pure knight destined to sit there.

A large part of the story focuses on the struggle between Merlin and Morgeu the Fey. This is Attanasio's treatment of one of the most powerful themes in the Arthurian legend, the incestuous relationship between Arthur and Morgeu before the former knows who either of them are. In the second book, Morgeu arranged for the child she bore to receive the reborn soul of her father Gorlois. (It is of course the mother Ygrane shared by the half-siblings.) This is to bring about revenge on Merlin, who she believes responsible for the death of Gorlois.

Merlin, knowing what the birth of Mordred will mean to Arthur, steals the soul of the baby, still in the womb. But things go wrong; the soul of Gorlois ends up in Merlin's body, and Merlin has to carry out an astral quest to recover his body.

The magical world is a particularly strong aspect of Attanasio's series, convincingly dovetailed with the mundane one inhabited by most of the characters most of the time. The contrast is heightened by the writing, with the magical beings coming across as more elemental than the humans. The strongest part of the novel is the powerful description of Cei, cast into hell by Morgeu, ending up in a decaying twentieth century inner city, meeting a disillusioned alcoholic Catholic priest.

Friday 22 October 1999

Robert Walser: Running With the Devil - Power, Gender and Madness in Heavy Metal Music (1993)

Edition: Wesleyan University Press, 1993
Review number: 369

Heavy metal music is a strange phenomenon. Despite derision from rock critics and bitter emnity from the establishment, it became one of the most popular subcultures of the eighties, when it and rap changed mainstream popular music indelibly. Such a phenomenon is clearly a gift to cultural studies. Running With the Devil is a sympathetic examination of heavy metal, looking at its history, defining musical characteristics, examining its appeal to its fans and the claims of its detractors. Walser is well qualified to do this, being a classically trained musician who has been a guitarist in a heavy metal band, as well as a researcher in cultural studies.

He criticises preceding studies of metal on several grounds. Like many accounts of popular music, the more musicological ones have tended to concentrate on the lyrics, ignoring what most fans feel forms the major part of the songs (the musical content, which Walser feels is vital to the appeal of heavy metal). This is partly because in verbal descriptions it is easier to analyse words than music and partly because of the automatic assumption that there is nothing worth analysing in popular music. On the other hand, critical accounts that have concentrated on the cultural aspects of heavy metal have had distinctly flawes methodologies, frequently accepting the stereotypes of heavy metal without investigation. (An example of this is the assumption that fans of heavy metal are almost exclusively working class in background; Walser used questionnaires and conversations with fans to discover that in the late eighties at least this was not the case: fans' economic backgrounds followed the distribution of the US as a whole.)

Walser uses his own musical analysis to convincingly explain the large fan base built up by heavy metal. The music is about power and transcendence. This is not just because of the high volume. Effects like the guitar solo, where the virtuousity of the lead guitar overcomes all opposition, and the aggressive nature and delivery of the lyrics alsoe contribute. This is the reason why fans of heavy metal are in my experience as well as in Walser's far more gentle than the violent image frequently assigned to the music. Listening to heavy metal has such a cathartic effect that it is a calming rather than enraging influence. The empowerment provided by heavy metal explains why it appeals to so many, particularly teenaged boys; why the fans tend to be quite gregarious, seeking out other fans to form a strong subculture; why the right wing US establishment saw it as such a threat.

A fair proportion of the book is devoted to refutation of many of the claims made by critics of heavy metal, some of which are sufficiently ludicrous that it's a pity that they need to be contradicted. They are based on a stereotypical view of the genre, on selective quotation of lyrics - Walser gives a wonderful example of this: lines from Iron Maiden's Number of the Beast have been used to "prove" that Satanism is the hidden agenda of heavy metal, yet the next few lines express strong disapproval of the Satanic ritual described - and on misleading and invented statistics - the claim that "most" heavy metal songs are about Satanism is easily refuted just by counting song themes.

Running With the Devil is a fascinating examination of the heavy metal subculture. A little ironic touch is contained in the title: the difference between heavy metal culture and the academic culture for which the book is written is shown by the restoration of the final "g" to the first word of the title of Van Halen's song Runnin' With the Devil.

Thursday 21 October 1999

Niccolò Machiavelli: The Prince (1514)

Translation: George Bull, 1961
Edition: Penguin, 1977
Review number: 368

There are a few books whose fame is based more on a distorted picture of their contents than on those contents themselves. Examples include the abstraction of the "unities" from The Poetics, and, more recently, the relationship between the writings of Stanislavsky and the dogma of "method acting". The Prince has perhaps suffered more than these two from its reputation, for that reputation accuses Machiavelli of advising princes to act in a hardly honourable way. Machiavelli was so strongly disapproved of that he was frequently equated with the devil during the sixteenth century. This is thought to be the reason for the popularity of the name "Old Nick" in England at this time, for example, though it seems to pre-date Machiavelli in origin. He appears in various Elizabethan plays in this character, notably Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (under a punning version of his name, Make-Evil).

The reason for this disapproval was based around Machiavelli's abandonment of the ideal man of virtue for the man who wishes to succeed in the real world. He explicitly denies that he is writing about the idealised states beloved by ancient philosophers (Plato's Republic is probably the most famous); he is writing about things the way they are. "The gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done learns the way to self-destruction rather than self-preservation."

This is the seed on which Machiavelli's reputation as a demon was built. For it amounts to a rejection of the teachings of the Christian church, and of the chivalric ideals of the later Middle Ages. The church told men that God would protect and bring honour to the virtuous; chivalry that virtue was the duty of the true knight his burden being to accept what his conduct brought upon him. (I am using the male gender because the idea of a successful female ruler was alien to Western culture for many years to come; England's Elizabeth I succeeded by being as manlike as she could manage.) Such high standards were never maintained; many rulers went beyond Machiavelli's teachings in cynicism and opportunistic behaviour (Philip IV of France is a good example). Machiavelli openly states that this sort of thing is the way to behave in advice aimed at rulers; this is what is shocking about The Prince.

The reason that Machiavelli states this so openly is because of the underlying assumptions he makes. To him, the aims of a ruler are, first and foremost, to retain posession of a kingdom - The Prince deals only with monarchial forms of government - and secondly to enhance his own standing as a ruler. His advice about morality is derived from these ideas. This presupposition is in contrast to the earlier idea that the aims of the ruler should be to honour God, to set an example of obedience to the church, to act as the fount of chivalry for his people, and so on.

Having seen how Machiavelli breaks with the past, the question that follows is how relevant is is writing to the present day, almost five centuries later. The way that nations work and rulers relate to them was already changing in the early sixteenth century; in some ways, the type of states that Machiavelli was writing about already belonged in the past. He still retained unquestioned the idea that the principal function of the prince is to lead the nation in war. Virtually nothing that does not ultimately pertain to warfare is given any attention. But as the modern economic structure developed, this swiftly changed so that finance and trade came to be the dominant factors. Today, too, we in the West live in a culture in which government is far more intrusive into our everyday lives. Custom and tradition are less important and more easily manipulated (principally through the popular media).

But although Machiavelli's understanding of the function of a ruler is today out of date, and with it much of the detail of The Prince (for example, the need to become an excellent hunter to practise skills needed in fifteenth century warfare), his cynical and pragmatic view of life has not. Indeed, it is perhaps the dominant philosophy of our age and is the natural consequence of accepting the idea that we do not answer to any "higher power" for the actions we perform. The methodology adopted by Machiavelli could be applied to almost any situation: first, decide what is to count as success; then look at various ways in which it is possible to act in terms only of whether they will increase chances of success. The word "only" is important; Machiavelli would have us ignore the conventions of morality except to remember that they will influence the way that others think of us, which itself may be an element of the criteria for success.

Tuesday 19 October 1999

Joseph Heller: Closing Time (1994)

Edition: Pocket Books, 1995
Review number: 367

Almost thirty five years after finally finding a publisher for Catch 22, Heller wrote a sequel. Through this period, every book he has produced has suffered from comparison with his first novel. He has never managed to combine the elements of farce and tragedy so well as was made possible by his theme of helplessness in the face of official stupidity.

Many elements from Catch 22 are present, transformed, in Closing Time. In Pianosa, the characters were terrified of being killed in the war. Back in the States fifty years later, they are terrified of dying of cancer. Sudden death from illness replaces sudden death from warfare as the driving force in the background. This is a fear which it is easier for most readers today to identify with, I suspect.

Using these characters from the past makes Closing Time an unusual novel in at least one respect. Few novels have all the main characters in their sixties and seventies; adolescence is probably the most common age for a protagonist.

There is a different emphasis, too, in the attitude towards official stupidity and duplicity. The anger of Catch 22 is replaced with resignation. "This is how the world is, and nothing we can do will change it" is a viewpoint more appropriate for the seventy year old. There is less energy in Closing Time; it does not grab you in the same way that Catch 22 does.

One result of this is that you read three quarters of the book feeling that it is not as good as Catch 22. Then Heller suddenly pulls out the rug from under your feet, and its then a rollercoaster ride to the end. You are too gripped to distance yourself from the book, even just far enough to consider its quality. But, after finishing it, I was not convinced that it was up to Catch 22's standard. The tragic is not so tragic - the death or nearness to death of a seventy year old is difficult to make so affecting as that of the same character at twenty - and the comic is not so comic - this is the lack of energy again. Perhaps the best thing Heller has written since Catch 22 (though I have an affection for God Knows, because I like the idea behind it), Closing Time is not quite its equal.

Dorothy Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh: Thrones, Dominations (1998)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998
Review number: 366

I would normally avoid sequels to stories by dead authors like the plague; they are frequently written in a way which shows the new writer too lacking in imagination to have ideas of their own, and involve implausible plots when they attempt to continue a story which was concluded by the author (not leaving loose ends easily unravelled). There are exceptions. Peter Tremayne's Raffles stories are one, George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels another - though they are off at a tangent from rather than being straight continuations of Tom Brown's Schooldays. There are several reasons for expecting this novel to be another exception: it was started by Dorothy Sayers herself, fills in a gap in her series rather than continuing it, and is completed by an author who has a good reputation in her own right (and one whose work I like).

These expectations are to a large extent fulfilled. No indication is given as to the stage at which Thrones, Dominations was left by Sayers, or what information there was as to her plans for the remainder of the story. (She abandoned the novel to work on the translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, also uncompleted at her death.) The novel itself is about the early months of Peter and Harriet's marriage, following on from Busman's Honeymoon, and in structure and style it is a close relation of that novel.

In both novels, the first half is concerned with the relationship between Peter and Harriet and the way that those around them react to it. (The difference between their positions in society would have been far more important in the late thirties than now.) These chapters in both books contain extensive quotations from the diary of Peter's mother, the dowager Duchess of Denver. Then, in the second half, we have a mystery, less difficult here than in most of Sayers' own books.

The quality of the job that Walsh has done is shown by the fact that she has produced a novel in which it is virtually impossible to detect her hand at all. It is perhaps more similar to Busman's Honeymoon than I suspect that Sayers herself would have left it, the prose is perhaps a little more smooth, and the puzzle not so dependent on complex mechanical details (like the radio in Busman's Honeymoon, the haemophilia in Have His Carcase, for example). The strong characters of Peter and Harriet are as central as ever - the hero worship of Lord Peter maybe toned down a bit, perhaps to better suit modern readers - and are just as convincingly portrayed. The flattering expectation of literary knowledge in the reader is still present, though restricted to English more than in the novels by Sayers alone.

I would be interested to know what relationship this finished product bears to the material left by Sayers, but the very least that can be said is that Walsh has produced an excellent and convincing Lord Peter novel.