Friday 29 January 1999

Anne McCaffrey: Black Horses for the King (1996)

Black Horses for the King coverEdition: Corgi, 1997
Review number: 198

Anne McCaffrey was never going to write an Arthurian story, because she felt put off by the Hollywood-style image she had of the legends, presumably that put about by films like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. In this novel, written for the 'young adult' market, she has changed her mind. But she has not really written an Arthurian novel; the setting (other the fact that it is early medieval Britain, with the presence of a charismatic leader) is pretty irrelevant.

The idea behind the book is that the only thing that would produce a string of Saxon defeats like those attributed to Arthur would have been British use of heavy cavalry; and that would have meant large horses. In the sixth century, the average horse was the size of a small pony today, not enough to carry a large man and not a platform to take advantage of the major weapon made possible heavy cavalry - the charge. They would be fine for skirmishing from a distance with light bows (tactics used by Saracen light cavalry against Crusaders), but would not give an advantage in close combat.

So, at the beginning of his rule, Arthur (or rather, in this book, Artos) sets off to southern France where he will be able to buy a herd of Libyan horses, large and black. The book is told from the point of view of one of his companions, the boy Galwyn, who then becomes one of Artos' trusted grooms.

As a book aimed at teenagers, Black Horses for the King is well done; McCaffrey generally writes excellently for this age group. To someone with a bit more experience, it is perhaps rather predictable and certainly fits very snugly within the bounds of the standard plot type of a young boy growing up and discovering his destiny. It would be especially interesting to anyone who likes horses, though no specialist knowledge is needed to enjoy it.

Thursday 28 January 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Singing in the Shrouds (1958)

Edition: Fontana, 1967
Review number: 197

London is terrified by a serial killer, who strangles young women at ten day intervals, scattering them with flowers and singing over the bodies before disappearing into the night. Just before the cruise lines the SS Cape Farewell sails, he strikes again, at a girl bringing flowers to the ship as a farewell gift to one of the passengers. She is clutching the torn-off fragment of an embarkation notice, evidence to the police that the killer may be one of the passengers. So Alleyn, in charge of the investigation, is put on board the ship from Southampton, to travel incognito in an attempt to discover the killer.

Marsh uses some psychology to explain the trip, to try to make it more than a plot device to get a small number of people isolated together, the pre-requisite of the classic crime novel. Her idea is that the killer is a schizophrenic who has some dim recollection of his crimes in his normal moments, going on board ship to escape from the temptation posed by the anonymity of London. This does not solve his problem, for among the passengers are two eminently possible victims. I don't know how likely a piece of psychology this is, being in no way an expert in criminal psychiatry, but the case I do know a bit about, the "Yorkshire Ripper", was rather different: Peter Sutcliffe apparently had no knowledge in his normal life of the crimes he had committed; it was only when presented with incontrovertible evidence that the walls separating parts of his personality began to crumble; it wasn't even as though his most shameful nightmares turned out to be true.

What in fact rings most falsely in this book is the awful slang employed by the characters; did anyone ever refer to a man they fancied as a 'G.B.' (short for gorgeous brute)? After the war, Marsh seemed to be writing books more and more set in the past (though providing indicators, such as the awful TV show hosted by the character Aubrey Dale, that they were still intended to be contemporary), in the twenties and thirties. The backgrounds are no longer up to date - the villages of Off With His Head and Scales of Justice were surely rare even in the fifties; cruise ships (even ships intended to mainly carry cargo, as Cape Farewell is intended to be) must have already been losing out to commercial aviation. This old-fashioned atmosphere is compounded by the slang; if you want your dialogue not to seem hopelessly out of date in ten years' time, you should ignore the more outrageous slang around you.

Caroline Graham: Faithful Unto Death (1996)

Faithful Unto Death coverEdition: Headline, 1997
Review number: 196

In her Cotswold-set mysteries, Caroline Graham has great fun parading casts of bizarre exaggerated eccentrics before the eyes of Chief Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy (themselves stereotypical policemen) and her readers. Faithful Unto Death follows the formula pretty exactly, with a puzzle which is perhaps a little above the average level of difficulty.

When Alan Hutchinson's wife Simone goes missing, he at first does nothing about it, launching himself instead into a self-pitying sea of whisky. His neighbours eventually inform the police, but there is little they can do until Alan himself is found dead. Like almost all of Graham's stories, this one takes place in a tiny village entirely, it seems, populated by really strange people, and this includes the reclusive Hutchinsons.

Having seen the TV adaptation of this novel before reading it, I wasn't expecting it to be terribly good. The "cast of eccentrics" idea works rather better on the page than on the screen, where there is a danger that they merely seem rather exaggerated (though the TV listings magazine we get implies, in what is said about the adaptation of a different Graham novel, that the series is very popular in the US, and some viewers there think it reliably catalogues English village life; it is about as reliable as Buffy's portrayal of American high school life). The compression of the novel into a single two-hour programme meant that the plot was considerably simplified and the characters made rather more sketchy; attention was inevitably focused on the star part, Barnaby (who was also considerably softened to make him more attractive to viewers). The book is far better, though I did find myself occasionally wondering how much some of the characterisations are deliberate parody and how much poor writing.

Tuesday 26 January 1999

C.S. Forester: Lord Hornblower (1946)

Edition: Michael Joseph, 1951
Review number: 195

As in the earlier climax of the Hornblower series, Ship of the Line, Lord Hornblower takes Forester's hero back to the French countryside. He is initially dispatched to deal with some mutineers from the British navy who have taken refuge under the protection of the French batteries guarding the mouth of the Seine. In taking possession of the mutineers' ship, Hornblower also manages to be the man who establishes the first bridgehead on the northern French coast, by capturing Le Havre. This is in the twilight of Napoleon's power, as Wellington invades the south of France, and Russian troops menace the Rhine. Hornblower has to reluctantly become the host for the Duc d'Angoulême, one of the uninspiring Bourbons who wish to return to France and power as Napoleon is defeated and exiled to Elba. But when Napoleon escapes, Hornblower once again becomes a fugitive in a hostile France.

This late Hornblower novel has a distinct air of being an anticlimax. I don't know whether Forester was as tired of his most famous hero as Doyle became of Sherlock Holmes, but he was certainly not as able to come up with good ideas as the series of books extended. This is partly because he had to fit Hornblower into a historical context, and partly because he clearly didn't have a plan of Hornblower's whole career mapped out in advance; doing so would have made it possible to spread out the excitement more evenly.

That boredom was involved seems to be indicated, though, by the sketchy attention paid to character development in some of the later books. Hornblower has been established early on in the series, and he does not really change or develop, reaching the point where he is almost a caricature of his earlier self. Forester also repeats incidents, and in Lord Hornblower actually draws attention to it (Hornblower has the men caper at their guns at one point to stop them freezing, and he actually thinks how this will cause a new Hornblower legend to grow up, to set alongside stories of the jig danced on the Lydia during the chase of the Natividad.)

Monday 25 January 1999

Jacques le Goff: Medieval Civilisation (1972)

Translation: Julia Barrow, 1988
Edition: Blackwell, 1988
Review number: 194

Medieval Civilization is an examination of the Middle Ages as a culture, an attempt to get into the minds of men and women quite alien to modern thought patters yet from whom modern culture derives.

Available for many years in France before being translated into English (at which point some revision was made), le Goff's work fits very much into the style of French historical writing whose best known exponent was Fernand Braudel. The earlier period of le Goff's interest has a much narrower range of available material, though the nine hundred years he covers is more stable than the rapid changes of early modern Europe which interested Braudel.

I found le Goff easier to take in than Braudel, who has a rather more dense style (at least, this is the case for their English translations). The differences between their chosen fields may have something to do with it; Braudel is more easily able to carry out closely argued analysis (since he has something to analyse), while le Goff has to use a broader brush. It works well, both in the short summary of the political history of Europe from the decline of the Roman Empire to the fifteenth century, and in the longer discussion of the culture that follows.

It is a most interesting book on the medieval period, one which I found particularly valuable to read because of its concentration on France rather than England (as you so often get in histories of Europe written in English); France was, after all, in the centre of medieval culture while England was on the periphery.

Friday 22 January 1999

Helen MacInnes: The Double Image (1965)

Edition: Collins, 1965
Review number: 193

The Double Image is a competent spy thriller, not the chauvinist action of Ian Fleming nor the convoluted plotting of John le Carré but more straightforward and down-to-earth than either.

John Carey, an economist, in Paris while travelling to Greece to research the history of trade routes, meets his old teacher Professor Sussman by chance. Sussman has just returned from Frankfurt where he has been testifying at the trial of some former guards from Auschwitz. Their leader, Heinrich Berg, who grew up with Sussman, is believed to be dead - and yet Sussman has just seen him here in Paris. This would have seemed to Carey to be hallucinations brought on by the trauma of testifying, were it not for the fact that Sussman is murdered in his hotel room that same night.

Carey is now drawn into a world of seedy espionage; Berg is now posing as the Russian Insarov - with the explicit implication that the Communist states of Eastern Europe were harbouring many former Nazis. The climax of the book occurs on the Greek island of Mykonos, where just about everyone involved turns up, to take part in or to attempt to foil a plot by Insarov/Berg (the double image of the title) to kidnap a Western electronics expert from an American base in Smyrna.

The Double Image never really rises far above the commonplace, black and white world of the minor thriller; the author it reminded me of most strongly was Alastair Maclean. Accepting without question the commonplaces of the Cold War - East is worse than West, less moral, more unscrupulous - MacInnes never questions what is going on.

Caryl Brahms & S.J. Simon: Don't Mr Disraeli (1940)

Edition: Hogarth, 1987
Review number: 192

This book is extremely like No Bed for Bacon, which was in fact written following the success of Don't Mr Disraeli. Indeed, the two have been printed in a single volume, under the title A Mutual Pair. The major difference is of course, that one is set in the Victorian age, the other in the Elizabethan.

Despite its greater success at the time, I think that Don't Mr Disraeli is less well-done than No Bed for Bacon. It has aged rather less well. This is because Don't Mr Disraeli, published almost sixty years ago, was written only forty years after the end of the period in which it was set, so that many of its readers would have been alive at the time; none of No Bed for Bacon's readers could possibly remember the sixteenth century. Compared to the average person living in 1940, our knowledge of the Victorian period will be much more sketchy, while our knowledge of the Elizabethan period will be reasonably similar. This means that references in Don't Mr Disraeli are more likely to be missed by or incomprehensible to modern readers (or, at least, take enough time to work out that the joke is spoiled), while those in No Bed for Bacon are more immediately funny.

Such plot as there is in Don't Mr Disraeli is a melodramatic version of the Romeo and Juliet theme, with the addition of a stage villain, all twirling moustachios. But the main point of the book is the series of silly anecdotes scattered through it, with no reference to their chronological order or connection to the main story (so, for example, scenes of the widowed queen precede others of her coronation). Disraeli keeps on making - or nearly making - errors, and is constantly corrected with the words of the novel's title. Just about everyone associated with Victorian England appears somewhere in the book, along with others who barely fit in (the Marx brothers, for example).

Thursday 21 January 1999

Michael Dibdin: Dirty Tricks (1991)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1992
Review number: 191

I'm in two minds about Dirty Tricks. On the one hand, it is excellently written and occasionally very funny. On the other, the character of the narrator and the events he describes are so convincingly unpleasant that I found it difficult to bring myself to read more than a few pages at a time, and am distinctly dubious about whether I would want to read other books by Dibdin.

The scenario is that the book is basically a transcription of an address made to a court in South America opposing an attempt by the British to have the speaker extradited to stand trial for a double murder. The narrator begins by claiming that he is going to tell the truth throughout - but then he would, of course. He admits to a variety of other crimes, but his aim is to persuade the court that he may not have committed the murder, as that is the only crime covered by the extradition treaty.

He started out as a teacher of English in a seedy language school in Oxford, one basically set up to make as much money as possible without regarding the standard of the education passed on to its students. There he is ground down by Clive, his employer and owner of the language school, his aspirations and ideals engendered by being a student in Oxford in the hippie era gradually abandoned in the realities of life in Thatcherite Britain. Then he meets a couple from north Oxford, Dennis and Karen, and is seduced by Karen at a dinner party.

Dennis and Karen have something the narrator does not - money - and he has something they do not - culture - and so their acquaintance ripens, along with his affair with Karen. Then Dennis dies, apparently in a boating accident - or rather, say the police later, a carefully pre-meditated plot by the narrator, who marries Karen after a barely decent interval. It is not until Karen herself dies, with evidence pointing at her new lover, Clive, that the police become interested. (The interrogation carried out by Chief Inspector Moss, a parody of Morse, infuriatingly more interested in the crossword than the crime, is another funny touch.)

The whole account raises an issue, which has been of importance to several influential twentieth century writers - the question, of how trustworthy a first person narrative is. It is abundantly clear from the way that the narrator here expresses himself (and the circumstances in which the story is set) that he would have no qualms in falsifying events if it would make him look better and save himself from a return to England and prison, and the reader certainly has no way to know whether or not he has done so. Gide is the master at casting doubt on a narrative, particularly in The Counterfeiters, but his doubts are aimed at overturning the traditional omniscience of a third person narrator rather than at deliberate falsification. The way in which people colour their perception of a scene even in their own mind is of course a major concern in stream-of-consciousness narratives. Dirty Tricks is using a technique which is closely allied to that of the epistolary novel, where a variety of correspondents give their own viewpoint on events, or novels like Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost, where the same events are told from different points of view, so different in the first case that it takes the reader some time to realise that they are the same events. These comparisons to other literary experiments in narrative give an idea of the quality of Dibdin's writing; nevertheless, the narrator's character is so repulsive as to be distinctly off-putting.

Tuesday 19 January 1999

Frank Herbert: God Emperor of Dune (1981)

Edition: New English Library, 1982
Review number: 190

The fourth Dune novel saw Herbert returning to the series after a considerable gap, both in internal and external chronology. This book is set several thousand years after Leto gained the throne, and he has maintained himself in a position of absolute power in the galaxy, his enforced peace being used to prepare mankind for a future event left unspecified at this point in the series. He has continued to change in response to the sandtrout he accepted as his new skin as a child, and now resembles a small sandworm more than a human being. During his long reign, and through his ancestral memories, he has experienced just about everything the human race has to offer (despite never, in human terms, developing after about his ninth birthday); any way that people manage to act which surprises him is a great pleasure. He takes a particular delight in those who rebel against him, and now in Siona Atreides, a descendant of his sister Ghanima, he has an opponent he can be interested in, for she is also immune to his powers of prescience: his spice-inspired visions of the future cannot predict what she will do. This immunity is really what Leto has been working towards in the breeding programme he took over from the Bene Gesserit sisterhood; it is needed for humanity to be able to withstand the threat he has seen in mankind's future.

God Emperor is a scene setter for the final two books in the Dune series, and rather suffers from this (which may explain the lengthy gap before these last two books finally appeared). Leto is not really made different enough from those around him to be truly convincing (he should be a really alien figure), and the novel feels lacking in direction and so never grabs the full attention of the reader.

Monday 18 January 1999

Anton Chekhov: Three Sisters (1900)

Edition: Nick Hern, 1994
Review number: 189

Chekhov's mature plays are famous for the way that nothing happens. This generalisation is not, of course, totally accurate, but it is certainly the case that what plot there is (here such incidents as an unsuitable marriage, a fire, a duel, the removal of the town's army contingent) take place off stage, and are there principally to point something out in the personalities of Chekhov's characters. To use the word "plot" to describe the incidents in The Three Sisters is really a bit of an overstatement; while it is clear that each event is carefully planned by Chekhov, they have a random, disconnected air - just like incidents in real life.

The three Prozorov sisters live in a small town with their brother, Andrei. After the death of their father, one of them has married a schoolteacher, the youngest two are still unmarried. They are bored with provincial life, and look forward to the day when they will move to Moscow (which is the place where all their unattainable dreams take place). But Andrei marries a local girl, and she gradually takes over the Prozorov house and the sisters' illusory hopes fade away.

The three sisters, Irina, Olga and Masha, are very different women (respectively, archetypically innocent, home-making and sensual), and it has been suggested that they represent the different sides to the nature of any real woman. Because of the way they grow up together, though, siblings are often very different - complementary, even - in temperament, so it is not necessary to put such a symbolic interpretation on what is surely intended to be a strongly realist play.

Chekhov's great plays all deal with a family's decline in fortune; the Prozorovs are not so high in the social scale as the aristocratic families of Uncle Vanya or The Cherry Orchard, but they are clearly gradually losing social status.

It is Chekhov's examination of character that makes this a great play; he took the ideas of the late nineteenth century Russian novel and applied them to the stage. That medium, with its association with melodrama and its exaggerated plots and one dimensional characters must have seemed the last place where an emphasis on character rather than action would work; yet, in the hands of Chekhov and Ibsen, it does.

Nicholas Cheetham: Medieval Greece (1981)

Edition: Yale University Press, 1981
Review number: 188

Greece had an incredibly complex history in the medieval period, from the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204 until the fall of Crete to the Turks in the seventeenth century. Before and after this, it had hundreds of years as part of a large and stable empire, the Byzantine and the Ottoman; a fairly stable and slow-changing condition (though not without historical questions, such as the puzzle of when and how exactly the nature of the population changed from Greek to Slav). In between these periods of stability, though, come four and a half centuries of turmoil, incredibly complex political maneuvring among fragmenting states, all of which is little known in Western European histories.

The diversion of the Fourth Crusade to sack Constantinople was one of the more cynical crimes of history. Internal conflicts made the empire an easy target, and the commercial ambition of the Venetians made it a tempting prize to them (and they were organising the transport for the crusade). The capture of Constantinople caused the disintegration of the empire, particularly its European provinces, which had already been carved up among the participants in the Fourth Crusade before it took place. Greece was divided into four or five small states, some still ruled by Greek aristocrats, others taken over by the conquerors and reorganised along Western feudal lines, with the Venetians gaining many important ports and commercial privileges.

It is perhaps amazing that the Latin states (as they are known) lasted as long as they did, until in fact they were destroyed by the Turks. They were often at loggerheads with each other and with the Greek states; faced continual interference from the West in their internal affairs - mainly because the Angevin royal family of Naples got involved, which also involved their rivals for control of Sicily, the Aragonese; and experienced the dangers common to all foreign ruling classes which never even attempt to integrate themselves with the mass of the people. The first state to go was the Latin Empire, based in Constantinople itself, and the last the Venetian colony of Crete.

The complicated and often obscure affairs of these petty states are well described by Cheetham, a long-serving British diplomat in Greece, fascinated by the many medieval remains completely ignored in favour of the more well-known classical structures and artefacts. He even tries to unravel something of the economic and social history, in which material for the historian is almost completely lacking. The political manoeuvrings are incredibly dificult to keep track of, particularly given the way that pepople change name as they change the fief they hold, or marry, or their relatives die. Cheetham does his best, but even at 300+ pages can only manage to give a fairly sketchy picture of the history.

Thursday 14 January 1999

Anne Perry: Callander Square (1980)

Edition: Fawcett, 1986
Review number: 186

Like The Hangman of Cater Street, the first of Anne Perry's Inspector Pitt novels, Callander Square is a tale of the worst of Victorian society's vice and hypocrisy. Other than Charlotte, Pitt's wife, there is scarcely a member of the upper classes without a disreputable secret; Perry's is surely an exaggerated version of Victorian London. (By their very nature, it is impossible to accurately know how many people have disreputable secrets.) Some fairly typical Victorian vices, such as child prostitution, are either still considered too unpleasant to talk about by Perry, or they just haven't yet proved relevant to one of her plots.

The plot concerns the police investigation into the bodies of two babies, discovered in the wealthy neighbourhood of Callander Square when some work is being done in the gardens. They are thought to be the results of a servant girl's indiscretions, so everyone in the square expects the investigation purely to be a formality. Inspector Pitt is in charge of the case, and when Charlotte discovers what he is investigating, her sympathy both for the babies and their mother leads her to take a hand. She encourages her fashionable sister Emily to start visiting in the Square to find out from gossip what's going on, and even manages to get herself a job as secretary to General Ballantyne, who lives in the Square and is writing a history of his family's involvement in the army since the days of Marlborough. Before long, the disreputable secrets of those who dwell in the Square begin to come out, and it becomes clear that there's more to the mystery than first appeared.

It's clear that Anne Perry has found a successful formula in The Cater Street Hangman, and that she has stuck to it in Callander Square. The portrayal of upper-class Victorian society as totally hypocritical may be exaggerated, but it provides many opportunities for a detective writer, through the existence of lots of disreputable secrets which the reader has to work out whether they are connected to the matter under investigation or not.

Walter M. Miller: A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)

Edition: Corgi, 1974
Review number: 187

Walter M. Miller's 1960 novel is really the classic of post holocaust science fiction. It contains three interrelated stories, set hundreds of years apart, as mankind slowly recovers from an atomic war, rebuilding the knowledge lost in the conflict and in the subsequent reaction against the scientists and intellectuals who had made a nuclear catastrophe possible.

The guardian of knowledge during mankind's lapse into pre-industrial technology is the Roman Catholic Church, and much of the book's background is based on Catholic ritual and symbols, including the titles of the three sections, which are quotations from the Vulgate - Fiat Lux ("let there be light"), Fiat Homo ("let [us] make man") and Fiat Voluntuas Tuas ("your will be done"). The action of each section takes place in a monastery in the Texan desert where large amounts of pre-deluge material (the holocaust is referred to as "the deluge", after Noah's flood) survives, most of which is completely incomprehensible to the monks to begin with (they copy it again and again by rote). In each section, the general level of civilisation increases and with it the understanding of the clues provided by the repository of knowledge. As the book progresses, the reader begins to realise that the renaissance of technology is going to lead inevitably to another holocaust. In fact, this is a large part of what I think Miller is saying; the point of the book is to make the pessimistic point that the evil side of human nature will win out over the good.

Throughout the book, Miller throws in symbolic characters: the wandering Jew, the Poet-Fool (a sort of medieval jester figure), an innocent who is thought to be the incarnation of the returning Christ. These characters interact with the more mundane groups of monks at the abbey, who form a sort of chorus through the changing circumstances of centuries.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a complex novel which well deserves its classic status.

Wednesday 13 January 1999

Paul Harding: Murder Most Holy (1992)

Edition: Headline, 1992
Review number: 185

One of the disadvantages to attempting to read a series of novels from a public library is that it is extremely difficult to read them in the correct order. This is why I have only just made it to reading the third of Paul Harding's "Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan", even though I have already read several later novels in the series.

Murder Most Holy is in fact three separate murder mysteries, which simultaneously test the abilities of the London coroner Sir John Cranston and his friend, the Dominican friar Athelstan. One is theoretical, a puzzle set Cranston by the Lord of Cremona, visiting London, as a bet; it is a locked room mystery. One involves a skeleton dug up during renovation at Athelstan's Southwark church, St Erconwalds, in danger of being thought to be the miracle-working remains of the saint himself. The main mystery is set at the friary of Blackfriars, where Athelstan himself had trained. There, a series of senior friars have been killed during the investigation into a thesis in theology presented by one of them which has to be defended against possible heresy charges.

The medieval background is as well done as ever, and the mysteries are interesting; an excellent member of the series.

Tuesday 12 January 1999

Terry Pratchett: Jingo (1997)

Edition: Gollancz, 1997
Review number: 184

The twenty-first Discworld novel tackles a most depressing subject - the warmongering, violent side of human nature. The scenario is that the lost continent of Leshp has risen again from the seabed, to be claimed by both Ankh-Morpork and the empire of Klatch. War seems to be inevitable, as patriotism apparently spontaneously breaks out in Ankh-Morpork. The City Watch are once again the centre of things as Commander Vimes tries to work out who is guilty of the crime of attempted murder through warmongering.

The book itself is fairly sombre in tone compared to the rest of the series, despite the convoluted farcical plot. War is a serious subject and the inhumanity of war is not something to be taken lightly (though it has been used to produce some of the greatest humour of the century, such as Heller's Catch 22). There are many obvious parallels intended between the patriots in Ankh-Morpork and the British and French generals of the First World War. Even eight years after the end of that war,m the stupidities of these generals is more material for tragedy than comedy, and even the best comedies which deal with it (Oh What a Lovely War, or Blackadder Goes Forth for example) have strong tragic elements which are almost entirely missing from this novel. On the other hand, the tragedy is so strong that even the more tragic works dealing with the War use comic effects (examples of this include Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and many of the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.)

The way that Pratchett writes about a non-naturalistic world in which he makes parallels with real history dilutes the tragedy while at the same time subduing the comedy. The fact that Jingo is the twenty-first Discworld novel tempts the reviewer to say that the series is coming of age, but that is not really the case; no serious points are made which have not been better made elsewhere, and Pratchett writes better when he does not even try to make serious points.

Monday 11 January 1999

Molière: Le Malade Imaginaire (1673)

Translations: John Wood, 1959 and Martin Sorrell, 1994 (both under the title The Hypochondriac)
Editions: Penguin, 1969; Nick Hern, 1994
Review number: 182
Review amended: 4 May 1999

Le Malade Imaginaire is the greatest and best-known of Molière's attacks on doctors. Like many of his other well-known plays, it is the exaggerated nature of the main character which provides the comedy; Argan is hypochondria personified in the same way that Harpagon is miserliness and Tartuffe hypocritical piety.

From the start of the play, with Argan in his bed adding up his doctors' bills in between injections and doses of medicine, we realise that he is soon going to be ruined by his hypochondria despite his riches, encouraged by his doctors who are anxious to make money out of him while they can - as long as he can withstand their ministrations. In order to be able to afford doctors for longer, he decides to marry his elder daughter Béline to Thomas Diafiorus, the son of one of his senior doctors, just qualified as a doctor himself. This is to secure himself cheap treatment as a member of the family, but unfortunately Thomas is not really the sort of man to appeal to any woman, let alone Béline, who has already fallen in love with another man. Stuffed full of useless pseudo-knowledge, which he appears to still believe, he seems never to have encountered a woman before (except on the dissection table). He is far more a figure of fun than the older physicians who use Latin and Greek philosophical terms only to confuse their victims. It is only when Toinette, Béline's pert maidservant, disguises herself as a doctor that Argan's family is able to begin to wean him from his hypochondria and persuade him to accept Béline's marriage to her lover Cléante.

The primitive state of medicine in Molière's time was one of the main reasons why doctors were such a target for his dislike and satire. When their cures were so dicey, it often seemed better to try and cope with an illness without them rather than risk being killed by the attempted cure. (Argan's brother says as much in the play.) The doctors used their pseudo-schientific language to justify their guesswork, to confuse their patients and convince them of their superior knowledge. This is of course a method used very commonly by those on the fringes of science (and a desire to impress by using technical language is not unknown elsewhere), because of the way that science is venerated by those who do not understand much of it. This is particularly true of the "science" touted by the New Age movement, even though that movement is generally anti-scientific in its worldview. This is particularly true of astrology, though other pseudo-sciences which may contain a grain of truth also do it, which is a pity since it tends to prevent any genuine scientific investigation into what may be happening. (I'm thinking about such alternative medicene as acupuncture and homeopathy, for example.)

The two translations show very well the differences between a fairly academic translation, typical of Penguin Classics, and one designed for performance, as the Nick Hern series are.

Martin Sorrell keeps the traditional title of the play, and it is hard to feel that John Wood improves upon it. It is the illnesses which are imaginary, after all, and The Imaginary Invalid really imples that the invalid is imaginary, rather than the invalidism. (Of course, the invalid actually is imaginary - he is only a character in a play - but that's moving into philosophical regions rather beyond what I suspect the title is intended to convey.)

Where Sorrell does make changes is in the medical language. He updates this to more modern-sounding scientific gobbledegook, on the grounds that our knowledge of Greek and Latin tends to be less than that of a seventeenth century audience. I am not sure this is really a problem, since the modern medical vocabulary is still full of terms borrowed from Latin and Greek. What has happened, though, is that a lot of seventeenth century medical language has passed into common speech. The philosophical idea behind medicine at the period was that the body contained four humours, and these needed to be kept in balance for good physical and mental health. The dominant humour determined your personality, and the names of the humours have become common descriptions of emotion or personality: bile, choler, phlegmatic, sanguine and so on. Doctors today also do not talk about astrology; the casting of horoscopes is not considered a valid method of diagnosis. Thus, I think there is an argument for updating the language, but it is not the one advanced by Sorrell in his introduction. (His updating works well, whatever the motivation, making the play much more graceful than Wood's straight translation.)

Thursday 7 January 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Off With His Head (1958)

Alternative title: Death of a Fool
Edition: William Collins
Having in her previous novel, Scales of Justice, written a fair imitation of Agatha Christie, in Off With His Head Marsh attempts an imitation of certain aspects of Dorothy Sayers. Marsh always has a style which is more like Christie than Sayers, and this she keeps; it is the setting which reminds me of Sayers. In several of her books, Sayers took a particular part of English culture and wrote a mystery absolutely steeped in that culture: bellringing in The Nine Tailors, advertising in Murder Must Advertise, and Oxbridge in Gaudy Night. Off With His Head attempts the same with the peculiar world of the village folk dance and its much mangled pagan origins.

On each Sword Wednesday, that nearest the winter solstice, the inhabitants of the two remote villages of High and Low Mardian gather for a dance. The climax of this is a sword dance in which the Five Sonse cut off the head of their father, the Fool in a sort of mime in which the blood is provided by a rabbit's head; the Fool then hides for a time, to reappear at the end, resurrected. The dancers this year - and, indeed, every recent year - are really a father and his five sons; and this year the father is really killed.

There are several reasons why this novel is not among Marsh's best. She manages to make the background rather dull, that the way that modern morris dancing seems so silly is a problem. She continually emphasises the pagan roots, the parallels with the Adonis myth as explored in Frazer's Golden Bough, and explicitly distances her characters from the idiocies of the folk movement, but her invented dance, a synthesis of elements from real dances, still seems artificial.

The major problem with this novel is the stereotypical parade of suspects. There is the German folklore expert, desperate to see the dance and an object of suspicion to the villagers because of the war; she makes herself an object of suspicion to the police because of her fear of them derived from her experiences as an opponent of Nazism in pre-war Germany, the occasion for many annoying remarks along the lines of "It couldn't happen here." There is the epileptic, one of the sones, viewed as an idiot by the villagers but considered capable of killing without knowing what he was doing. There are the other sons, keen to move the family business into the twentieth century against the wishes of their father. Those who do not ever really come into the picture include a pair of young lovers, a standard accessory in crime fiction; these are among the more annoying of their kind. None of the characters are more than sketchy stereotypes; all in all, Off With His Head is one of Marsh's worst novels.

Molière: A Doctor In Spite of Himself (1666)

Translation: John Wood, 1959
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 182

A Doctor in Spite of Himself is a short, farcical attack on the medical profession, on the ignorant doctors of Molière's time who tricked the unwary with long words and bogus science (they are one of Molière's favourite targets). He uses his standard plot of the man (Géronte) who will not allow his daughter to marry, but the centre of this play is not Géronte's family but the false doctor Sganarelle. Géronte's daughter Lucinde appears to be ill, refusing to speak to anyone, and so Géronte sends out two of his servants to find a doctor. They encounter Sganarelle's wife, who tells them that her good-for-nothing husband is in fact a great doctor; she recounts some (imaginary) amazing cures he has accomplished. She tells them that he is also incredibly modest, and won't allow anyone to call him a doctor; at the moment, because of his love of humble occupations, he is in the forest collecting firewood (this is, of course, so they won't be surprised when he shows no knowledge of being a doctor). The two servants go off and find him, and end up beating him up until he agrees that he is a doctor and that he will treat Lucinde.

As in L'amour Médecin, her cure is to be united with her lover, but not before much fun is had making the medical profession ridiculous, and not before Sganarelle realises that medicine is the career for him: you make your money regardless of the quality of your work, whether the patient lives or dies.

A Doctor in Spite of Himself is one of the funniest of Molière's shorter plays, much more polished and finished than the others I've read.

Wednesday 6 January 1999

Molière: Tartuffe, or The Impostor (1664)

Translation: John Wood, 1959
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 180

Like The Misanthrope, Tartuffe is about hypocrisy; unlike the later play, Tartuffe aroused great indignation, and it was only after several re-writes (comemmorated in several prefaces) that the play was allowed to be performed in public. The Misanthrope was, in fact, written during the period that Tartuffe was banned.

The reason for the differing reactions to the two plays is based on the way that Tartuffe shows his hypocrisy: through feigned religious piety. Not having the earlier versions which originally aroused the anger of powerful group (apparently mainly strongly pious lay people rather than the church), one can only guess at what exactly in Molière's play was so outrageous. He specifically denies in one of the prefaces that he intended any attack on true religion; his target was those who pretend true religion. You do have to admit that the more pious members of Orgon's family, he himself and his mother, seem to be portrayed as particularly stupid.

The plot of Tartuffe is fairly simple. Tartuffe has wormed his way into the family of the wealthy Orgon, who believes his assumed piety and looks on him as a saint. Orgon will not believe the warnings of his family, all of whom see through Tartuffe with the exception of his mother. Orgon now tries to force his daughter Marianne to marry Tartuffe, breaking a contract he has already made to marry her to the man she really loves. Tartuffe attempts to seduce Marianne's stepmother Elmire; it is only when she arranges for him to repeat his propositions with Orgon hidden under a table that he realises Tartuffe's true nature. When Orgon tries to throw Tartuffe out of the house, the latter goes to the king with some documents to support an accusation of treason against Orgon (they are documents entrusted to Orgon by a friend who had fled the country). Just when it looks as though Orgon will lose everything, the king intervenes; he has recognised Tartuffe as a scoundrel and throws him into prison instead.

The flattery of the king by Molière and the way he is used as a deus ex machine is the only real weakness of this otherwise great play. The whole thing comes so close to a very unhappy ending that there was very little else that Molière could do to arrange the outcome required in a comedy of the day, intended to be a piece of light entertainment.