Tuesday 30 March 1999

Jean Racine: Iphigenia (1674)

Translation: John Cairncross, 1963
Edition: Penguin, 1968
Review number: 237

One of the best known stories in Greek mythology is that of Iphigenia. She was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra; when he was leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War. the fleet was stranded at Aulis by contrary winds, and an oracle told them that the wind would only change if Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter.

The story of Iphigenia has a distinguished history in drama. As well as inspiring Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis, her death forms the motivation for Clytemnestra's murder of Agamemnon on his return from Troy, which led in turn to her own murder at the hands of their son Orestes - between them, the subjects of famous, surviving, plays by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.

There are in fact several versions of the myth; a common one has the goddess Artemis substituting a hind for Iphigenia at the last moment, snatching her away to become a priestess (as in Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris). Racine chooses a more obscure version of the myth, in which Iphigenia is saved when the oracle is discovered to refer to another Iphigenia.

His reason for doing this is to make the process of divine retribution clearer. Iphigenia has done nothing to deserve death, so she should not die. He rejected the story of the hind, probably because of his early background as a Jansenist. The Jansenists were a strict group of Catholics; among their beliefs was the idea that it should require the eye of faith to perceive a miracle; to those lacking such an eye, it should appear to be a natural event. (The idea is that the purpose of a miracle is to bolster faith, so that to those with no faith they are meaningless. This is the opposite of the modern charismatic Christian viewpoint, for example, that miracles are a sign intended to convince non-believers.) He was, however, unable to remove or rationalise the miracle that the wind changed on the death of the girl, as the oracle had foretold.

The blandness of Iphigenia as a character is the main weakness in the play. She is really the tool of the others - her parents, her fiancé Achilles, the seer Calchas. It is perhaps ironic that Racine's reason for choosing this particular version of the myth - the inoffensiveness of Iphigenia - should make it so hard to create in her a living character.

Monday 29 March 1999

Joseph Heller: Catch 22 (1961)

Edition: Corgi
Review number: 236

Joseph Heller's best known novel is probably the greatest work of literature to be based around the experiences of World War II. It manages to be both hilariously funny and terribly sad. Heller makes each of the man in the USAAF flight based at Pianosa a believable individual, each of the front-line fliers responding to the stresses of the war in the air in different ways, and each of those who are in the army bureaucracy behind the lines wrapped up in the totally unimportant in their own different ways.

While the war itself provides most of the tragedy, it is the clash between the bureaucracy and the fliers that provides the comedy. This clash is exemplified by the famous Catch 22 itself, described as "the best catch there is". The medics can ground anyone who is crazy, provided that they request it; but (as fear in the face of danger is a normal human reaction), anyone who requests grounding is not crazy, so they cannot be grounded. (From a logical standpoint, it depends on an error: sanity does not purely consist of fear of danger, so it should not be the only criterion used to determine madness.)

This sort of crazy logic pervades the whole novel, so that Milo Minderbinder can make a profit selling eggs for a loss, Major Major will only see people in his office when he's out, ex-PFC Wintergreen becomes the most powerful man in Mediterranean Operations because he controls the mimeograph machine, and the pattern made by the bomb craters on the aerial photograph taken after the mission is of more concern than the military effectiveness of the bombing.

Heller manipulates the craziness of the atmosphere through the way he plays around with chronology. The events catalogued in the book are arranged in an order which makes them seem to both follow the chronology and ignore it. For example, statements in the account of event x like "this was the most fun Orr had had since y" imply that y occurred before x even though x is described first. On the other hand, the commanding officer keeps raising the number of missions a man has to fly before becoming eligible for leave back to the US, and this number increases in the order in which events are described in the book, so that it might be 45 during x and 60 during y - implying that x occurs before y.

Tragic events tend to recur, as they take an important place in the minds of the fliers - Snowden bleeding to death, the men on the raft, and so on. The absurdity with which they are surrounded makes them even more telling, and has been frequently imitated (notably in MASH).

O. Henry: The Four Million (1899)

Edition: Doubleday, Doran & Co
Review number: 235

A common location and subject - New York and the four million people who lived there at the turn of the century, unite O. Henry's earliest collection of short stories. Each story is fairly typical of his work - short, the longest in this edition being four pages; having a happy ending which may seem a little sentimental to modern tastes (though that doesn't stop people reading, say, Louisa M. Alcott). Each one is skilfully written, painting a picture of its characters in a few phrases.

Most of the characters in these stories belong to one fairly specific group of people, not unrelated to the market for the journals and magazines in which the O. Henry's stories were originally published. They are mainly young people in low-paid office work (stenographers and the like), living in cheap boarding houses and eating in cheap restaurants.

The best stories are perhaps those which have some sort of wry twist, rather than the sentimental happy endings of the others, such as Lost on Dress Parade or The Coming Out of Maggie, while those in which a man forgets he married the night before - of which there are several - are the weakest. O. Henry also attempts something rather different in Memoirs of a Yellow Dog, and this does not quite come off.

Friday 26 March 1999

C.S. Forester: The Ship (1943)

Edition: Penguin, 1970

Forester's wartime novel is fairly unashamedly a piece of propaganda, designed to make British readers proud of the efforts of the Navy. He spent some time sailing with the Navy in the Mediterranean, and this novel is based on what he saw.

What he has written is an account of a battle, each chapter heading being a phrase taken from the Captain's report sent to the Admiralty afterward. The novel is unusual among naval stories for the attention that it pays to the ordinary rank and file, including the commissary side (vitally important, of course, in a real war, but not very glamorous). Few stories make it out of the wardroom, let alone into the kitchen. Each person is allowed the chance to be a hero in his own way (the crew is men only at this date), from the captain to the most unreliable Ordinary Seaman.

The fact that each character (except, of course, the Italian officers on the ships that attack them) is allowed to be a hero is the reason that this book is propaganda not literature. It is intended to make those at home proud of the Navy, and to get them to work hard to further the war effort. This is why the action described is a crucial victory; this is why each man is a vital cog in a smoothly running machine. In 1943, it is necessary to have some realism in a description of a battle; Forester does not write about an action won by the heroism of one man, nor does he ignore the possibility of death, disfigurement and disability; he even allows feelings of cowardice (though these must be overcome). The book must have, for many readers, achieved its purpose, which was to encourage everyone who read it that their effort was important to the successful conclusion of the war.

Jane Langton: The Dante Game (1991)

Edition: Penguin, 1992
Review number: 234

Homer Kelly, Jane Langton's detective, is more prominent throughout The Dante Game than he was in the other novel by her that I have read. As a professor at Harvard, he is asked to take a course in modern Italian literature at the American School in Florence, basically an establishment catering for American students wanting to spend a year studying in Florence.

The American School co-incidentally - and how many times does that word need to be used when describing the plots of crime novels - starts being used as a cover by a group of men plotting to assassinate the Pope, who will be coming to Florence to bless the celebrations of the nine hundredth anniversary of the inauguration of the cathedral there.

Kelly, who was a policeman in Boston before he became a professor at Harvard, begins his own investigation when the conspirators begin murdering some of those working for the school who they think may have tumbled to their secret.

The assassination attempt, incidentally, is organised by drugs barons appalled by the success of a campaign sponsored by the Pope targeting teenagers. They have convinced the man who will actually pull the trigger that it is part of a campaign by certain cardinals to further a progressive agenda for the Catholic church - the ordination of women, the end of celibacy for the priesthood, abandoning anti-contraception teaching. I have heard this last item used as a justification for declaring the Pope the most evil man on earth - which is a rather extreme view.

This plot is perhaps a weak point in the book. In a straight thriller, you might expect this sort of attack to be made on one of the world's institutions; it would certainly not be out of place in a Bond story. In a crime series, you normally expect a more domestic level of violence. Doing something unusual in a genre is usually worth applauding, but Langton doesn't quite carry it off; the suspension of disbelief doesn't quite happen.

Thursday 25 March 1999

Dorothy Dunnett: King Hereafter (1982)

Edition: Michael Joseph, 1982

Dorothy Dunnett's novel of Scotland in the Dark Ages concerns the historical Macbeth - or does it? She certainly knows more about the situation in eleventh century Scotland than Shakespeare did (Macbeth ruled just before the Norman conquest of England), but her plot relies on an identification between two historical characters. Macbeth, she assumes, was in fact the baptismal name of the Viking Earl of Orkney, Thorfinn II.In some ways, this works quite well: Macbeth is a likely candidate for a Gaelic baptismal name (it means "son of life"), though a saint's name might have been more likely; Thorfinn was descended from the kings of Scots and would have had at least as good a claim to the throne as the line which eventually established itself (both related to earlier kings through descent from daughters of Malcolm II); the interest in Orkney makes him plausibly involved in an attempt to unify Scotland, which provides an interesting political aspect to the novel; his Viking background paves the way for a clash of cultures, also of interest to the reader.

There are, however, arguments against the identification of Thorfinn and Macbeth, and the subsidiary identification of Ingeborg, Thorfinn's Norwegian wife, with Gruoch, more commonly known as Lady Macbeth (which is also done with the baptismal name device). The way the Scottish kingship generally worked at this time was that the succession alternated between groups of cousins, patrilineal descendants of Kenneth MacAlpine, who had originally united the kingdom. This system meant that minorities, the perilous rule of underage kings, was avoided, at the cost of making murder by a cousin the most likely way for a Scots king to die. Macbeth was one of the last kings to gain the throne in this manner; Malcolm III, who killed Macbeth, basically managed to stabilise the succession in his own descendants (barring short usurpations by Lulach - a relation of Gruoch's - and Donald I - Malcolm's brother). This was partly achieved because Malcolm held onto the throne for a considerable period, during which he killed most of the other potential candidates for the throne.

Now, both Macbeth and Gruoch are provided by the Scots chroniclers with lineages connecting them with the Scottish crown, which do not match with those existing for Thorfinn and Ingeborg. While it is clear that such lineages would be invented by usurpers to give them a claim to the throne (there are several instances of this in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for example), the way that Dunnett has set things out in her book makes Thorfinn's main claim to the throne his mother's descent, while the chronicles imply that Macbeth's is his father's, whether real or spurious.

Another objection to this identification is that Macbeth is known to have died in 1057, while Thorfinn is thought to have lived rather longer, until about 1065 (though the exact date of his death is not known). I don't know what the evidence is for assuming the later date, but it is that given by Tapsell's Monarchs in the table listing the Earls of Orkney.

The methodology of an academic historian would require that an assumption such as the identification of the two men is not made without supporting evidence. The less you assume, the less you can get wrong. As a historical novelist, you can make any assumption you like which can help your story, so long as it is reasonably plausible. The assumption Dunnett makes here drives an interesting novel, though a very long one - Macbeth reigned for seventeen years after all, not the few months that is the impression left by Shakespeare.

Less acceptable is the way that Dunnett attempts to force Thorfinn/Macbeth into the mould of the heroes of her historical series, Lymond and Niccolo (both of whom are fictional characters). Thorfinn is made to have almost exactly the same characteristics as these heroes. The character may be fascinating, and equally something of a superhero, but the three men should certainly be different from each other.

Christopher Marlowe: The Jew of Malta (c. 1589)

Edition: Nick Hern, 1994
Christopher Marlowe's play is certainly not in tune with the spirit of the second half of the twentieth century, with its portrayal of the Jew, Barabas, as the epitome of deceit and treachery. In his introduction to this edition, Peter J. Smith quotes Barry Kyle, who directed a revival in 1987, as originally thinking that the anti-Semitism would make it unstageable. He lessened the impact of this aspect of the play by using a clever trick to make the Christian leader of Malta appear to be the really unpleasant character.

In some ways, the Jewishness of Barabas is not important. He is explicitly meant to be someone who follows the teachings of Machiavelli (who appears in the prologue as Machevill, "Make-Evil"), whose analysis of politics was thought to be subversive and diabolical. On the surface, there is no particular reason whey the practitioner of his theories needs to be a Jew. In fact, the major reason in the plot for Barabas' faith is to provide the way in which he is put into the position of desiring revenge - through a discriminatory tax confiscating large amounts of his property to pay tribute to the Turks. His faith is clearly important to him, at least at the beginning of the play, because he refuses to become a Christian to avoid the tax, unlike the other Jews on the island (and unlike Shylock who reluctantly accepts baptism at the end of The Merchant of Venice).

In the end, there is really no escaping the anti-Semitism in this play. English people should perhaps not forget which country it was that first forced Jews to wear a yellow star and then expelled them, which country it was that had major anti-Jewish riots following accusations of ritual murder of children - this was medieval England. We should face up to our past, and the most positive way we can respond to this play is to let it shame us.

Wednesday 24 March 1999

M.I. Finley: The Legacy of Greece (1981)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1982

This collection of essays from scholars is intended to re-examine the role that ancient Greece has played in shaping our modern culture. It consists of fourteen articles by leading classical scholars covering various fields which are generally considered to be strongly influenced by Greek culture, including philosophy, science, figurative art, religion and so on, or covering the interaction between Greece and other cultures that have shaped our own (specifically Jewish and Christian). The book is completed with an article examining how Greek ideas have been passed down through the last two thousand years, and how those who lived during that period thought of Greek culture.

Being classicists, each writer tends to dwell on that part of their essay which summarises what makes up that particular aspect of Greek culture, which is not really what they were intended to do (at least as far as I see it). Most of them say less about modern culture, and some of them have quite old-fashioned and personal ideas about the modern side of the field about which they are writing - I disagreed with just about everything the writer on drama has to say about twentieth century theatre, for example. Still, each essay is of interest.

It is the last article - the history of attitudes to ancient Greece - which is perhaps the best, though I always like Finley's writing (he wrote the introduction and the first piece, on politics, as well as editing the book as a whole).

Ngaio Marsh: Dead Water (1964)

Edition: Fontana

Another village crime novel by Ngaio Marsh, this one set on a small island connected to the Cornish mainland by a causeway. On the island, there is a spring, and there, a small boy, washing his hands in the water, experienced an immediate healing of the warts that covered his hands. Over the two years following this event, reported in the national press, a steady stream of people has come to the pool, seeking cures for themselves and enriching the inhabitants of the island.

After two years, a new owner, Miss Price, who disapproves of the tasteless and exploitative way in which her tenants are promoting the pool, inherits the island. She announces her intention of stopping their lucrative trade. When she starts receiving anonymous threats, the police become involved, but then she visits the island; attempts are made to harm her, and then a woman is murdered, in circumstances where she could have been mistaken for Miss Price.

As in Off With His Head, Marsh adopts a twee attitude to the English village, one riddled with snobbery. (I grew up myself in a small village, and either things had changed dramatically over thirty years, or Marsh had only seen the English village from New Zealand.) Dead Water is full of unpleasant, in-bred yokels on the one hand, and nice upper class people on the other (with the exception of an alcoholic). Her attitude seems more and more old-fashioned by the minute, and it's a pity because she did write some of the best classic detective novels.

Tuesday 23 March 1999

Willis E. McNelly: The Dune Encyclopedia (1984)

Edition: Corgi, 1984

If you look at the back cover, The Dune Encyclopedia may seem to have been the ultimate accessory for the fan of Frank Herbert's Dune series. What is written there makes it sound as though it contains systematically ordered material from the archive of Herbert's own background notes to the series. It lists specific items, which are mostly exaggerated descriptions of articles in the encyclopedia itself ("complete guide to the art of kanly", for example, just means a description of a few of the more common methods of assassination). It is endorsed by Herbert, so it can nevertheless, so it can lay some claim to being authoritative. (He explicitly reserves the right to change the ideas in any later books written in the series, and certainly did so: both Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse Dune contradict the Encyclopedia.)

The Encyclopedia is not, however, a systematic collection of Herbert's background materials. I am sure that these existed (given the complexity of Herbert's imagined setting for these novels), and they may well have been used to produce much of the material here. The individual articles vary wildly in interest (the one on the geology of Arrakis is particularly yawn inducing) and quality. There is little consistency in coverage; for example, the biographical studies of the major characters are too variable in type and depth to be permitted in a real encyclopedia (which this pretends to be; it uses the conceit that it is a reference work of the far future). The one to avoid is the account of Jessica, mother of Paul Atreides, as the fulfilment of each of Jung's list of human archetypes - male as well as female - and particularly what it has to say about the archetype of "Mother".

Characters are invented for no apparent reason - a playwright, who is basically Shakespeare, right down to the details of the authorship controversy, for example. Some of the articles are distinctly ill advised - whoever wrote the Imperial Poetry account and included quotations from the best poetry of the period must have a very high opinion of their own writing.

There are interesting articles among them; these are mainly the ones to do with people from before the date of the first book, such as the early emperors, the founders of the Spacing Guild and so on.

The conclusion is that this book could certainly have done with a firmer editorial hand.

Thursday 18 March 1999

Sherwood Anderson: Winesburg, Ohio (1919)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1998

Sherwood Anderson's best known work is a collection of short stories about a fictional small town in the American Mid-West. Even today, when it has already had eight years' influence on American literature, the book still comes across as something unusual. Though the stories are connected (they share characters, and focus on the newspaper reporter George Willard as well as sharing location), Winesburg, Ohio is in no sense a novel; there is no overarching plot binding everything together.
It could almost be argued that the short stories in the book are not really stories at all; they themselves lack plot and perhaps could be more accurately described as character studies. Each tells us something about one of Winesburg's inhabitants: their background, history, relationships, or mannerisms. As we build up a picture of these people, we come to understand the town as well.

In some ways, the stories reminded me most strongly of James Joyce's Dubliners, which pick out some (often trivial) event in the lives of those who live in Dublin so as to give an overall picture of the Irish city. So far as I remember, the stories in Dubliners were less connected, characters not recurring, and the event being described in a story assumed more importance than in Anderson's work, which is more concerned with atmosphere.

Each character has something unusual about them. This is important to Anderson's vision of small town American life, as the introductory tale demonstrates: this is basically about a fairy tale about "The Book of Grotesques". This emphasis on the things which have shaped the people of Winesburg provides a dark edge to the stories and makes it into a collection which is about the heart of the twentieth century view of humanity.

Friday 12 March 1999

Michael Moorcock: The Jewel in the Skull (1967)

Edition: Granada, 1979
Review number: 221

The first of Moorcock's Runestaff series really sets the tone of his mature style. Like many of his fantasy novels, it fits in with his ideas about the Eternal Champion, which is a mechanism by which all his heroes are in fact more or less interchangeable aspects of one archetypal hero.

The atmosphere of the book is typical of Moorcock. It is set in a Europe far into the future, in a civilisation recovered after a nuclear holocaust. The Dark Empire of Granbretan is where most of the atmosphere is generated; this is done with little bits of descriptive writing, using symbols to evoke an emotional response: the best-masks, the dark dungeons and alchemical experimentation, the grotesque Emperor Huon. This is an empire whose legions are gradually extending it through the whole of Europe, maintaining an iron grip on the conquered populace.

Dorian Hawkmoon, the Duke of Köln, was captured by Granbretan while attempting to lead a revolt in his country, overrun by the Empire some years before. Now he is to be used against Count Brass, who has kept the Kamarg safe from the Empire and who has recently humiliated the Granbretan envoy, the sinister Baron Meliadus. Sent to betray Count Brass, Hawkmoon has a black jewel implanted in his skull by Granbretan alchemists. This not only enables them to spy on what he is doing and saying, but makes it possible to kill him from a distance at the slightest hint that he might turn against them.

Hawkmoon comes to admire Count Brass and his daughter Yisselda, and the Count uses his own knowledge of sorcery, by which he immediately recognised the Black Jewel for what it was, to temporarily neutralise it. There are now two tasks facing Hawkmoon: to destroy the armies of the Dark Empire, now massed on the borders of Kamarg, and to find a more skilled sorcerer who can destroy the power of the jewel permanently.

Exciting and atmospheric, The Jewel in the Skull is a fine introduction to Moorcock's first mature fantasy series.

Monday 1 March 1999

Marcel Proust: Sodome et Gomorrhe (1922)

Translation: As Cities of the Plain by C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin (1981)
Edition:  Penguin, 1985
Review number: 220

The fourth volume of Remembrance of Things Past introduces homosexuality as a major theme for the first time. (There is a brief description of a lesbian couple in the first volume, but they are only mentioned in passing - which means four or five pages in Proust's terms.) The French title indicates this rather more strongly than that used in this English translation. The two parts of Sodome et Gomorrhe were originally published separately, but they are really a single unified novel.

The theme of homosexuality dominates the book from the beginning; the first incident recorded by the narrator is an overheard meeting between his friend M. de Charlus and one of his neighbours, which makes Charlus' sexual orientation quite clear. This radically changes the way the narrator understands the inconsistencies in their relationship, with the older man welcoming one moment; cold, brusque and rude the next.

It is not just male homosexuality which forms the theme of this novel. In other words, it is not just about the actions associated with Sodom but includes those associated with Gomorrah as well - lesbianism is also important. The narrator has continued his relationship with Albertine, who is now his mistress; he begins to suspect that she is actually bisexual, and is having a lesbian affair with Andrée, one of her schoolfriends.

Proust has some interesting, if now rather old-fashioned ideas about homosexuality. (They would of course have been distinctly advanced at the time he was putting them forward.) He describes Charlus, for example, as a woman in a man's body, all the masculine appearance on the top being an acted sham to disguise his true nature. (Despite his high position in society, he could not have been openly homosexual.)

The second, related, theme of Sodome et Gomorrhe is the development of the narrator's relationship with Albertine, which swings from jealousy to indifference and back again. Indeed, it is the contrast between his thoughts and his actions which Proust uses most skilfully to show how much he really cares for her, and that he is unwilling to admit this even to himself. At the very end of the novel, his declaration to his mother that he will marry Albertine shows that now one phase of his life has ended and another is about to begin.