Thursday 29 April 1999

Victor Canning: Queen's Pawn (1969)

Edition: Heinemann
Review number: 242

The way Queen's Pawn works is basically like a caper movie, or, rather, two caper movies stitched together. It is the story of the dreams of two men, Raikes and Sarling. Raikes dreams of regaining the ancestral home of his family, marrying and bringing up children, of trout fishing in the rivers around his land.

At the beginning of Queen's Pawn, Raikes has just about achieved his ambitions, having made a large sum of money through a series of frauds. He is about to buy back the house; he is engaged to the daughter of a local landowner. But then a tiny slip made in one of the frauds catches up with him. In the desk drawer of an office used temporarily to give substance to a non-existent company, he had left behind a catalogue from a fishing tackle manufacturer, with a mark next to an unusual float that he coveted (and bought from the proceeds of the fraud). The owner of the company on which the fraud was perpetrated found this and traced Raikes through the shop which printed the catalogue.

The company's owner was the other main character, Sarling. Sarling was the youngest in his family, and was always the one who was left out. An unprepossessing appearance (made positively unpleasant by burns to the face in a fire) didn't help his self-image. His dream is to gain revenge on the world, to show everyone that he is a force to be reckoned with. To this end, he has formulated a scheme to carry out an amazing crime, and aims to recruit gifted criminals like Raikes through blackmail to help him realise it.

Raikes does not take kindly to being blackmailed; freedom to do what he likes is a major part of his dream. So one of the capers is Sarling's plot against the world; the other is Raikes' plan to free himself from Sarling's influence by murder.

Queen's Pawn has quite a complex plot for a thriller of its length, and it tends to spell out this plot in a rather heavy-handed way. This does not leave much room for background or characterisation. Some of the former is sketched in to go with Sarling's plan, which is fairly interesting. (As well as the obvious chess/manipulation reference, the title refers to this.) All in all, it is a fairly mundane thriller, typical of the early seventies.

Tuesday 27 April 1999

Jean Racine: Athaliah (1691)

Translation: John Cairncross (1963)
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 241

Racine's last play is one of the two Biblical dramas he wrote after a long hiatus. It is based on the story from Kings of Athaliah and her grandson Joash, rulers of the kingdom of Judah. Athaliah was the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel of Israel who had married into the Davidic royal house of Judah. When Ahab's family was destroyed when Jehu became King of Israel, her son, visiting Israel, was killed. Athaliah took her revenge on the house of David, killing her grandchildren and taking the throne of Judah for herself.

But one grandson, a baby, survived, and was brought up in secret in the Temple, the centre of Judaism. (Athaliah followed her parents' worship of Baal, and imposed him on Judah.) Eventually Athaliah, tormented by dreams in which a young boy killed her, went to the temple where she saw the boy from her dreams assisting in the ritual. The boy is of course her grandson, though he does not know his own origins.

Athaliah's surprising - and threatening - appearance at the Temple leads the priesthood to set off a rebellion, with ends with the death of Athaliah and Joash becoming king. The play ends there, and it is only through hints that Racine reminds us of the ironical conclusion to the whole affair. As Joash got older, he followed his grandmother's example and abandoned the faith of Yahweh for that of Baal.

With the particular plot of this play - one beloved of fantasy authors, many of whom I suspect have never read the book of Kings - it should, according to the conventions of the time, be entitled Joash. However, it concentrates strongly on the psychology of Athaliah, and so Racine is justified in the title he chose.

The obvious play with which to compare Athaliah is of course Phaedra, the last of Racine's plays to have a story from a non-Biblical source. The main focus of both plays is a tormented female character and her psychology as it develops through the play. In Athaliah, there is more written for the other characters, so Racine's analysis of her is briefer, and the language he uses not so poetic. (That of course may be partly the translation.)

One interesting aspect of the play is the portrayal of the priests. The priest of Baal is a cynical man who does not believe in the god he follows; he is a priest for primarily political rather than religious reasons. In fact, he has a strong belief in Yahweh, and is a renegade from the Jewish priesthood. (Almost all of the characters, including Athaliah herself, believe in the power of Yahweh, whatever their public stance.) The priests of Yahweh are zealots, bigots with an extreme and distasteful creed, using the opportunities provided by the comparative toleration of Athaliah's reign (they allowed to continue to worship, for example) to plot the destruction of Baal's worshippers. Any means available to them that will accomplish this are seized upon, even if they involve morally dubious deceptions. Since the characters of the specific priests involved are not made explicit in the Biblical account, the way that they are portrayed is largely Racine's own choice. It is a fascinating one for him to have made, particularly given the extremism of his own brand of Catholicism.

Monday 26 April 1999

Samuel Butler: The Way of All Flesh (1873/1903)

Edition: Everyman, 1992
Review number: 240

Samuel Butler's posthumously published novel has been described as the first twentieth century novel (it was in fact completed in the 1880s though not published until the early 1900s). In its iconoclasm, it certainly marks a break with the mainstream of the nineteenth century, and foreshadows the way that the twentieth century has seen criticism and questioning of just about every conventional value.

Butler's style and language are, to my mind, fairly resolutely nineteenth century; the novel more closely reminds me of Vanity Fair than anything else. It is much more savage than Thackeray's work, and it should be remembered that Vanity Fair caused something of a scandal when first published.

The Way of All Flesh is principally about the relationship between Ernest Pontifex and his father Theobald, and is strongly autobiographical. One of Butler's chief concerns, writing soon after Darwin's Origin of Species (the book contains material composed over a twenty year span), was with the importance in the eventual character of heredity and environment, what we sometime today call the nature vs. nurture debate. Thus he puts the relationship that is his main concern in the context of Theobald's relationships with his own father and grandfather.

Theobald is a harsh parent and a hypocrite, and he brings up Ernest in the strictest of orthodox Protestant homes, the smallest lapse being punished with a severe beating. Taught to believe himself destined, like his father, to enter the church, Ernest does so, but hates his life, ending up in prison. Being cut off by his family because of this is described as being one of the best things that happened to him, and he finishes his term of hard labour, emerging into the world determined to make a fresh start as a layman.

Although few of her actions directly affect the plot, Ernest's mother Christina is even more unpleasant than his father. She (for example) wheedles confidences out of him as a child, which are then passed on to his father to be the occasion of further beatings; she writes Ernest letters full of pious hypocrisy.

Butler attacks the major institutions of nineteenth century England - the family, the church, the idea of class - because of their stifling effect on those people who do not - can not - fit into the accepted picture of how things are. It is in this that The Way of All Flesh is most powerful, and this is how it foreshadowed much of the writing which followed the effective destruction of these institutions in their nineteenth century form which followed the First World War.

Tuesday 13 April 1999

Jean Racine: Phaedra (1677)

Translation:  John Cairncross, 1963
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 239

Phaedra was Racine's last play before his return to the Catholic church (he wrote another pair of plays, on Biblical stories, much later in his life despite his involvement with the Jansenists, who strongly condemned the stage). His story here is based on Greek myth, the source of several of his plays, and (like Iphigenia) covers the same ground as a play by Euripides, in this case Hippolytus. Theseus, King of Athens, has been married twice, first to the Amazon Hippolyta, mother by him of a son Hippolytus, and then to Phaedra, daughter of Minos King of Crete and Pasiphaƫ. Pasiphaƫ was a daughter of the sun god Helios and mother of the monstrous Minotaur through her unnatural passion for a bull.

Phaedra believes she has a hereditary tendency toward unnatural love, through the hatred of the goddess Venus for her mother (Racine uses Venus rather than the Greek Aphrodite). This is confirmed in her mind when she begins to experience an incestuous and adulterous passion for her stepson. When she approaches him and is rejected, her maid accuses him before his father of having a passion for her, and this brings about his death.

The character of Phaedra is Racine's main interest in the story. She feels unable to help herself, but is horrified by her desire for Hippolytus - in fact, she is almost driven mad by the guilt she feels. The speeches in which she expresses this are a major part of what made writers like Proust admire Racine; there are several points in Remembrance of Things Past in which Proust's narrator goes to the theatre to see famous actresses perform these scenes out of context.

While the psychological study of Phaedra is interesting and very poetically expressed, her character rather overbalances the play. Hippolytus in particular suffers, being given few lines that are more than conventional.

Phaedra epitomises a Jansenist believe that grace, the forgiveness of sins, could not be earned or bought, but was apportioned by God to some and not to others as he saw fit: this is a fairly severe form of predestination. Phaedra is a study of the sinful soul denied grace by God. Since the setting of the story forces God to be represented by the Greek pagan gods, rather than the God of the Roman Catholic Church, there is a slight problem in doing this. The Greeks never assigned absolute moral purity to any of their gods, and this makes Phaedra's situation less tragic than that of a similarly placed Catholic would be.

Monday 12 April 1999

Tom Holt: Expecting Someone Taller (1987)

Edition: Orbit, 1991
Review number: 238

The first of Holt's comic fantasy novels, Expecting Someone Taller is based around the ideas of Wagner's Ring operas. The main character, Malcolm Fisher, is basically a failure, someone that has spent his whole life being compared unfavourably with his elder sister. Then, one night, he accidentally runs over a badger on a country road in Devon; going to see if he can do anything, he is rather surprised to hear the badger speak. It turns out to be the giant Ingolf, who took the Ring (which basically controls the universe) and Tarnhelm (which allows the wearer to transform their appearance into any form they like) from Siegfried's funeral pyre. With the Tarnhelm, he turned himself into a badger to hide from the Elder Gods, particularly Wotan, who want to get their hands on the Ring.

The rest of the book is about Malcolm's attempts to understand the power of the Ring and to use it to improve the world, and the attempts of the gods to trick or force him to give it up to them. The comedy Holt generates centres mainly around the relationship of these primeval gods to the twentieth century and its institutions. This is a reasonably rich vein for comedy, used by other writers as well, but it doesn't disguise the soft centre of this novel.

Malcolm is basically a nice guy, who tends to fall in love with any pretty woman who takes an interest in him. What he does with the Ring - putting an end to disasters and wars - is not of such interest as his love life. The Ring is connected to the unconscious of the owner, and disasters reflect anger and such emotions, and this leaves Holt with not a great deal of leeway when it comes to using it as the basis of an interesting plot. (Mind you, in Wagner's Ring operas, the Ring is at least as passive, hardly used at all except as some vague kind of powerful talisman. Its plot purpose is to be the focus of desire, not to actually do anything.)

Expecting Someone Taller is funny and fun, but it is not as good a novel as some of Holt's later stories in the same line.