Wednesday 30 June 1999

Michael Moorcock: The Runestaff (1969)

Edition: Granada
Review number: 279

It is appropriate for the final volume of Moorcock's series to share its title with the series as a whole, and with the mysterious object that lies at the heart of the story, the Runestaff. For it is here that the influence of the Runestaff becomes apparent and here we also get to see the object itself for the first time.

Though this is clear, there are many questions about the Runestaff that are left almost completely unexplained. We are told its purpose, which is not to ensure that the forces of good triumph, but to ensure a balance between good and evil, chaos and order. Balance being more important than virtue is one of the themes running though most of Moorcock's work. His heroes generally represent order in a chaotic world or chaos in an ordered world. I can't think of anyone who used this idea in a fantasy novel before Moorcock; few writers have felt the need to go beyond the simplistic good vs. evil formulation and use morally ambivalent characters. Since Moorcock, others have used it, and it is particularly well developed in the Recluce novels of L.R. Modesitt Jr. and the Deverry novels of Katherine Kerr.

We know that the Runestaff acts to bring balance, and that it has great power. However, the form taken by that power is never clearly seen; all that is clear is that Hawkmoon begins to win victories over the Dark Empire once the Runestaff places itself within his hands. (It has been influencing events to bring Hawkmoon to its side since the beginning of the series.) It contains a consciousness of some sort, and is able to physically manifest itself as a child, in some mysterious way the son of one of its servants.

Moorcock clearly prefers to present a fantastic world with deliberate gaps like the precise mechanism by which the Runestaff influences events. The gaps are larger in this early series than they tend to be in later works - it is probably most effectively used in the stories set at the end of time - and it forms the key method by which his worlds take hold of the imagination.

One sign of his stylistic immaturity is the occasional use of the sort of ideas fashionable in the late sixties and early seventies which tend to jar a little on a reader in the nineties. An example of this is the identification of the "most terrible" of the gods of pagan Granbretan by names clearly derived from those of the Beatles. In the absence of any general satiric intent - at least of any obvious one - it has nothing much to say, even if intended as a little joke.

Tuesday 29 June 1999

Jill Paton Walsh: Knowledge of Angels (1994)

Edition: Green Bay, 1994
Review number: 278

Knowledge of Angels is not exactly a historical novel; though the island of Grandinsula is based on medieval Mallorca, it really exists only in the imagination of Walsh; there is no such country as Aclar. Yet the medieval atmosphere is pervasive; perhaps that is to be expected in a novel whose theme is the conflict between the modern and medieval worldviews.

Medieval Christendom was a society which was very inward looking, where foreigners were generally strange, hardly human creatures (as in the continental superstition that Englishmen had tails). Such outsiders as were permitted - and it was rare to find a large town without a Jewish community, for example - were carefully segregated, kept apart from the local population. The sense of community was incredibly strong, but a xenophobic distrust of foreigners was the heavy price paid for this.

Knowledge of Angels is about the simultaneous appearance of two outsiders on the island. Neither fits into the understood list of types of foreigners, and so both cause distinct problems. Amara is a wolfchild, one of those periodically attested children brought up by wolves when abandoned or lost by their true parents. The other is Palinor, who swam ashore after falling overboard from a ship of his home country of Aclar, a very different place from a medieval European state (in fact, an eruption of twentieth century society into the medieval world).

The problem with these two outsiders is that neither of them has a clearly defined relationship with the Catholic Church. Amara has, of course, had no opportunity to be educated in the Christian (or, indeed, any) faith. Palinor has exercised the right of religious freedom in Aclar to become a convinced atheist. The churchmen on the island can hardly conceive of such a position. Heresy, paganism, Islam and Judaism; all these have well defined responses to be made to them, but the idea that it is possible to reject the idea of God completely and with knowledge of what you are doing is completely alien.

The charming and intelligent Palinor fascinates Severo, who combines the roles of highest secular and spiritual authority on the island. So he suggests an experiment to determine how he should be treated which will last several years. Severo asks the monk Beneditx, a close friend of his who is considered the most learned man on the island, to abandon his work on the difference between the morning and evening knowledge possessed by angels (based on a phrase in an authoritative writer). He is to undertake the spiritual education of Palinor, to attempt to convince him that God exists, something that seems an obvious fact to him and the other churchmen. Meanwhile, Amara is to be taught how to live in a civilised manner at a remote convent, where she is not to have God mentioned in her presence. The idea of this is to question her once she has learned to talk, to find out whether knowledge of God is innate. (The authorities of the Christian church are not in accord on the issue.) If it is, then Palinor must have deliberately rejected it, so he would be a heretic; otherwise, he is lacking in education and cannot be held culpable himself.

The most glaring non-medievalism in the book is this experiment. Only a small number of thinkers (such as Roger Bacon) took an interest in experimentation as a means to determine the truth; most medieval thinkers preferred to use minutely detailed logical argument based on fundamental principles which were derived from ancient authorities. Severo is rather more a Renaissance prince, like the real life abbot who passed an electric shock along a row of his monks to see what the effect would be. But the experiment is important in terms of how the book works, since it makes apparent to the reader other parts of the difference between our culture and that of the Middle Ages.

Monday 28 June 1999

Anthony Trollope: Can You Forgive Her? (1864)

Edition: Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library
Review number: 277

The first of Trollope's series of Palliser novels which attempt to do for the political scene of the early Victorian period what his Barset novels did for the ecclesiastical, Can You Forgive Her? is actually closely related to the earlier series. Its main subplot brings up to date the subplot of The Small House at Allington, and several other characters in London society are shared with the earlier series.

The main plot concerns Alice Vavasour, who lives on the fringes of genteel London society. She shares a rather bland character with several of Trollope's other heroines; this unwillingness to give real personalities to women is one of the reasons why he is a minor novelist compared to (say) Dickens and Thackeray. She starts the book engaged to the worthy John Grey, after a short affair with her cousin George. To a romantic girl, George Vavasour is everything John Grey is not; he is wild and dangerous, but the problem is that the danger is not just on the surface, and the men who know him consider him a scoundrel.

Soon after the beginning of the story, Alice commits the act for which the reader is asked to forgive her: she jilts Grey to become engaged to George. From a worldly perspective, this is obviously an extremely foolish act; for George is not only penniless but also about to go deeply into debt to finance a campaign to become a Member of Parliament. As George is brought to realise that his worldly ambition is in fact empty - it doesn't bring him the respect of others - he becomes violent and it is not too long before Alice also realises that she has made a serious mistake.

At its root, Can You Forgive Her? is a sexist novel; only to the irrational women in the story is it not clear that George Vavasour is a villain. By turning the conventions of the romantic novel on their head - for George could be made into a Byronic hero without too much difficulty, and then redeemed by the love of the right woman - Trollope has created a story which is shackled to the conventional ideas of his day.

Friday 18 June 1999

Richard Brinsley Sheridan: The Rivals (1775)

Edition: Nick Hern Books, 1994
Review number: 276

Sheridan's play is a classic of English language theatre, and the characters have even entered the language (malapropism is derived from Mrs Malaprop, continually trying to impress with long words but using the wrong ones). It is, in form, a parody of a conventional romance, having two pairs of young lovers rather different from the norm.

To take the less important pair first, Faulkland is an exaggeration of the sensitive, jealous lover. His girl, Julia, is fairly insipid, but this is necessary because the audience should instantly appreciate that his fears spring entirely from his own mind, and have no basis in her behaviour or inclinations. (An example of this: when Julia returns to her country home briefly and he remains in Bath, Faulkland is at first made unhappy by the thought that her life will be unhappy without him; but when, to reassure him, he is told that she continues to enjoy herself, he is tormented by the thought that this proves her indifferent to him.)

In contrast to Faulkland and Julia, in the other pair of lovers it is not the man who is of interest but the woman. Jack Absolute is a typical young hero, rather in the mould of Fielding's Tom Jones. Lydia Languish, however, is not just the more interesting of the two of them, but the play's main character. (Having the major character in the play female is unusual for the period.) She is a hopeless romantic, addicted to the novels frequently condemned by contemporaries as responsible for the corruption of the morals of young ladies. (The absurdity of that idea is one of the targets Sheridan is attacking.)

In her desperate search for romance, Lydia rejects the fate of marriage to a young nobleman which is the allotted fate for a young lady of fortune. She wants to elope with a penniless man, forcing Jack, who would be the sort of suitor of whom Lydia's family would approve, to disguise himself as a poor army officer. Enjoying her clandestine meetings with "Ensign Beverley", Lydia is enraged when she discovers that he is, in fact, a gentleman - and is only mollified when Jack persuades her that he is only pretending to be rich to trick her family so that he can spend more time with her. (This is of course agreeably dangerous and romantic.)

The Rivals is a delightful play, even more so than Sheridan's other well known work, The School for Scandal. It does not really have a serious side, unless poking fun at the things young lovers take seriously counts as one.

Thursday 17 June 1999

Victor Canning: Birdcage (1978)

Edition: Heinemann
Review number: 275

With the name of the main villain in this novel, Lord Bellmaster, irresistibly making me feel that he must have escaped from Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, is was difficult for me to take Birdcage seriously. A pity, for it is rather good as minor seventies thrillers go.

Birdcage is about the activities of a shadowy British intelligence agency, nicknamed "Birdcage" because its offices are in Birdcage Walk in London. Lord Bellmaster was at one time the head of Birdcage, and engaged in many morally dubious practices to increase the profile of the agency in Whitehall and increase his personal power within the government at the time. These included using his mistress Lady Jean Branton as an agent to seduce those in whom he was interested, as well as murder and general corruption.

The novel itself concentrates on Jean's daughter Sarah, who believes her father to be the complaisant Colonel Branton when in fact it is Lord Bellmaster himself. She has taken vows to become a nun, but her psychological inability to cope with this way of life leads her to experience a phantom pregnancy, then to run away and attempt to drown herself. Falling in love with the man who rescues her, she follows the instructions given her by her now dead mother in case she should ever wish to return to the world. She seeks out her mother's beloved maid, who has a parcel for her. This contains some precious jewellery and a book, apparently the devotional Dialogues of the Soul and Body by St Catherine of Genoa, but actually a diary recording with embarrassing honesty Lady Jean's activities on behalf of Lord Bellmaster.

Clearly, such a diary is of immense importance to Lord Bellmaster, and he devotes his own time, and calls in favours to be able to use Birdcage's resources, to discovering whether it exists and neutralising it if it does. "Neutralising" may mean, and Bellmaster is prepared for it to mean, the murder of all those who know of the diary.

The best thing about this novel is that a happy ending is not guaranteed; Canning really loads the dice against the "good guys". Another virtue is that the characters are not all black and white; some are rather stuck in between, victims mainly by their association with Bellmaster.

Wednesday 16 June 1999

Elizabeth Bowen: The Death of the Heart (1938)

Edition: Penguin, 1990
Review number: 274

Novels as a genre - the most successful genre of literature in English - very frequently deal with growing up and coming of age. This is partly a legacy from the nineteenth century novel, where the desire to begin at the beginning (as opposed to the classical drama, which is supposed to begin in media res - in the middle) meant that many novels start with the birth of their principal characters. (Dickens provides several examples of this.) But the other reason is that adolescence is an experience all adults have gone through, and involved many changes, so it can easily and effectively be used to make a reader look at their own life in a rather different way.

Death of the Heart is another novel of adolescence, detailing the experiences of the sixteen year old Portia over several months. These are told under the headings The World, The Flesh, and The Devil, each part named after one of the sources of deception that God is called upon to save us from in the prayer book. And deception is at the heart of what Bowen wants to say about society and ourselves: her message is that society functions through deceit and we grow up as we buy into that deception. We learn not to say or act as we feel, instead building up a layer of acting between us and the world, and often another concealing our true feelings even from ourselves. (This second distancing of ourselves from our immediate feelings is what prompts the title.) All of this is for self-protection.

The way that Bowen develops this theme is to place an outsider, the innocent Portia, suddenly in London; following the death of her mother, she has come to live with her conventional stepbrother and his wife. Portia soon meets some of their friends, and she keeps a diary filled with painfully honest, meticulous observation of those around her. A total innocent, she believes she has fallen in love with one of the men she meets, failing to understand that almost all he says and does is exaggerated and idealised to throw himself into relief against those around him - a deception. The book basically follows the disastrous course of their relationship, and it is through the contrast between their two natures (even though they are outwardly quite similar) that Bowen explores her ideas about deceit.

The back of this edition, part of the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics series, describes Bowen as providing a link between the Bloomsbury set and later writers such as Iris Murdoch. They share an interest in using an outwardly naturalistic setting to explore a single theme in depth; Bowen does not use symbols in quite the same way as either Woolf or Murdoch but the intention of her writing is similar.

Tuesday 15 June 1999

Susan Coffey: Murder in a Cathedral City (1995)

Edition: Ironside, 1995
Review number: 273

Susan Coffey's Victorian-set crime novel has a rather unusual heroine. (I would say "surprising" were it not for the fact that her identity is given away on the back cover.) Given the name Agnes Bell, she is in fact clearly based on Anne Bronte. (Bell is of course the surname of the male pseudonyms used by the Bronte sisters to get their novels published.) She is a prim, demure yet intelligent and observant young governess working for an unpleasant nouveau riche family in Churchfield, a small cathedral city in the Midlands (based on Lichfield). When a man is killed just outside the town, she becomes interested, because the murderer was almost certainly one of the people staying in her employer's house that night.

Entertainingly written, Murder in a Cathedral City has several points in its favour. It conveys a good sense of the 1830s, and has clearly had a fair amount of research put into it. The central character is convincing, and it quite an unusual idea to write your book around a central character out of the situations in which she really found herself. Most historical novels are fairly strongly biographical (like Jean Plaidy) or keep the real characters relatively ephemeral (like Dorothy Dunnett). Bernard Bastable's novels about Mozart are a similar exception, though there it's played for laughs.

The criticisms I have are perhaps aimed more at the publisher than the author. Why the dreadfully boring title? Surely something more imaginative would help raise the book's profile. The cover illustration is very thoughtless. One of the vital clues concerns the theft of a gun from a gun-case; a case with smashed glass panels and a missing gun is shown in the picture. But the illustrated case also has wooden bars between the panes of glass, too close together to pull a gun out between them - and they are shown unbroken in the illustration.

Monday 14 June 1999

M.I. Finley: The World of Odysseus (1954)

Edition: Pelican, 1972
Review number: 272

The World of Odysseus is the book which made Finley's name as a classical scholar. He takes a fresh look as a historian at Homer's two great poems, which (even if not by the same hand) show many similarities in the world they depict. He uses insights derived from studies of other peoples based on an oral tradition to assess how the Odyssey and Iliad might relate to historical fact. (Poems like the Nibelungenlied and the Yugoslav poetry studied by Milman Parry include events and people known from more conventional historical sources, making this easier.)

Finley manages to distinguish two kinds of writing in Homer, other than principally fanciful episodes (like the Cyclops encounter in the Odyssey). There are distorted reflections of some past time, and insertions from the poet's own time. Sometimes they are combined, as in the descriptions of chariot fighting: the poet knows that chariots were used, but not how (because the use had died out by his time), so imagines them to be a kind of taxi to get to the battlefield, where the hero gets out to fight on foot. The description of gift exchange, which closely parallels similar systems known to anthropologists, is ancient; similes involving iron are contemporary.

Finley discusses many issues related to his theme, and is always interesting and convincing. There is the relationship between the poems and the Linear B tablets; between the poems and the excavations by Schliemann and others at Hissarlik and in Greece; between the works of Homer and Hesiod, near contemporaries; how later editing (known to have occurred) might have affected the poems; the existence and identity (identities) of Homer; the attitude towards the gods revealed in the poems (a downplaying of the more homely, primitive gods like Dionysus and Demeter). To a non-classicist like myself, his conclusions always seem to make sense. It is the romantic weight of the poems themselves, as evidenced in the desire to connect Hissarlik to the Troy of the Iliad by going beyond the archaeological evidence, which meant that The World of Odysseus caused such controversy.

Friday 11 June 1999

O. Henry: The Gentle Grafter (1902)

Edition: Doubleday, Doran & Co.
Review number: 270

This particular collection of O. Henry's short stories was the first one I read, many years ago, and it remains one of his best in my opinion. Like earlier collections, the stories share a common theme. In this case, though, the theme itself helps to prevent the descent into sentimentality which is Henry's main fault as far as modern readers are concerned. The world portrayed by The Gentle Grafter is that of the small time conman; the stories generally describe a particular deception.

The stories - all but one - share a main character, Jeff Peters. This adds cohesion to the collection, something which Henry takes further in Cabbages and Kings, which lies between a novel and a short story in form. Jeff Peters is a conman with a conscience, which makes him a sympathetic rather than a villainous character. Some of his conscience is more humorous than moral, like his insistence that none of his customers go away completely empty handed, even if what they receive bears no relation in value to the amount of money they have been parted from. On the other hand, he does refuse to cheat widows or orphans, an at one point when he discovers that his partner in one scam has done just that he insists that all the money is returned.

Thursday 10 June 1999

Jean Racine: Berenice (1670)

Translation: John Cairncross (1967)
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 269

Like Britannicus, Berenice is based on actual events that took place in the first century Roman Empire. It is derived from the Roman historian Suetonius, and was rather neatly (and famously) summarised by Victor Hugo relating the five acts to clauses of a sentence from Suetonius: Titus | Reginam Berenicem | invitus | invitam | dimisit (Titus | Queen Berenice | he unwilling | she unwilling | he sent away).

Berenice is a fairly domestic play with three essential characters, all friends. It is their position as monarchs which brings the element of tragedy to their lives, but the tragedy is expressed through discussion and argument rather than violence and passion. Cairncross expresses in the introduction to his translation the view that the lack of violence is one reason why Berenice was less successful than most of Racine's other mature plays, both at the time and for a considerable period afterwards. It is a restrained play, which perhaps prefigures some of the naturalistic ideas of Ibsen and Chekhov.

The three main characters are the Judean Queen Berenice, the Roman Emperor Titus and Antiochus, king of the Black Sea state of Commagene. As a vassal of Rome, Antiochus fought under Titus and his father Vespasian in the war to put down the Jewish revolt; that is where the two men met Berenice and where they both fell in love with her.

The three are now in Rome, where Titus has just become Emperor on his father's death. He is about to marry Berenice, only to be brought up short by the Roman dislike of foreigners, the specific law against marrying a non-Roman, and the many historical precedents enshrined in the history of the Republic where people have sacrificed their personal happiness for the good of the state, a history that Titus has been brought up to revere. So Titus feels that if he is to continue as Emperor, he must reject his personal happiness with Berenice, and he feels that it is his sacred duty to rule the Empire.

Meanwhile, Antiochus is on the point of returning home, feeling that his unrequited love for Berenice has no hope while the whole city talks of her impending marriage to the favoured Titus. Honour is important to him too, and he has suffered through being unable to act on his love for Berenice when he is the trusted friend of both her and Titus. But this is nothing to his feelings when Titus, unable to bring himself to face Berenice with the news that he has decided not to marry her, asks him to tell he on his behalf as a friend.

The other characters in the play, all attendants on one or other of the principals, exist mainly to suggest alternatives to their actions and to encourage them. The major part of the virtually actionless play consists of discussion and heart-searching by the three of them; it is a play for those interested in personalities.

Tuesday 8 June 1999

Jean Racine: Britannicus (1669)

Translation: John Cairncross (1967)
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 268

For the title character of a play, Britannicus has very little to do; his words and actions do not influence the development of the plot. It is his very existence, his relationships with the other characters (mostly familial determined at birth), which drive the play; he is a sort of passive centre.

The key to the real historical events retold (more or less) in Britannicus is the succession to the Roman Emperor Claudius on his death by poisoning. Britannicus is his young son, but under the influence of his third wife Agrippina Claudius had adopted her son Nero as his heir - a move that signed his death warrant. Now, Nero is on the throne, though his mother holds the real power. As Nero begins to try to take over power for himself, his true monstrous nature begins to come through. The birth of this monster is what principally interests Racine.

In order to emphasise this interest, to make it clear to the audience, Racine invents a character who acts as a catalyst to the events of the play. The young girl June is a minor member of the royal family; she and Britannicus fall in love. But then Nero abducts her, at first to prevent her marriage to Britannicus but then because of his own lust for her. This leads to several scenes in which he enjoys a sort of psychological sadism: he allows June and Britannicus to meet in the palace, he himself remaining a hidden witness known to June but not Britannicus. On pain of severe imperial displeasure with Britannicus, he forces June to pretend that her love has died and that she is now indifferent to him.

Two other characters deserve mention. Nero's mother worked hard to gain the throne for him, persuading Claudius to adopt him, and then becoming a murderer for his sake. She is now becoming appalled at what Nero is turning into, though it is not quite clear whether it is the dishonourable nature of Nero's actions or the fact that she is being pushed out of her position of power which makes her feel this way. There are also hints of an unnatural relationship between mother and son, at least an attraction even if this hasn't been consummated. She certainly dotes on him, and this has not only blinded her to his true nature until the abduction of June but has encouraged its development.

The other character is the imperial slave, Narcissus, who is engaged throughout the play in a covert power struggle to gain influence over Nero at Agrippina's expense. He also works to diminish the legacy left by those close to Nero in the past, such as his former tutor Seneca, now in exile. He constantly urges Nero to acts which will increase his control over the Emperor, countering those who want Nero to act with honour. He plays on Nero's burgeoning paranoia, to urge the murder of Britannicus which climaxes the play.

Britannicus is Racine's detailed examination of the sees of a character of insane depravity; not a common type and not one familiar to audiences used to the Baroque, aristocratic style of Corneille. (There are several dismissive references to the older playwright in Racine's preface to the play.) Nero was perhaps a slightly dangerous subject for a drama in the absolute monarchy that was Louis XIV's France, but the differences in the situations of the two monarchs probably helped the king to miss any references - intended or otherwise - to himself. (Racine was a supporter of the king against the privileges of the aristocracy in general, so no such reference is likely to have been intended.) Louis XIV would probably have felt that he was much more the sort of monarch that tutors like Seneca had tried and failed to produce in Nero.

Monday 7 June 1999

Elizabeth Peters: Borrower of the Night (1973)

Edition: Coronet, 1976
Review number: 267

One of Elizabeth Peters' earliest novels (the first of the Vicky Bliss series), Borrower of the Night does not quite have as well developed a sense of satire as many of her later books. It is more like the romances of a writer like Victoria Holt than a spoof of the genre.

Some elements of the romance genre are made fun of. The character of Vicky Bliss is made deliberately too good to be true: not only does she fit into an accepted notion of feminine beauty (she describes herself as looking like a Playboy centerfold, though she would prefer to be a petite brunette), but she is an accomplished scholar, with a doctorate in history. Her biggest problem is trying to persuade people that being a buxom blonde doesn't automatically make her dumb.

She takes on a challenge (to prove her intellectual superiority) to find a missing altarpiece by the late-Gothic German sculptor Riederschmeier. It is probably hidden in a sinister castle, which comes complete with the stereotypical details of such fiction (secret passages, apparently ghostly apparitions, a rightful heiress kept from enjoying her property by a wicked relative).

As always with Elizabeth Peters, Borrowers of the Night is fun without taxing the mind to the smallest degree. (I find they make ideal reading for when I'm not well.) She just hadn't yet committed herself completely to the parody mode, the obvious choice for someone too intelligent to take this sort of fiction seriously herself, but who clearly also enjoys the genre.

Friday 4 June 1999

Jean Racine: Andromache (1667)

Translation: John Cairncross (1967)
Edition: Penguin
Review number: 266

Andromache is the play that first made Racine's name, that first signalled his break from the Baroque conventions - a step towards modern drama. In plot, the play starts in the same situation as the lovers' subplot of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but, without the fairies' meddling, events take a tragic turn. Orestes, son of Agammemnon and envoy from the Greeks to the Epirote court, loves Hermione. Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen, and promised by her parents to Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, loves Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, loves Andromache. Andromache, widow of Hector and enslaved to Pyrrhus with the end of the Trojan War, cares only so save what remains to her of her husband - their son, Astyanax. Orestes' mission is to remind Pyrrhus of his promise to the Greeks that Astyanax would be killed, to end the Trojan royal line.

To safeguard her son, Andromache agrees to wed Pyrrhus (on the day that he was finally to marry Hermione), resolving to kill herself immediately following the ceremony so as not to be false to Hector's memory. Hermione, furious with jealousy, orders Orestes to kill Pyrrhus at the altar during the ceremony. Then, when he does so, she is distraught, as her rage has lost her the object of her obsessive love. (Love is always obsessive in Racine.)

So why does Andromache mark such a break with previous dramatic practice? Racine brought a new portrayal of the noble classes to the French stage, showing them as real people with flaws, suffering in the same way that the rest of humanity might suffer. The older way - where the nobility were portrayed as a race apart - was much less prevalent in English plays, which always had the examples of the Elizabethan dramatists. ) Characters in King Lear or The Duchess of Malfi, for example, could hardly be considered admirable. In Andromache, Pyrrhus is portrayed as a serial oathbreaker (he breaks promises to the Greeks about Astyanax, and his betrothal vows to Hermione); and this means he commits a crime against the very centre of the aristocratic concept of honour.

The play itself pivots round Andromache's decision to go ahead with the wedding, which is why she is at the centre of the play (though Orestes and Hermione may seem more important parts at first sight). She also has the best speeches; otherwise, Racine's relative inexperience shows through, in that none of the characters comes alive on the page. They may do on stage, of course, in the hands of skillful actors well directed, but work will be required. It is rather like Richard II where the quality of some of the poetry can easily kill the performance.

Thursday 3 June 1999

John le Carré: Our Game (1995)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995
Review number: 265

Le Carré, like Deighton, has built his entire writing career on an obsession with deception and treachery, exploring its nuances through the shadowy world of espionage. In Our Game, there are two betrayals central to the plot. The large one, the treatment of the North Caucasus by the Soviet Union and then by the Russian state forms much of the background. Their policy in this region was not so much to "divide and conquer" but to foster existing divisions and enmities to maintain control: Osset against Chechen, Ingush betraying Osset, Osset massacring Ingush (with the connivance of the Russian military). The resulting conflicts and terrorism were largely ignored in the West, even during the Cold War, except when Western citizens became involved, as happened when journalists and businessmen were kidnapped by Chechen rebels.

A Somerset vineyard and Bath University may seem far from this background. Friends since school, Tim Cranmer and Lawrence Pettifer share a secret: they are retired spies. Pettifer had been a double agent, passing on false intelligence to the Russians while pretending to be head of a network of agents with the cover of a left-wing academic career; Cranmer was his British contact, who had originally recruited him for this task. Pettifer's Russian controller, Checheyev, was in fact an Ingush, one of the few allowed to hold important overseas posts under the Soviet regime. Under his influence, Pettifer became fired up by the injustices committed against the Ingush, and laundered money stolen by Checheyev from his hated Russian masters - thirty seven million pounds over a period of years.

Now that all these people have retired with the end of the Cold War, Pettifer devotes his time to campaigning on behalf of various lost causes (as a cover for maintaining contact with Checheyev) in between his academic commitments in Bath. Cranmer grows grapes on his inherited manor. Bet then Pettifer goes missing with Cranmer's mistress, an apparent betrayal which masks what he is really up to.

So Pettifer betrays his friend, and both of his employers, in the pursuit of a dream made unattainable by the bigger betrayal of the Ingush by their rulers and those they seek as allies.

The major character, the narrator Cranmer, dominates the book with his obsession with Pettifer (several hints being given of thwarted homosexual passion). His surroundings, full of people and institutions he cannot trust, are vividly portrayed, and he himself is a convincing personality. The main place this novel falls down is when the action reaches the Caucasus. This, as described in the book, could be any one of a number of mountainous, war-torn regions: Kossova, Afghanistan, anywhere where a Kalashnikov is a standard item of clothing.

Anthony Powell: A Buyer's Market (1952)

Edition: Penguin, 1962
Review number: 264

The second volume of Powell's Dance to the Music of Time bears a distinct resemblance in theme to the third volume of Proust's Remembrance of Thing's Past, The Guermantes Way. They both concern the young narrator's entrance into fashionable society. Nick Jenkins is a far more normal person than Proust's narrator, and English society in the twenties is more conventional than its French counterpart.

Powell seems to be interested, in this book and A Question of Upbringing, in the way in which background and education moulds our characters. This is actually in contrast to Proust, who barely mentions education once in thousands of pages. His narrator picks up a literary and artistic education without apparently attending school or having a tutor; all the childhood memories he has are about family.

A Question of Upbringing showed us how the central characters in the Music of Time are shaped by their education. Though their paths had already started to diverge by the end of that book, Jenkins, Stringham, Templer and Widmerpool have not developed much from the mould imposed upon them by a public school education. But in A Buyer's Market, their underlying personalities begin to come out, and the differences in their situations, talents and abilities begin to create four different lives for four different people.

The differences between three of them (not Templer, who has at this point passed out of Jenkins' life entirely) are shown by their relationships with two individuals: industrial tycoon Donners-Brebner, employer of Stringham and then Widmerpool, and acquaintance of Jenkins; and the painter Deacon.

You get the impression at the end of A Buyer's Market that we are still preparing, after two novels, for the real events of the sequence: these will include the stock market crash and its aftermath in part three, and the Second World War starting in part six.

Wednesday 2 June 1999

Marcel Proust: The Captive (1923)

Translation: C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, 1981
Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 263

With the seventh volume of Remembrance of Things Past (both The Guermantes Way and Sodome et Gomorrhe being originally published as two separate volumes), a distinct change is apparent. This is the first part that was edited and published by other hands after Proust's death, and to me the missing final polishing seems to make itself clear in several ways.

The immediate sign that The Captive is unfinished is that is contains inconsistencies not apparent in earlier volumes: the deaths of two characters are described or mentioned only for them to pop up alive later on. (There is also a completely missing piece of narrative near the end.) But I think that the comparatively melodramatic subplot is also a legacy from the lack of final revision; my suspicion is that this would have been smoothed out and made more discursive, for why should things suddenly start to happen after well over two thousand pages? The length of The Captive is comparable to that of earlier volumes, so it is nearly complete - unless a really major revision was planned. (The two volumes which follow The Captive are considerably shorter.)

There is another possible explanation for the melodramatic nature of The Captive. Like earlier volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, it is an exhaustive examination of a theme. In this case, the theme is jealousy, which might be considered essentially melodramatic. However, earlier strongly emotive themes, such as young love in Within A Budding Grove and sexuality in Sodome et Gomorrhe, do not lead to a melodramatic novel.

The theme of jealousy is explored through two obsessive relationships which mirror one another. One is between the narrator and Albertine, the other between the elderly homosexual M. Charlus and his protegé, the young violinist Morel. One is a heterosexual relationship, in which the dominant partner is jealous of the homosexual leanings of the beloved; the other is a homosexual relationship, in which the dominant partner is jealous of the heterosexual leanings of the beloved. Both become increasingly demanding, claustrophobic and unfulfilling until the break between Charlus and Morel, when Charlus is humiliated at a society soirée.

There are two candidates for the role of the captive of the title: Albertine and the narrator. Such are his fears of her duplicity - he lays little verbal traps for her to measure the extent of her lies - that his mistress is barely allowed to leave the house with him let alone by herself. Her friends are barred to her, she is cut off from her former life.

But, given the self-obsessed nature of Remembrance of Things Past, it is the narrator himself who is the more likely candidate. (We are finally told to call him Marcel, after the writer, though we are assured at the same time that this is not in fact his name.) He is not just imprisoned because he doesn't dare let Albertine out of his sight. His realisation of her deceitfulness leads to mental obsession with her even when they are not together. Like the author, Marcel is beginning to succumb to invalidism; the disease that has haunted him since childhood is taking hold more frequently, more permanently, more debilitatingly. In Proust's own case, this was an asthmatic condition, and by 1905 he had (famously) taken up a hermetic existence inside a cork-lined room in Paris. Marcel is not affected to such an extent, but his life is ruled more and more by the disease.

Tuesday 1 June 1999

Tom Holt: Wish You Were Here (1998)

Edition: Orbit, 1998
Review number: 262

At the time of writing, I believe this is the most recent Tom Holt novel to be published. For a comic fantasy novel, it is extremely bleak, being based on the fairy story idea of the wish which turns out to be rather a liability when granted. (Stories of this kind are extremely ancient, being found in Greek and Roman myth as well as Hans Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.)

Lake Checopee, in Iowa, has a resident spirit, who grants those who drown in the lake their heart's desire, or at least their strongest desire at the moment when they pass through the lake's surface. There are two problems with this. First, she only has limited resources at her disposal (basically the labour of those who drowned in the past, plus a little magic). Second, her interpretation of the desire is often quite perverse.

The fulfilment of the wish generally involves some series of encounters with bears, Indians, Vikings (exploring from Vinland via the Great Lakes in a complicated sort of way), and so on. The idea behind the spirit's actions is to improve the personalities of the wishers in some way, and is generally both confusing and unpleasant, as they are brought to realise that their shallow dreams do not equate with happiness.

The four characters tracked through the book have fairly typical hearts' desires: ambition (the reporter wanting the scoop of her career), social success (the woman wanting sex appeal), escapism (the desire for adventure) and - a typical Holt touch - mundane and immediate (to find the car keys that the search for led to the fall into the lake).

Wish You Were Here is quite depressing to read, as the dreams are relentlessly ground down. In contrast to Holt's other novels, I did not find it very amusing; it is more as though he is trying to say "This is what life is really like."