Friday 30 July 1999

George MacDonald Fraser: Royal Flash (1970)

Edition: Pan, 1975
Review number: 301

The second of Fraser's Flashman series, Royal Flash is a spoof on Anthony Hope's classic The Prisoner of Zenda. It keeps fairly faithfully to the plot of Hope's novel, with the central part falling to the cowardly Flashman rather than the gallant Rudolf Rassendyll.

The major change made by Fraser is the motivation for the escapade. Flashman has no liking for adventure, and it requires both blackmail and force to get him to imitate Prince Carl Gustav. The plot is laid by Bismarck, and is an attempt to destabilise the border region between German states and Denmark, one of the more volatile parts of Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. (The border provinces of Schleswig and Holstein were claimed by both German patriots and the Danish state; the 'Schleswig-Holstein question' was made complicated by the fact that Germany was at the time fragmented into a large number of independent states.) Carl Gustav, a Danish prince, is set to marry Duchess Irma of Strackenz, a fictional, tiny state joining Schleswig and Holstein on the German-Danish border. Bismarck, realising Flashman's uncanny resemblance to Carl Gustav, intends to substitute him for the prince, and then reveal his identity, framing him as an agent of British Prime Minister Palmerston, engaged on some underhanded business. The purpose of this plot is to get both the Danes and Germans in Strackenz up in arms, provoking a general war in the region.

Of course, Flashman goes through the whole adventure quaking with terror. What will happen if someone finds out he isn't Carl Gustav? What will Bismarck do to keep him quiet even if he succeeds? The beginning of a trend which continues throughout the series can be seen in Royal Flash: the bullying unsympathetic side to Flashman begins to be suppressed, the comic element is emphasised. (I like the joke after Flashy, in his guise as the prince, sleeps with a chambermaid, and says to himself that if a child is born of the liaison, and grows up thinking himself closely related to royalty, he would truly be "an ignorant bastard".)

Thursday 29 July 1999

Margery Allingham: The White Cottage Mystery (1928)

Edition: Penguin, 1990
Review number: 300

Margery Allingham's first novel, written as a newspaper serial and edited into a continuous narrative by her sister, comes before she had conceived of the character of Albert Campion. The White Cottage Mystery is a fairly gentle murder mystery, though I suspect its eventual conclusion may have come as something of a shock to the original readers. (Allingham's novels often have a streak of unconventionality, someone who transgresses the bounds of normal behaviour, though this is more obvious in this story.)

It will be rather difficult to discuss the themes of the book without giving away the ending; I will just set up the situation in this paragraph, and then you should stop reading if you don't want to know the outcome. (Read the book instead!) Moments after a shot rings out, the body of neighbour Eric Crowther is discovered in the White Cottage. The investigating police quickly discover that Crowther was an extremely unpleasant man, a blackmailing bully. Everyone in the house at the time had a good reason to kill him, but it becomes clear that it was physically impossible for any of them to have performed the deed.

To see where the police go wrong, you need to keep a pretty close eye on the movements in the White Cottage that day. While ruling out the adults, the investigators do not even consider the possibility that a child could have shot Crowther. In the days of the James Bulger killing, we are perhaps not so likely to overlook a five year old, though the way that this book is written naturally aims to lead us to do so. That killing was supposedly committed by boys of twelve, influenced by adult videos (I say supposedly because in the week that I read The White Cottage Mystery, the trial of the two boys was reopened).

An age of twelve years is very different from one of five, and any doubts as to how much the two boys can be considered responsible for their actions are re-doubled for a girl less than half their age. I believe that even in the case of the older children they didn't expect the outcome of their actions to be what it was, because of the way that the video they were copying had influenced them. In The White Cottage Mystery, the little girl's nurse imparts a belief that Crowther is in fact Satan, and that is why she shot him when the chance offered. In effect, the little girl is as blameless as the gun itself; she is a weapon used by the nurse.

Being used unwittingly to commit this sort of crime is of course a form of child abuse, and Allingham is also modern enough to realise the effect this could have on a child. In the last chapter, we see Joan again, though now at the age of twelve. She is obviously affected by the memory of shooting a bad man, but protects herself by believing it to have been a dream. This belief is one in which those who know her - some of who guess the truth - encourage her. Her lack of understanding at the younger age is another reason why she can easily believe this.

Wednesday 28 July 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Tied Up in Tinsel (1972)

Edition: Fontana, 1973
Review number: 299

This novel was published in the early seventies, but like most of Marsh's later works it still reads as though set in the thirties. The contemporary references it contains (there is one on the first page to Steptoe and Son, for example) seem rather out of place. Part of the reason for this is Alleyn's refusal to age; he spends over thirty years in his early forties. (Other authors managed to do this more convincingly: Leslie Charteris keeps Simon Templar around thirty, but he remains contemporary with his surroundings.)

It is hardly surprising, given the title, that Tied Up in Tinsel is set at Christmas. It is an English country house party Christmas, as portrayed in several Marsh novels (and innumerable Christie ones). It is the title that leads me to suspect that it was written specifically for the Christmas present market in what is perhaps a rather cynical way.

As happens so frequently, Troy Alleyn becomes involved in a murder through her painting. The victim is the personal servant of one of the houseguests - this is one of the reasons that the novel seems to be more of the thirties than of the seventies. The house servants are the one element which marks out Tied Up in Tinsel from so many other crime novels. Owing to a particular interest in criminal reform on the part of the house's owner, they are all convicted murderers, men considered particularly unlikely to re-offend. This provides a mechanism by which the puzzle can be made more convoluted. While it would not really be fair to make the murderers objects of suspicion - and those involved in the investigation affirm their innocence throughout - their fear of an automatic assumption of their guilt is used to motivate truculence, lying and obstruction.

Tuesday 27 July 1999

Ruth Rendell: Vanity Dies Hard (1965)

Alternate title: In Sickness and in Health
Edition: Arrow, 1984
Review number: 298

In general, Ruth Rendell's Wexford novels are better than the others; Vanity Dies Hard is an exception to this. It is perhaps rather over-extended, a problem that frequently seems to afflict Rendell; it is too much a one idea piece of work to be a top class novel. However, it is gripping, and the idea is very interesting, an unusual variation on the 'woman's fears that something strange is going on are dismissed as hysterical' theme.

Alice Whittaker is rich and beautiful, recently married to a younger man, but still terribly insecure. Her close friend Nesta Drage has recently moved away, but the letters received from her are strange - and type written (a skill Nesta does not possess). Sensing something wrong, Alice goes in search of Nesta, only to discover that her letters have been going to a non-existent address. This makes the fact that she received replies to them seem really strange, and prompts further investigation. When Alice begins to be sick after every meal, she becomes convinced that Nesta was poisoned, and that her murderer is now poisoning Alice's own food.

Since all this is familiar territory for the thriller genre - it is the ending which is unusual about this story - it could be sketched in far more quickly with at least equal effectiveness. Rendell introduces episode after episode to increase our belief that Alice is indeed hysterical, but that on the other hand something is going on. The writing is skilful enough that negative reactions only occur on reflection by the reader. While actually reading the novel, you are drawn in. The fact that the book is over-extended, and the subsidiary faults which make this the case (Alice is a little too hysterical to be believable, the sequence of events which convince her that someone is trying to kill her a little too fantastic) are only obvious later.

Monday 26 July 1999

Michael Moorcock: Count Brass (1973)

Edition: Grafton, 1986
Review number: 297

After a few years' gap, Michael Moorcock published a new trilogy to follow on from the Runestaff series, one of his early successes; Count Brass is the first of these. Dorian Hawkmoon has retired to his beloved Kamarg, to run that small region along with his wife, Yisselda. There he mourns his friends who died in the battle of Londra, and brings up a young family.

Several years have passed, then rumours arise that the ghost of Count Brass, formerly the ruler of the Kamarg and Yisselda's father, has returned to haunt the marshes of the region. He died at the battle of Londra, byt his ghost is now saying that Hawkmoon deliberately betrayed him to the enemy for some (rather vague) advantage. Hawkmoon goes to search for the ghosts, to discover the others who also died at Londra: d'Averc, Oladahn and Bowgentle. But they are not the people he knew; they appear slightly different, and to have been transported forward in time from points in their lives before they originally met Hawkmoon.

They eventually work out that two of the greatest scientists of the Dark Empire, who apparently died in an accident during the battle, actually escaped to another dimension. From there, they have transported the four men forward in time to meet the Hawkmoon of their future, believing that he was the only threat to their plans to return and recreate the Dark Empire under their own rule. The idea was to kill Hawkmoon; then, they believed, they would be able to erase the results of his life and restore the Empire to its former glory.

Count Brass is considerably more intricate than any of the Runestaff series, and shows more control of the writing. The earlier work is one of the first in the mature style, but now Moorcock is able to do more complex things with it. The ending is particularly fine, bringing together ideas exploring the nature of perception which form the philosophical background to the novel.

Friday 23 July 1999

Iain Pears: TheTitian Committee (1991)

Edition: Gollancz, 1991
Review number: 296

The second of Pears' Jonathan Argyll art world detective novels is set in Venice. Like other novels by Pears, it re-interprets some history to fit a detective story around it. In this case, the plot is based round an event in the life of the painter Titian, together with the investigations into his life and works by a committee of academics. The idea is that, as was done for that other prolific artist Rembrandt, they would examine every work supposed to be a possible Titian, and give the last word as to authenticity, producing a definitive catalogue marking out his real work from the 'attributed to', 'after' or 'from the school of' uncertainties.

When one of the committee, the pushy Mary Masterson, is murdered, the Italian police's art crime bureau sends Jonathan's friend Flavia to help in the investigation, much to the disgust of the local police. She begins to feel that their facile dismissal of the death as the result of a robbery gone wrong just won't work, and then another committee member dies (the police theory this time being that he accidentally fell into a canal and was drowned).

Masterson had become interested in a particular work studied by the committee, an altarpiece in Padua depicting St Anthony, painted when, as a young man, Titian had left Venice for a while following the death of a friend. The interesting thing about this altarpiece is that one panel had been repainted after the original composition was deemed improper by the church that had commissioned it. Masterson had been particularly interested in a supposed Titian that could have been a sketch for the abandoned panel, which the committee had deemed inauthentic just before she had joined it. Argyll becomes interested in a possible connection between this interest and her death.

I borrowed this book from my local library, and the copy illustrates one of the more annoying aspects of reading a book that has been read by others. Masterson's age is mentioned several times in the novel, and there is a misprint which means that it is sometimes printed as 38 and sometimes as 58. Now, it is only given as 58 once, the first time it occurs, so it is fairly clear that 5 is a mistake for 3, and that 38 is what Pears intended. However, someone has gone through the entire book, correcting every occurrence of 38 to 58, and writing sarcastic comments in the margins. Writing on a book that doesn't belong to you is bad enough, but being wrong as well is very irritating.

Thursday 22 July 1999

Victor Canning: The Melting Man (1968)

Edition: Heinemann
Review number: 295

In this early novel, Victor Canning presents a narrator who at the outset seems intended to be Len Deighton's Harry Palmer. He is not such a master of the sort of truculent attitude embodied in Palmer as Deighton is, and the characterisation soon slips. With flashes of Chandler's Marlowe on the way, we end up with a narrator similar to those of Eric Ambler, if rather nastier than any of them and without the ineffective air Ambler usually gives his central characters. That Canning is not of the same rank as any of these other authors is undeniable (and the slippage of Rex Carver's characterisation demonstrates this), but you can certainly see what would have influenced a publisher to accept this novel.

The narrator runs a fairly shady business in London, which basically bears the same sort of relationship to a normal private detective agency as Special Branch does to the CID. The rich businessman Cavan O'Dowda commissions him to recover a Mercedes, lost somewhere in the south of France by his stepdaughter, who claims to have amnesia about what happened when she disappeared for some days. Carver soon realises that it isn't the car itself that O'Dowda wants back; he was using his stepdaughter to unknowingly courier some sensitive documents to France. Other groups are soon chasing the documents, including representatives of an African dictator and Interpol.

We are soon in standard thriller territory, with the nasty touches that tend to mark out Canning's novels, even among other early seventies' writers. The title of the novel is derived from one of these. O'Dowda is on the edge of insanity, and keeps a room in a chateau filled with waxworks of those who attempted to prevent his success in some way. There, he likes to gloat about his eventual victories; the fire that destroys him along with the dummies is one of the more unpleasant passages in this book.

Wednesday 21 July 1999

George Farquhar: The Beaux Stratagem (1707)

Edition: Nick Hern Books
Review number: 294

Just as the term 'Elizabethan drama' is frequently extended well into the seventeenth century, so too the term 'Restoration comedy' is not restricted to the historical period implied by the title. George Farquhar is a case in point; of Irish origin (son of an Anglican clergyman of Londonderry, who lived through the siege of that city), his success as a playwright falls firmly in the reigns of William and Mary. Though well after the 1660 restoration, his plays still fall within the stylistic genre of Restoration comedy. By the time he was writing, this genre was on its last legs, and the new fashion, a more mannered style, was soon to replace it. Farquhar is clearly not happy with some of the literary conventions of the time, but his ideas lead more towards low comedy and in a few years would have been considered somewhat immoral. (In particular, he was very cynical about the charms of matrimony - an attitude which plays an important part in The Beaux Stratagem.)

The plot of The Beaux Stratagem is reasonably simple for this sort of comedy. The main male parts are two fashionable beaux, on the lookout for a heiress to marry so they can repair their fortunes. Aimwell and Archer are taking it in turns to be the fashionable gentleman, the other being the gentleman's servant. When they arrive in Lichfield, Aimwell is the gentleman, and his insinuates himself into friendship with the beautiful Dorinda, daughter of Lady Bountiful (the origin of the expression). Meanwhile, Archer strikes up an extremely worldly friendship with Dorinda's sister-in-law. She's married to Sullen, the country squire parody in this play, mad for hunting and eating and (especially) drinking.

While Aimwell and Dorinda continue their inexorable approach to an engagement at the end of the play, in accordance with the rules of the genre - young lovers always marry in the end, to live happily ever after - Farquhar uses Mrs Sullen to criticise this facile outcome. She, originally rich in her own right, is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man she despises, who keeps her from the town-based society she adores, by a legal system which does not allow divorce for incompatibility, and in which divorce would leave her disgraced and in absolute poverty (as her property passed absolutely to her husband when they married). The dark side to the play produced by this theme threatens to overwhelm the rest of it, and Farquhar has to resort to a deus ex machina character and an arbitrary adjustment to English law to get out of the hole he has dug for himself. Noticeably, even when her separation from Sullen seems an accomplished fact, the possibility of marriage never seems to cross either her or Archer's mind.

Tuesday 20 July 1999

M.I. Finley: Ancient History - Evidence and Models (1985)

Edition: Penguin, 1985
Review number: 293

Ancient History is a short collection of essays about one of Finley's major interests, the historical methods used by ancient historians. It is a more homogeneous collection than some of Finley's other cobbled together sets of journal articles.

None of the articles is a general exposition of Finley's criticisms of the methods of his field, though, each being concerned with specific issues which he feels are particularly prone to cause errors in method (such as cliometrics - statistical history - or the history of warfare). Basically, what he has to say can be summarised as two generic faults: non-application of standard historical methods and insights, and misapplication of these methods and insights.

Both of these errors seem to stem from the way in which ancient history is generally taught, as an option within classics rather than an option within history. This means that the discipline is at heart literature oriented rather than historical method oriented. The first error then arises through giving an over-privileged position to the literary sources, particularly those which have a traditional reputation for accuracy (such as the works of Thycydides). Assertions made by these authors are then accepted without question, important conclusions are made by shaky inference from what they say, and generalisations are made from isolated phrases scattered among works by several authors. They might mention a particular item of interest to modern historians in passing, often in different contexts widely separated in time and location, and from conflicting points of view - and none of this is necessarily taken into account. Finley is even able to expose conclusions based on the parts of the historical literature known to be false, such as the speeches put into the mouths of prominent people, which at best reflect the writers' views of what ought to have been said. (A good example of this is given by Finley's discussion of the causes of specific wars, as ancient writers tend to record immediate causes - x insulted y - while historians today are interested in underlying ones - y's seapower undermining x's prosperity.)

The second error arises when historians do try to apply methods such as statistical analysis to ancient historical problems without an understanding of the sort of materials to which such an application is appropriate. The problem here is again related to difficulties with documentary sources; Finley praises analyses of certain archaeological artefacts (for example, studies using pottery distribution to explain features of ancient economics). However, methods appropriate to medieval and modern documents tend to give misleading answers for the ancient world. The reasons for this revolve around the fact that no ancient culture kept official records in the way that we do. (Ptolmaic Egypt may seem to be an exception to this, with copious official-looking documents, but Finley uses a fair amount of space to argue that this is not in fact the case.) Where documents have survived, a rare occurrence, it is often difficult to establish why they were preserved, and without knowing this, their significance is hard to understand. (Finley's example is an Athenian public monument recording the redistribution of property belonging to a group of people exiled for impiety, which remained in the Athenian market place for hundreds of years after a political coup enabled them to return.)

As usual, Finley's arguments are rational and convincing; it is sad that he continued to need to make them throughout his long career.

Monday 19 July 1999

Lucius Annaeus Seneca: Octavia

Translation: E.F. Watling, 1966
Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 292

There are several reasons why Octavia stands rather on its own in the canon of Seneca's works. It is not based on Greek myth, or a work by an earlier tragedian, but tells of the events of Seneca's own life. It is not a tragedy, being more akin to Shakespeare's histories: it may contain tragic elements, but the plot is determined by actual events. (Assuming that Seneca really wrote it, it is based on a more accurate knowledge of history than that possessed by Shakespeare - from first hand experience rather than from biased histories.) It is clearly not finished, consisting of a disconnected series of episodes not yet welded together into a conventional five-act framework. It could certainly not have been performed in Seneca's own lifetime, for his suicide came before Nero's death, and Nero was hardly an Emperor to take strong criticism calmly.

There is a question over the authorship of Octavia, which partly flows from the features which distinguish it from Seneca's definitely authentic works, but which also stems from other causes. There are two main manuscript groups for the plays, but Octavia only exists in one of them. The portrayal of Seneca is not very complimentary and doesn't fit with the traditional picture of the virtuous philosopher tutor to the depraved Nero. (Mind you, this picture of Seneca also doesn't fit in with the relish for the macabre shown in the tragedies, nor with some of the language of the speeches, in which the philosophy expressed is usually banal. This has been used as an argument against identifying the Seneca to whom the plays are attributed with Nero's tutor.)

The play itself is concerned with the plotting surrounding Nero's divorce of his first wife Octavia, in a similar vein to Rachine's Britannicus (with which it shares many characters). It is not sufficiently near completion to judge what its quality would have been if it had been finished, but it certainly contains some fine speeches.

Friday 16 July 1999

Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse 5 (1969)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1970
Review number: 291

Kurt Vonnegut's most famous novel is one of several American novels dealing in a more or less experimental way with the Second World War which came out in the sixties and early seventies. (Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow are other notable examples.) The impetus behind this was presumably - consciously or unconsciously - the Korean and Vietnam Wars; the three novels mentioned are all anti-war, all have an anti-heroic element, all detail horrific actions against the innocent carried out by soldiers scarcely less innocent. It may be that it was only the climate brought about by the news coverage of Vietnam - which also contained these elements - that they felt it was possible to express what they thought of war. (The three books also share an autobiographical atmosphere, in among the exaggeration and tragic comedy, though this may be to do with the prose style. I don't know enough about the authors' own lives to say how much might have been based on their own war experiences.) Even so, both Heller and Pynchon used a stream of consciousness influenced style, and Vonnegut placed his stories in a series of clichés from pulp science fiction; none of them are straightforward narratives.

After an introductory section, apparently about how the novel came to be written, the reader is plunged a deeper level into the narrative. The lengthy subtitle of the novel takes images from both of these levels (the Children's Crusade, aliens from Trafalmadore) to make the book seem almost inexplicable - the opposite of the normal function of a subtitle. The main narrative is the story of Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist from New England. But it does not tell us his life story, or even concentrate on the war or the bombing of Dresden.

The non-linear temporal structure is simplified through the use of a science fiction cliché: Pilgrim has come loose from normal time. One minute he is experiencing becoming a prisoner of war in Germany in 1945, then he is at his daughter's wedding in the mid-sixties. The identification between Vietnam and the unheroic side of World War II is increased by Pilgrim's son's involvement in the later war.

A second science fiction cliché, the abduction of Pilgrim by the Tralfamadorans, is used to allow Vonnegut to comment on the absurdity of human culture; combined with the time travel, this is not confined to the period chronologically after the abduction.

The centre of Slaughterhouse 5, though, is the horrific effects of the bombing of Dresden by the Allies. Pilgrim was a POW confined in a former slaughterhouse in the city, hence the novel's title. Because the POWs happened to be underground at the time of the raid, they were among the few survivors. The biggest raid of the war, the bombing of Dresden and the firestorm that followed caused destruction and loss of life on a scale at least comparable to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since it was entirely conventional bombs which were dropped, the survivors were spared the horrors of radiation poisoning, but it still amounts to one of the most serious military crimes of history: Dresden was not a target of any importance in the German war effort. Vonnegut's novel has come out of his reaction to this event, and it is a memorial which conveys at least some sense of the horror of what happened. That is why it is an important novel.

Thursday 15 July 1999

Lucius Annaeus Seneca: Oedipus

Translation: E.F. Watling, 1966
Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 290

Seneca's play based on the Oedipus legend faces probably the most difficult competition of all his works. This is because it is based on one of the greatest masterpieces of the Greek tragic theatre, Sophocles' Oedipus the King, also one of the best known of all Western plays.

The temptation, then, is to compare the two plays in a way which continually disparages Seneca's work. This is perhaps a little unfair, because we don't know what Seneca's purpose was in writing his plays: it is conjectured that they were intended to be read aloud by a group of friends, not performed in any conventional sense. But this is inferred from the non-dramatic nature of the plays and is not known by direct testimony. (Of course, too, the idea of what is "dramatic" and what is not has changed drastically as twentieth century playwrights have challenged the boundaries of the form.)

If we accept that Seneca wrote for a group of his friends (and it is a hypothesis which seems reasonably convincing to me), then we need to look at his plays remembering how people tend to write to their friends. A letter to a friend is full of private jokes, obscure references to shared experiences, assumed knowledge about common friends and interests. To apply this to Seneca's writing style may explain some of the ways in which he adapted his Greek sources.

The most obvious difference between Seneca's Oedipus and Sophocles' Oedipus the King is that the prophet Tiresias (and his guide) have, in the former, a very long scene in which a sacrifice is made and the augury taken. The guide describes the behaviour of the animals as they are killed and the appearance of the corpses as they are dismembered (since Teresias was of course blind). This scene would be impossible to recreate convincingly on stage - killing animals each performance would probably be considered ethically unacceptable, and even if it happened, you cannot guarantee that they will match the descriptions of their behaviour and organs given in the text. The scene would also be unconvincing if the sacrifices are made to take place off stage.

This long scene drastically reduces the dramatic impact of Oedipus' discovery of his true identity, and his (and Jocasta's) horror when the realisation dawns that he has murdered his father and married his mother. This fact must have been clear to Seneca - it is certainly blindingly obvious to any reader of the play. It seems to me that the reason he made this seemingly inexplicable change must be connected to the group of friends for whom the play was originally written. I don't know how accurate Tiresias' words are as a portrayal of the actual way in which seers read the omens. Whether it is or not, it sounds a bit like parody, containing lots of pompous mystical mumbo-jumbo. (Of course, any record of a fortune teller's words would sound like that to someone not convinced of their reliability - read any newspaper horoscope column with a cynical eye to be convinced of this.) If the person reading the part were either a well-known cynic, or a priest themselves, then we would have an excellent example of a private joke. In addition, this kind of joke provides a plausible reason why Seneca might be willing to reduce the dramatic impact of the play.

All this is conjecture; we can know very little about how Seneca thought as he wrote Oedipus. However it does provide an explanation of sorts as to why the play is so fatally flawed as a piece of drama.

Wednesday 14 July 1999

O. Henry: Roads of Destiny (1903)

Edition: Doubleday, Doran & Co.
Review number: 289

Roads of Destiny is O. Henry's longest collection of short stories, containing tales that are longer than the two or three page miniatures which fill the other volumes of his work. The title story is probably his lengthiest individual story. It is distinctly more experimental than most of O. Henry's output, being reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce or Edgar Allan Poe. The idea is simple enough; the young French shepherd David sets out for Paris, seeking fame and fortune with his poetry, the toast of his native village. He reaches a junction, with no clues as to which way to go. The story then splits into three, one part for each choice (left fork, right fork, or turn back). But the road he takes doesn't matter, for they all lead to his destiny: to be killed with a pistol belonging to the Marquis de Beaupertys. The story itself is told in Henry's usual style, so it is rather less hard edged than Bierce or Poe, but it carries an unusually stern message (that we cannot escape our fate).

There is a book by Peter Dickinson called Chance, Luck and Destiny, a collection of anecdotes, stories, and non-fictional writing (if you count descriptions of methods used by fortune-tellers as non-fiction). One of the strands which runs through this book is a set of stories based on the Oedipus legend, which detail different ways in which he could have lived his life, yet still have ended up killing his father and marrying his mother. For example, in one version, he could have disbelieved the oracle, returning to his adoptive parents, taken part in a war with Thebes in which he killed Laius in battle and received Jocasta as part of the booty.

Such non-linear narratives are today relatively common, particularly after the popularity of role playing game books, where the reader chooses from a series of options at the end of each section. ("If you go through the door, turn to page 67.) But Roads of Destiny is one of the earliest examples of such writing that I know of.

Tuesday 13 July 1999

Lucius Annaeus Seneca: The Trojan Women

Translation: E.F. Watling, 1966
Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 288

Why were the sixteenth century dramatists so taken with Seneca? The reasons cannot be because of dramatic merit, but they must have been strong. Of the tragedies in this volume, The Trojan Woman most strongly exemplifies what I think the reasons were. The extent of Seneca's importance to the tragic drama of the time is obvious from even the single fact that plays of the period, including ones by Jonson and Marlowe, contain quotations from Seneca in Latin, as well as long speeches which are more or less adaptations of ones in Seneca's works. (E.F. Watling notes lines quoted in Latin by Elizabethan dramatists and in an appendix gives examples of English passages closely modelled on speeches from these plays.)

The clue to what was perhaps the most important way in which this influence occurred lies in the fact of such obvious plundering. (The way that playwrights felt able to quote the original Latin is additional evidence for this suggestion, because they would need to be pretty confident that a large proportion of the audience would understand and recognise the quotation.) The Elizabethan writer took from Seneca a highly poetic form of dialogue, with complex and developed metaphors, and reference to classical myth other than the main subject of the play - something Seneca copied from Homer rather than Greek playwrights. In the hands of a great master - Shakespeare is the obvious example - this could be combined with a sense of drama that not only made the play exciting to watch but which also made the poetry seem perfectly at home; it was after all supposed to be the dialogue of real people. Seneca is not the only writer to have written plays in which the poetry is of a higher standard than the drama. Among more recent writers, both Byron and Shelley come to mind, though the model they were trying to emulate was that of the German romantics rather than Seneca.

A second inheritance from Seneca seems to me (and I am no expert) to be a license to use the most extreme subject matter. As far as I know, most recorded pre-Elizabethan drama was strongly influenced by the church, as is particularly apparent in the medieval mystery and morality plays. After the reformation, authors must have been looking for other sources of material, and these they found in Seneca and the classics and secular history. (Protestantism tends to be rather stricter than Catholicism as far as the portrayal of Biblical characters I concerned; notice there complete absence from Shakespeare, for example.) The unpleasant goings on in some of Seneca's plays paved the way for the depictions of the worst of human nature in plays like 'Tis Pity She's A Whore and The White Devil.

The Trojan Women follows the setting of its Euripidean prototype closely. It is set at the fall of Troy, and centres on a group of women from the city as they await allocation as spoils of war to the victorious Greeks. This inspires the women, particularly Hecuba, formerly queen of Troy, to some great poetry mourning not only what they had lost - the death of husbands, sons - but what they still had to endure as playthings of the conquerors. The standard of the speeches makes it easier to see what the Elizabethans saw in Seneca, and the sedentary setting makes his deficiencies in plotting less obvious. (He does fall down in one detail, thoughtfully pointed out in a footnote by Watling: at one point he states that Hector's tomb is accessible nearby, but later it is so far across the plain that it is impossible to see events going on there.)

Monday 12 July 1999

John Huizenga: Cold Fusion (1992)

Edition:  Oxford University Press, 1993
Review number: 287

It is now almost exactly ten years since the press conference was held which launched cold fusion before the world, and it seems now an almost forgotten chapter in the history of science in the twentieth century. At the time, however, the amazing promise offered by cold fusion should the supporters' claims prove true, and the generally unsubstantiated and (to many experts) ludicrous nature of the claims led to angry and passionate exchanges. Huizenga, as chair of the committee appointed by the US Department of Energy to investigate the claims of cold fusion, is well placed to offer an account of the whole affair (though his sceptical  attitude - to my mind the proper one - led to accusations of bias and prejudice).

To quickly summarise the history of cold fusion, in 1989 two chemists from the University of Utah held a press conference to announce the discovery of the century: when electrolysing heavy water, they seemed to be getting out more energy than they were putting in. They ascribed this to fusion of the deuterium which takes the place of normal hydrogen in heavy water. Scientists have been working on deuterium fusion for years, but the possibility that it could happen at room temperature seemed so remote that their work had been concentrated on super-heated deuterium plasmas, kept under pressure by extremely intense magnetic fields (hence the name cold fusion for the new discovery).

Critics picked up several things which acted as danger signals almost instantly. The speciality of Pons and Fleishmann was electrochemistry, massively removed from nuclear physics. They had carried out their experiments and come to their conclusions in a way that didn't satisfy the nuclear physics community that the conclusions were correct. The way that fusion works is that it produces larger atoms than the ones started with along with the energy, and the two of them had not systematically looked for evidence that these atoms had been produced with good quality detectors. By the standard mechanisms of nuclear fusion, to produce the amount of excess heat they claimed to have done, Pons and Fleishmann would have received lethal doses of radiation. In addition, they had carried out the heat measurements in a way which was known to be susceptible to systematic errors.

Apart from these scientific warning signs, many of their colleagues were extremely suspicious of the way in which the results obtained by Pons and Fleishmann were communicated to the scientific community. They had worked in unusual secrecy for a number of years, not even involving the nuclear physics department at Utah. Then their results were not revealed to the world through a peer-reviewed journal article, as is the norm, so that it didn't form part of the academic system designed to promote the excellence of science by allowing qualified experts to check your account of your work before publication. The details given at the press conference were vague, and that didn't make it easy for others to check the results, by reproducing and trying to understand their work. When their academic paper came out, it had been allowed to bypass the peer review procedure, and not only was it also vague, but its account contradicted what had been said at the press conference. It contained so many mistakes that the errata published in the next issue of the journal where it appeared amounted to a quarter of the length of the original article (and even included the name of another author who had been omitted from the first publication).

The politics of the announcement were also mishandled. The University of Utah insisted that crucial details were kept secret, so as not to prejudice a future patent application. Dissatisfaction among the scientific community was met with accusations that the science establishment was biased towards the prestigious establishments in the eastern US which received the largest government grants toward research projects. Applications were made to both Federal and Utah State government bodies for funds outside of the normal mechanism for grant making (which involves peer review of proposals).

So why did cold fusion polarise the scientific community, given the many flaws listed above (and more became apparent as time went by)? The main reason seems to be that its proponents were blinded by the potential benefits should the claims have proven to be true. Basically, these included an end to the energy crisis, with virtually inexhaustible power available for a tiny cost. People wanted to believe in it, and so tended to interpret experimental results in a way that bolstered the possibility of cold fusion.

As chairman of the DOE committee, whose unfavourable report was instrumental in the Federal decision not to formally support cold fusion research, John Huizenga was strongly attacked by the supporters of cold fusion. He could hardly be expected to be positive about it, but he very carefully refrains in this book from going beyond purely scientific criticism of the results a nd methods of those involved. He does occasionally resort to rather inflammatory language, as for example when he describes an attempt to explain cold fusion as a 'non-theory' resting on a series of 'miracles'. (In fact, what he means by the word miracle, distinctly pejorative in a scientific context, is an unsubstantiated hypothesis contrary to generally accepted scientific ideas, such as an altered probability of a particular type of deuterium fusion.)

Bias is possibly present, though I think this is as a result of the treatment Huizenga received, but not prejudice. The book is a useful summary of the history of cold fusion and an examination of its scientific credentials. What grated with me was one particular aspect of the writing style - it is very repetitive. Huizenga repeats the same criticisms of cold fusion experiments in chapter after chapter, to the point that they read like a series of more or less independent articles on the subject. I suspect that this is partly because he had made these criticisms over and over again to cold fusion supporters without them being answered, preferring to launch personal attacks upon him and other sceptical scientists instead.

Friday 9 July 1999

Anthony Powell: The Acceptance World (1955)

Edition: Penguin, 1962
Review number: 286

A few years on from A Buyer's Market, and we are in the London of the early thirties, complete with hunger marches. But as yet the rich set in which Nick Jenkins moves have hardly been affected, though it is fashionable to take a left-wing political stance and demonstrate with the hunger marchers.

Why the gap? Well, the first few books centre around the relationship between Jenkins and his schoolfriends Templer and Stringham, and their acquaintance Widmerpool; it is only every so often that they meet, having moved as they grow up into slightly different circles in London society. In this particular volume, Jenkins begins an affair with Templer's sister Jean as well as meeting the others through school reunions. (Back in A Question of Upbringing, Jean was the first girl he felt attracted to.)

The main message which comes through from The Acceptance World is the superficiality of society and its response to the problems felt by the poor around its members. This somehow pervades the whole novel, though it is hardly ever explicitly mentioned. The title is a phrase used at the time to describe a particular part of the London Stock Exchange, but it equally well refers to the Panglossian attitude of the rich that is the theme of the novel.

Thursday 8 July 1999

Lucius Annaeus Seneca: Phaedra

Translation: E.F. Watling, 1966
Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 285

Seneca's Phaedra is interesting to read soon after Racine's treatment of the same story (both, of course, looking back to Euripides' Hippolytus). Racine's play is immensely superior, with its concentration on Phaedra's psychology. Seneca's version misses out on this interest, which can be so immensely telling in the performance of a play. His reliance on description of melodramatic action is one of his most serious weaknesses as a playwright, and it lends considerable support to the idea that Seneca intended his plays to be read rather than acted.

In contrast to Racine's version, for instance, the final denouement (when Phaedra, rejected by her stepson, accuses him to his father Theseus of rape) is weak: Hippolytus is not present, and he and Theseus do not confront each other. All we have is a messenger coming in to inform Theseus that his son has been killed in an accident, prompting Phaedra to confess the truth and Theseus to forgive him posthumously.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca: Thyestes

Translation: E.F. Watling, 1966
Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 284

Seneca's tragedies had a similar influence on sixteenth century tragedy to that of Plautus on the comedy of the same period. Yet Seneca's reputation has suffered a comparative eclipse since then, and is now (as Watling observes) the first century Latin writer least likely to be known to modern readers.

Thyestes illustrates some of the reasons for this quite clearly (as do other plays in this volume). It differs from the other tragedies translated here, in that there is no extant Greek tragedy on the same theme for direct comparison (Octavia, also included here, being something of a special case). Nevertheless, the same issues that have led critics to dismiss Seneca's writing are still apparent. Thyestes is very static, despite the violent actions at its centre. This is partly due to the lack of stage directions, expected by a modern reader, but the lengthy speeches also have something to do with it. Several of the speeches read as though they are exercises in rhetoric, with the result that they could be transferred from one character to another without really affecting the play at all. (It goes without saying, then, that characterisation is weak.) The dialogue is virtually non-existent, as the play consists almost entirely of these long oratorical speeches; most acts only have two speakers. The role of the chorus is passive and ill defined. In short, it is difficult to see, on the evidence of Thyestes, why these plays had the influence that they did.

Thyestes retells part of the long story of the internal wrangling of the house of Pelops (of which the best known event is the murder of Agamemnon and Orestes' revenge, as retold in the Oresteia). Atreus, father of Agamemnon and Menelaus, is established as king of Mycenae, banishing his brother Thyestes. For a reason not fully established in the play, Atreus decides to destroy his brother, inviting him to return and join him in ruling Mycenae. This is a cover for his true intentions; Atreus desecrates the temple which is part of the palace by murdering Thyestes' two young sons there (a third, Aegisthus, survives) as though they were sacrifices despite the extremely ominous omens sent by the gods. (This melodramatic scene is made to have virtually no impact by being placed off stage; act three is entirely taken up by a messenger retelling the events to the chorus.) The two boys are then cooked, Atreus revelling in the sounds made by the roasting meat - an unpleasant touch reminiscent of the more sensational Elizabethan tragedies. This meal is served to the boys' father, who is only told at the end what he has been eating.

The plot could have been developed in a much more interesting way, particularly given the recurring breakdown of family relationships among Pelops' descendants. (Examples include Pelops' own relationship with his father, Tantalus, providing the prototype for Thyestes' gruesome meal by attempting to serve up his own children as a banquet for the gods; Agamemnon and Aegisthus; Agamemnon and Clytemnestra; Orestes and Clytemnestra.) Seneca fails completely to do this; he seems insufficiently interested in the reality of his characters, in the psychological effects that such a background would have. This failure is the biggest problem that is specific to this one of Seneca's plays.

Tuesday 6 July 1999

Roger Penrose: The Emperor's New Mind (1989)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1989
Review number: 283

It is easy to lose track of what The Emperor's New Mind is about. It is intended as an examination of the claims of 'strong AI' from a fairly sceptical viewpoint (as the title indicates). The style aims at popular science, but it is difficult to follow and occasionally, I suspect, dauntingly full of complex mathematics (as a mathematician myself, I find this a little difficult to

The strong AI position is basically that it is possible for a sufficiently complex computer program to mimic the workings of an intelligent mind. In computer science terms, this is more precisely expressed by saying that the workings of the mind are algorithmic or computable in nature. Penrose's book naturally starts, then, with an explanation of these terms, together with a discussion of related ideas by Turing (the famous Turing test, and the Turing machine, which is one of the more accessible ways to define computability). He also talks about results showing that there are concepts which are not algorithmic in nature: the halting problem (there is no algorithm to determine in general if a computer program will ever complete its task) and Gödel's incompleteness theorem (which implies that there is no computer program which can mechanically prove every mathematical result about arithmetic). This first section ends with a digression into the lambda calculus, an alternative formulation of computability, which is extremely difficult to follow.

The second - and longest - section of The Emperor's New Mind is an exposition of the physics that Penrose expects to lie behind the aspects of the mind that would be non-algorithmic: quantum mechanics and, in particular, the resolution of the differences between quantum mechanics and relativity. (This is one of the most important and most difficult problems in modern theoretical physics.) He postulates that the way this incompatibility will be overcome will involve the incorporation of an asymmetric time element into the theory, and this requires a discussion of thermodynamics and entropy. (The question of why time appears to flow and many events seem irreversible when the major physical theories behind them are indifferent to the direction in which time flows is another important problem in today's physics.)

It is in this section, dealing admittedly with three of the most notoriously difficult parts of physics, that the limitations of Penrose's ability to write for the layman become apparent. His explanations seem to simplify in the wrong places, and complex mathematics is presented without sufficient textual exposition to make it palatable. He has not a great deal of space, but does tend to digress to explore areas of the theory that he finds interesting, but which are not relevant to his main theme. That would be fine in a book about quantum mechanics, for instance, but is misplaced when quantum mechanics is being introduced for another purpose.

Following a brief description of the physical construction of the human brain and some experiments to do with consciousness, Penrose rounds off the book with his explanation of how the brain might work, contrasted with the ideas of strong AI enthusiasts. He is not in fact particularly concerned to detail reasons for finding strong AI unlikely, but is more interested with coming up with a physical description of consciousness which would be intrinsically non-algorithmic in parts. He does list some arguments against strong AI, including a most interesting couple of pages about mathematical thought, often considered to be one of the most strongly algorithmic modes of consciousness (because mathematical writing uses a style which can make proofs look rather like algorithms).

The level of detail into which Penrose goes when explaining quantum mechanics and general relativity is unnecessary, and he would perhaps have been well advised to cut this section of the book considerably, expanding the final discussion about intelligence and consciousness instead. That discussion is, after all the main point that Penrose wants to make, the reason why he wrote the book. It is also the most interesting and lucid section. If you already know something about relativity and quantum mechanics, the rest of the book may well seem fascinating, but it cannot be recommended as an introduction to either subject.

If I have been rather critical of Penrose's writing, it is not because I disagree with his position on strong AI, but because I feel that his style is not suited to a popular approach. (I would tend to think strong AI unlikely on intuitive grounds - the way I think and feel doesn't seem mechanically determined to myself - and therefore I would say that the burden of proof lies with its proponents.)

Monday 5 July 1999

Edmund Crispin: Frequent Hearses (1950)

Edition: Penguin, 1987
Review number: 282

Out of his habitual Oxford world, Crispin's famous academic Gervase Fen is acting as a literary consultant to a film about Alexander Pope when a young actress who was to take a part in the film suddenly commits suicide. When a man dies at a script conference for the same film, Fen suspects something more sinister than a sudden illness. Tests for poison confirm that his death was indeed a murder, but who committed it? And what connection does it have to Gloria Scott's suicide? The case hinges on the true identity of Gloria, who took that name when she began acting; but no one knows anything of her earlier than two years ago, and someone has taken pains to hide her identity, removing named articles from her flat after her death.

Frequent Hearses is an atmospheric crime novel, leading to a bizarre conclusion chasing a murderer through an ornamental hedge maze. The mystery is presented in a very opaque way, the plot being carefully structured so that the strange goings on mystify the reader until Fen explains them later on.

Friday 2 July 1999

George MacDonald Fraser: Flashman (1969)

Edition: Pan
Review number: 281

It is odd to look back at Fraser's first Flashman novel, to see the way in which Pan promoted it in the early seventies. Though having considerable intellectual background - based around a famous novel, backed up with meticulous historical research - the novel is advertised by comparing it to the sleazy soft-core porn of the Confessions series, still the object of furtive playground bartering when I was at school but now virtually forgotten. This is obviously a ploy to maximise sales of the book in a way that emphasising its literary and historical qualities would hardly have done. It is not entirely misleading, either, for there is considerable sexual activity in Flashman, but Fraser's writing is considerably better than the comparison suggests.

Harry Flashman is the bully from Tom Brown's School Days, continuing his career after the expulsion from Rugby School which forms part of that novel. Fraser has him becoming the most cowardly officer in the British Army. Sent out to India after disgracing himself by being trapped into marriage with a merchant's daughter, he manages to get involved in the First Afghan War, a display of incredible military incompetence on the part of the British Army.

In this first book, the edges are still a little raw, and Flashman is perhaps a rather more unpleasant person than he became. In the end, he became essential to the success of Fraser's writing; his periodic attempts to do something rather different (Mr American, the McAuslan stories, Pyrates) never having taken off in quite the same way.

Thursday 1 July 1999

Ngaio Marsh: When In Rome (1970)

Edition: William Collins, 1972
Review number: 280

Despite an initial feeling that When in Rome would join the list of below standard Marsh novels, it did grow on me as entertaining crime fiction as I read it. There are jarring elements - the offensive portrayal of the Italian police as incompetent and corrupt, the stereotypical drugs scene - but these are not so obvious as to totally destroy the reader's enjoyment.

Alleyn has travelled to Rome as part of an ongoing investigation into international drug dealing. His major lead in Rome points to one Sebastian Mailer, who works as a guide, taking exclusive groups to lesser know sights and the best nightlife, for an exorbitant fee. This activity is really a cover for supplying wealthy clients with drugs, while also being a lucrative operation in its own right.

Mailer has managed to get a hold over the famous author Barnaby Grant, whose latest novel is set in Rome. Through this he is able to get Grant to agree to act as the guide on a tour of the places that inspired scenes in the book. Alleyn joins the tour, posing as a fan. It is while the party is going round a church and the earlier archaeology excavated beneath it that Mailer disappears. Then a body is discovered, and Alleyn becomes involved in the Italian investigation into the murder as well as its connections with his own enquiries.

One particular problem in this novel is that for the first time I caught Marsh "cheating". She does not pass on to the reader information received by Alleyn in a report which is fairly crucial to a speedy solution to the case, just hinting at it in a summary of the report. The fact that I have not noticed this sort of thing in her other novels indicates that either she hasn't done it before or is usually more subtle about covering it up (and I suspect the latter).