Thursday 24 February 2000

John Fowles: The Magus (1966/1977)

Edition: Vintage, 1997
Review number: 444

This strange and compelling novel was one that Fowles only felt that he could pass to his publisher after he had already gained a measure of success as a writer. Even then, it was revised before its reissue just over a decade later, and the introduction to the new edition is still apologetic about its self indulgence and what it describes as its adolescent nature.

The story is about Nicholas Urfe, teaching English for a year in the Byron School on the Greek island of Phraxos, an imitation of a British public school based on one in which Fowles taught on Spetsai. There he meets reclusive millionaire Maurice Conchis, and becomes involved in a strange psychological game; nothing is quite what it seems, each new revelation by Conchis turning out to be another stimulus to his experimental subject Urfe.

The major strengths of The Magus are its sense of atmosphere, and the background, as strong and understated as the best of Lawrence Durrell. (The feeling of the books is decidedly reminiscent of the Avignon Quintet.) The Greek setting and an interest in the esoteric are part of the reason for this, but the style itself is also similar.

Each revelation about Conchis' activities is interesting, for all the ingenious ways in which it unsettles our earlier ideas about the truth behind what he is doing. As well as being the point of the novel (leading us to question both the reality of our own lives and the relationship between a work of fiction and reality), it ends up being its major weakness. It goes beyond the unsettling and trivialises itself. The constant pulling out of the rug from under the reader's feet is the principal way in which Fowles' self-indulgence is manifested.

Connected with this is a lack of motivation for the way in which Conchis behaves. As we can never be sure we know the truth about what he is trying to do, it is quite difficult to impute any specific reason for it. However, Fowles doesn't even make a serious attempt to provide one, and this contributes another important flaw.

Yet the novel draws you in, and you want to try to see what is really going on. It is immensely clever and it is easy to see both why Fowles wanted to publish it and why he didn't do so until he already had some measure of success.

Wednesday 23 February 2000

Paul Kearney: The Way to Babylon (1992)

Edition: Gollancz, 1992
Review number: 443

Paul Kearney's first novel was an impressive debut. It tackles a theme at the centre of the fantasy genre, the relationship between fiction and the real world. Michael Riven is a successful fantasy author, two thirds of the way through a trilogy whose background is drawn from the mountains he loves on Skye. Then a climbing accident leaves his wife dead and Michael severely injured. Unable to bring himself to write more, he receives visitors at his cottage who take him climbing once again (hiring him as a guide) - and he suddenly finds himself in the world of his trilogy. There, since the death of Jenny Riven, the land has been suffering from permanent winter and attacks by monsters; a clear reflection of Michael's grief. So what is the connection between Miniguish and our world? How does Riven relate to his creation (and in what sense did he create a world with a history going back years before he thought of it)? Is he really in another world, or has he been driven made by the death of his wife?

The agonising about the reality or otherwise of Riven's experience is of course reminiscent of Stephen Donaldson's first novel, Lord Foul's Bane (and it continued to be a major part of the whole Thomas Covenant series). Donaldson explores the theme at greater length and correspondingly greater depth; his treatment is also pessimistic in tone. Kearney's lighter novel is none the less interesting, and Riven is a developed character whose grief seems to have real meaning.

Tuesday 22 February 2000

Paul Darcy Boles: The Limner (1975)

Edition: Hamlyn
Review number: 442

Set in the American midwest in the second half of the nineteenth century, The Limner is a crime novel in a loose sense. Lucius Applegate is a painter (limner is an old word for portrait painter) who makes his living travelling around the country painting small portraits for whatever the sitter can afford. Staying with wealthy farmer Hans Eisner while painting his beautiful daughter Letty, he gets up one night to find Eisner's body, just before Letty bursts in on him, asking him to flee with her. Though neither actually killed the old man, both think that the other did so, and the natural conclusion of the law officers investigating was that they must have done it together.

Generally well written, The Limner does occasionally strike the odd wrong note. Small problems with the plot - at one point a balloon journey needs to be more predictable than they can be, for example - lead to a rather unsatisfactory ending. The background is less rural in feeling than it makes out, the general atmosphere not as wild as some details imply, making it a less than convincing evocation of the American midwest at the time.

Monday 21 February 2000

Josephine Tey: Miss Pym Disposes (1946)

Edition: Pan
Review number: 441

In her first crime novel, Josephine Tey set out some of the psychological background that makes her best novels still unique. She sows the seed from which Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair grow. Despite having a successful sleuth in Lucy Pym, she never used her again, a restraint which might have been copied with considerable benefit by other writers.

Set in a training college for the elite of the next generation of gym teachers - the quality and range of the training being so superior that it is possible for the pupils to take up medical posts as well - in the tense atmosphere of finals week, the success of Miss Pym Disposes is derived from the prolongation of the suspense to the very last minute.

The stress of the exams and their accompanying demonstration of gymnastic skill is increased by the way that posts for the Seniors completing their courses are assigned to them. The college is prestigious enough that schools and other employers write to them to ask if they have suitable candidates for vacant positions; these are assigned to individuals by the founder and principal of the college. Even as an outsider (writer of a bestselling popular psychology book invited to give a lecture), Lucy Pym senses the disquiet when an incredible job is not given to the obvious star student but instead to a favourite of the principal. This leads to murder - with only some four chapters to go - and Lucy Pym is left with the dilemma of whether or not to reveal some evidence she has discovered that might incriminate someone she admires.

This dilemma is what inspired the title, based on a phrase from The Imitation of Christ about prayer and its effect on divine planning: "Man proposes, but God disposes". Should she interfere, or not? After the build-up, the question has acquired a lot of weight, and the small space Tey allows herself makes the ending rush on the reader almost to soon -wonderfully suspense filled.

Friday 18 February 2000

Peter Tremayne: The Monk Who Vanished (1999)

Edition: Headline, 1999
Review number: 440

The latest Sister Fidelma mystery shows no real signs of improvement, having the same plot once again. This time the threat to her brother Colgu's throne is an all out assassination attempt in his capital at Cashel rather than a dark plot in the corners of the kingdom of Muman (better known by its Viking name of Munster). There are distinct signs of cheating, as when Fidelma looks at a sword and says that its use of animal teeth is a speciality of the art of one of the Irish kingdoms but she can't remember which one. Surely that's not the way that people remember things; she might more plausibly realise that there's something special about the sword but not be sure what it is.

All the real interest, all the character development, comes in the epilogue; at last something changes in her relationship with the Saxon Eadwulf; at last she might leave Muman and go somewhere new. But none of this is prepared; it all comes as a surprise. Thus, the next Sister Fidelma novel might be worth reading, but if it isn't I'll finally give up on the series.

Thursday 17 February 2000

Andrew Brown: The Darwin Wars: How Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods (1999)

Edition: Simon & Schuster, 1999
Review number: 439

Brown's book attempts to chronicle from an impartial position what will probably be seen as the bitterest scientific dispute of our times. It is a fascinating book, revealing much about the personalities of those involved and clearly explaining the science needed to understand what is going on. The personalities are important, as much of the argument in the debate is (regrettably) ad hominem; science often takes second place to point scoring rhetoric.

The subject at the heart of the controversy is frequently called neo-Darwinism, and it basically stems from the derivation of a mathematical description of how altruistic behaviour can arise from the assumption of survival of the fittest. In other words, this is the discovery that a creature can sometimes help others to make the transmission of its own genes more likely. (Social insects are the classic example of this: complicated kinship patterns mean that the workers "do better" by enabling the queen to pass on her genes.) As soon as this result was proved, its discoverer killed himself. A committed Christian (who spent his last years making enormous sacrifices to help the homeless), George Price felt that the application of the rule to human beings implied that his own altruism had selfishness at its root.

This feeling is where the controversy stems from, for it is the application of evolutionary ideas to human beings which has always offended since Darwin's The Descent of Man. It hasn't helped the quality of the discussion that much of the debate has been carried on in popular science books, like Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, rather than in more restrained technical publications. There at least arguments could have been presented with mathematics rather than metaphor; there at least what was to be said would have been criticised by colleagues before publication.

The important question, then, is how genetics shapes human lives, not just in the physical sense but in the social. It is the modern form of the nature/nurture debate, and is today perhaps made more serious by the way in which Nazi Germany made eugenics a dirty word (and thus provided many handy insults for just this type of debate). There are those who would claim that the genetic discoveries have made moral philosophy an empty subject; we are what we are because of the environment that shaped our ancestors. The problem is that specific arguments can be made too easily; almost anything we do can be explained by reference to some supposed evolutionary pressure. (The silliest example Brown quotes is an argument that millionaires build penthouse suites to live in because for our ancestors on the African plains a preference for high places gave a better chance for survival by making them able to see further. As Brown points out, to crouch in a hollow hides you from predators, so almost the same argument should imply that millionaires prefer basement flats.) Much that has been written on the subject amounts to a series of illustrations of the futility of arguing from effects to causes. By explaining everything, sociobiology explains nothing (at least as it is often portrayed by its popularisers).

The two most prominent participants in the debate are Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. Brown may be slightly harder on Dawkins, but generally seems to make an effort to be impartial; Dawkins is a more tempting target, with a passion for lively debate which leads him to overstate his case and an unwillingness to admit that he could have been wrong. His utter contempt for religion, especially Christian fundamentalism, is a case in point, and gets a lengthy criticism from Brown. (The sociogenetic position can easily be turned into an attack on religion, by portraying spirituality as a construct of evolutionary utility.) Brown is himself an atheist, though by spending some years as a religious affairs journalist he has more understanding and sympathy for those who have a religious belief. Dawkins and his followers (Nicholas Humphrey in particular) have let their contempt lead them into saying some really stupid things. An example of this is a lecture to an Amnesty International conference given by Humphrey in which he says both that religion is so dangerous that it should be a crime to teach it to children and that it is so poorly thought out that teaching scientific truth causes it to wither and die. On the other hand, their statements about science, neatly demolished by Brown, lay them open to the accusation that they are making science a religion, with themselves as evolutionary fundamentalists.

I enjoyed this book, feeling that it was balanced and critical. It didn't make me want to read the books it talks about, which many science books do, but then I've never really liked Dawkins or Gould as writers anyway.

Wednesday 16 February 2000

Mary Stewart: Madam, Will You Talk (1955)

Edition: Coronet, 1981
Review number: 438

Mary Stewart's first novel sets out the territory that she has occupied ever since when writing her thrillers. A romantic plot, with the heroine playing the major role - and a non-passive one; misunderstandings about the role of the hero, a beautiful setting. Her most innovative aspect is the use she makes of the heroine. Charity Selborne is not the shrinking violet of male thriller writers; she is an expert racing driver, a fighter, and the catalyst of the whole plot, which is told from her point of view.

Taking a holiday in the south of France, she is charmed by a boy staying at the same hotel and repelled by his beautiful mother. She is told that they are hiding from the boy's father, a murderer who escaped justice (insufficient evidence). Then, on a day trip to Nimes, she meets David's father, who has been searching for him, and falls for him despite what she thinks she knows about him.

Such a romantic plot seems intrinsically improbable, yet Stewart works hard to reduce the occurrence of unmotivated coincidence. (She meets the father; this isn't coincidence because he's looking for the son who's staying at her hotel.) It is not surprising that Madam, Will You Talk marks the beginning of such a successful career.

Tuesday 15 February 2000

Tony Hawks: Round Ireland With A Fridge (1998)

Edition: Ebury, 1998
Review number: 437

Tony Hawks once did a comedy show in Ireland, and saw the bizarre sight of someone hitch-hiking with a fridge as though this were a perfectly normal thing to do. Telling this to a group of friends back in England led to a drunken bet that he could hitch-hike all the way around Ireland in under a month, with a fridge.

The story of the journey is amusing, but the reaction he gets is much what you would expect, bemused but genial helpfulness. There are no real surprises.

Hawks decided to go round the Republic only, omitting Northern Ireland, for reasons which derive from the Troubles. Because of the impression gained from thirty years' worth of TV news coverage, the average English person has the idea that Northern Irish life is only about bombs and punishment beatings. When he had to travel into Armagh, he did end up in one of the more intimidating parts of Northern Ireland, among "Beware of Snipers" signs and sectarian graffiti, and this served to strengthen this opinion. I was actually living in Northern Ireland at the time of Hawks' trip, and my impression was very different. The people are really friendly, in a way which is no longer seen in England, even though the community is so divided; the grim towns (full of houses built in dark stone in depressing styles) contrast with beautiful countryside - the lakes of Fermanagh, the Antrim coast and Giant's Causeway, the Sperrin mountains.

Thursday 10 February 2000

Dave Duncan: Future Indefinite (1998)

Edition: Corgi, 1998
Review number: 436

The culmination of Duncan's Great Game trilogy, Future Indefinite tells how Edward Exeter does what he has been prophesied as doing, what he has vowed never to do: challenging the god of death himself. This leads his friends to believe that he has lost his mind. In the magical system of Duncan's world, the easiest way to collect power (mana) is through the sacrificial suffering of others. This is the way in which Zath has managed, as a psychopath becoming tutelary deity of death, to collect mana fast enough to become a danger even to the ancient established Pentatheon, who have been acquiring power for millennia. The only way that Exeter can hope to win is by becoming a greater monster, and after he does so, an even more significant threat to the Pentatheon. They, of course, are keen to remove Zath, but not at the expense of losing their own position.

Future Indefinite is necessarily (for the sake of suspense) told from the point of view of those who know Edward rather than by 'the Liberator' himself. They are desperately trying to work out whether or not he is sane, whether he has come up with some way around the difficulties that led him to take his vow, whether he has any chance of winning, and whether the Pentatheon can do anything about it. The reader, too, is not supposed to know these things until the end of the novel.

The trilogy as a whole is excellent, ringing the changes on one of the most venerable basic plots in the fantasy genre, the messianic hero. (Prominent examples include Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series and David Eddings' Belgariad, just to choose among the most popular works in the genre.) Like the heroes of many of these stories, the career of Edward Exeter is modelled on that of Jesus Christ. Unlike most of them, Exeter consciously follows this model, as he preaches a new ethics and a challenge to the established religious order. The closest parallel is perhaps John Barth's Giles Goat-boy, though Duncan escapes the accusations or irreverence and blasphemy that have been levelled at Barth simply by omitting the element of parody. The unpleasantness of the religion imposed on Nextdoor by those seeking to exploit the way that magic works there is an important part of the novels, and helps to raise them above the general level of fantasy. The third is also the best written and most gripping of the series, which as a whole could become one of the classics of the genre.

Wednesday 9 February 2000

Philip Roth: Portnoy's Complaint (1969)

Edition: Penguin, 1986
Review number: 435

It took me a long time to get into Roth's novel. Despite the endorsements on the back telling me it was one of the most hilarious novels ever written, it didn't make me laugh for over a hundred pages. Unease was a better description of the reaction caused in me by the over the top stereotyped Jewish family background.

Portnoy's Complaint is ostensibly a transcript of Alexander Portnoy's sessions with his therapist, an attempt to cure the complaint of the title (defined in medical dictionary form on the first page). He spends his life desperately chasing woman after woman, only to find that each sexual encounter is terribly unsatisfying.

The hideous Portnoy family are basically a Jewish joke taken to an extreme, particularly the deliberately stereotypical mother. They are meant to be caricatures, but I found them distinctly uninvolving and repellent. Basically, Portnoy's Complaint did not live up to its reputation.

Anthony Powell: The Military Philosophers (1968)

Edition: Mandarin, 1991
Review number: 434

The third trilogy in A Dance to the Music of Time comes to an end with the end of the war. The Military Philosophers is the story of Nick Jenkins' posting to the unit which maintained liaison between the British military and the governments in exile of the occupied countries. The international nature of this work leads to absurdities rather like those in Lawrence Durrell's Antrobus stories, and they are by far the most memorable aspect of this novel.

Of the series characters, the most interesting to play a part on The Military Philosophers is Pamela Fitton, niece of Charles Stringham, now grown up and keen to seduce as many men as possible. Assigned as ATS driver to Nick's unit, she has to be transferred because of the disturbance she causes to relations with the allies.

Monday 7 February 2000

George Bernard Shaw: Plays Unpleasant (1898)

Edition:  Penguin, 1946
Review number: 433

The three plays in this volume, Widowers' Houses, The Philanderer and Mrs Warren's Profession, are Shaw's earliest plays. Considered extremely daring at the time - it proved impossible to produce Mrs Warren's Profession for over twenty years - they can still in places shock us today. Each play is a blatant attack on Victorian society, on the hypocrisy of those who believe themselves morally blameless yet condemn the poor to live in degrading squalor and then live off the money this produces. This is clearest in Widowers' Houses (about slum landlords) and Mrs Warren's Profession (prostitution); The Philanderer is about attitudes to women, and has dated rather more.

The plot of Widowers' Houses is the simplest. Harry Trench falls in love with a girl he meets on holiday in Germany. Accepting her father's description of the source of his income as the respectable "property", they get engaged. Then Trench discovers that the property in question is one of London's most unpleasant slums and is horrified, and eventually he is astounded when it is revealed that his own wealth comes from the interest on a mortgage on the property. The idea is that even the most respectable are not far removed from the immoral and degrading, and this is also the central idea in Mrs Warren's Profession.

Though today most of the Victorian slums in Britain have long been cleared, prostitution is still a surprisingly important part of the economy. Shaw's message, though, is perhaps better applied in other areas. In the West, our relatively affluent lifestyles are to an extent dependant on the poverty of the Third World. People starve not just while our supermarkets are full, but to keep them full. Without the arms trade vital to the economy of many Western nations, much suffering would be eased. Pornography continues to degrade both those involved in making it and those addicted to it, while making fortunes.

Shaw manages to avoid the pitfall of preachiness which traps so many who write fiction to support a campaign, except perhaps in The Philanderer. The central location of this play is the fictional Ibsen Club, which stands for everything progressive in society. Today Ibsenism is an obsolete word, and it is clearer that Ibsen wrote about far more than Shaw thought, blinded as he was by his own social agenda. But at the turn of the century, plays like An Enemy of the People, Ghosts and (above all) A Doll's House seemed iconoclastic attacks on injustice in society. Ibsen was the subject of violent denunciation for the immorality seen in his plays (to the extent that he had to write an alternative happy ending to The Dollshouse before it could be performed in Germany), and this is what attracted Shaw the social campaigner. These plays are far simpler than Ibsen's, and much more obviously making a non-dramatic point. Their effect was much the same, and Shaw (unlike Ibsen) revelled in it.

Thursday 3 February 2000

William Congreve: The Way of the World (1700)

Edition: Nick Hern, 1995
Review number: 432

Congreve's play has the theme of hypocrisy and deceit in society, as even some of the characters' names indicate (Fainall, for example). Even Mirabell, the hero (his name indicating that he is admirable), uses a deceitful scheme to bring about the happy ending. Only Millamant, the object of his desire, does not pretend to be anything other than what she really is, though her capriciousness towards Mirabell infuriates him.

Millamant is unable to marry who she pleases, since half of her fortune is controlled by her aunt, Lady Wishfort. (Congreve doesn't explain why half her fortune. Perhaps it is to muddle the motives even of Mirabell and Millamant, for the half that would pass to her should provide enough to live on comfortably - why go to so much effort to win the fortune, if love is supposed to be your driving passion?) In order to gain her consent, Mirabell conceives a complicated scheme. His servant, Waitwell is to pretend to be Mirabell's rich uncle, and court Lady Wishfort; when she discovers the truth, she will be forced to allow the marriage, to avoid the shame of public exposure. To make sure of Waitwell's loyalty, Mirabell marries him to Lady Wishfort's maid, so that any marriage between him and Lady Wishfort is invalid.

The plot is clearly related to the commedia plots of Marivaux and Molière, though there are variations. The rascally servant, though still making his sarcastic observation of society, is not just the tool of his master, who has taken on his cunning. The intrigue is not directed at the heroine, but at her aunt. The father figure that is the butt of jokes has gone, but instead we have the other suitors. Congreve has taken the traditional plot structure and developed and twisted it.

Ann Granger: Call the Dead Again (1998)

Edition: Headline, 1998
Review number: 431

Another Mitchell and Markby novel; once again, the usual strengths and weaknesses of Granger's series are repeated. The unreasonable coincidence by which Meredith Mitchell becomes involved in the murder takes place once again - here, she picks up a hitch-hiker who becomes the main suspect.

The night after a strange, beautiful girl hitch-hikes to Bamford, the rich Andrew Penhallow is found murdered at his own back door. As Kate Drago's purpose in coming to the town was to visit Andrew, she is naturally suspected. When the police question her, Andrew's double life is revealed: she is his illegitimate daughter rather than the mistress that others thought her to be.

I do have an additional word of criticism. Granger uses the device of the extra thin skull, useful to crime writers because it reduces the force needed for a fatal blow and so widens the field of suspects. I'm pretty positive that there is a passage in a Dorothy Sayers novel in which this idea is dismissed as too hackneyed to use in a modern detective story (but I can't remember quite where), but here it crops up again sixty years later.

Wednesday 2 February 2000

Anthony Powell: The Soldier's Art (1966)

Edition: Mandarin, 1991
Review number: 430

More engrossing to read than the earlier volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time (because events start to move a little faster), the eighth novel in the series sees Nick Jenkins working as assistant to Kenneth Widmerpool. This means that instead of seeing, as before, just the results of Widmerpool's activities in his successful career, we experience the under-hand manipulation and self centredness which produce these results. Still in a battalion in Northern Ireland (this is not explicitly stated, but a deserter escapes across a land border), Nick is almost too far from the action of the war to be practising the soldier's art in any traditional form, but Widmerpool's scheming provides the reason for the title. This is the first book in the series in which the origin of the title is made explicit; it comes from a line in Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, which says that the soldier's art is to "think first, fight afterwards". It seems to me, particularly as I read this book just after rereading John Keegan's The Face of Battle, that thinking is what front line soldiers really need to avoid doing. However, it describes Widmerpool's unscrupulous scheming quite well, and Powell obviously seems to think that it brought success for a wartime officer.

The most bizarre event in the novel is the reappearance of Charles Stringham, who volunteered following his cure from alcoholism. However, rather than becoming an officer like others of his social status, he is the waiter in the officers' mess. Embarrassed, Widmerpool pulls strings to get him reassigned to the battalion's Mobile Laundry, which he happens to know is about to be moved to the Far East - a long way to move someone just to save a little embarrassment. Stringham turning up is exactly the sort of coincidence which mars the plotting of A Dance to the Music of Time - why should he be assigned to the officers' mess in Nick's unit out of all the possible billets in the wartime army?