Friday 28 April 2000

Anthony Powell: Temporary Kings (1973)

Edition: Heinemann, 1973
Review number: 484

The penultimate novel in The Dance to the Music of Time has the more significant part of its plot set in Venice, where events are set in motion which later come to a head in London. Most of the Venetian action revolves around a little known Tiepolo fresco on the subject of Candaules and Gyges. There are various versions of this Greek legend, but basically Candaules was a king of Lydia who hid his general Gyges in the royal apartments so that he could see for himself the beauty of his queen. Either Gyges then becomes infatuated by the queen, or she discovers what her husband has done and seduces Gyges in a fit of pique, but whatever happens, Candaules was eventually deposed from his throne and his marriage bed by his general. (This is part of the point of the title.)

This legend bears a particular importance to the novel, but its ironic intent is also clear: like Gyges, the readers are voyeurs of the lives of the people that the author has chosen to exhibit to us.

The main interest of the novel is, as in the last few books preceding it in the series, the marriage of Kenneth (now a life peer) and Pamela Widmerpool. One of their arguments provides the climactic scene of the novel, which is a brilliant piece of writing. Powell abandons his usual first person narrative to give us the scene as pieced together by Nick Jenkins from accounts told to him by actual witnesses. This gives it both a feeling of unreality (the reader is alienated from the action, which itself is interrupted by discussions about which witness is likely to be most reliable in remembering particular aspects of the scene) and portentousness (by recalling a legal trial). It is perhaps the best writing in the whole series.

As a novel, Temporary Kings suffers from similar problems to the earlier parts of A Dance to the Music of Time. There are far too many coincidental meetings; and Pamela Widmerpool in particular is not a very believable character (interesting though she may be). The Venetian scenes are not terribly impressive, though necessary to set up the brilliant climax which makes the book.

John D. Barrow: Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits (1998)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1998
Review number: 483

In what is almost a response to John Horgan's The End of Science, Barrow examines the limitations of scientific thought from several different points of view with the aim of working out what science can say about what it cannot say. He skims quickly over some of the problems Horgan talks about, such as the increasing economic cost of scientific experimentation; these limitations are not scientific in nature (non-scientific events such as a change of government may change their nature) and there is little that can be said about them beyond acknowledging their existence.

Barrow is far more interested in the limitations inherent in modern scientific theories, such as the impossibility of knowing what happens outside the edge of the visible universe. He concentrates on the less well known ideas, rather than ploughing once again the well worn furrow of the popular account of relativity and quantum mechanics. His final section is a brief but sensible account of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem and its relationship to physics. The problem with this relationship is that it is only possible to determine its nature when the more basic question of how mathematics is embodied in the universe is answered. If mathematical physics is only a description of patterns in the universe, for example, then there is not necessarily any connection. Even if sufficiently complex mathematics is in some way embodied in the universe - you need to have arithmetic with both addition and multiplication - then it is not at all clear what the physical version of a Gödel Undecideable Sentence would be (it would depend on the precise nature of the embodiment, for a start).

Barrow is less polemic than Horgan, more interested in the nature of the various types of scientific impossibility than in ramming home the point that there are limitations to science. Barrow is much more pro-science than Horgan - he is after all a research physicist - which means that his book is less excitingly iconoclastic but perhaps more informative. (The structure of the book also helps here; Horgan's is organised around interviews with prominent scientists which means that his main philosophical points are hidden behind personalities.)

Giovanni Guareschi: Don Camillo and the Prodigal Son (1952)

Translation: Frances Frenaye, 1952
Edition: Gollancz
Review number: 482

The second collection of Don Camillo stories continues to be charming, though it is not as good as the first. The limitations of the chosen subject begin to become apparent, and some of the stories from Don Camillo and the Prodigal Son are little more than repetitions of ones from The Little World of Don Camillo. The altar crucifix plays a rather smaller role than it does in the first book, which is a pity (though the voice of Christ is barely present in the best story here, which is about a false news report leading the local Communists to think that the Italian general election has been won and that the time has come for the eradication of the reactionary forces of repression, starting with Don Camillo himself). The style of the new translator is virtually indistinguishable from that of the first book's (Una Vincenzo Troubridge).

Friday 14 April 2000

Julian May: The Perseus Spur (1998)

Edition: Voyager, 1998
Review number: 481

Compared to the imaginative Galactic Milieu framework which ties together May's earlier novels, the background to The Perseus Spur is unambitious. The novel itself is accessible and enjoyable, and is basically an undemanding thriller with a science fiction setting.

The major powers in this book, the first in a series, are not governments but immense corporations, the Hundred Concerns. Even companies which are not considered important enough to become Concerns control hundreds of planets; one of these is to a large extent run by the Frost family. The central character of The Perseus Spur is Asahel Frost, who was disinherited when he chose to become an investigator for one of the few governmental organisations still in existence and who is now living life as a diving tour operator on a Caribbean style world (whose wildlife is mainly named after creatures from Jabberwocky) after being framed for corruption when his work threatened the plans of one of the Concerns.

Yet, even with his total lack of power, he still becomes the victim of a series of murder attempts which also lead to him uncovering a secret which could destroy a group of Concerns - his only problem in using it is lack of proof.

As science fiction, The Perseus Spur is old fashioned, and could mostly have been written in the fifties. I was particularly reminded of Asimov's The Stars Like Dust. It was probably fun to write, and it is certainly fun to read, but not innovative or ground breaking.

William Beckford: Vathek (1786)

Translation: Samuel Henley, 1786
Edition: Penguin, 1970
Review number: 480

William Beckford was an eccentric millionaire; his short novel Vathek is an eccentric novel. It is apparently a morality tale based on some of the stories in the Arabian Nights. It tells the story of Vathek, an imaginary descendant and successor of Caliph Haroun al Raschid. He has two passions: for decadent luxury (vast feasts, beautiful concubines) and arcane knowledge. When an evil looking Indian magician visits his court, his desire for knowledge becomes even greater when he sees something of the magical power of this man. He becomes willing to go to any lengths to discover his secrets, even abjuring Islam and sacrificing the fifty most beautiful children in his realm. However, the episode has been arranged by Mohammed to give Vathek a last chance to repent of his evildoing, and disaster awaits him when he fails to do so.

That there is more to Vathek than meets the casual glance is shown by the rather disturbing fact that Beckford identified himself with the antihero of his tale, and his cousin's wife Louisa with Vathek's consort Nouhinar, while they both saw her son as one of the sacrificial victims. This identification was one of the reasons that Vathek had a reputation among later Romantics similar to that enjoyed by Huysmans' Against Nature among late nineteenth century aesthetes. Vathek was a character who put his chosen pleasures above the humanity of those around him, and feeds directly into the Romantic movement's glorification of sensation and experience, so that it is not particularly surprising that Byron referred to it as his 'Bible'. There is of course an element of self-dramatisation in this; there can be few people willing to sacrifice fifty children for their own pleasure.

Thursday 13 April 2000

Michael Moorcock: The Knight of the Swords (1971)

Edition: Grafton, 1986
Review number: 479

The background myth of the two series Moorcock wrote about Prince Corum is that of the elves, as a noble race displaced by mankind. Corum is the last of his Vadagh race; their cultured, elegant and complacent life destroyed by the barbarous Mabden. All who remain of the elven kind are a few of the hereditary enemies of the Vadagh, degradingly enslaved by the Mabden and helping them find the remaining Vadagh for rape, murder and destruction.

Through the intervention of the bearlike, mythical Beast of Llyr, Corum escapes from Mabden torture having lost and eye and a hand. Vowing vengeance on the Mabden leader, he begins a life of adventure.

Corum is another manifestation of Moorcock's Eternal Champion, dedicating hiself to restoring the balance between Chaos and Law, destroyed when the god of the Mabden, known as the Knight of the Swords, overwhelmed the god of the Vadagh. This particular novel is a fairly straightforward adventure story, though Corum is a well realised non-human character and the atmosphere is as strongly created as in any of Moorcock's writing.

Wednesday 12 April 2000

Charles Dickens: Dombey and Son (1848)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 477

Of Dickens' early novels, Dombey and Son is perhaps most clearly shaped by the serial form in which it originally appeared, as well as the commercial pressures which made the serial a high selling format.

The story begins with the birth to Paul Dombey and his wife of a son, destined to inherit the great City firm of Dombey and Son. The whole of the novel is shaped by Paul Dombey's monomaniacal desire to bring about this inheritance. Thus the son, also named Paul, is subjected to a regime designed to bring the days of his childhood to an end as quickly as possible so that he can begin to take up his inheritance. His elder sister, Florence, is almost totally ignored by her father; she is of interest to him only as she affects Paul (who is devoted to her). Then the young Paul, never very strong, dies, and the Dombey household begins to feel the results of the machinations of John Carker, general manager of Dombey and Son, and an unscrupulous character with great ambitions.

To unpick the novel a bit, it is clear that in the young Paul, Dickens was attempting to repeat his great early success, for many years the most popular scene in any of his novels, the death of Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. The death scene here is in fact superb, avoiding much of the sentimentality which so mars the earlier version to a modern reader. It occurs just a bit before the halfway point, and very clearly splits the novel in two. Having built up to this point, the reader senses that Dickens is a little unsure what to do next. The end point to which he aims is clear enough, but it takes some time to get started again, and John Carker, introduced at about this point to motivate the second half, is never entirely convincing.

Because of the importance of Paul and of his memory, there is not really space in the novel for a conventional hero - Florence takes on part of this role - and I suspect that this was something else which gave Dickens problems.

In the end, Dombey and Son is one of the more obviously flawed of Dickens' novels, but it still contains much that is worthwhile with occasional flashes of brilliance.

Tuesday 11 April 2000

Anthony McCandless: Leap in the Dark (1981)

Edition: Collins
Review number: 478

Turmoil in Yugoslavia is nothing new. It sparked off the First World War, and was manipulated by both sides during the Second. That manipulation (at least the British part in it) is the foundation for this thriller, which has the background of the SOE sponsorship of resistance groups. As the war approached its end, several of these partisan groups realised that by eliminating their rivals they could dominate post-war Yugoslavia; the Germans would be defeated whatever they did. It was at this point that SOE switched its support from the royalist partisans to Tito's Communists.

This book is not, as many war novels are, a glorification of the heroics of SOE. It is actually about an operation sabotaged from the start: an attempt to begin an Albanian resistance movement organised by a friend of Burgess and MacLean who wants to use it as a cover to create the potential of a Communist state there. Thus the 'patriot' who is dropped is in fact carrying thousands of pounds in gold, contrary to SOE regulations. However, incompetence leads to the man landing in Yugoslavia instead of Albania, and the gold is hidden in a cache which had been used by a banker to hide a fortune in gems before the war. This is the basic set up for the novel, which is really about this cache and its various uses during the thirty years after the war.

Leap in the Dark is a distinctly above average and unusual thriller, with excitement and comedy (mainly at the expense of SOE). Well worth looking out for.

Monday 10 April 2000

Jack Higgins: The Eagle Has Landed (1975)

Edition: Pan. 1977
Review number: 475

Probably one of the best known and biggest selling thrillers of all time, The Eagle Has Landed has certainly overshadowed the rest of Jack Higgins' career. I've read several of his other novels - each of which seems to have a quoted review on the back saying that it is his best work since The Eagle Has Landed - and they're mainly third rate, not even up to the standard set by the worst parts of this one.

The story of The Eagle Has Landed concerns an attempt to kidnap Churchill during the war by a group of paratroopers dropped on the north Norfolk coast, after German intelligence learns that he is to be staying in a manor house there after making a speech in Kings Lynn. The purpose of this is to produce a propaganda victory that will shock the Allies into the negotiation of peace as the possibility of a German victory looks more and more remote.

The Eagle Has Landed succeeds because the idea is interesting, a reversal of the plot of many thrillers about British SOE style operations (such as The Guns of Navarone), and the characters are not just stereotypes, from the Norfolk villagers to the German paratroops, the IRA man and the Boer-born spy who are the ground contacts for the Germans. These last two are a nice touch, a reminder that not all those who were apparently British were patriotically devoted to the war effort. (There is also a member of the British Frei Korps, the SS regiment of renegade British troops, who is dropped with the paratroopers.) None of them are the standard characters who populate Second World War thrillers; an example of different behaviour from the norm is that the eventual failure of the plot stems from one of the paratroopers diving into the mill stream to save a child, and having his German uniform exposed (it is worn under a Polish special unit one in an attempt to get around the Geneva convention, which specifies that fighting in the uniform of the enemy is forbidden).

The novel is not without flaws, including what seem to be small errors in a generally well-researched background. The idea that such a raid would have a massive effect on the war is perhaps a little far-fetched, though its propaganda value would no doubt be huge. The final twist I find massively unconvincing; it would be impossible to explain why without giving it away. Some terms are used with an anachronistic reference, the title being an example: its resonance is principally with the Apollo moon landings. The Eagle Has Landed nevertheless remains one of the all time classics of the thriller genre, and continues to be exciting even today.

Leslie Charteris: The Brighter Buccaneer (1933)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton
Review number: 474

The Brighter Buccaneer is a collection of fifteen typical Saint short stories. These tales concentrate on Simon Templar as an avenger of those taken in by conmen, with a couple of other subjects for variety. All are entertaining, but some show signs of haste in their construction. (This is hardly surprising, considering the vast amount of material written by Charteris in the early thirties.) Most of the short stories about the Saint are trifles compared to the longer works, begin written mainly to fill up space in The Saint magazine. Still, these are very successful within their limited aims.

Paul Doherty: The Mask of Ra (1998)

Edition: Headline, 1999
Review number: 473

Many historical novelists have a period of history for which their writing seems particularly well suited. This is partly because writing a good historical novel involves a good deal of research, so that the background is most convincing when it matches a period of history the author is interested in, understands well, or has already done closely related research for previous novels. When an author moves to a different setting, the novels are often poorly executed. Paul Doherty has concentrated on medieval Europe, a setting which (because he had been a researcher in medieval English history before turning to fiction writing) he already knew well. Occasional works with other backgrounds - seventeenth century France, for example - were not as convincing.

Thus, my expectations for a Doherty novel set in the far more alien background of ancient Egypt were not high. However, The Mask of Ra turned out to be well worth reading, and I found this different background almost as convincing as that of Doherty's Hugh Corbett and Brother Athelstan series. Mind you, my knowledge of Egyptian culture is a little sketchy. I occasionally had the feeling that I was being lectured to a little to much, because Doherty expects his readers to find ancient Egypt very different from anything in their experience.

The major problem with this novel is that its main characters, Amerotke and his servant Shufoy, are too similar to Hugh Corbett and his servant in both their personalities and relationship to one another. This shows a lack of imagination on Doherty's part, which really should have been avoided, particularly considering that many of the readers of this novel will have read some of the other series.

Ford Madox Ford: The Good Soldier (1915)

Edition: Bodley Head, 1971
Review number: 476

This unusual novel is told using all the artistry at the author's disposal to make it appear to the reader that it is written without any artistry, as though it is a transcription of a reminiscence told rather discursively to an old friend. In subject, it is like a Henry James story, told in a less artificial manner.

Ford's story is about two couples, the narrator (unnamed) and Florence, Edward and Leonora, who meet annually at a German spa town. The narrator fails to realise what is happening for many years, until after Edward kills himself he is told that Edward and Florence had an affair which ended when Florence herself committed suicide after it had been revealed that she had had a previous affair. At the time, the narrator had thought that her death was heart failure, as a heart condition was the reason that they had come to the spa in the first place. Leonora, who knew the truth, had worked hard to prevent him from discovering it.

The novel is a psychological study of four people, told by one who is (deliberately) not a psychologist, who has little understanding of his own motives, let alone of those of others. Deceived for so long, he was clearly not very observant and wanted to misinterpret even what he did see. The subtlety with which Ford reveals the limitations of his narrator is breathtaking. Like the works of James, this novel can seem very slow moving, because so much is concerned with the inner lives of the characters, even though the plot itself is quite melodramatic. The atmosphere is less overheated than it is in James, which makes the whole thing more believable. I suspect that Ford is rather unfashionable at the moment, but this novel should certainly survive to be rediscovered.

Friday 7 April 2000

Josephine Tey: The Man in the Queue (1953)

Edition: Pan, 1973
Review number: 472

This novel introduces detective Alan Grant, who features in several of Tey's crime stories. Like all of her novels, there is something unusual about The Man in the Queue; in this case the setting of the crime. A queue is waiting for tickets to the last performances of the phenomenally successful West End musical Didn't You Know?, but when the box office opens and the tightly packed queue begins to move, one man falls, dead, with a dagger in his back. Stabbed in front of hundreds of witnesses, but in a situation where nobody notices what has happened - and nobody knows the victim - the case is almost like a mirror image of the traditional crime novel. It is quite a challenging mystery, albeit with some features which are difficult to believe (why didn't the man cry out when stabbed?), and it is told in such a way that while we don't have complete information until the very end, we always know as much as Grant does.

Though Tey is best known for Brat Farrar and The Franchise Affair, all her crime novels are well worth reading, and The Man in the Queue is no exception.

Baroness Orczy: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 471

The Scarlet Pimpernel is undeniably one of the world's great adventure stories, its hero attaining an almost mythological status in English speaking culture; Sherlock Holmes is one of the very few fictional characters to have higher prominence. It is not the writing which has made this happen - Orczy wrote a great number of other novels which have all sunk into oblivion - but the quality of the idea of the Scarlet Pimpernel, the romance of his actions.

Orczy's flaws as a writer are fairly obvious. Her characters are two dimensional at best (the only ones in the novel that even reach this level are the Blakeneys and Chauvelin). Her prose is fairly pedestrian, particularly when descriptive. The plot is obvious; most first time readers will guess the secret identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel pages before its revelation. The historical background is one sided, presenting a view of the French Revolution which is seriously distorted. And yet, the reader is drawn in, becoming engrossed as the climactic confrontation approaches. The drama of the idea is so strong that it overcomes all the barriers to enjoyment of the novel.

Wednesday 5 April 2000

C.S. Lewis: The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1964)

Edition: Cambridge University Press, 1967
Review number: 470

C.S. Lewis introduces us to medieval and Renaissance literature by describing the medieval world view, which he calls the Model. Some parts of this will be familiar to most of those who know something of medieval history, theology or philosophy, or who have read some of the typical literature of the period. However, some of what Lewis has to say was new and illuminating even to someone like myself, fascinated with the medieval period.

The Model can perhaps be seen in its most complete form in Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica and Dante's Divine Comedy, but it informs and influences just about every work of literature from the period and continues to resonate until the seventeenth century (Lewis citing many examples of its use by Milton, for example). An explanation is given for the existence of the Model, for the overall shape it took, and for the ways it can be seen in literature (concentrating on the more obscure, more easily misunderstood or more easily overlooked references as far as modern readers are concerned).

Lewis attributes the origins of the Model are attributed to two factors: the medieval passion for orderly classification (he goes so far as to say that the modern invention most likely to be admired by a medieval thinker would be the card index), combined with the reverence for authoritative writing which means that truth was seen in even the most fantastic works of classical poetry. The first trait is in some manner present in all ages; it was one of the founding principles of modern science, for example. But symmetry was sought where it would not be expected by a modern thinker - paralleling the four elements which make up the universe with the four humours inside the body, for example. The second trait is more unusual, and can explain much about medieval culture: the liking for allegorical interpretation, for example, is useful in that it makes it possible to see underlying meanings which agree in works which disagree on the surface but which must both be true as both are authorities.

The elements which make up the Model are very varied in origin, including the Bible, the church fathers, and Greek and Roman philosophers and poets (the Greek ones mainly through Latin translations and digests). To synthesise these contradictory elements was quite an achievement in itself, and that so much supremely great literature could be inspired by it and derived from it a greater one still.

Giovanni Guareschi: The Little World of Don Camillo (1948)

Translation:  Una Vincenzo Troubridge
Edition: Gollancz
Review number: 469

Having recently been disappointed on re-reading several novels which had delighted me in the past, it was with some trepidation that I returned to the first (and best) of the collections of Don Camillo stories. The stories of the tiny village on the Po continue to delight, thankfully. Originally written as a series of satires in an Italian political magazine, the stories are still amusing even though the political events which gave birth to them are long gone - and I am fairly certain that this will not be the case with many of their modern equivalents.

Don Camillo is the priest in this small village, whose perpetual enemy is the Communist mayor Peppone. The two have a mutual respect and often get along quite well, despite their political differences. (In the late forties, the Roman Catholic church was a strongly anti-Communist political force in Italy.) The other major character is the voice of Christ, who speaks to Don Camillo from the crucifix on the altar of the village church, and effectively acts as his conscience.

Each story takes the form of some triggering event (a visit from a bishop, or Peppone's wife bringing a baby for baptism with the name Lenin, for example), which leads to conflict between priest and mayor, usually resolved because they are both good fellows at heart. The political fighting goes on because it is good fun in itself rather than the means to an end, which prevents it from becoming too serious and means that these stories have not lost their interest with the loss of relevance of the political issues that they cover. Above all, thought, it is the simple, good natured charm of the people of the village which has ensured their survival as comedy.

Tuesday 4 April 2000

William Hope Hodgson: The House on the Borderland (1908)

Edition: New English Library, 1996
Review number: 468

Of all the classics of early fantastic fiction, The House on the Borderland must rank as one of the strangest. The influences which formed it and the influence it had are much less clear cut than in its contemporaries. The afterword to this edition (by Iain Sinclair) cites the unlikely combination of John Buchan and Thomas de Quincy, among others; I was also reminded of Edgar Allan Poe and Olaf Stapledon.

Framed by a relatively conventional story about two travellers discovering a hidden manuscript while on holiday in the strange landscape of the Burren in the West of Ireland, the tale itself is a sequence of bizarre events which befall the owner of a now derelict house in the area. The grounds of this house include the quarry-like Pit, entrance to a complex system of caves. Without warning, the house is attacked by intelligent yet bestial creatures from the Pit. When the attack is beaten off, the house itself travels in time, the writer of the manuscript experiencing, as a detached observer, the death of the Solar System and other apocalyptic events at the end of time itself before suddenly returning to his own time. The apocalyptic descriptions are among the most atmospheric in all science fiction.

Even looking at this superficial summary, The House on the Borderland is a strange book, but it is possible to read far more into it. The other inhabitants of the house are the writer's sister and housekeeper, and there are indications that the events he records could be hallucinations brought on by guilt over an incestuous affair (the extreme and unexplained fear that his sister exhibits towards him after the attack of the swine beasts - a personification of the uncontrolled side of his nature? - for example). Then there is the similarity between the visions experienced by the writer and those caused by hallucinatory drugs, though there is no direct evidence for drug taking in the narrative. (This perhaps accounts for the great interest in the novel during the sixties.)

It is rare for a short novel to suggest so much so vividly, and this is why it is a classic. As a horror story, it has been eclipsed by later writers, but as a tale of the fantastic, of the borderlands between the inner and outer worlds, it remains effective.