Tuesday 30 May 2000

Michael Moorcock: The King of the Swords (1972)

Edition: Grafton, 1986
Review number: 514

The last of the Swords of Corum trilogy is very similar to the last of Hawkmoon's adventures in The Quest for Tanelorn. Corum, last of the Vadagh race, faces a renewed attack by the Chaos gods, led by Mabelode, King of the Swords, brother of the less powerful gods destroyed by Corum in the earlier books of the trilogy. This time the attack, again mediated by the barbaric Earl Glandyth, is more subtle, involving sorcery rather than military force. His minions have created a potion which causes distrust and dissension, so that those affected by it destroy each other.

Battling the tensions this psychoactive gas causes within their party, Corum, his wife Rhalina and their friend Jhary set out on a quest to destroy Mabelode, which they soon discover is only possible after Corum travels to Tanelorn with two other aspects of the Eternal Champion to perform a task at the Conjunction of a Million Spheres, an event which can affect every one of the infinite number of parallel worlds.

The joining together of different versions of the Eternal Champion in a quest for Tanelorn is exactly the same as the Dorian Hawkmoon plot. The atmosphere of The King of the Swords is as strong as in any of Moorcock's novels, it just has a re-used plot. (This is, of course, part of the point of the idea of the Eternal Champion; it does, however, rather reduce the interest of this novel.)

John dos Passos: The 42nd Parallel (1930)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 515

The first novel of the famous USA trilogy presents a picture of that country from the beginning of the century until 1917, when the US declared war on Germany. (The trilogy as a whole continues until the early 1930s.) In these novels, dos Passos created a new literary style, frequently admired if rarely imitated, in which documentary style clips are used to create background, to relate the characters to political and economic events and to make the novel seem to be a panoramic picture of the state of the nation.

Each section of the novel is divided into recurring pieces. The longest piece of each section forms the main story, and is basically a narrative about one of the main characters. Then there are newsreel sections, which contain headlines and clips from newspapers, often fragments of sentences as though what you read is an impression gained from flicking through a paper very quickly. There are also pieces summarising the lives of men and women who had a formative influence on their times, such as Thomas Edison. The most interesting pieces, though most difficult to take in, are the 'Camera Eye' narratives, which are also fragmented, and are basically stream of consciousness style snippets of description grouped together more or less randomly.

The end product of reading this novel is a feeling of atmosphere. The plot is not important (and, indeed, practically non-existent); characters may be well drawn, but their purpose is to illustrate the times in which they live. The way that the novel is put together is so clever that it can achieve this without using reams of description. The major problem is in the newsreel sections, because the material selected there presupposes a fair amount of knowledge of American politics in the first few years of the century. Headlines are not helpful in creating an atmosphere if you have never heard of any of the people mentioned.

Of the imitators of this trilogy, both the most successful and the one who has followed dos Passos most slavishly is John Brunner, in his series of dystopias. He has actually used what he has taken from the USA trilogy in a more fundamental way. Because he was writing science fiction, the whole background had to be invented, and Brunner used the documentary portions to establish parts of that background (such as slang expressions, bits and pieces of future mass media) picked up on in the later narrative portions.

The 42nd Parallel is more an extremely extended description than a novel in any traditional sense; its sections do not lead anywhere in particular, and the lack of plot means that the various characters are not integrated for any purpose (some of them meet, but that is all).

Friday 26 May 2000

Paul Feyerabend: Farewell to Reason (1987)

Edition: Verso, 1987
Review number: 513

Farewell to Reason is a collection of essays on the subject of relativism. Though they were rewritten for inclusion in this volume, their independent origin still shows in a certain repetitiveness and in disparity of content - some are far more concentrated on a single theme than others (for example, some are criticisms of particular writers).

The essays pick on the same kinds of targets as Feyerabend's book Against Method, and attack the idea that science is a unified whole, with a single overriding method. Karl Popper is singled out for criticism, but much of what is said would apply to anyone who contrasts "scientific thinking" with other modes of thought (this is usually done do dismiss religious ideas).

Most of the criticisms that can be made of Against Method are also appropriate here. The rhetorical style of Feyerabend's argument, his use of Galileo as a paradigm of scientific method, and the use of counter examples from areas not always regarded as scientific such as economics are faults common to both. The essay form adds new problems, and some parts do not fit into the whole terribly well (notably the discussion of Aristotle's philosophy of mathematics, though it is interesting in itself). Neither Popper nor Feyerabend seem terribly convincing to me; while it is obvious that not all scientific thought is uniform, most practising scientists have quite similar ideas about what they are trying to do. These differ in details (such as the precise relationship between theory, experiment and whatever may count as underlying reality), but then philosophy does not interest many and certainly there are few who would let it affect their work.

The most interesting new point is part of the essay on Galileo and the church, in which Feyerabend parallels the attitude of Catholic cardinals then and the scientific establishment today. As the money and administrative side of scientific research grow every larger, it is more and more difficult to be a (successful, rather than starving) iconoclast. For science to have a religious orthodoxy of this kind is a bad thing, and we need people like Feyerabend to continually attack its genesis.

Thursday 25 May 2000

Ann Granger: Running Scared (1998)

Edition: Headline, 1998
Review number: 512

The third Fran Varady novel continues with the themes which shaped the first two. Fran is currently working with her friend Ganesh in his uncle's corner shop. She becomes involved with crime once again when a man staggers into the shop, having managed to escape from a car in which he was being abducted. She does not immediately connect the discovery of an envelope containing a set of photographic negatives with this man, until his body turns up on the doorstep of her flat. Then she realises that this envelope is what the kidnappers were after, and that she and Ganesh are in a lot of danger.

With the discovery of the body, the police of necessity become involved, and the distrustful relationship between them and Fran has not changed. She continues to have friends among the homeless, and the them the police have always been objects of fear.

Fran is an interesting character, and the background of these novels is rather different from the vast majority of detective novels. I suspect that the series will continue to entertain for some time to come.

Wednesday 24 May 2000

Anthony Powell: Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975)

Edition: Heinemann, 1975
Review number: 511

The final part of A Dance to the Music of Time concentrates on what has been an occasional theme until now, esoteric religion, as several characters become involved in what would probably today be described as a New Age cult. Most of the remaining long running characters (including the narrator, Nick Jenkins) are now in their sixties or seventies, and the title refers to both these elements - it is part of a quotation about being affected by mysticism ("hearing secret harmonies" of the universe) before death.

Aside from the final downfall of Kenneth Widmerpool, as his exhibitionist and masochistic side completely takes over his personality, there is little of interest in this novel, a fitting end to a series which has never seemed as good to me as enthusiastic endorsements of its stature by critics suggested. The whole collection is flawed by the colourless, neutral narrator; if it was intended to be naturalistic, we should surely be able to see how he has coloured his narrative with his own personality. The plot of the series as a whole is ludicrous, consisting mainly of a series of coincidences to reintroduce familiar characters. French novelists, notably Balzac and Proust, seem to do this gallery of human life idea far better.

Terry Pratchett: Carpe Juggulum (1998)

Edition: Doubleday, 1998
Review number: 510

The Discworld novels now have separate groups of characters, who each inhabit their own novels: the wizards of the Unseen University, the guards of Ankh-Morporkh, Death, and, as here, the witches of Lancre. Magrat having given up being one of the coven to become queen, she is replaced by Agnes Nitt, who is basically a caricature of the plump, unpopular teenage girl, and who in addition has an inner voice, the pushy Perdita - because of the saying that inside every fat girl there's a thin one struggling to get out.

The enemies they face are vampires, nobles from a neighbouring country invited - usefully for them - to the christening of Magrat's daughter. They see this as an opportunity to take over the kingdom of Lancre, a new source of food. They are slightly different from traditional vampires; seeking to modernise themselves, they have forcibly acclimatised themselves to sunlight (at least on dull days), religious symbols, and garlic.

This story is actually quite exciting as well as amusing. The novel is one of the best Discworld novels, full of the trademark Pratchett humour (funnier than in some of the series) - I particularly liked the idea of vampire watermelons, which such back.

Tuesday 23 May 2000

Alexander Kent: Sloop of War (1972)

Edition: Hutchinson & Co, 1972
Review number: 509

This early Richard Bolitho novel covers his actions during the American War of Independence, which coincides with his first independent command. In this tale of general military incompetence by the army command, Bolitho of course shows his own brilliance. This is frequently at the expense of his superiors, as is commonplace in this type of novel, and in this case he shows such obvious superiority that a higher ranking officer perjures himself at his own court martial in an attempt to destroy Bolitho's career.

Kent's Bolitho novels are fun to read, but he contents himself with always fitting into the stereotypes created by C.S. Forester. Hornblower was such a strong character that Forester's successors are hard put to write anything original that will appeal to his fans and yet be different enough to establish their own voices.

Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (1861)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 508

Great Expectations is one of Dickens' shortest and best known novels, nine-tenths of it is also one of his best. The elements that made Dickens famous are all here with the exception (to a great extent) of social commentary. A young boy grows up in an atmospheric environment (the bleaker parts of the Kent countryside); he becomes involved with strange grotesque characters. It is perhaps rather more aimless than most of Dickens' novels; rather than achieving happiness through his own exertions, Pip has little to do except to be idle and expensive once adopted by an unknown benefactor.

The important character in the book is not its nominal hero, but one of the grotesques, who are not usually allowed more than a cameo role by Dickens. Miss Havisham dominates most of the book, by her patronage of Pip (real and imagined) and Pip's love for her protegé Estella. It is from the point of her death that Dickens seems to lose interest in the novel, wrapping the whole thing up in a few unsatisfying chapters. She is such a wonderful character that Dickens' fascination with her is easy to understand. Twisted by having been left at the altar, she has kept her house exactly as it was on the day of the wedding, with years of decay turning Satis House into a Gothic mausoleum, even the wedding breakfast being allowed to rot where it sits. She has brought up Estella to be the means of her revenge on the male sex - fascinating but heartless.

Monday 22 May 2000

E.C. Bentley: Trent's Last Case (1913)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1995
Review number: 507

Despite the title, Trent's Last Case was the first of Bentley's novels featuring Philip Trent, a detective conceived as a deliberate contrast to Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is a collection of eccentricities, part of a line of fictional detectives whose mannerisms are more important than their characters; Hercule Poirot is another example. Trent was intended to be more realistic; a man with more or less normal tastes, who was even allowed to be fallible.

This particular edition touts the book as the beginning of the "Golden Age" of English crime writing, though I would myself feel that the phrase is so strongly associated with Agatha Christie that the true beginning must be The Mysterious Affair at Styles a few years later. Though Bentley's work is far superior in literary merit, and particularly on characterisation, it was Christie who really caught the public imagination. Bentley is still a pre-First World War writer, with attitudes and ideas which fit in with writers like G.K. Chesterton (a close friend, and dedicatee of Trent's Last Case) and John Buchan. The genteel, ordered, and, above all, just world of the crime novel which struck a chord with readers after that war was evoked more strongly by Christie because she was writing from a nostalgic point of view about a world that had effectively vanished, while Bentley was still living in it.

The plot of Trent's Last Case retains some of the elements of the Holmesian world: the victim is an American financier (conforming to the brutal and uncultured stereotype of the ruthless self-made man), and among the suspects lies a lurid world of labour secret societies, akin to several created by Conan Doyle. The other suspects are his secretaries, his wife and her uncle, and the servants. There are many strange facets to the case, the most obvious being the odd fact that which a man should be killed missing his false teeth yet carefully dressed.

Though the plot is ingenious, it takes second place to the characters, especially once Trent discovers himself strongly attracted to Mrs Manderson. It is because Philip Trent is an interesting man that the reader continues; the plot itself is rather unsatisfactory by later standards. There are other flaws as far as a modern reader is concerned, such as the casual anti-Semitism and the calm assumption that British culture is superior to all others.

Friday 19 May 2000

Graham Greene: The Heart of the Matter (1948)

Edition: Penguin, 1991
Review number: 506

West Africa in the Second World War was probably more remote from the rest of the world than at any time this century, a time when the war in the Atlantic made travel by ship extremely dangerous. European colonial staff in the area always felt isolated, and this feeling was increased by the war. It is this loneliness which forms the background to Graham Greene's novel, and it is heightened by attributes which separate the central character even from those of a similar background. Scobie is a senior policeman and a Catholic, as well as having a reputation for an unusually strong resistance to corruption; none of these qualities serve to make him popular amongst the other administrators in the British colony.

Duty is the central factor in Scobie's life: duty to his job, duty to his wife. Since his daughter died, there is little else left to him. Then he is passed over as a replacement for the retiring Commissioner of Police in favour of a younger man, and his wife starts to find remaining in the colony insupportable. He is able to arrange a passage to more cosmopolitan South Africa to give her some respite, but this means that he has to become indebted to one of the corrupt Syrian traders in the colony.. This begins his disintegration, which continues when he meets Helen Rolt, a refugee from a shipwreck, and begins an affair.

Interestingly, the more things go badly for Scobie and the further he puts himself from the church, the stronger his faith as a Catholic becomes. Despite believing himself damned as an adulterer, he is unable to break off the affair. Yet he had originally joined the church only because he wanted to marry a Catholic.

The Heart of the Matter is about loneliness: a lonely man in a lonely place, cut off by his religion from the only love he has experienced since the death of his daughter (which, though not part of the novel, is the defining moment of Scobie's life). As loneliness and alienation play an important part in modern life, The Heart of the Matter is truly a novel for our times.

Thursday 18 May 2000

Anthony Hope: Rupert of Hentzau (1898)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 505

The sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda usually seems to be printed along with it; there are many novels longer than these two put together. Some years elapse between the two, which Rudolf Rassendyll spends in England while Flavia, now married to the King of Ruritania whose place Rudolf had taken, continues to love him from a distance. Each year she sends a single red rose to him, as a token of her continued love. Eventually, as her husband becomes more insanely jealous of the man he realises to be better than he is, she realises that things cannot continue, and sends a letter with the most recent rose saying that contact will no longer be possible. Unfortunately, this is the year in which Rupert of Hentzau, the one surviving member of the gang which originally kidnapped the king, manages to intercept the letter. Thus Rudolf has to return to Ruritania, in a desperate attempt to regain the letter before Rupert can show it to the king and destroy the queen's honour.

The whole novel is far more melancholy than its predecessor; there is nothing lighthearted about the adventure this time around. The whole thing builds up to a finish which seems designed to prevent any further sequels, and which provides a wrench to the reader that is most unusual in a thriller.

Wednesday 17 May 2000

Stephen Donaldson: Reave the Just (1998)

Edition: Voyager, 1998
Review number: 504

After enjoying the Thomas Covenant and Mordant's Need novels, and then finding the Gap series unreadable, I wasn't quite sure whether Reave the Just would be worth reading or not. Having read it, I now feel that some of the stories were worth reading, others not, much like Donaldson's only other collection of short stories, Daughter of Regals.

All the stories, written over a fourteen year period, pick up on the major theme of Donaldson's writing - the freedom to choose and the physical or metaphorical rape that is its removal. It is a fruitful theme, as the different ways that Donaldson has tackled it in his career testify, but its continued presence in his work is sometimes rather disturbing. The ironic theme of what is real is less obvious than in his early writing, though it remains there - in the way in which a tale shapes events in the title story, for example.

Most of the stories have something that grabs the reader, though they are of variable quality. Interestingly, the title story was among those I liked least. A major problem is that Donaldson is incurably prolix, a flaw which mars his novels - though to a lesser extent in the longer form. Some of these "short" stories are over seventy pages in length and yet cry out for shortening (one of the biggest culprits, with a particularly loose structure, is The Killing Stroke, a story which could be described in a short phrase as a homage to martial arts films).

Tuesday 16 May 2000

Mary Stewart: Thunder on the Right (1957)

Edition: Coronet, 1992
Review number: 503

Typical of Stewart's thrillers, portraying a young woman uncovering a plot in a glamorous location, Thunder on the Right is perhaps not one of her best novels, but it is still well worth reading.

Jennifer Silver, an English artist, travels to a remote village in the Pyrenees to visit her half-French cousin, who is thinking about retiring to a nunnery in the area. However, when she arrives at the Valle des Orages, Jennifer is told that Gillian is dead following a car crash, and is shown a grave being decorated with the gentians she loved. Jennifer is confused by this, as her cousin was colour blind and would never have commented on the blue of the flowers, and she gradually becomes convinced that the dead woman is not her cousin - and therefore that Gillian has disappeared.

The story is complicated by a romantic subplot almost identical to that of Stewart's previous novel, Wildfire at Midnight. Jennifer's father has sent a suitor that he approves of (though her mother does not) to the village without her knowledge. This repetition of ideas from earlier novels is the major flaw of Thunder on the Right; these devices were far fresher the first time around.

Leslie Charteris: Boodle (1934)

Alternative title: The Saint Intervenes
Edition: Pan, 1951
Review number: 502

This collection of short stories is not among the best of the Saint books. None of the thirteen stories have anything particularly unexpected or interesting about them, though as a whole they have rather less action than usual, with Simon Templar more an investigator.

The best of this rather forgettable collection is probably The Man Who Liked Toys, in which Templar and Chief Inspector Teal team up to investigate the death of a financier. Two of the stories, as a minor point of interest, involve that now obscure part of aviation history, the then fashionable autogiro.

Monday 15 May 2000

John le Carré: A Small Town in Germany (1968)

Edition: Pan, 1970
Review number: 501

Continuing the bleak atmosphere of his earlier novels, John le Carré produced A Small Town in Germany, which looks forward from the political, social and economic world of the late sixties in as pessimistic a manner as possible. (There are few clues for a reader today not familiar with early seventies European politics to mark this novel out as set in the future; it is only the publication date which places it before such events as the three day week.)

Set in Bonn (the small town of the title) at a time when neo-Naxis are agitating against the English while the UK is canvassing for West German support for their application for EEC membership, the novel focuses on the search for an absconding defector from the British Embassy. Alan Turner, sent out from Whitehall to investigate, almost delights in upsetting people, uncovering unpleasant secrets and generally making himself unwelcome; yet in this atmosphere of deceit where face is everything, he has little alternative if his investigation is to get anywhere.

The general tone of the novel is one of extreme disillusionment, as exemplified by one character's declaration that he believes in hypocrisy, as the closest anyone can get to virtue these days.

Friday 12 May 2000

Baroness Orczy: The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1922)

Edition: Thames Publishing Co., 1960
Review number: 500

Though better than I Will Repay, The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel is far inferior to The Scarlet Pimpernel. The cloying romantic side of I Will Repay is omitted, yet the story is less interesting and less exciting than the first novel. Like the other Scarlet Pimpernel novels The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel presents a one sided view of revolutionary France, and here it is even less balanced than before. Almost every sentence is tinged with contempt for the poor of Paris, and those who ruled France are demonised to such an extent that it is difficult to see why anyone would have supported their rise to power. (However, to be fair to Orczy, there are many contemporary and near contemporary views of the Nazis or Saddam Hussein which equally remove any trace of humanity from them - people are more complicated than makes for simple stereotypes!) I would not want to condone their actions, but I do feel that no one can be pure evil.

Thursday 11 May 2000

Choderlos de Laclos: Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782)

Translation: P.W.K. Stone, 1961
Edition: Penguin, 1961
Review number: 499

Long one of the most notorious of all French novels, Les Liaisons Dangereuses seems to have exerted quite a fascination in recent years, with three film versions (the updated Cruel Intentions, Valmont and Dangerous Liaisons). The idea of cynical manipulation at the heart of the novel perhaps resonates with Westerners in this age of distrusted mass media, making the interest of Hollywood studios somewhat ironic.

The plot of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is simple. The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are debauched late eighteenth century French aristocrats, and for their amusement Valmont seeks to corrupt the virtuous and devout Presidente de Tourvel (her title derived from her husband's appointment in French provincial government).

The reason that the book was considered immoral is because it was felt that the bad are insufficiently punished (less was said about the good going unrewarded) and that the avowed intent of the author (to teach others to avoid the snares set by those like Merteuil and Valmont) is really a joke. Neither of these criticisms are likely to pose much of a barrier to the modern reader, and the brittle cynicism of many of the letters (it is an extremely well constructed epistolary novel) is more likely to sadden than to shock.

Of all the well known epistolary novels, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is probably the one which pays most attention to the ways in which real people actually write. The temptation when writing in this form is to get carried away by the story, and write letters which are far too long or too concentrated on one subject, that which advances the plot. The letters here are of a variety of lenghs, none too long to be written in a hour or so, and touch on other subjects (though all are relevant to the main plot).

The translation is eminently readable and enjoyable.

Giovanni Guareschi: Don Camillo's Dilemma (1954)

Translation: Frances Frenaye, 1954
Edition: Gollancz, 1954
Review number: 498

While the later collections of Guareschi's tales of the little world of Don Camillo never quite match the freshness of the first one, Don Camillo's Dilemma is one of the best of them. The politics are rather more clearly apparent, and despite the words given to Christ saying that he is part of no political party it is clear where Guareschi's own sympathies lie - almost all the stories end with the triumph of the church over (some, at least) of the Communists of the village. The villagers still want children baptised, even if they don't believe in God.

The delight of these stories is the naive and sincere nature of the villagers, which can easily become a pleasure derived from a smug feeling of comparative sophistication. Guareschi has too much respect for his characters to allow this to happen, and so the enjoyment the stories produce is tinged by a slight regret for something that we have lost.

Wednesday 10 May 2000

Ethan Canin: For Kings and Planets (1998)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 1999
Review number: 497

For Kings and Planets is a novel about two friends, from the date that they meet at Columbia University through the next ten years as their lives diverge. Though the tale is entirely realist, it is hard not to feel that the two of them symbolise different parts of the personality, Marshall the neurotic and brilliant, Orno the staid and down to earth.

In terms of plot, the novel is fairly predictable and perhaps a little complacent in its acceptance of the small town American way of life as an ideal. The central characters are the important feature of the book, though; what happens to them is almost irrelevant. They are perhaps not as three dimensional as they need to be to hold this level of interest (and this probably explains why they seem to be more symbols of something other than themselves), but they are reasonably compelling within their limitations.

While charming, For Kings and Planets lacks the wider significance it sometimes seems to think it has.

Orson Scott Card: Journeyman Alvin (1995)

Edition: Tor, 1995
Review number: 496

After a gap of a few years, Card has continued this series, one of my favourites of the fantasy genre. It is set in a fascinating alternate history USA in which much of the country remains in the hands of the colonial powers, and where magic is relatively commonplace.

Alvin Journeyman picks up the story of Alvin (usually referred to as Smith or Maker, from his occupation and magical gifting respectively) where the previous books left off, and carries the story through the setbacks he experiences trying to teach something of his magic art to others, so that together they can build the Crystal City that Alvin has seen in visions. These setbacks include the enmity of his jealous brother Calvin, hysterical accusations from a besotted teenage girl, and a legal suit from the smith he served as apprentice.

The major characters continue to develop, though their over polarised nature (too much black and white) is a flaw of this novel as it was of its predecessors. The characters interact believably, and the climactic trial is well prepared. The backwoods American background, with the interesting twist provided by the alternate historical elements, is as convincing as ever. Alvin Journeyman is a fine addition to the series.

Tuesday 9 May 2000

Josephine Tey: A Shilling for Candles (1953)

Edition: Pan, 1959
Review number: 495

One of the most conventional of all the crime novels written by Josephine Tey, A Shilling for Candles is a straightforward mystery. Inspector Grant is investigating the death by drowning of film star Christine Clay, which would seem to be suicide except for signs that she struggled. The case is interesting for the way in which everyone knows who Christine is, but hardly anyone knows anything much about her.

The plot is very well put together (though it requires unnecessary coincidences to widen the field of potential suspects), the characters interesting and their psychology convincing, but the brilliance of most of her other novels is missing.

Monday 8 May 2000

Michael Innes: The Long Farewell (1958)

Edition: Gollancz, 1975
Review number: 494

When flamboyant Lewis Packford is found dead after a pistol shot is heard, it is assumed that he has committed suicide - after all, he has just been exposed as a bigamist. But unanswered questions remain, and Sir John Appleby starts to investigate. ("The long farewell" is a phrase from Cardinal Wolsey's retirement speech in Shakespeare's Henry VIII, rather than an oblique Raymond Chandler reference, and it is its appearance on a note makes Packford's death seem to be suicide.)

As a detective story, there seem to be distinct holes in the plot, notably that Appleby ignores what seems to me the most obvious lead, the anonymous notes sent simultaneously to Packford's wives to get them to turn up at his house (which has the rather pleasing name of Urchins) at the appropriate moment.

Nevertheless, The Long Farewell is enjoyable, with an interesting background in the more eccentric fringes of Shakespeare scholarship.

Friday 5 May 2000

Molière: The Learned Ladies (1672)

Translation: A.R. Waller (1907); updated by Steven Pimlott & Colin Chambers (1996)
Edition: Nick Hern, 1996
Review number: 493

Molière's last but one play is not among his best known and is perhaps unlikely to become so given its subject (the absurdity of women pretending to philosophical knowledge - though it could easily be present as an attack on those in general who pretend to be learned). As the type of knowledge which is associated with intelligence has also changed (from Greek and Latin to science), it may also seem to a modern audience to attack its target rather obliquely. (Mind you, it would be easy to write a modern version of this play using the kind of rubbish people often talk about science.)

Another reason why this play is less well known is that in many ways it is very similar to the harder hitting Tartuffe: both plays are about hypocrites whom one parent wants to force a daughter to marry rather than the eminently suitable young man that she loves. The hypocrisy is of a different kind, pretending to excellence as a poet rather than religious piety (and the poetry he produces is a parody of some by Molière's enemy Abbé Coth). The Learned Ladies is in parts very funny, and has some interesting characters. (I liked the elder daughter Armande, who rejected her lover for the pure life of philosophy only to become piqued with jealousy when he transfers his attentions to her sister.)

The translation is excellent, written in accordance with a theory that the best way to achieve a similar feel to the original's for a native speaker is to make the translation an imitation of a similar writer in the new language. In this case, Waller chose Sheridan as the model, and has produced an excellent version in his style. The updating has removed any old fashioned phrases (I noticed none); my only quibble is that I don't think that Sheridan is all that like Molière. In particular, I feel that the commedia tradition was far more important to and present in the work of the French author.

Thursday 4 May 2000

Michael Moorcock: The Queen of the Swords (1971)

Edition: Grafton, 1986
Review number: 492

The Queen of the Swords, the second of Moorcock's Corum series, is a similar story to the first. The Chaos-led Mabden are once again undertaking an invasion threatening Corum and those he loves. This is again inspired by one of the gods of Chaos, seeking to overcome toe forces of Law in Corum's world (in this case Xiombarg, Queen of the Swords and sister of Arioch, killed by Corum in the first book of the series).

Though Corum and his beloved Rhalina find new allies in this book, what really matters is the combat between Corum as manifestation of the Eternal Champion and the forces of Chaos, which here included a Chaotic equivalent of the Eternal Champion. The major new character is the Champion's companion, Jhary a-Conel, who makes his first entry into this series though he had already appeared elsewhere (in the Runestaff novels, for instance). The most interesting part of the novel is the journey undertaken by Corum, Rhalina and Jhary through the realms ruled by Xiombarg, where the triumph of Chaos has been so extensive that not only have normal physical laws been set aside but the creativity that is the positive side of Chaos has exhausted itself (needing to be rooted in the order of Law). This series sees the dichotomy between Chaos and Law which strongly interested Moorcock in the seventies perhaps most fully worked out, in a traditional swords and sorcery style setting.

J.M.Roberts: The Pelican History of the World (1976)

Edition: Penguin, 1980
Review number: 491

At the end of the twentieth century, there seems to be a vogue for celebrating the end of the second millennium AD with universal histories of the sort which had been rather out of fashion for some years. This particular work appeared at the time when they were unfashionable, the Pelican version being slightly updated from one printed by Hutchinson a few years earlier with many maps (reduced in number for this edition to keep costs down).

Judging by what I have seen of these millennial histories, The Pelican History of the World gains a great deal by not being sumptuously illustrated, by not aiming to be the only history book ever bought by its readers (to use, in many cases, this term loosely).

Another virtue making it a history which gives a more natural view of the past if not fitting it so well as a reference book, is that Roberts has chosen (deliberately, as he points out in the conclusion) to refrain from sorting events into specific time periods; each chapter deals with a particular aspect of the past, and carries the story through to what seems to be a sensible point in relation to the subject of that chapter rather than to any chronological division arbitrarily imposed across the board. (This is, of course, a particular feature of many of the history books marketed around the idea of the Millennium, most of which are divided by century.)

The value of books like this one to someone interested in history is to provide a wide context to areas of more detailed knowledge. I have, for example, a particular liking for medieval history, and I would not turn to this book for a history of the medieval West, but for information on other periods and areas (particularly China and India) Roberts provides interesting background. He certainly has the ability to select and summarise, even in the most recent periods covered. (Looking back from 2000 to the seventies, you might expect to have a different idea of what was significant, but the only obvious factor missing is any inkling of the economic problems which would eventually bring about the downfall of Soviet Communism - Roberts even manages to point to a growing interest in environmental concerns.)

Evelyn Waugh: A Handful of Dust (1934)

Edition: Chapman & Hall, 1964
Review number: 490

While most of Evelyn Waugh's novels - at least the ones I have read - are humorous with a melancholy side, A Handful of Dust is melancholy with some humour. It is expanded from a short story, The Man Who Liked Dickens, set in the jungle on the borders of British Guiana and Brazil, and is an explanation of what has driven Tony Last to that jungle.

The beginning of this is when boredom drives Tony's wife, tired of country living in the austerity of the early thirties, to have an affair. Tony has no idea what is happening until the death of their only child, in a hunting accident, leads Brenda to announce that she is leaving him. Much of the comedy in the novel occurs here, at its blackest point, when Tony tries to do the honourable thing and give grounds for divorce to protect Brenda from having her affair dragged through the courts.

I prefer Waugh in less sombre mood, and found most of the characters in this novel insufficiently likeable to have really enjoyed it.

Waugh was unable to reprint the short story in the United States, presumably for copyright reasons, and so wrote a new ending, which meant that the American edition bore no trace of the original starting point of the novel. It is reprinted here as an alternative ending, an interesting curiosity.

Wednesday 3 May 2000

Anthony Hope: The Prisoner of Zenda (1894)

Edition: Heron, 1970
Review number: 487

Like the Scarlet Pimpernel, the background of The Prisoner of Zenda has become part of our mythology. The term 'Ruritanian' has entered the English language; the novel has been copied, updated (Robert Heinlein's Double Star sets it on Mars) and parodied (George MacDonald Fraser's Royal Flash). It is immensely better written than The Scarlet Pimpernel and than most of the thrillers it inspired (of which the best are by John Buchan and Dornford Yates). Its plot is of course ludicrous, and its conception of politics is backward rather than forward looking. (This is deliberate; Hope also wrote relatively sophisticated political novels in imitation of Trollope.)

Rudolf Rassendyll, idle member of the English nobility, bears a remarkable resemblance to the king of the central European state of Ruritania, the legacy of an indiscretion between an earlier Ruritanian king and Rassendyll's great grandmother. Thinking to have a bit of fun by being present at his cousin's coronation, he sets out for the Ruritanian capital, Strelsau. He falls into the company of the king as he is hunting near Zenda, stronghold of the king's half brother Black Michael, but when Michael abducts the him, Rassendyll is pushed into impersonating the king at the coronation.

Hope tells his implausible tale at breakneck speed, as Rassendyll gets dragged into his impersonation. Using fewer than one hundred and fifty pages, there is little room for anything beyond description of events and characterisation of the narrator, Rassendyll himself. Occasionally, things become a trifle confused (the attack on the castle of Zenda at the end), but this is actually made a positive feature, emphasising just how much events have got out of control.

Guy Wheeler: Cato's War (1974)

Edition: Collins
Review number: 489

A rather disappointing realisation of quite an unusual idea, Cato's War seeks to provide a different viewpoint of the American War of Independence than is usually told, either in fiction or non-fiction. As Wheeler points out, British writers have tended to ignore the war totally, while Americans want to mythologise it, to pretend (for example) that none of the colonists fought for the British and, even more, that the groups of bandits looting from both sides did not exist.

Wheeler's novel follows one Colonel Cato, sent out to join General Cornwallis with the objective suggested by the commander of British forces, General Clinton, of raising a militia of loyalists in Virginia. The real reason that Clinton wants another officer from London is so that he can have a spy on Cornwallis, whom he does not trust, but Cato refuses to do this. This situation is part of Wheeler's thesis, which is that the war was brought about by stupidity in London and lost by the British through incompetence and division in their command. This is perhaps a reasonable analysis of the situation, but it is probably far easier to see in retrospect than was at all clear at the time (despite the words - which really amount to political speeches, often at rather unlikely moments - put into the mouths of several characters).

The preachy dialogue is one of several unconvincing aspects of Cato's War. Others include non-characters - different people are hardly differentiated from each other, with the exception of the brutal deserter Cook - and a far too sketchily realised historical background. (This includes such anachronisms as a 1970s reaction to adultery - accepted by all and even welcomed by the woman's relations.) The novel never really succeeds as a novel, and is one of those whose ideas are much more interesting than any other aspect.

Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Mars (1992)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1992
Review number: 488

Stories about the colonisation of the other planets in the solar system have long been among the staples of the science fiction genre. Robinson has created a compelling update of this theme, which has been comparatively unfashionable in recent years - as it has become more apparent just how hostile to Earth's lifeforms the other planets will be. Robinson's Mars is the lifeless, frozen desert revealed by space probes; the problems faced by the initial colonists (the "First Hundred") are those of survival in an environment far more dangerous than Antarctica, rather than relations with natives (as has frequently been the theme of earlier novels of Martian and Venusian colonisation).

Earlier writers used their colonisation stories to highlight concerns about social issues important to them which seemed relevant to their theme - imperialism, revolution in former colonies, civil rights. Robinson does much the same, with a different set of issues: environmental over-exploitation, the power of multinational corporations and over-greedy capitalism, the way that developed countries act as predators on the third world (the word is used by Robinson).

The story of the first colonists, from their training session in Antarctica to the space flight itself to conflicts between different ideologies among the First Hundred and back on Earth leading to sabotage and unrest, is told as a series of quite lengthy independent episodes which concentrate on about ten of the Hundred. These characters, obviously created to represent different political and social viewpoints, are well drawn, all of them imperfect, most sympathetic.

Robinson benefits both from today's greater knowledge about Mars - even in the seventies, stories were still being written in which human beings could survive unprotected on the surface for periods of several minutes - and from more detailed ideas about how terraforming could be carried out. This provides a background which is convincing though pessimistic (particularly in its Malthusian analysis of Earth's society). Red Mars has deservedly become one of the best known science fiction novels of the nineties.

Monday 1 May 2000

Baroness Orczy: I Will Repay (1906)

Edition: Thames Publishing Co.
Review number: 485

In this melodramatic romance set during the French Revolution, the factor that has ensured it a measure of survival (the involvement of the Scarlet Pimpernel) is fairly incidental to the plot, as he is basically a supernatural element to bring a successful resolution in an impossible situation. It is the silliest and least realistic of the Scarlet Pimpernel novels, and it is also the one which has dated the most.

The plot is about revenge (hence the title, from Romans 12:19 paraphrasing Deuteronomy - "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord: I will repay"). Before the revolution, Paul Déroulède was wealthy enough to be accepted by aristocratic society despite his bourgeois oeigins until he is forced into a dued by the stupid Vicomte de Varny and kills his opponent. The Vicomte's father forces his devout daughter Juliette to make a solemn promise to avenge his death (even though this was honourable by the standards of the time). After the Revolution, Juliette is able to carry out this vow when she discovers that Déroulède is involved in a plot to rescue the imprisoned queen, even though she has herself fallen in love with the man supposed to be her enemy.

The ludicrous plot - almost bad enough for a third rate opera - is accompanied by a romantic style full of phrases which today seem extremely old fashioned. Sentences like "Man-like, he did not understand to the full that great and wonderful enigma which has puzzled the world since primeval times; a woman's heart" are hard to take seriously; they seem more like a deliberate parody of the worst of romantic fiction.

Leslie Charteris: The Misfortunes of Mr Teal (1934)

Alternative title: The Saint in London
Edition: Pan, 1971
Review number: 486

Another Saint book containing three stories of his adventures, and another Saint book whose original title fits its contents far better than the later on - the action may all take place in Southern England, but most of it is in fact outside London. (I suppose The Saint in the Home Counties would have sounded silly.) These stories mark something of a change in the Saint saga; at their beginning, he is returning from the States. The American influence which really starts here - with these stories also introducing long running sidekick Hoppy Uniatz - reflects Charteris' love for the US and changes Simon Templar quite quickly into a less British, more American type of hero. (This process is pretty much complete by the end of The Saint in New York, entirely set in that city, and only two books separate it from this one.)

The stories deal with typical Saint themes, though there is a stronger hint of anti-establishment feeling than there is in most of the series; his adversaries include a group of eminent politicians who were war profiteers, for example. Some aspects of the stories have dated a touch, and even with the reminder that comes in the introduction written for a series of reprints in the fifties, it is difficult to associate 'the war' (and especially a German U-boat commander) with the First rather than the Second World War.