Friday 30 June 2000

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Notes From Underground (1865)

Translation: C.J. Hogarth, adapted by A.D.P. Briggs
Edition: Everyman
Review number: 533

Notes From Underground is a strange book, probably more at home in the late twentieth century than in the mid nineteenth, which immediately precedes Dostoyevsky's great novels and which is, indeed, something of an experiment on which the psychology of those novels builds.

In structure, it appears to be some autobiographical notes written by a recluse who lives underground. The first part explains something of his philosophical outlook on life, the second recounts a discreditable incident. Like some of the central characters of the later novels, the narrator of Notes From Underground verges on the edge of madness, though he is certainly a less subtle creation than Dostoyevsky's greatest. There are autobiographical elements too, particularly in the narrator's relationship with the church.

Notes From Underground is closely related to the genre of books of personal revelation, of which the most famous example is Rousseau's Confessions. It also contains elements of parody, with a pseudo-academic footnote on the first page, and a motto of bad poetry at the head of the second part. It ridicules the ideas of the now mercifully forgotten History of Civilization in England by Thomas Buckle and contains lengthy attacks on rationalism, especially the idea that all human ills can be cured by a mathematical understanding of the intellect.

The first person description of insanity and self loathing, the psychological introspection and the apparent disconnectedness of the two parts are distinctly modern in feel, along with the throwaway ending ("This is as good a place as any to stop."). Even so, the analysis of human nature is neither as deep nor as immediate as in Dostoyevsky's great novels.

Tuesday 27 June 2000

Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest (1928)

Edition: Avenel Books, 1980
Review number: 532

Of Hammett's five completed novels, Red Harvest is the simplest. Told from the point of view of a hard boiled private detective from San Francisco, it is about a none-too-clean campaign to destroy the out of hand corruption in the town of Personville, known to those familiar with it as Poisonville.

There are a large number of murders in Red Harvest, as the narrator stirs up the various factions in the town - bootleggers, corrupt police, gangsters, politicians - to all out warfare, to reach the point where all sides are weakened and outside authority can take over.

Aside from the violence, it is the moral bankruptcy of all concerned which is the major feature of the novel. Killing breeds more killing, produces a callous indifference to the effects of murder, and sometimes an addiction to violent death.

Much of what became the stock in trade of Hammett and later thriller writers is present in Red Harvest, albeit in crude form: the tough, anti-heroic central character, the violent world of gangsters, political corruption, the beautiful woman who has an ambiguous relationship with all sides in the conflict.

Monday 26 June 2000

Lois McMaster Bujold: Mirror Dance (1994)

Edition: Pan, 1995
Review number: 531

Bujold's Vorkosigan series is very well done, rather old fashioned science fiction, with echoes of many classics of the genre from Poul Anderson's Flandry stories to George Dickson's Dorsai novels. Miles Vorkosigan, hero of the series, has previously been revealed as having a clone, created by an enemy to impersonate him for an assassination attempt on his father. In this novel, the clone (named Mark) impersonates the famous mercenary Admiral Naismith - an alter ego created by the bored Miles - to lead an expedition to free a group of clones being raised to become donors of bodies for brain transplants ordered by the super rich but morally bankrupt. Since Mark does not have the same talents as his original, the rescue fails, and leaves Miles with the task of rescuing his "brother" and his subordinates.

Like much traditional science fiction, Mirror Dance is centred around an issue, exploring aspects of the possible relationships between normally conceived individuals and clones. By extension, this relates to any individual who is seen as a chattel, and so any treatment of the subject resonates with ideas from civil rights campaigns of almost every sort - anti-slavery, anti-child labour, racial equality, feminism. Other interesting questions are raised, such as inheritance rights of clones, their relationship to the parents of the cloned individual, but these are less important to Mirror Dance than the morality of creating clones to be used as organ donors. Living in a world in which mammalian clones are already possible, such issues as these begin to seem more immediate concerns.

Though these issues are important, they are never allowed to dominate the story. Their presence is there as motivation for the characters as well as the author, but the novel is never preachy. It is suspense filled - indeed, it is almost as strongly influenced by the thriller genre as by science fiction. It may not be ground breaking or original, but it is an excellent inheritor of the traditions of the genre.

Thursday 22 June 2000

Christopher Marlowe: Doctor Faustus (c. 1590)

Edition: Nick Hern Books
Review number: 530

Compared to most plays, there is a fair amount of unknown information about Doctor Faustus. It was first performed sometime between 1589 and 1593, which doesn't really place it very surely within the obscure chronology of Marlowe's brief career as a playwright. Even the text is uncertain, the first extant edition of 1604 bearing an unknown relationship to one printed in 1601 and to another very different version. It is not uncommon for there to be multiple versions of Elizabethan plays; even Hamlet also exists in a "memorial" edition (that is, one compiled from the recollections of actors rather than written sources). In the case of Doctor Faustus, it is not known which version is earlier, or whether one is a memorial. The two are quite different, both including material not present in the other. In this edition, both versions are printed, which makes for an interesting game comparing them with each other.

The story of Doctor Faustus is a simple form of the Faust legend. Faustus sells his soul to the devil Mephistopheles in return for magical powers and occult knowledge. In this version, there is no pure Margaret to be loved and to turn Faust to redemption, and Faustus believes himself irrevocably damned at the expiry of the contract (the twenty four years of its duration being the period covered by the play). Much of the dramatic tension of the play is provided by this knowledge and Faustus' attitude towards it (sometimes fatalistic, sometimes desperate). The suggestion has been made that Doctor Faustus is an answer to the medieval mystery play, important precursor of Elizabethan drama. He gets dragged off to hell at the end instead of repenting and ascending to heaven (the standard ending to a mystery play). This experimental nature, if it is indeed the case, could be seen as evidence for an early date for the play.

The play also includes farcical slapstick scenes which have often been labelled out of place and inappropriate by commentators: Faustus travels to Rome and mocks the Pope, invisibly snatching food from him as he attempts to eat; Faustus' servant steals one of his books of magic, and makes inept attempts to cast spells. These scenes are not particularly funny on the page, but they perhaps seem to fit in better with the rest of the drama today when black humour is an important part of the late twentieth century literary scene.

The general tone of the play is serious, if not downbeat, and this is why the clown scenes can seem incongruous. The subject is clearly one which pulls the write in two directions, to the horrific fate which awaits Faustus when his contract expires on the one hand, and the revelry of him enjoying his present powers (and his servant aping these powers) on the other. Marlowe's inability to integrate these aspects of the story provide the big flaws of the play - though it does help to make it interesting.

Isabel Leighton: The Aspirin Age (1949)

Edition: Penguin, 1964
Review number: 529

A collection of essays devoted to US politics in the period 1919-42, each choosing a pivotal person or event, The Aspirin Age succeeds in painting a clear picture of a time which still affects the world today. (One of the most trends which can be seen is the move from an isolationist stance towards the current interventionist, almost imperialist, attitude to foreign affairs - and this has continued to affect millions, from Korea to Iraq.) There is a companion volume, The Age of Anxiety, devoted to British affairs.

The book succeeds because of the quality of the writing and the interest of the subjects, which range from Amy Semple Macpherson to Huey Long, from Versailles to Pearl Harbour (there is just about one essay for each year). Most of the writers are journalists who were involved in the original reporting of the events that they are writing about, and they are often quite partisan, which increases the entertainment value. (The essays on Harding and Coolidge are particularly vitriolic.) Overall, though, the presentation is less one sided and more illuminating than that given by dos Passos' USA trilogy (which I was reading at more or less the same time).

Wednesday 21 June 2000

Alexander Kent: In Gallant Company (1977)

Edition: Hutchinson & Co, 1977
Review number: 528

Although written five years later, the events of In Gallant Company come immediately before those of Sloop of War, detailing the adventures of Richard Bolitho as a naval lieutenant during the American War of Independence.

In Gallant Company is extremely typical of the genre of naval novels set in the eighteenth century, complete with all the standard elements: a gallant hero, pig-headed superior officers, occasional scenes of brutality, and young men either disgracing themselves or proving themselves. It is perhaps slightly more episodic than usual, the periods of boring routine between moments of action being omitted between chapters which could stand on their own as short stories. It gives the impression of something dashed off without a great deal of effort by an author thoroughly at home in his chosen genre.

Tuesday 20 June 2000

Peter Carey: Oscar and Lucinda (1988)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1998
Review number: 527

An epic about New South Wales in the 1860s, Oscar and Lucinda is basically the story of Oscar Hopkins, English clergyman, and Lucinda Lepastrier, rich young glassworks owner. These two characters, particularly Oscar, are very strong and dominate the novel. They, like the minor players, are distinctly imperfect people, and in fact idiosyncratic slightly beyond the point of believability so far as I was concerned.

Oscar comes from a Plymouth Brethren background, and religion is one of the most important themes of the novel (gambling and love of glass - made into something symbolic - are among the others). Although never exactly reacting against his upbringing (he becomes an Anglican because he thinks God has told him to do so, not because he no longer believes in the harsh evangelicalism of his upbringing), and despite the religion of his father being deeply felt rather than hypocritical, the first half of the novel is deeply indebted to Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh. However, while Butler based his novel on his relationship with his own father, what Peter Carey writes does not seem to me to indicate much understanding of any evangelical denomination. Two major decisions made by Oscar illustrate this, in both of which he believes God has guided him. The first is to abandon the Brethren for the not very evangelical local Anglican church, and the second that gambling was the way in which God wanted him to support himself as a student in Oxford. While today denominations are not particularly important to many British evangelicals, to a member of a Plymouth Brethren congregation in the 1860s, an Anglican church would have been seen as only a small step better than a Roman Catholic one (and they would have believed that the Pope was the Antichrist). Though Oscar's father and others in his church are horrified, such considerations are disregarded by Oscar himself. Similarly, Oscar would almost certainly have been taught from early childhood that gambling was a serious sin. The orthodox evangelical belief in guidance, which would mean that both of these ideas would have been ruled out for Oscar, is that God would never suggest a sinful action; any such apparent guidance is to be seen as a temptation from the devil and not followed.

A deeply ambitious novel, Oscar and Lucinda succeeds in many of its aims. Nonetheless, it has annoying flaws, of which the most serious is the grotesque nature of the central characters. The author most famous for writing grotesques in an otherwise realistic narrative, Charles Dickens, generally restricts this to comparatively minor characters; most of his heroes and heroines are normal, conventional people.

Tuesday 13 June 2000

Anthony Hope: Quisanté (1900)

Edition: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1920
Review number: 526

Anthony Hope is of course best known for the massively famous Prisoner of Zenda. He also wrote other thrillers, but did not confine himself to the genre: Quisanté is an enjoyable political novel modelled on Anthony Trolloppe.

Alexander Quisanté is an outsider in nineteenth century British society, aspiring to be a gentleman without the manners of a gentleman. MP for Henstead, he can sometimes exhibit a mesmeric genius and at others repellent crassness. The charming May Gaston is the darling of society, and she falls for the genius, convincing himself that the crassness could be moulded out of his nature. The novel is essentially the story of their marriage, the defaults she suffers as he becomes more and more influential politically. He does not even realise what is happening; the good and bad sides of his personality being so much two sides of the same coin than he has little understanding of the way in which he affects others at his worst.

Compared to, say, Phineas Finn, Quisanté is a light read, with the same strengths and weaknesses of Hope's great thriller. There are too few convincing characters in the novel - and the central Quisanté is not always of their number. Most of the time, however, he is both believable and interesting, and his relationship with May is strong enough to carry the whole novel.

Leslie Charteris: The Saint Goes On (1935)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1955
Review number: 525

The fourteenth Saint book once more contains three novellas. The High Fence is one of the most entertaining stories Charteris ever wrote, with Simon Templar and Chief Inspector Teal (hampered by a colleague thrust upon him by his superiors) racing each other to unmask the man who has taken control of a large part of London's market for stolen goods.

The other two stories, about murderous attacks on a tycoon and an attempted prison escape, are standard Saint fare, neither among the best nor the worst. The latter story is somewhat marred by rather ponderous humour based on the ide of dim-witted sidekick Hoppy Uniatz in love.

Monday 12 June 2000

John dos Passos: The Big Money (1936)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 524

The final volume of dos Passos' USA trilogy deals with the book of the mid twenties, ending with the stock market crash. The theme is making money, big money, through industries that took off in that decade (aircraft manufacture, film), set against the usual background of labour relations.

The stricture of The Big Money is like that of The 42nd Parallel and Nineteen Nineteen, with the alternation of contrasting documentary and narrative sections. The weaknesses are also alike, particularly in plot and characterisation, and since dos Passos has further expanded the fictional sections, these weaknesses are yet more apparent.

All in all, I expected far more from this trilogy than it actually delivered, because I really liked novels which imitate it, like Stand on Zanzibar. It rather bored me, and towards the end I kept going mainly by thinking "just 150 pages to go". The idea is good, but the execution deeply flawed.

Friday 9 June 2000

Baroness Orczy: Eldorado (1913)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1939
Review number: 523

In Eldorado, one of the better novels featuring the Scarlet Pimpernel, he becomes involved in one of the most famous plots of the French Revolution, the attempt to rescue the child heir to the French throne from imprisonment in Paris. His ultimate fate is one of the unknowns of history, though it is almost certain that he died in prison. The main character in reality in the various plots which centred around him was the Austrian-financed agitator, the Baron de Batz. I think Orzcy's portrayal of him is basically accurate: an egocentric, who kept himself safe by betraying his friends and paying large bribes.

The Scarlet Pimpernel becomes involved in the situation when he makes his own plans to rescue the Dauphin, which are endangered when one of his agents falls in love with a Parisian actress. This romantic side of the plot is less sentimentally handled than in some of the other Orczy novels (though there are still plenty of passages that are better skipped). In the end, this part of the plot assumes more importance than the liberation of the prince, and this is perhaps a good thing, as it reduces the amount of space Orczy has available to eulogise the late eighteenth century Bourbons. Orczy's faults are apparent in the novel, but the story is strong enough to overcome them. just as happens (to a greater extent) in The Scarlet Pimpernel itself.

Wednesday 7 June 2000

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (Or: The Modern Prometheus) (1818)

Edition: Penguin, 1985
Review number: 522

The chilling story of Victor Frankenstein and the being he created from dead bodies has been popular ever since it first appeared, and is often cited as being the first modern science fiction novel. The book has greater psychological depth than the various film versions, and the relationship between Frankenstein and the monster can be (and has been) interpreted in different ways.

The plot is probably familiar to most people. An explorer in the Arctic sees two sleds, one chasing the other across the ice. He rescues a man from the rear one when there is an accident, and hears his remarkable story. Victor Frankenstein is a distinguished scientist, but was always fascinated by the speculations of outdated medieval thinkers ike Albertus Magnus. He collected together parts of dead bodies, seeking to make the man he created from them live by the power of electricity. Yet, when he is successful, he is suddenly repelled by the hideous parody of a human being that he has created and rejects him.

The monster's appearance also leads to his instant rejection by all he meets, whatever his intentions, until he starts to take revenge on his maker by murdering Frankenstein's family, one by one.

As claims to be the origination of the science fiction genre go, it is easy to see why they arise. If the difference between SF and fantasy lies in a basis in extrapolation from known science rather than in what is known to be impossible - a defensible definition - then most fantastic works before Frankenstein fall into the second category (travelling to the moon in a ship, for example). Experiments in which electrical currents caused spasms in dead frogs' legs made the production of life by electricity feasible (and this is made clear by the sections in which Frankenstein's scientific knowledge is described).

Written in a century in which belief in a creator God began to wither in Western Europe, some of the resonances of the novel were perhaps more obvious at the time when it was published than today. The relationship between marred creation and creator, creature and seemingly rejecting creator, is clearly meant to be seen as commentary on the advanced thought about Christianity at the time. Frankenstein, as creator, is depicted as having failed to fulfil his responsibilities, and his actions are seen as some justification for the crimes committed by the monster (who would have been better off if he had never been created). Frankenstein has put himself in the position of God, and cannot live up to it.

Today, there are obvious resonances between the rejection of the monster because of his appearance and the actions of racists. These were probably not intended to be as strong as they appear now. The major resonance is the separation of different parts of the personality; it would not require many changes to make the story one of a deluded man blaming an imaginary monster for his own crimes. The two main characters (Frankenstein and the monster) are ambiguous, neither fully evil nor fully pure. This is the major strength of the novel, which (in true Romantic, Gothic fashion) has the innter torture of Frankenstein at its centre.

Tuesday 6 June 2000

John dos Passos: Nineteen Nineteen (1932)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 521

The second part of the USA trilogy is about the involvement of that country in the First World War, from the declaration of war with Germany in 1917 to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. It is a continuation of The 42nd Parallel, in the same semi-documentary style with two differences. The characters from whose points of view the fictional sections are told are now, though several are already known to the reader of the earlier book (the brother of one character, the best friend of another); and these sections are far longer in relation to the others.

This second change is the main reason why Nineteen Nineteen is less successful than its predecessor. The longer sections reveal dos Passos' weaknesses as a writer, particularly in the portrayal of character, and the reader loses interest. His concentration on the relationship between labour and capital becomes almost an obsession. (It is an important theme in the period of American history covered by the trilogy, which effectively saw the destruction of the far left as a political force.)

Much of the action takes place in France, and the main idea communicated is something of the effect that being soldiers in Europe - both on the front line itself, though this is skated over, and in the different culture behind it - had on the Americans who returned.

Giovanni Guareschi: Don Camillo and the Devil (1957)

Translation: Frances Frenaye, 1957
Edition: Gollancz, 1957
Review number: 520

More of the same in another sequel to The Little World of Don Camillo. These stories lack much of the freshness of the earlier ones, and the political message has slightly changed from being anti-Communist to the idea that there are more important things than politics. These stories were written about the time of the Hungarian uprising, which may have had something to do with this. I think these are the last short stories about Don Camillo and Peppone, the only other book being the novel Comrade Don Camillo. The Italian political scene had left them behind, and the reason for their existence had gone.

Monday 5 June 2000

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 1998
Review number: 519

The second Harry Potter novel floows on almost directly from the first, beginning halfway through the summer holidays between his first and second years at Hogwarts, the school for wizards. In his second year, he faces a different challenge: someone has opened the Chamber of Secrets left by Slytherin (one of the school's founders, who withdrew after disagreeing with the others), and this leads to attacks on children at the school, leaving them alive but frozen.

As a sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets had a lot to live up to. It nearly does it. The novel is less amusing than Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, making me laugh out loud far less frequently. The other qualities which made the first novel an instant classic - the enjoyable, rounded characters, the fun adventures, the familiar yet originally realised background - are just as strong here.

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 1997
Review number: 518

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was hailed as a new children's classic almost from the moment of its publication. From a cynical thirty year old point of view, it is easy to see why this is, but it is so well written that it succeeded in turning me into a fan even so. It combines several well-worn themes of children's fiction - the outsider (Harry Potter, brought up by his uncle and aunt much against their wishes - in a cupboard rather than the third bedroom); magic adventures in a hidden land (there is a secret world of wizards and witches alongside the mundane one of the "Muggles" in which we live); school (the school for wizards to which Harry goes is an old fashioned boarding school, a staple of fiction long after they were important parts of educational provision) and so one - and its background is never quite original. Yet the writing marks it out; the characters may start out as stereotypes, but they are intelligently developed; the details of the story are atmospheric and frequently very funny.

In terms of parallels, the novel most frequently reminded my of C.S. Lewis' Narnia stories, and as these are childhood favourites I still enjoy, it is not surprising that I enjoyed Rowling.

Friday 2 June 2000

Caryl Brahms & S.J. Simon: You Were There (1950)

Edition: Michael Joseph, 1950
Review number: 517

Unusual though a book written to a large extent in the second person might be, You Were There fails for one major reason - I wasn't. Since the "there" in question is London in the twenties, you would now need to be at least eighty to remember the incidents the book mentions.

Apart from the second person gimmick, the style of the novel is like the far better known - and greatly superior - No Bed for Bacon and Don't Mr Disraeli. It is a humorous, 1066 and All That style take on historical events combined with a romantic plot. Here, however, the history is less amusing and the romance less interesting, and it is hardly surprising that You Were There is even frequently omitted from lists of Brahms and Simon novels at the front of reprints of others.

Thursday 1 June 2000

Peter Chippindale: Laptop of the Gods (1998)

Edition: Simon & Schuster, 1998
Review number: 516

It may seem a little perverse to read a comic novel based around the Y2K bug after the date when so little happened. However, my eye was caught by the Tom Holt-like title when I was browsing through the local library, and I thought the idea seemed quite fun. Basically, the premise is that in heaven, everything is run by the computer GOD, who is about to upgrade to Multiverse 2000 when the god Cupid - heaven being populated by every deity conceived by the collective imagination of the human race - discovers that GOD has been hacked by the Beast, out to remove all the life from the universe.

The problem is that Laptop of the Gods is not funny. Chippindale tries very hard to be Tom Holt, but doesn't have that kind of talent. The novel is perfectly acceptably written, reasonably engaging as fantasy - but not funny. The is partly because a large part of the novel is very downbeat; a major theme is the spiritlessness of modern life, and this really quells any humour that starts to build. On the other hand, the desire to be lighthearted and whimsical makes it difficult to say anything really serious about a serious issue. (It is possible to be comic and serious, as books like Catch 22 demonstrate, but I can't conceive of a combination of whimsy and seriousness.)