Monday 31 July 2000

Milorad Pavic: The Dictionary of the Khazars (1989)

Translation: Christina Pribicevic-Zoric, 1989
Edition: Hamish Hamilton, 1989
Review number: 557

The Dictionary of the Khazars has one of the most unusual structures of any novel; as its title implies, it is written in the form of a dictionary, with alphabetically arranged entries. It is also about two other dictionaries, one a seventeenth century collection of material relating to the Khazars (a people inhabiting the Balkans in the early middle ages), and the other a book used by the Khazars for the interpretation of dreams. This triple meaning is typical of the book, and enables Pavic to include all kinds of material: historical documents about the Khazars (particularly the Khazar polemic, the most famous incident in their history); information about the compilers of the seventeenth century dictionary and their esoteric interests; and a murder mystery involving twentieth century researchers specialising in the Khazars. To complicate the structure still further, there are two versions of the novel (called male and female); these differ in one paragraph, which is the one which assigns blame for the murder. (This is a most annoying little foible.) The dictionary is also divided into three, with entries relating to Christian, Jewish and Islamic sources about the Khazars - the polemic referred to was an argument between representatives of these religions, as a result of which the Khazars were to decide which religion to take.

There are many criticisms which can be made of the book, which is rather of its time. Obvious influences, at least in the English translation, include the fashionable Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco and John Barth, though it never has the quality of these authors. The dictionary idea is not fully carried out, which makes the novel distinctly easier to read but diminishes the point of the gimmick. There are only a small number of entries, most of which are quite extended (twenty pages or more). Much of the occult and psychological material is rather pointless and not very interesting, such as the idea that all copies of the seventeenth century dictionary were destroyed except one, printed in poisoned ink which killed all who read it. This could be the basis of something quite fascinating, if it were related to something else, such as censorship of books which might make readers think in a different way from that desired by their rulers. The major problem it that the writing is not as good as the writer thinks it is - which of course may be due to the translator rather than the author; much of it has a distinctly smug quality which is rather off putting.

Iain Pears: The Bernini Bust (1992)

Edition: Gollancz, 1992
Review number: 556

The third of Pears' Jonathan Argyll novels is by far the most wide ranging in setting, much of the action (including the murder) taking place in Los Angeles rather than Italy, the country which basically contains the other stories. Jonathan travels there because he has sold a Titian to a minor Californian museum for an inflated price. (The museum was set up by billionaire Arthur Moresby because purchases could be written off against tax.)

At a party given by the museum at which Moresby is to announce plans to massively expand the museum, Jonathan meets an acquaintance from the Italian art trade who has a somewhat dishonest reputation. Herbert di Souza has also made a big sale to the museum, and has been asked by their European buyer to bring over a sealed crate containing a sculpture. When, at the party, it is revealed that this is a bust by Bernini of Pope Pius V, de Souza becomes agitated and demands to speak to Moresby about it in private.

It is just after this meeting that Moresby's body is discovered, while di Souza has disappeared. After this rather complicated setup, the plot develops as a soundly constructed, fairly traditional murder mystery, whose art connections mystify LAPD homicide detectives more used to drug gang killings.

Like the rest of this light-hearted series, The Bernini Bust is enjoyable and worth reading if you like crime fiction.

Friday 28 July 2000

E.M. Forster: A Room With A View (1908)

Edition: Penguin, 1990
Review number: 555

On a more or less annual basis, I've made some attempt to read a novel by Forster; it seems unreasonable that a writer so highly regarded should be impossible to get through. I found both Howard's End and A Passage to India incredibly dull, though I expected to do better with this novel - I had at least enjoyed the film.

The plot of A Room With a View is a basic romantic one. Lucy Honeychurch, visiting Italy, happens to mention the lack of a view from her room at breakfast in a Florentine pensione, prompting George Emerson and his father to offer to swap rooms. Lucy's initial impression that the Emersons are a little vulgar, not the right sort of people, prompts her to be reluctant to swap; and this impression seems confirmed when George kisses her during a picnic in the Tuscan countryside. But it is only after returning to England, when the Emersons rent a cottage near the Honeychurch home, that Lucy begins to realise that something is wrong in her engagement to Cedric Vyse, an acquaintance whom she got to know much better after fleeing to Rome from the Emersons.

However, the plot is not particularly important; A Room With A View is principally an ironic commentary on the morality and customes of the English middle class at the beginning of the twentieth century. The humour in the novel is much more apparent than in Forster's other works (one reason for its greater readability). Touches like having chapter four entitled "Fourth Chapter" maintain the awareness that this is a novel and that Forster means us to remember this, in a manner mildly reminiscent of the much less subtle (but far funnier) Tom Jones.

Georg Bũchner: Woyzeck (1837, published 1879)

Translation: Gregory Notton, 1996
Edition: Nick Hern Books
Review number: 555

Like Samuel Butler in England, Bũchner was derided and unpublishable in the nineteenth century, yet has gone on to be seen as an influential forerunner of twentieth century literature. As is the case with The Way of All Flesh, it is easy to see why Woyzeck seemed so strange and even dangerous. The structure of the play immediately strikes the reader (a stage production would hide this aspect of it to a certain extent). Instead of the conventional three or five acts, the play consists of twenty four fragmentary scenes whose order is not even certain. Even on stage it would soon become clear that Woyzeck is not a flowing narrative; the audience member or reader has to do quite a lot of work just to have some idea of what is going on. Characters appear and disappear, little reference is made to earlier scenes; to those who read the manuscript on Bũchner's death, the play probably looked more like notes for a work in progress than a complete drama.

The themes of the play are also typically twentieth century: it is about madness. Woyzeck, a private soldier, dissolves into insanity as a result of brutal treatment by his military superiors and the unfaithfulness of the woman he loves, and ends up a murderer and suicide. The whole process is distinctly unsettling.

The unsettling quality is preserved by the famous (and fabulous) operatic version of the play by Berg. The opera is named Wozzeck, and some character names are different; this is because Bũchner's handwriting and the quality of the manuscript were between them so bad that early German editions contained many gross mistakes not rectified until techniques developed during the Second World War were applied to them.

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)

Edition: Penguin, 1969

Review number: 553

One of the most important novels of the twentieth century, vital to the development of science fiction, Brave New World ranks with 1984 as a chilling dystopia. Huxley portrays a world, considerably further into the future than Orwell's, in which a eugenically preserved class system maintains a static society. Everyone is graded from Alpha to Epsilon, and malnourishment of the embryo in the machines which have replaced human motherhood is used to ensure that Epsilons, for example, are stunted and moronic, fitted for the menial tasks which form their lot. Conditioning through tapes played to dormitories of children at night ensures that people are happy with their position, and the euphoric drug soma banishes the need to feel anything unpleasant.

Even with the conditioning and the drug, there are still people who are unhappy, who do not quite fit in. These are usually from the top caste, the Alphas, for two reasons: their greater intelligence, and because the lower caste members usually come in large groups of artificially created groups of identical siblings, who all work together and whose company makes it difficult to feel isolated and different. One of these misfits, Bernard Marx, sets the events of the novel in motion, through a visit to a Savage Reservation.

The Reservation is more or less the flip side to the main society portrayed in the novel. In those parts of the world which had not been considered worth bringing the "benefits of civilisation" to, a primitive way of life has continued to survive. The impression given of these places is that they are a kind of exaggerated version of a rundown American Indian reservation. There is no escape from them or, indeed, to them. Bernard is drawn to them because he expects life there to be purer; instead, it is squalid. The Reservation is meant to be the way we live, as seen from the point of view of the brave new world.

The event which catalyses the rest of the novel is Bernard's discovery of a young man and his mother (an obscene concept to him); she had come to the Reservation on a visit and become lost, already pregnant because of a lack of care over contraception. This couple are brought back to London by Bernard, and the rest of the novel is about the way that the Savage reacts to his new environment and vice versa.

Huxley later felt that the extreme contrast he introduced with the Savage Reservation was a mistake (as he says in the foreword written in 1946) and it is certainly true that it is not necessary to the point of the novel. It might have made it more chilling to have presented the society without a strong disapproving voice like the one provided by the Savage, letting the reader draw his/her own conclusions.

The importance of Brave New World for science fiction as a genre is manifold. Most science fiction in the early thirties was purely escapist hack work - this was the era of the pulp magazines. It was extremely unusual for a respected literary figure to use it as a vehicle for social criticism. The only precedents I can think of (other than fantasy) are H.G. Wells, who was not as highbrow a figure as Huxley by a long chalk, and Samuel Butler, whose Erewhon is only marginally science fiction, being modelled on Swift. Wells was actually quite an influence on Huxley, Brave New World having definite traces of The Time Machine visible in it.

Huxley took the genre seriously as a vehicle for social criticism, and since his time it has become something of a tradition in science fiction. The idea behind much serious science fiction is to use the future to comment on the present. Brave New World is really about the ideas being debated in 1932 - by the date at which the book is set, the debate is long over. Huxley's main target is of course eugenics, an idea driven out of serious consideration by the Nazis but today increasingly returning to the agenda as advances in genetics make correction of smaller and smaller "faults" in the embryo possible.

The really chilling part of Brave New World is not the caste system, but the fact that people are generally happy. Would it be worth being conditioned into happiness? Where does the border lie between "feelgood" mass media and subliminal conditioning? Huxley's world has "feelies" - films with texture that can be experienced as a kind of virtual reality - with no content but incredible effects ("You can feel every strand of hair..."). The main leisure activities are sports which are specially designed to encourage spending on complex equipment. How far is that from designer football shirts?

Huley aims at other, lesser targets throughout the novel, including some interesting digs at religion. Though the society described in Brave New World is said by its members to have outgrown religion, it has a strongly religious centre, worship of the ideas of Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud (who are confused with one another). Ford is referred to as "Our Ford", and is the focus of a parody of Christianity, including a ceremony based on the eucharist in which much soma is consumed - and soma is Greek for body as well as being a hallucinogenic in Indian religious traditions - before an orgy. (This is one part of the novel which some might still consider offensive.) More humourously, there is a scene in which the Savage beats up a reporter from the (Christian) Science Monitor, who denies the existence of bodily suffering. The attack on religion is of course prompted by Huxley's general atheistic philosophy, though in view of what he thought of spirituality it is interesting that he considered Fordianism a necessary part of his future world.

Wednesday 26 July 2000

Brian Greene: The Elegant Universe (1999)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1999
Review number: 552

The Elegant Universe is not, as the title might suggest, an examination of the philosophical question of why so much of the operation of the physical universe can be described by relatively simple mathematics. Instead, it is a popular account of superstring theory, currently considered to be a major candidate for a cosmological "theory of everything". Strangely enough, from a mathematical point of view, the picture painted is far from elegant, string theory still being full of supposition, reasoning by analogy and with known problems. The elegance is in the approach; if it did provide, at the end of the day, a unified picture of quantum mechanics and general relativity, it could then be considered elegant in other senses.

The book starts, as many popular science books do, with a description of the origins and theory of general relativity, yet even here it scores over many similar volumes by finding descriptions and illustrations I at least had not seen before, and new details of well known pedagogic analogies such as the rubber sheet model of relativistic curved space.

The focus of the book is the string theory, and an admirable job is made of the task of conveying something of what this incredibly difficult mathematical discipline is about and why it is important, without using any mathematics - no equations at all. (It would probably be rather heavy going to someone who has not at least a reasonable familiarity with popular accounts of quantum mechanics, however.)

Greene is an enthusiast for string theory, and an optimist regarding both the completion of the theory and the description of the universe by the theory. These attributes stem, as does the authoritative nature of the narrative, from his position as an active researcher in the field. Some space is given to the arguments of sceptics, but not much. String theory is certainly a worthwhile area of research in mathematical physics, and probably the current best bet for a theory of everything. Objections mainly stem from the feeling that because of this work in the field tends to be overhyped, or amount to philosophical objections to the idea of an ultimate theory. In the first category falls the frequently made point that superstring research has produced little (if anything) in the way of experimentally verifiable prediction (Greene counters this by pointing to parts of the theory which he feels are close to doing so), or that much of the mathematics is fragmentary (since it is so difficult; only more work can fill in the gaps). The second category is barely touched on, though forming a major part of the discussion in such books as John Horgan's The End of Science or John Barrow's Impossibility. Philosophical speculation is by its very nature difficult to answer, and is was perhaps wise not to stray into this territory.

The Elegant Universe is a fascinating book, a clear account of one of the most complex parts of modern science. It is worth reading by anyone with an interest in the physical investigation of the fundamentals of the universe.

Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting (1958)

Edition: Hodder
Review number: 551

One of Mary Stewart's best novels, Nine Coaches Waiting takes themes common to most of her stories (isolated young woman under threat has doubts about the man she falls for), but is far more tautly suspenseful than usual. This is partly because the major characters are particularly believable, and you really care what happens to the central character, governess Linda Martin, and her charge Philippe de Valmy.

The plot is simple. Linda escapes from her dreary job in an English prep school when the patron of the orphanage in which she had been brought up recommends her to a French friend to teach the orphaned Comte de Valmy English. She gains the odd impression that a lack of understanding of French is important, and conceals the fact that she was brought up in Paris during the war before her parents were killed. This turns out to be not the only strange aspect of the job, and she feels she is becoming involved in a sinister plot at the same time as she is falling in love with Philippe's cousin.

The title refers to The Revenger's Tragedy, in which a poor girl is seduced by a rich man's servant who promises her unbelievable and absurd wealth - not just one coach waiting to transport her, but nine. Linda is of course a poor woman overawed by the splendours of a noble estate, but the connections are fairly sparse. Stewart uses the quotation in a structural way, dividing the novel into "coaches" rather than parts, each having a journey as a central aspect.

Tuesday 25 July 2000

Mary Gentle: Golden Witchbreed (1983)

Edition: Vista, 1983
Review number: 550

Lynne de Lisle Christie is a diplomatic envoy, sent out to newly discovered inhabited worlds to decide what level of contact is appropriate between them and the rest of the galaxy. Though not of great experience, she is sent to the pre-industrial planet Carrick V. This world is not, however, what it seems: it is in fact post-industrial, having rejected the technology used to enslave the now dominant Orthean race by those known as the Golden Witchbreed.

There is a prophecy that the Witchbreed will return, and this, with the golden colour of (white) human skin tanned by the strong sun of Carrick V, leads the more superstitious Ortheans to believe that the humans landing on the planet are not from space but a plot by the Witchbreed. Naturally, this makes Christie's job far harder, as does the Orthean addiction to deceptive political manoeuvring.

While there is nothing particularly original about Golden Witchbreed, being a variation on the first contact theme, the strength of Gentle's writing commands attention. The feeling that we are experiencing a truly alien culture is particularly strong, and this is one of the most difficult things to do in writing science fiction.

Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway (1925)

Edition: Grafton, 1976
Review number: 549

Virginia Woolf made her name with her fourth novel. While not a stream of consciousness narrative, it has aspects of that style, and might be regarded as a precursor. Mrs Dalloway describes a day in the life of a society hostess as she prepares for a party. This particular day stands out because of the unexpected return of a former lover from India after twenty years, prompting a series of memories.

Mrs Dalloway is very static, free of plot or drama; it is a novel about character. Though Clarissa Dalloway is not a particularly interesting person - deliberately, I presume - the reader gets to know her quite well. It reads a bit like the introductory volume of a Victorian novel, as the return of an ex-lover certainly provides the potential for an interesting plot to follow on from what Woolf has written.

Monday 24 July 2000

Jack Kerouac: On the Road (1957)

Edition: Penguin, 2000
Review number: 548

It is easy to see why On the Road was such an important novel to the Sixties, with its rootless characters, dissatisfied with what they would normally expect from the world around them, wanting to break out and be different. It is also clear where it comes from and to where it pointed. The working class vernacular style of The Grapes of Wrath is an important influence, though there is a major difference between the writing of Kerouac and Steinbeck. The journeys in On the Road (which is the story of four car trips across the US in the fifties) have no specific motivation while that of the Joad family is forced by economic necessity. Looking the other way, without On the Road's celebration of hedonism, both William Burrough's Naked Lunch and Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would have been quite different.

On the Road was so influential because of its timing. It struck the chord that was to be at the centre of the sixties, just as Rebel Without a Cause did. At the end of the century, to a non-American, its quality alone would not justify a similar impact. It contains fine passages, but its theme of irresponsibility makes it annoying much of the time; reading it is like being the only sober person at a party. You end up wishing that Sal and his friends (particularly Dean Moriarty) would grow up, and lose some of their selfish parasitism (they spend most of the book living on borrowed or stolen money).

On the Road's greatest strength is its evocation of freedom; that is why it spoke so strongly to those who desired this kind of freedom. It has become a formative influence on modern culture, and yet Kerouac is nothing like as good a writer as either Burroughs or Steinbeck (thinking of those I have already mentioned). The novel is far more important for what it stands for than for what it is.

Philip K. Dick: Lies Inc. (1964, published 1984)

Edition: Granada
Review number: 547

Lies Inc. has a rather complicated history. Originally a magazine story (The Unteleported Man), an expansion was written for novel publication but not used. Then major revisions were considered by Dick late in his life, but not completed, and the original expansion was discovered in his papers after his death (minus a couple of pages). This version was then published in 1984, with the missing passages completed by John Sladek.

In the form taken by the novel today, it exemplifies Dick's greatest strengths and weaknesses. The quality of the ideas is extremely high, and any of the major themes introduced at the beginning (an off-planet colonisation by matter transmission which seems to be a fake hiding something sinister; psychedelic dream inducing machines feeding lies to the population) could provide the basis for novels of their own. Think of the different possibilities for what might motivate the first deception - Dick mentions concentration camps, labour camps and alien subversion as possibilities - and that will give an idea of how rich these ideas could be. (Ideas common to many of Dick's novels come in here - how can we tell who is human and who isn't, how can we trust what we think we see.)

However, after the middle of the novel, the coherence of Lies Inc dissipates, as confusing drug induced visions replace any idea of the plot. Much of this is quite interesting (especially the passages in which characters are given a book - a copy of the novel - in which they read misleading accounts of what will happen to them next, which undermines the reader's confidence in the narrative), but it proves too easy to be self-indulgent.

Michael Moorcock: The Oak and the Ram (1973)

Edition: Berkley, 1978
Review number: 546

The second novel in The Chronicles of Corum is even more sombre than the first. The Fhoi Mhore continue to overwhelm the world, though only six of them remain - the warmth of the world is killing them even as they destroy it. Yet mankind is unwilling to unite against them, using the excuse that the High King Amergrim has not ordered them to do so. He is unable to, having been captured by the Fhoi Mhore and enchanted to think himself a sheep (Moorcock presumably being inspired by the fate of Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel). In this novel, then, Corum's task is to rescue Amergrim and obtain the items needed for a counterspell - Sidhe talismans, the Oak and the Ram.

As always in Moorcock, the background is particularly strong, with a universal sense of decay (both in the institutions of men and in the slow sinking into death of the Fhoi Mhore). The only real characters in this novel are Corum and his companions; all the others are marginalised, and their adventures are only important to hold the attention while the reader soaks in the background.

Dashiell Hammett: The Dain Curse (1929)

Edition: Avenel Books, 1980
Review number: 545

With the same first person narrator and style as The Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett's second novel starts out with a feeling of familiarity. Many aspects are similar (the level of violence, for example), but The Dain Curse is a far more complex piece of writing. Three linked sets of murders take place and arae investigated through the book, with Gabrielle Leggett at their centre. She believes herself cursed, bound to do evil, by the taint of the Dain family blood inherited from her mother.

The second set of murders take place at the headquarters of a San Francisco cult, and the combination of this with the idea of the curse produces quite an eerie atmosphere, despite the best efforts of the hard-headed narrator. Hammett expertly juggles all the plot elements to continually produce plausible explanations for what is happening - or at least ones which seem plausible for a few pages - until the truth is revealed in the very last chapter. An excellent mystery and an excellent thriller.

Thursday 20 July 2000

Marsha Cooley: The Archivist (1998)

Edition: Abacus, 1998
Review number: 544

Marsha Colley's first novel is an ambitious story centred around T.S. Eliot and the important women in his life, and around archivist Matthias Lane and the important women in his life. The documents in the university library archive where Matthias works include a large number of letters from Eliot to his close friend Edith Hale, covering the period from Vivienne Eliot's descent into mental illness to her death (as portrayed in the film Tom and Viv), at which point Eliot suddenly broke off contact with Hale.

The events of Eliot's life have additional resonance for Matthias because there are parallels with his own. His wife Judith was a moderately successful poet who became obsessed with the Holocaust as part of manic depression and who eventually committed suicide after living in a mental hospital for some years. The middle part of the novel is her journal of these years, preserved against her wishes as Edith Hale preserved Eliot's letters against his.

The Archivist is about Matthias and Judith principally, and about their feelings of guilt: Judith's for being an American Jew who knew nothing about the Holocaust during the War and so participated in the "it doesn't concern me" attitude which made it possible; Matthias' for his treatment of Judith, even though this seemed as good for her as possible at the time. Their mutual liking for Eliot's work, and Matthias' feelings about the way Vivienne was treated, are all part of this, which is emphasised by the way that many of the narrative chapters (as opposed to the journal section) are structured around quotations from The Four Quartets.

The Archivist has a complex, intellectual structure, yet the reader doesn't need to grasp a large amount of it to appreciate the novel. The journal section is traumatic in places and the novel as a whole ambiguous. It is an impressive début.

Jane Hunt: The Green Gallant (1980)

Edition: Souvenir, 1980
Review number: 543

This novel is about a Russian regiment in the Napoleonic wars (with green uniforms), not Henry IV, as a potential reader with some knowledge of French history might guess (the first Bourbon king was nicknamed "the Green Gallant"). The background is doubly unexpected - there can be few writers who have dared to write about the Russian army in this period since War and Peace.

Having said that, it should be made clear that Hunt does not try to compete with Tolstoy. The Green Gallant is a pleasant romance with no greater ambition; its story (effectively, about love for someone unattainable) is standard, the background and characters there to provide a context for the story. It is well written with convincing characters and believable (if sketchy) background.

Wednesday 19 July 2000

Leslie Charteris: The Saint in New York (1935)

Edition: Dent, 1984
Review number: 539

This novel, the first Saint story to be conceived as a novel rather than expanded to that length from work which had already appeared in magazines, established Leslie Charteris as an international bestseller. This is a new Saint, rather more in the line of an American thriller character than he was originally, though still maintaining a trademark line of banter perplexing to his opponents.

The three days covered in the novel's plot do require a particularly tough Simon Templar, as he takes on New York's organised crime single handed. Aiming for "The Big Fellow" who has recently taken over, he is twice 'taken for a ride', kills several hoodlums, baits corrupt politicians, and is enchanted by the mysterious Fay Edwards, mouthpiece of the Big Fellow.

Aside from the excitement of the plot itself, the novel is remarkable for containing one of the earliest direct attacks on Nazism by a popular writer, among the familiar diatribes against corrupt politicians which give his work something of a radical tinge.

Henry James: The Ambassadors (1903)

Edition: Bodley Head
Review number: 540

One of James' late novels, The Ambassadors is in some ways an experiment in minimalism. The plot is rudimentary (a rich woman sends emissaries from Wollett, USA to Paris to disentangle her son from an unsuitable relationship), background virtually non-existent (most chapters are principally dialogue), and the characters ciphers. It is only the interactions between the characters which are interesting - and even these tell us virtually nothing about them; hence the importance assigned to their meetings and conversations. It is an exercise in how little is needed to sustain a reader through nearly five hundred pages.

The temptation is to sit back and admire the technical skill with which this is done, on the small scale (the large scale structure is both rigid and simple - almost exactly half way through, the son is willing to return home, yet the ambassador has come to think it will be better for him to remain). I didn't find the novel very involving (though this might be because I was coming down with a fever while reading its second half).

Charles Dickens: Hard Times (1854)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 542

Generally considered Dickens' weakest novel, and certainly consistently his least known, Hard Times is a campaigning work about the conditions experienced by workers in northern English industrial towns. The reason that it is unsatisfactory is not, in fact, hard to see: Dickens did not become involved in his subject in the way that he did in his other novels attacking abuses (such as David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby and Little Dorrit). The remedy for the abuses of the rich mill owners was not obvious, and Dickens viewed one potential remedy (organisation of the workers) with deep distrust. So Dickens' campaign here had no definite aim, and so the best that he could suggest was an appeal to the individual philanthropy of the mill owners.

The distance of author from subject has its most obvious repercussions in the characters in the novel, normally one of Dickens' strong points. His plots are usually melodramatic, and characters tend not to develop, but even the small parts are vividly drawn. The most interesting person in the book is Mr Gradgrind, but he is the personification of a secondary target of the novel, the idea that education should just be about "hard facts", the bloodless classification of objects into categories which are meaningless and useless to the average child ("Horse. Graminivorous quadruped..."). Everyone else, particularly the working class, is colourless.

The best pasts of Hard Times are the descriptions of the fictional Coketown in which it is set. These remind the reader that Dickens started out as a journalist. In the end, though, I was quite grateful that Hard Times is one of Dickens' shortest completed novels.

Paul Doherty: The Devil's Domain (1998)

Edition: Headline, 1998
Review number: 541

The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan now join Paul Doherty's other successful historical novels in being published under that name rather than the Paul Harding pseudonym. Eighth in the series, The Devil's Domain is typical, with the background of 1390s London fearful because of the growing unrest that would eventually lead to the Peasant's Revolt. Though this background is constantly part of the novel (and, indeed, the series), the more immediate cause of the mystery to be investigated by John Cranston, Coroner of the City of London, and his friend brother Athelstan, is the ongoing wars with France (later lumped together by historians as the Hundred Years' War).

A group of French prisoners has been housed in Hawkmere Manor, now Cripplegate, during a truce while their ransoms are negotiated and paid. However, one of them dies mysteriously, poisoned in a locked room even though the prisoners have agreed only to eat food they have shared, fearing an attack of this kind.

The plot is ingenious (though fairly specialist knowledge would be needed to work it out ahead of brother Athelstan). The background is, as always in Doherty's medieval novels, detailed and convincing (and not as sanitised as that presented by, say, Ellis Peters). Whatever author's name they appear under, the series continues to be worth reading.

Tuesday 18 July 2000

Giovanni Guareschi: Comrade Don Camillo (1964)

Translation: Frances Frenaye, 1964
Edition: Gollancz, 1964
Review number: 538

The magazine in which the later Don Camillo stories were published folded as the Italian political situation changed and people lost interest in the old battle between the Church and the Communists. Comrade Don Camillo was published in its last few issues, and is unique in the series in that it was conceived as a unified narrative.

The plot is basically that mayor Peppone, now a Senator, is offered the chance to take a group of faithful members of the Communist Party on a trip to the Soviet Union. Don Camillo persuades Peppone to take him in the guise of one of these Party members, because he is curious to see something of the truth behind the propaganda.

It is an interesting if implausible idea, thought the principal virtue of the Don Camillo series, its charm, is distinctly weakened when the tales are removed from their native Po valley.

Iain Banks: The Business (1999)

Edition: Little, Brown & Co, 1999
Review number: 537

The Business is a shadowy commercial operation which has been in existence for thousands of years, and which now aims to buy itself a country, so its senior executives can gain the privileges which go with a diplomatic passport. Kate Telman, the narrator, is not quite up to that level, but is one of the rising stars in the Business, and it is not particularly surprising when she is asked to become an ambassador of sorts to the Himalayan kingdom of Thulahn to arrange the purchase of the country from the reigning prince, particularly as he is known to have a strong fancy for her.

The Business is, of course, designed by Banks to be the kind of organisation which attracts conspiracy theories, even if Kate is quite vehement in denying them ("We're not a cover for the CIA. They're the Company, not the Business."). This aspect of the novel is entertaining and unusual: most conspiracy theory novels are written from the point of view of an external investigator, rather than someone closely involved in what could clearly appear sinister to an outsider even if considered relatively innocent by herself. Kate has strong reasons to be grateful to the Business, which lifted her out of the deprived background in which she was born, but she is not entirely naive about the organisation and some of its senior members. She is one of several female point of view characters used by Banks (Canal Dreams, Whit, and Against a Dark Background provide other examples), and is reasonably convincing if a little bland.

The star of The Business is Thulahn, which is an exaggerated version of Bhutan or Nepal, content to remain one of the remotest parts of the world. The people may be poor, but at least they're happy. The questionable benefits of Business sponsored development programmes begin to make Kate think twice about the whole deal, but in the end the country's portrayal is too idyllic for the issues to have real meaning.

If The Business has a message, it is one it shares with Whit. This is that it is possible - and maybe easier - to be happy without the distractions of modern Western culture, without the consumer luxuries with which we are surrounded. (Whit makes this point more effectively, as its narrator is one of those on the outside of consumer culture, while Kate lives a life of corporate luxury.) Banks is surely trying to say that we should look at our own lives to see what in the material world is really important, what really brings us happiness.

This is one of the reasons why The Business lacks the significance of Banks' earlier novels - or other novels about the third world. Compared to, say, The God of Small Things, it has nothing to say; it lacks the brilliance of The Bridge or the immense shock value of The Wasp Factory. Banks seems to have become a bit too comfortable, but is still a good writer and extremely entertaining.

Thursday 13 July 2000

Leo Tolstoy: A Confession (1865)

Edition: Everyman
Review number: 536

In contrast to Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, with which it is packaged in this Everyman edition, A Confession is a work of non-fictional autobiography. It followed Tolstoy's greatest work, rather than preceding it as Notes From Underground did that of the older writer. There are similarities, in that both authors use these short pieces of writing to set out something of their views on life, and as these philosophical ideas are vitally part of their great novels, the works bear similar roles in the authors' output as a whole.

The subject of A Confession - not a title Tolstoy liked, but imposed by publishers because of similarities to Rousseau's Confessions - is the move of the writer away from the religious certainties of his Orthodox childhood. This started with an excited discussion between Lev and his brothers after one of them had been told that there was no God. The line of thought taken by Tolstoy from that date parallels that of the writer of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which is quoted at length. Basically, Ecclesiastes looks at the world from a purely materialistic point of view, and comes to the conclusion that it is meaningless; only God, the writer feels, can make sense of life. Tolstoy does not take the same final step, being put off by the vast differences between the professed values and the actions of those who called themselves believers in the nineteenth century Russia upper classes. He tried to copy the simple faith of the peasantry, by just glossing over the parts of Orthodox ritual he didn't 'understand' - the word he uses, though he really means 'identify with' in today's terms. When he realised that this amounted to most of the ritual, he left the church and effectively formulated his own personal religion, trying to follow the moral teachings of the New Testament while jettisoning every other part of Christianity.

Tolstoy's religious writings, of which this is the best known and (I think) the first, were fairly influential in the last years of the nineteenth century. He considered these works his most important and retired from novel writing to concentrate on them, before returning to fiction with Resurrection years later - and even then, the novel was written as a way to publicise his ideas.

Today, the religious work of Tolstoy is relatively obscure, and there are both historical and literary reasons for this. The Russian Revolution brought suspicion in the West on ideas from that country, even if they were not Communist in origin. Thus, Tolstoy ceased to be cited as an influence on atheistic humanism, even as this became one of the dominant philosophies of the twentieth century. From a literary point of view, Tolstoy tends to play to the gallery; in A Confession, the autobiography is smoothed out for public consumption, every action rationalised and justified (in a rhetorical way, the philosophical argument being of a poor standard). In the end, the reader is left wondering whether Tolstoy really believes what he says, and certainly is in doubt as to the way he actually reached these beliefs.

Tuesday 4 July 2000

Michael Pearce: Dmitri and the Milk Drinkers (1998)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1998
Review number: 535

The first of Michael Pearce's novels I have read is also the beginning of a new series. The setting is late nineteenth century Tsarist Russia, familiar from the great novels and plays of the period. The central character is an ambitious young lawyer, Dmitri Kameron, who is an Examining Magistrate of the district court in the provincial town of Kursk, and has moderately radical leanings.

One day at the court, he is asked by a well off young woman to direct her to the courtyard. Later, it is discovered that Anna Semenovna has gone missing, and that Dmitri was the last person to see her. He is able to work out that she offered to take the place of one of the cartload of prisoners sentenced to transportation to Siberia, and there is no alternative but to set off after her.

There is much of this plot which is reminiscent of Tolstoy's Resurrection, which also involved the pursuit of an innocent woman wrongly sent to Siberia. Pearce's novel is (not surprisingly) far less serious, and is in fact sometimes very funny, though it too has something to say about the injustice and unpleasantness of the system of Siberian exile. Much of the pleasure of the novel comes from the way that it covers the same ground as serious Russian literature, but in a light-hearted way.

Monday 3 July 2000

Michael Moorcock: The Bull and the Spear (1973)

Edition: Berkley, 1978
Review number: 534

The start of this novel is very melancholy. Several decades after the end of the Swords trilogy, the immortal Corum has sunk into lethargy after the death of his beloved human wife, Rhalina. He starts experiencing strange dreams, and finally allows himself to be taken far into the future by a mystical incantation. The people who have called him, half-believing, are driven by desperation. The world is under attack by mysterious non-sentient beings of great power, who desire to turn the land around them into a counterpart of the inter-dimensional limbo from which they came. The principal weapon which has almost defeated their human foes is a part of this transformation, as it brings extreme cold and permanent winter to the world.

In this novel, influences from Celtic mythology are more apparent than is usual in Moorcock, whose references to external mythological systems are rare. Moorcock is usually more interested in making links with popular culture, most extensively in the Jerry Cornelius novels. The story itself follows a form common in fantasy, a heroic quest for some talismanic object to counter a major threat.