Thursday 31 May 2001

Rudyard Kipling: The Second Jungle Book (1895)

Edition: Penguin, 1987 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 828

The original Jungle Book contained some stories which nowadays would be considered rather daring in a childrens' book because of their treatment of death. In The Second Jungle Book, this is even more the case, with violent death a commonplace. This is almost the "jungle red in tooth and claw", and it is going to be very surprising to anyone whose only prior acquaintance with the stories comes from the Disney cartoons. Things are slightly softened, mainly so that the stories will work, but death is present in every one.

A larger proportion of the stories are about Mowgli than is the case in the earlier book; the two tales which aren't are poorer in quality than their counterparts, Quiquern in particular being quite forgettable. The Mowgli stories, on the other hand, are very good indeed. They are not as immediately gripping as his duel with Shere Khan or the encounter with the monkeys, and it is easy to see why Kipling later redistributed the stories. (In the redistributed version, the mood does swing moves quite rapidly, as the stories from the different books are read.) The Second Jungle Book is more aimed at adults and older children than the first; it could be quite disturbing.

Wayne J. Keeley: Mahogany Row (2000)

Edition: The Fiction Works, 2000
Review number: 827

From the first slightly tongue in cheek paragraph (which could be paraphrased as "I knew I was having a bad day when I found the body of my boss in my office..."), this legal thriller holds the attention. Mark McCoy is soon made aware that he is the chief suspect in the killing. He has an overwhelming motive - as an associate nearing the end of his eight years, he is hoping to become a partner, but a memo on his desk from his boss indicates that instead he is going to have to leave the firm. He has no alibi, and some one is alternately trying to frame him and kill him. Soon he is a fugitive trying to track down the real killer while on the run, and discovering all kinds of dirt about the sexual habits of his boos and the real ethics of the law firm he was working for.

Mahogany Row is a taut, exciting novel, which concentrates on providing its thrills. The background is a little sparse, particularly for someone like myself who has little idea how an American law firm is structured. The plot requires the police to be a little slower than I would have expected, and some of the ideas owe a fair amount to TV series like The Fugitive. Keeley is also a film writer, and this shows in his interest in dramatic action as the mainstay of the novel. The criticisms I have are both small and connected to my taste in thrillers, rather than being problems with the novel, which is extremely enjoyable.

Friday 18 May 2001

Anton Chekhov: The Seagull (1896)

Translation: Stephen Mulrine, 1997
Edition: Nick Hern Books, 1997
Review number: 826

It may seem strange today, but the initial response to The Seagull was so negative that it made Chekhov resolve to retire from drama. (It was the way that Stanislavsky and the Moscow Arts Theatre took up the play a few years later that persuaded him to change his mind.) The reasons for the failure lay in the expectations of the audience and actors rather than in the play itself; the audience wanted star vehicles, and The Seagull isn't one; the star billed did not appear, annoying her vociferous fans.

The plot is all about unrequited love; just about all the characters love someone who doesn't care for them. The only equal relationship is the affair between successful author Trigorin and actress Arkadina, which is not exactly one with much love in it. The central characters in the play are Arkadina's son, Kostya, who is an aspiring author, and local girl Nina, whom he loves but who prefers Trigorin because he might be able to arrange for her to get a part in a play in Moscow. The play contains a lot of discussion of drama, and includes excerpts from the play Kostya has written for Nina, in which she takes the part of the World Spirit. It is an experimental, Symbolist play; Kostya wants to move drama on, but his work is fairly typical of second rate avant garde literature.

As the title indicates, there is an important (and far more subtle) symbol in Chekhov's play, as well; the seagull accidentally shot by Kostya. The only other important literary seabird prior to this that I can think of is the albatross killed by the ancient mariner in Coleridge's poem, and this too brings bad luck. Even ignoring traditional ideas (I have no idea what significance a seagull might have in Russian folklore), it is easy to see that such a bird symbolises freedom and is connected to the power of the sea, and the dead bird represents the end of Kostya's hope that Nina might love him, among other things, and the recall of the motif in the final act brings on Kostya's famous suicide.

The plot of The Seagull is more melodramatic than those of Chekhov's last three plays, but marks an important step in terms of naturalism by comparison with what was going on around him. It is easy to see why, with its combination of this realism with the central symbol, this play is compared to Ibsen (with perhaps The Master Builder being particularly similar), though I don't think that Chekhov particularly liked being classified with the Norwegian author.

Leslie Charteris: The Saint Sees It Through (1947)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1950 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 825

This novel marks something of a change in the Saint saga. It is set in different circumstances, after the end of the war, and is more serious in tone than much of Charteris' writing. Simon Templar investigates the nightclub Cookie's Cellar in New York and its seedier dockside version, run by Cookie (a massively fat singer of bawdier songs) as, she says, a charitable gesture to the heroism of merchant sailors. There is far less banter than usual, and Simon gets himself involved in a serious relationship. This has happened before, notably in The Saint in New York, which is possibly the best novel in the entire series.

The Saint Sees It Through succeeds as a pure thriller, but lacks the humour and bravado which is one of the most treasurable characteristics of the series. It is not typical, but loses something by this.

Thursday 17 May 2001

John le Carré: The Naive and Sentimental Lover (1971)

Edition: Pan, 1972 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 822

The Naive and Sentimental Lover is unique in le Carré's outpur. It is not a thriller, but a serious novel; its subject is an obsessive relationship. Aldo Cassidy is a self made man, a magnate in the pram accessory business. He goes to Somerset to view a country house he is thinking of purchasing, and there meets a couple, squatting. Aldo falls for them both; Shamus turns out to be a famous novelist, and Helen is extremely beautiful.

Some people think this is one of the best things le Carré has done; other that it is the worst. This is probably decided by their response to the character of Shamus. He is clearly intended to be charming, but to me he comes across as one of the most selfish and obnoxious characters in any novel. (No prizes for guessing what I think of The Naive and Sentimental Lover!) I hate embarrassing behaviour, to the extent of frequently turning off TV comedy, and Shamus is to me the epitome of loud and embarrassing. Le Carré is ambivalent about Shamus himself, and by the end of the novel, Aldo has come to hate him, but my problem is that it is difficult to see why he every thought otherwise.

I have read somewhere that The Naive and Sentimental Lover is to some extent autobiographical, though Shamus is so over the top that this is hard to believe. Some parts of it are clearly not from life; both Helen and Aldo's wife Sandra are typical of le Carré's female characters in that they are ciphers by comparison with the men.

Another way to look at this novel is to see Shamus as the reflection of the unexpressed side of Aldo's personality. This makes the novel between the repressed, successful businessman and the wild artist. This idea makes the novel much more interesting, though it hardly provides much evidence to support this interpretation. The title is one part of it; from Romantic philosophy, where Schiller divided people into the naive, who live the natural life, and the sentimental, who do not but who long to. Shamus, it is explained in the novel, is naive, while Aldo is sentimental. This basically means that Aldo's life, until he meets Helen and Shamus, is ruled by civilised convention, while Shamus is out to shock and outrage, and defy convention at every opportunity. This is not an unreasonable thing to do (and probably seems less outrageous in today's post-punk world than it did when the novel was first published), but defying normal rules for the sake of it makes Shamus extremely tiresome. The title, to return to what I was saying, implies that Aldo is both naive and sentimental, so supporting the idea that Shamus is an aspect of his own personality.

Charles Dickens: Sketches by Boz (1836)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 823

The young Charles Dickens became a published author (anonymously) when the first of the Sketches was printed; he went on to write two volumes of them, some of which overlapped with the early parts of The Pickwick Papers. The pieces all attempt to give a picture of life in London, which remained probably the most important theme in almost all of Dickens' writing. The central theme is elaborated in a surprisingly wide variety of ways, considering the inexperience of the writer, from humorous descriptions to short stories to a vivid recreation of the lives of the former owners of the clothes in a second hand shop.

In general, the sketches combine humour and social comment; some are more amusing, some more serious (notably the ones about Newgate Prison). At their best, they foreshadow the most famous virtues of Dickens' writing; they are, however, variable in quality and some of them have dated atrociously. Sketches by Boz is the work of an extraordinarily gifted writer at the very beginning of his career, still feeling his way and not yet sure of himself.

Catherine Fox: The Benefits of Passion (1997)

Edition: Hamish Hamilton, 1997
Review number: 824

Like Fox's debut novel, Angels and Men, her second is set at Anglican theological college Coverdale in Durham. Although it is meant to be ten years later, it is as though little has changed.

Annie Brown is training for ordination, but is more interested in the novel she is secretly writing than in her studies. Into it she puts her real feelings, has characters act in ways she wants to act but doesn't dare to, and in it she includes parts of the characters around her that she finds interesting. At the same time, she is trying to sort out her ambivalent feelings for Will, a friend of one of the other ordinands, and towards her vocation.

The novel's main failing is that it is rather too much like Angels and Men; many of the characters are very similar (and I don't just mean Johnny and Mara, common to both books). The central characters in both novels, for example, spends a lot of their time as some kind of creative artist rather than in their studies. The background of the theological college in the late twentieth century is rather limited, and it would be interesting to see what Fox could do with a different subject.

The major difference between The Benefits of Passion and Angels and Men - and one of its chief merits - is that it is much funnier. There is a fair amount of humour in the earlier novel, too, but here it is brought out far more. Joking is an important part of Annie's life, both external and internal. What has been jettisoned to make space for this and for the excerpts from Annie's novel - Mara in Angels and Men is an artist, which takes less space to describe - is dramatic background; the path Annie has travelled to where she is now is far less traumatic than Mara's. (She does, however, have a mother who must be one of the most awful in fiction.)

Angels and Men was exceptional; The Benefits of Passion is extremely good and very funny.

Saturday 12 May 2001

John Barnes: Finity (1999)

Edition: Gollancz, 2001
Review number: 821

John Barnes has written several novels about culture clashes (most recently A Million Open Doors); this paranoid alternative universe novel is almost more of the same. Finity is a science fiction thriller; investigation of sabotage at a huge company turns up evidence that a large number of alternate versions of reality are beginning to collide Colleagues no longer share the same idea of history, or even of recent events. In addition, something has happened to the USA, or its equivalent in every alternative reality; the rest of the world has lost contact with it, without realising.

There seem to me to be several holes in the explanations of what's going on in Finity (there is also more exposition than in most of Barnes' novels). Some things are just sloppy - Barnes surely cannot mean that there can only be a finite number of combinations of a finite number of symbols as he seems to say; an infinite collection of numbers can be built from the symbols 0-9. It is also not the case that a point has infinitely many neighbours; neighbour is not a valid concept in Euclidean space - within a particular distance of any point there are infinitely many points, but there are always ones closer than any given one). Some of his explanations of quantum physics also contain suspect statements, and the idea that use of quantum computer powered devices will swap an individual into an alternate universe seems pretty ludicrous.

Although alternative realities are interesting, it is difficult to see any way to travel from one to another, and this is something which an author needs to face once multiple alternates are introduced. This has been done in several ways. In The Man in the High Castle, they are fictions in each other (linked by the I Ching), and Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius series makes them fantasies. In other Moorcock novels, alternate realities are a by-product of time travel, which is left with an unexplained mechanism, and Robert Heinlein mixes this idea with that of fiction in The Number of the Beast and the novels that followed it. Other ideas used by writers include traumatic events such as near death experiences or experiencing other universes by drug taking. In almost every case, though, these are more causes of travel between alternates than explanations of how it might be possible.

To have no real explanation, particularly when dealing with one of the well established components of the genre, is not really a problem. (The reader tends to think, "Oh yes, alternate realities" or "time machines", or whatever, and it's a concept already familiar and acceptable to them.) However, Barnes does attempt an explanation, and this is not very convincing. As a result, the novel as a whole is diminished. In general, Barnes is a writer I admire a great deal; but Finity is his most disappointing novel to date.

Friday 11 May 2001

Jonathan Sumption: The Hundred Years War: Trial by Battle (1990)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1990 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 820

In England, the Hundred Years' War is chiefly remembered for the victories of Crecy and particularly Agincourt. There was a great deal more to the war - or, more properly speaking, series of wars - and it had important consequences for the development of both the French and English states, and on the conception of these states by their inhabitants (as immortalised by Shakespeare, Agincourt was still used in Second World War propaganda).

Sumption's history of the war, of which this is the first volume, is an old fashined narrative history, if more concerned with matters like finance than earlier or more sketchy descriptions. It assumes a fair amount of knowledge of the generality of medieval history, and concentrates instead on a detailed study of the causes of the war and its earliest phase (this volume, about six hundred pages, only covers the admittedly complex events of the period 1328-1347, along with the background which sets the scene).

The major thing which comes across from this particular book is just how difficult medieval administration was. Lack of information meant that governments had little idea what could be afforded by their countries; poor communications made it difficult to gather troops; tax systems in their infancy made it difficult to collect money, especially when military defeat provoked opposition; and France in particular was an extremely complex collection of smaller communities, each with different traditions, laws and privileges (far greater unity was one of the eventual effects of the war), making it impossibly to impose any taxes or conscript armies with any degree of uniformity across the nation.

These difficulties explain why gains and losses in this stage of the war tended to be impermanent; each side could take territory when they could spend money in one place, but this would quickly be lost when the money ran out. Magnates changed sides when their expenses went unpaid, and soldiers and sailors frequently refused to fight unless their own homes were in danger.

This is an excellent history, with the same feeling for the Middle Ages shown by Sumption's portrait of the church, Pilgrimage. A must for anyone interested in the period.

Katharine Kerr: Freezeframes (1994)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1994 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 819

The Faust legend is the inspiration for this science fiction novel. It begins in the sixties, when a middle aged professor at a minor university sells his soul to the devil for a younger body and takes up a new life as a drug dealer in the San Francisco hippie culture. His story is quite a straightforward version of the legend; it is the role of the virtuous Margaret that he meets in California which forms the main part of the novel. The devil, in the form of student Nick Harrison, wants to destroy Margaret, but is unable to; when she becomes pregnant, he thinks he has won, but she just points out that this is the nineteen sixties and has the child. From this point, the novel consists of a series of episodes in the lives of Margaret's descendants as Nick tries to attack them. The longest is the previously published novella Resurrection, about Margaret's great granddaughter Tiffany. This has a paranoid plot like a Philip K. Dick story: Tiffany is recovering from a few moments of clinical death when she begins to realise that she is no longer in the same reality as that in which she grew up.

The episodes which make up Freezeframes are perhaps a little too disjointed for it to feel that it is a unified whole, but its main problem is that it has too many ideas. The best of these is the concept of the devil undertaking a personal vendetta against Maggie's family in a world which barely believes in him, but we also have telepathic contact by alien invaders and alternate worlds (both favourites of Dick). The main stories are interesting in themselves, and the novel is well written, but it remains unsatisfying.

Thursday 10 May 2001

Charles Maude & Saki: The Watched Pot

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 818

In this "complete works" of Saki, there are three items listed as plays. Two of them are really only sketches, about five pages each, which would fit into the collections of short stories quite well. (There are a couple of short stories which are actually in play format already.) The Watched Pot is different, a collaboration of considerable length with Charles Maude.

In the play, the largely offstage character Hortensia Bavvel wields an absolute tyrrany not just over her household but over everyone with whom she comes into contact, trying to mould a resentful and ungrateful world to be the way she thinks it ought to be. When her son marries, however, her power will come to an end, and because of the damage she is unwittingly doing to the prospects of the Party at the next election, many people have turned into matchmakers. Trevor shows no preference for any of the young women to whom he is introduced, and exen exhibits a tendency to fall asleep whenever left alone with one.

According to the introductory note, Maude said that the basic dialogue was his responsibility, while Monro provided the wit; Maude's major problem was to keep the witty remarks sparse enough that they didn't swamp the whole story. The Watched Pot is very funny, and contains some memorable examples of Saki's humour; Maude's input ensures that it is not as stilted and undramatic as the short plays by Saki alone.

Wednesday 9 May 2001

Terry Pratchett: Reaper Man (1991)

Edition: Corgi, 1992
Review number: 817

This is one of my favourite Terry Pratchett novels. Like Mort, it has Death as its central character. When it is decided that Death has become too much a personality, he is allotted one of the timers filled with sand to mark his own end. His response to this is to disappear, and he ends up contentedly in a small village, working on a farm. Meanwhile, nothing is dying, and strange things begin to happen across the Discworld.

The plot may be hackneyed, but Reaper Man is extremely funny. The jokes are in the details, like the dyslexic cockerel, and in Death trying to fit in to rural society, which is an amusing concept in itself. The character is deservedly one of the most popular Discworld inhabitants, and the way he is portrayed may well prove to be Pratchett's most lasting legacy.

Saturday 5 May 2001

James Joyce: The Exiles (1918)

Edition: Granada, 1977
Review number: 816

Of all Joyce's mature writing, his only play is probably the least well known. It is also one of his least successful pieces, never having had much success on the stage. Displaying an unusual lack of confidence, it shows its influences strongly.

The Exiles manages to simultaneously be dull enough to seem longer than it is and unsatisfying enough to seem shorter. This is because Joyce gives all the real character to the part of Richard; neither he nor any of the others are interested in understanding anyone except himself. But even with Richard we do not come to understand the motivation behind his encouragement of his wife's potential infidelity, the principal dramatic content of the play; hints are made that it springs from some kind of misogynistic impulse, but that is not really a proper explanation (where did the impulse come from?).

The main model for the style of the play is Ibsen, as refracted through George Bernard Shaw's commentary and William Archer's translations. The introduction in this edition cites An Enemy of the People as a particular model, but I found it quite hard to see parallels between the two plays - especially as politics is extremely important in one and hardly mentioned in the other. The main aspects of the play which are copied from Ibsen are the ways in which characters interact (those these are less successful dramatically) and frankness about controversial issues in home life.

Joyce's preoccupation with the relationship of the Irish to Ireland is muted here, but is the reason for the title; the background event of the play is the Rowan family's return to Ireland from life abroad. Perhaps a drama more reflecting his other concerns as a writer would have drawn out more of his genius; as it is, The Exiles is probably his most disappointing work.

David A. Kyle: The Dragon Lensman (1980)

Edition: Bantam, 1983
Review number: 815

Many science fiction fans, myself included, have something of a soft spot for the novels of E.E. "Doc" Smith. This is despite their obvious failings, and is because they have a grandeur of vision and convey a sense that the writer is excited by his own story. Since Smith's death, there have been several attempts to continue some of his series. The best known of these is probably Stephen Goldin's Circus of the Galaxy series, which has the two advantages of being based on lesser known Smith and of being published under Smith's name.

Of all Smith's writing, the seven volume Lensmen series is easily the most famous, and it is inevitable really that the Smith estate should have sought to add to it. The Dragon Lensman is the first of three volumes described as a continuation, though in fact they fill in a gap in the original series. They also concentrate on lesser characters than Smith's hero Kinnison; these are the other three "Second Stage" lensmen, and in this case the reptilian Worsel of Velantia.

The plot of the novel, set between Second Stage Lensmen and Children of the Lens, is rather confusing. Basically, several crises occur simultaneously, which gives them the appearance of being connected. These include the development of intelligence by machines on the Planetoid of Knowledge, the galactic museum; the novel begins with an attack by them on Worsel (the motivation for the attack being the feeling that machines have been subjugated by biological entities). This coincides with a psychic attack on a nearby spaceship, in which a call for help from Worsel appears to be part of the attack so that it seems possible that he has become evil.

One of the successful aspects of Smith's writing was to balance cosmic ideas against a simple plot; the main Lensmen story is just a series of battles between good and evil, gradually increasing in scale. In this and in several other ways, Kyle shows himself not to be Smith, despite the endorsement from A.E. van Vogt that the writing says that Smith is back.

Friday 4 May 2001

James Stoddard: The False House (1998)

Edition: Earthlight, 1999 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 814

In many ways The False House is a worthy sequel to Stoddard's excellent debut The High House. It does fail in some ways, leaving the earlier novel as the more effective.

Even though their leader, the Bobby, has been destroyed, the Society of Anarchists has just gone into hiding. They still intend to take over the House of Evenmere to re-mould it as they desire. Carter Anderson, now come into his inheritance as Master of the House, maintains his vigilance but not for some years does he connect the disappearance of his wife's foster sister with an Anarchist resurgence. This is manifested in gradual transformations of the structure and inhabitants of Evenmere, and Carter eventually learns that only by the release of Lizbeth can these changes be reversed.

The major fault which mars The False House seems to be indecision as to who the central character should be. In the end, Stoddard has clearly opted for Carter, who is probably easier to base the story around as this makes it possible to portray something of the special relationship he has with the house. However, there are several points where it looks as though the original intention was to use Carter's younger brother Duskin, who as a seventeen year old had dazzled Lizbeth, then aged twelve, before her kidnapping, and who had been the central figure in her thoughts helping her through her years of captivity. His transformation from heedless young man, interested only in monster hunting, to responsible adult would also form a good basis for character development at the centre of the story, while Carter is left virtually unchanged by the adventures. So, we are given a few chapters at the beginning in which it looks as though Duskin is being set up as central character (the account of his first meeting with Lizbeth), and a few chapters at the end in which his intervention is important; while in between he is hardly even mentioned.

The background of the house that mirrors the universe is as atmospheric as in the first novel, with rather more specifically Christian imagery this time. An interesting detail is that the anarchists allow Lizbeth just one book to read in the years of her captivity; they give her Wuthering Heights to teach her despair. It certainly helps to have read that novel to understand parts of this one - almost everything Lizbeth says is a quotation; if I had read it more recently, I might have recognised the context of more of the quotations and I would have got more out of this story.

The False House is good, but could be better; other than the poor treatment of Duskin it is an interesting novel.

Thursday 3 May 2001

William Styron: Sophie's Choice (1979)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1979
Review number: 813

Sophie's Choice must rank as one of the most powerful novels I have ever read. It is the story of young writer Stingo, who meets an older couple, dynamic Nathan and beautiful Auschwitz survivor Sophie. They have a strange, three-way relationship which gradually leads to increasingly harrowing revelations about Sophie's time in the concentration camp, finally culminating in the truly horrific choice she was forced to make.

The novel is not quite as simple as this summary indicates. Important issues separate from the main plot include the fact that Nathan is Jewish but Sophie isn't; not all the victims of the "final solution" were Jews. Stingo is a liberal Southerner, and some parallels are made between Nazi racism and the treatment of blacks in the South. This isn't insisted on terribly strongly, for the obvious reason that the situation in the US has never been as bad as in Germany, but Styron clearly wants to say something about the ways in which things could have developed. (He talks about the way in which populist white politicians such as Huey Long tended to drift into racism at one point; there would have been some possibility that a man like this could have ended up as an American Hitler).

The emotional centre of the novel is, cleverly, not Sophie's devastating flashback descriptions but Stingo's experience of his relationship to the older couple. This contains lust and pity for Sophie, admiration for Nathan combined with apprehension about his growing mental instability, and envy of the love the couple share. This helps the novel because a bare description of the realities of Auschwitz would be numbingly intense; it affects the reader more because of the contrast and relief afforded by the scenes from the novel's present, the late forties. (The odd reference makes it clear that it is supposedly written by Stingo many years later.)

Clearly, Sophie's Choice is an important novel, providing a powerful viewpoint looking back at one of the most terrible atrocities of the twentieth century, helping us to feel why it is important not to let it happen again. It doesn't cover all the aspects of the Holocaust - there is little on why it could happen, or what drove particular officers to such heights of cruelty, for example - but for the themes it concentrates on (being a survivor, being an American Jew discovering what happened after the war), it is masterful.

Wednesday 2 May 2001

Lindsey Davis: Venus in Copper (1991)

Edition: Arrow, 1992
Review number: 811

Re-reading this early Falco novel, I'm a bit surprised by how frivolous it is. I had the impression that they were becoming less serious as time progressed, but in fact the tone of this one is remarkably similar to that of the later novels.

Falco is employed by the business partners of parvenu Hortensius Novus to gather evidence against his fiancée, who has a history of marrying rich men who die soon after the ceremony, and ot help them buy her off. The problem is, though, that Novus is killed before the wedding takes place so that the inheritance cannot be the motive for his murder.

This story takes place against the usual background of Falco's chaotic personal life, at a bad patch in his relationship with his aristocratic girlfriend. This injects some seriousness into the novel, but it is mostly enjoyable, funny and very light.

Michael Moorcock: The Warhound and the World's Pain (1981)

Edition: Millennium, 1995
Review number: 812

The seventeenth century Thirty Years' War was a forerunner of devastating twentieth century conflicts. Disease and famine followed direct casualties and atrocities were carried out on a huge scale (the sack of Magdeburg an example) as bands of mercenaries rampaged out of control across the countryside. The religious background to the war was not reflected in Christian virtues during it.

Von Bek is a mercenary captain in the war. He has lost what faith he had, but has not descended to the depths of depravity of many soldiers. He flees his men when he detects signs of the onset of plague, and finds himself in a strange but peaceful wood. He stays at a deserted castle, and there meets a beautiful woman who conducts him into the presence of a being who claims to be fallen angel Lucifer. Von Bek doesn't believe him at first, but is taken on a tour of hell. He is eventually asked to undertake a quest for the Holy Grail, the Cure for the World's Pain (von Bek being the Warhound of the title). This, Lucifer says, will make it possible to be reconciled with God and escape from an existence he finds miserable.

The story of his quest is one of Moorcock's best fantasy novels, let down a bit by an unsatisfying ending. It is unusual in his work for its treatment of Christianity, which is rather different from the sort of adolescent desire to shock which seems to lie behind Behold the Man, or from the invented religion of his more fantastic works. It is cynical, with supernatural beings taking no interest in humanity, but has an interesting portrayal of Lucifer as world-weary and disillusioned.

The beginning of the novel is the best part, with the description of the encounter with Lucifer being especially fine; the depiction of hell clearly owes something to C.S. Lewis but has been made Moorcock's own. After the meeting with Queen Xiombarg - the name being an interesting connection with the Corum adventure The Queen of the Swords - the setting becomes more magical and the storytelling loses its focus; very unfortunate in what could easily have been one of Moorcock's best novels.

Tuesday 1 May 2001

Rudyard Kipling: The Jungle Book (1894)

Edition: Penguin, 1987 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 810

Strangely enough, the text of even such a well known story as The Jungle Book can be quite complicated. In the original publications of this and its sequel, The Second Jungle Book, each collection contained a number of Mowgli stories and others not related to them. Then, when the first collected edition of Kipling's work came out a few years later, all the Mowgli stories were printed together in The Jungle Book, and all the others as The Second Jungle Book. This Penguin edition, which contains both books, replaces the stories in their original order.

One of the problems with The Jungle Book is that most people first encounter them through the Disney film, or through the distortions used by Baden Powell in the Scout movement. Neither of these really equal the original stories, which must rank as one of the greatest pieces of children's literature ever written. The original collection includes three Mowgli stories and four others, two of which are among my favourite pieces of Kipling's writing, The White Seal and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

The reasons that the stories are so successful are several, and include Kipling's great strengths of atmospheric background and characterisation of the animals. (This only fails to work in Servants of the Queen, he last story in the collection.) The Mowgli stories and The White Seal, in particular, hint at something more than enjoyable children's tales, with the idea of moving from one world to another (childhood to adulthood?) prominent in the first and death in the second. (It is no accident that it takes a creature already extinct to direct Kotick to a place where the seals can be safe from the hunters.) Few writers today would dare write in this kind of way for children, though much of it is probably aimed more at adult readers.

One thing that is really amazing about the Mowgli stories is that they are set in a part of India that Kipling never visited. He creates an atmospheric narrative really out of our expectations of what a jungle should be like; he even takes liberties with the natural histories that he used as sources of information (the wild elephant, for example, not being native to the area).