Saturday 30 June 2001

Catherine Fox: Love For the Lost (2000)

Edition: Penguin, 2000
Review number: 854

Catherine Fox's third novel takes a minor character from The Benefits of Passion and puts her centre stage. Isobel was one of the ordinands in the same class as Annie Brown, and now she is a curate herself. The novel follows her through two years at this post, as she learns a lot about herself and those around her.

The tone of Love For the Lost is darker than Fox's earlier novels; it continues to combine humour and drama, but the balance is rather further toward the dramatic. The novel is also more theological in character, in keeping with a central character professionally involved in Christian ministry rather than studying. This would probably make it less likely to appeal to non-Christians who haven't read the earlier novels, but it is well worth seeking out.

The main criticism I would have of this novel is that there is too much coincidence in the characters' relationships. Previously unacquainted people turn out to have several friends in common, something which is very unlikely (even if a friend of my wife's is married to someone I knew as a student). It is a bit annoying that this keeps on happening, and in most cases it is not at all necessary. Other than momentary irritation, it doesn't greatly detract from an enjoyable novel.

Michael Pearce: The Mamur Zapt and the Camel of Destruction (1993)

Edition: Collins, 1993 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 853

The camel of destruction is apparently a figure from Arab legend, which has an aptly descriptive name. In this novel, more serious in tone than most of the Mamur Zapt stories, a plan to build new roads right through ancient parts of the city of Cairo is likened to the camel.

The case which Owen, as Mamur Zapt in charge of order in the city of Cairo in the early part of the twentieth century, investigates is the suicide of a civil servant, trying to find out what put him under so much pressure that he killed himself and who paid for the improvements recently carried out on his family house. It seems to be connected with the murky and complicated world of Egyptian finance, including schemes to attract foreign investment (and make vast amounts of money on the side) like the road.

It is the complex political machinations which take up the space generally occupied by humour in this series, but that doesn't stop The Camel of Destruction being an entertaining detective story with an atmospheric historical background.

Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth (1905)

Edition: Everyman, 1991
Review number: 852

There are many novels about breaking into high society; fewer about falling out of it. Wharton's tragic story is about how Lily Bart gradually loses her place in the New York smart set, sliding lower and lower until her death in a common boarding house. The basic problem is money; Lily's family are not really rich enough any more to maintain their position, and it is her beauty and social graces which have let her continue to be accepted even until the beginning of the novel.

The obvious solution to Lily's problems is marriage to a rich man, and she seems to have plenty of opportunities, even if at twenty nine she is considered a bit old to do so. The problem is that she can never quite bring herself up to scratch, so that she schemes and works to entrap a man only to pull out at the wrong moment, put off by a vision of a lifetime of boring conversation or whatever the bad points about him happen to be. She also has a tendency to get into completely innocent situations which are then disastrously misunderstood, for example alienating two of her closest friends who think she is having affairs with their husbands. (In one case, this is particularly unjust; Bertha Dorset invites her on a trip to Europe on the understanding that she will distract Bertha's husband from her own affair, only for Bertha to turn neurotically suspicious and jealous.)

The interest of the novel is in its inversion of the typical romantic society plotline, and it is the characterisation of Lily which makes it successful and tragic. It is not full of mirth by any stretch of the imagination. (The title sounds like it is a quotation, but the nearest I could find, which reflects the spirit of the novel, is from an anonymous poem, On the Life of Man: "What is our life? a play of passion, / Our mirth the music of derision, / Our mothers' wombs the tiring houses be, / Where we are dressed for this short comedy".)

Friday 29 June 2001

Fletcher Pratt: The Well of the Unicorn (1948)

Edition: Ballantine, 1976 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 851

Lester del Rey considered this forgotten novel "the best piece of epic fantasy ever written". This is overstating things, particularly given the way in which the genre has evolved in sophistication since it was published, but there is certainly something more to it than most of its contemporaries.

The basic plot is fairly typical of the genre. After an invasion of his native country of Dalarna, Airar Alvarson is unable to pay the increased taxes demanded of him by the new Vulking overlords, and loses his family's farmstead. Refusing to work for the Vulkings as a serf, he ends up joining a resistance movement. Through this, he meets three women who play a large part in his increasing good fortune, a fisher girl, a woman who dresses as a man to be a mercenary captain, and finally the one he really falls for, a princess of the Empire who is way beyond his social reach.

One of the interesting aspects of the novel is the spring from which it is named. This is the centre of the Empire's authority, and one of the most sacred sites of Pratt's world. It has magical properties, and if the parties to a dispute travel to the Well and drink of its water, it will bring peace to them. This should resolve the dispute, but it does not erase the personality of the drinker, and one of the stories about the Well recounted in the novel is of a Vulking count who defies the water's properties to attack his enemies again.

The Well of the Unicorn also has philosophical concerns unusual in the genre at the time. These centre around two main issues: free will (can it exist if the future can be foreseen magically?) and social organisation (how can people be free yet society still exist in an meaningful way?). No conclusions are reached, but the way that the ideas are incorporated into the novel is interesting.

Perhaps now seeming rather old-fashioned in style, The Well of the Unicorn has a bit more to it than many fantasy novels.

Wednesday 27 June 2001

Michael Innes: The Daffodil Affair (1942)

Edition: Penguin, 1983
Review number: 850

Michael Innes' novels are frequently silly, as they combine parody of the absurdities of crime and thriller novels with a sure grasp of how to write an excellent story in one of these genres. The Daffodil Affair may well be the silliest of the lot.

The crime Appleby is set to investigate is not the sort of thing that Scotland Yard would generally bother with, particularly during the War - the theft of a broken down cab horse named Daffodil in Harrogate - except that the Assistant Commissioner has a sister whose favourite cab horse is Daffodil. This crime is linked to several other bizarre disappearances, including the theft of a reputedly haunted hose in Bloomsbury (demolished bit by bit, it is at first assumed to be a victim of the Blitz). The search leads to a trip to South America, which in the story's wartime context is extremely unlikely, while Appleby tries to work out what links the missing items and people.

Rather unusually for Innes, there are problems with the construction of the plot of The Daffodil Affair. The climax comes with a bizarre fake birthday party in Appleby's honour, which takes place one night on the ship on the way to South America. Even though we do not then know the whole of what is going on, the rest of the novel feels like a bit of an afterthought.

The ludicrous nature of the crime is what makes The Daffodil Affair different from the run of crime fiction, and it brings in the humour important in so many of Innes' novels. It also makes it more memorable than some of his more accomplished stories.

Ursula K. Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

Edition: Puffin, 1971

I enjoy Le Guin's writing much more when it is not being used to promote a particular agenda; this is not because of disagreement with what she is trying to say, but because the serious nature of her intention tends to overshadow the story itself. Even after more than twenty years since I first read this novel, and despite it being aimed at (older) children, A Wizard of Earthsea still holds my imagination more than any of her other stories.

Le Guin's story seems at first to be a retelling of one of the stock scenarios of young adult fantasy, the story of a young magician coming into his power. However, at least two things make the novel stand out. The first is the use which is made of the contrast between the noble, courtly and lettered, and the simple, folky and illiterate. Sparrowhawk, born in a poor village, yearns for the nobility that his magic gifts could bring; but as he grows he takes knowledge from the noble but must learn wisdom - in particular, patience, humility and self-control - from those closer to his own background. Even today, and despite Tolkien's example, most fantasy almost exclusively concentrates on the very highest levels of feudal society, at the expense of the less glamourous commoners.

The other important element is the nature of Sparrowhawk's struggle. This is not a story of a battle against evil in the world or of other men's devising (though he does fight dragons). In a foolish, forbidden duel with another student wizard, Sparrowhawk sets free a shadow, an evil presence from the world of the dead; he himself has to overcome it. It is against the consequences of his own pride that he fights, and le Guin gives the shadow an evil spirituality which is quite frightening. more so than purely phsyical dangers would be.

Through the battle with the shadow le Guin is trying to make a point, but it is kept more in check than usual and is sufficiently general that it doesn't overwhelm the story. This point is that it is often ourselves who are our own greatest enemies when it comes to growing up, to becoming who we could be at our best.

When this slightly deeper than usual storyline is presented in a well imagined and realised background with good characterisation, the result is a classic, and that is what A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels have become.

Friday 22 June 2001

Michael Moorcock: Gloriana: Or, The Unfulfill'd Queen (1978)

Edition: Flamingo, 1986
Review number: 848

Gloriana marks something of a new departure for Moorcock. It is more removed from the swqord-and-sorcery epics which were the inspiration for (say) the Runestaff series and is a longer novel not part of a series. It shows clear traces of its influences, but these are in the most part more literary than before.

It is possible that one of the immediate influences on Moorcock was Queen ELizabeth's Silver Jubilee, but I find it difficult to see him being inspired by this. The novel is set in an alternated England, ruled by Gloriana, who is clearly based on the myth of Elizabeth I, if a little more advanced in technology. When she inherited the throne of the Empire of Albion from her tyrannical father, her benevolent rule brought a golden age of peace and tranquility. She remains unfulfilled privately - not the Virgin Queen (sexual promiscuity is the rule here, as in much seventies literature), but unable to experience orgasm - and this makes her unhappy.

Onto this scene arrives the disreputable Captain Quire, a one-time spy, formerly employed by Gloriana's Chancellor, Lord Montfallcon. He runs a campaign to destabilise the Court for the benefit of his new employers, the Arabians, but then begins a love affair with the Queen of his own accord. The novel is about how he affects Gloriana, and how his intrigues undermine the Golden Age which seems more and more a superficial cloak over the vicious terror of the previous reign.

The two very obvious literary influences on Gloriana are Spenser's The Faery Queen and other Elizabethan allegorical poetry; and Peake's Titus Groan and Gormenghast. The first is more superficial in its relationship to the novel; Gloriana is not an epic poem nor is it a consistent allegory as far as I can see. (It does contain poetry, mainly from court occasions and written in a style rather like Dryden's.) From this source come the names Gloriana and Albion, and that is about all; the mythologised ideas we tend to have about the Elizabethan court are more important.

The Gormenghast connection is more profound. (The novel is dedicated to Peake's memory.) The most obvious parallel is between Gloriana's palace and the castle in Peake's novel; both have the same huge complexity (a fair amount of the action of both takes place in hidden passages in the walls and lost, forgotten rooms). There are also links between the characters; Gloriana is in part Fuschia, Quire (in larger part) Steerpike. Then there is the ceremonial; Gloriana is full of descriptions of masques. There are also, however, important differences between the imagined worlds of the two authors. There is an empty purposelessness about Gormenghast's rituals, reduced as they are to conformance to the letter with ancient texts; Albion has a purpose (replacing tyranny with peace) which is the reason for the crowd-pleasing masques. The subtext is not Chinese Imperial but Spenserian allegorical.

There are also, as usual in Moorcock's novels, cross references to his other works. These include names shared (Wheldrake, Pyat, Una, Li Pao), characters shared with different names (Tallow) and names of gods used as oaths (Arioch, Xiombarg). These connections are more superficial than usual, and Gloriana is much freer than earlier novels from Moorcock's ideas about the Eternal Champion. In fact, it is quite different, and displays a more original kind of imagination, making it a most interesting read.

Henrik Ibsen: Hedda Gabler (1890)

Translation: Una Ellis-Fermor, 1950
Edition: Penguin, 1961
Review number: 847

The character of Hedda is in some ways an inversion of that of Nora in The Dollshouse. Nora starts out as the quiet, dutiful wife, and is eventually driven to rebellion by the bourgeois conventionality of her husband. Hedda was a society success who married a wrong choice after the death of her father, and who is very quickly crushed by his dullness.

Hedda and her new husband, Jörgen Terman, begin the play by returning to Norway from their honeymoon. (The fact that Hedda is generally known by her maiden name is significant of her attitude to her marriage.) It is almost immediately clear from her interaction with Tesman's maiden aunts (who brought him up) that there is a wide social divide between them, and her conversation with the urbane Judge Brack reveals that there is a similar gap in terms of their interests. Brack's aim is to pressurise Hedda into accepting him as her lover, something that she is unwilling to do because she doesn't want anyone to have power over her.

This is really the character background; the plot itself is about the attempts of a former suitor of Hedda's, Ejlert Lövborg, to put his life back together after succumbing to alcoholism. While the Termans were away on their honeymoon, he has produced a book (on the history of culture), which has taken the town by storm. His rehabilitation was the result of the inspiration given him by Thea Elvsted, who was at school with Hedda but who doesn't remember her as a friend. Hedda manipulates Lövborg into returning to his self-destructive hedonism, and by taunting him about a lack of courage when he thought about killing himself when earlier rejected by Hedda, eventually drives him to suicide; at the same time, she destroys the manuscript of his new book, which should prove even more original. This is all because of jealousy over the fact that he has found true love with Thea, a girl she has always despised.

There was always an important place for the individual in Ibsen's work (think of both Brand and Peer Gynt among his early plays, both about how an individual expresses himself). The social plays such as The Dollshouse are often about the relationship between an individual and society as a whole, and particularly about the difference between private and public morality. By the time he wrote Hedda Gabler, Ibsen's focus has moved back to his earlier theme of the expression of individuality; the difference between Hedda and Peer is that Peer Gynt is trying to work out who he is while Hedda knows her identity but is increasingly unable to express it except destructively. She is so much the centre of the play that there is far less symbolic context than usual in Ibsen's work; the main symbols have to do with posterity and children (Lövborg's new manuscript is called his child; Tesman's aunts are tremendously excited by the idea that Hedda might be pregnant). Thus the portrayal of Hedda is of vital importance to the production of the play, and it is a pity that the one performance I have seen (Fiona Shaw in the mid-nineties) was rather marred by turning it into melodrama.

Thursday 21 June 2001

Rudyard Kipling: Plain Tales From the Hills (1888)

Edition: Wordsworth, 1992
Review number: 846

Kipling's first collection, of stories published in journals, contains a large number of quite short stories. They are all about India, and nearly all about the British in India. He establishes the subject which inspired so much of his work right at the beginning; that is, how India affected the British soldiers and officials who worked there. (Of course, the British changed India too, but that is not what Kipling chose to write about, and in many of his stories the subcontinent is portrayed as so vast, so alien and so primordial that these changes were superficial, hardly touching the real India.)

The social breadth among the British pictured by Kipling is quite wide, though mainly confined to young officers and clerks. Several stories are about how India educates young men sent out from a sheltered life in England. Among the best of these are the ones involving the scheming Mrs Hawksbee, but the collection is evenly good. As a début, it had quite an effect, and it is not surprising that Kipling went on to become one of the best short story writers in English.

Edmund Crispin: The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944)

Edition: Penguin, 1971
Review number: 845

One of Crispin's best Gervase Fen novels, The Case of the Gilded Fly is about murder in a repertory company in Oxford. Nowadays, the decline in theatregoing has killed off the provincial rep scene which used to be so important to the theatre community, and most British theatres outside London play home to sequences of touring productions of lightweight pieces sold to the public by a star name, usually a TV actor, rather than being the home of their own company.

One of the actors in the company, Yseut Haskell, is an unpleasant woman who not only believes herself more talented than she really is but enjoys such pastimes as taking other women's boyfriends. When she dies in a poorly faked suicide, not only are there many candidates for the murderer, but an amateur detective like Fen feels almost that the killer ought to be given a chance to escape.

The novel is full of the ironic touches which are Crispin's trademark; Fen referring to himself as "the only literary critic turned detective in fiction" is a typical example. The author also expends some effort in making Fen seem eccentric to the point of disagreeableness; he is not one of the cosier detectives in fiction.

Though not as inventive as The Moving Toyshop, the Oxford setting seems to have inspired Crispin here too. The puzzle is quite easy, but that doesn't stop the novel being entertaining. The title is partly a reference to a strange ring placed on Yseut's finger after her death, but also to King Lear (as the ring is meant to point out), which makes it a reference to Yseut's immorality.

Wednesday 20 June 2001

Henrik Ibsen: The Pillars of the Community (1877)

Translation: Una Ellis-Fermor, 1950 (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Penguin, 1964
Review number: 844

Also known in English as The Pillars of Society, this play is really the start of the series of plays with social messages which so scandalised nineteenth century Europe. It is a vicious attack on the complacent hypocrisy of Norwegian small town society, especially on the "it couldn't happen here" attitude taken towards the scandals of the wider world.

Karsten Bernick runs a shipping firm in a coastal town, an important business as the railway doesn't yet pass through it. His wealth and eminence is based on a lie; by pretending that his family's rumoured hidden wealth (in fact non-existent) had been stolen by his brother in law Johan T&oumlaut;nnesen, who emigrated to the US, he was able to persuade creditors that he was suffering only a temporary loss and compound with them until his business became more healthy. No one, not even his wife, knows the truth, but now T&oumlaut;nnesen is returning to Norway. At the same time, two other scandals seem to be about to break; the railway is coming, and Bernick has bought the land along its route cheaply, standing to make a huge profit; and he has accepted work at his shipyard that cannot possibly be done in the time allowed, which means that shoddy repairs are likely to lead to loss of life.

It is not just Bernick who is a hypocrite; all of this around him who might be considered pillars of the community, are really as bad. The only honest adult among the characters native to the town is Bernick's foreman Aune, and he is forced by the threat of dismissal to make the poor quality ship repairs against his better judgment.

One of Ibsen's themes is the passing of corruption from father to son, and it can be seen in a mild form in this play in Olaf, Bernick's son, who is keen to travel, to take part in the modern world, and at one point is thought to have stowed away on the dangerous ship.

The main purpose of the play is the attack on the complacent superiority of the relatively unsophisticated Norwegian bourgeois, and it succeeds admirably, paving the way for the greater plays to come.

Tuesday 19 June 2001

Carson McCullers: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1943)

Edition: Century Hutchinson, 1986 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 843

One of the themes of McCullers' novels is the idea of a passionate nature unable for some reason to express that side of their personality; it is a trait common to most of the characters in this, her most famous novel. It depicts the poor in a town in the Southern United States in the late thirties, both black and white, and while conscious of race issues it is far more about the effects of poverty.

The best example of this is the young girl Mick Kelly. She has a great gift for music, but all she can ever hear is snatches from other people's radios, because her family is so poor. She will have to go to work almost as soon as she can, to help them survive, and her gift is unlikely ever to mean anything.

The one character who is able to express himself is, ironically, the deaf-mute Singer. He brightens up the lives of the other main characters by showing them a true, considerate love. In the end, though, even he is unable to transform the situations they confront, just as the Christian and Communist evangelists cannot.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a powerful novel of unfulilled yearning, which paints a bleak picture of what poverty meant in pre-War America. The War is to engulf all these people in a few years - the novel was published after the US entered the conflict - and a few touches remind us of what is to happen. The War did not change things permanently; the US still contains massive differences in wealth, and being born in a poor neighbourhood is still almost certainly going to have massive effects on many aspects of a person's life.

Saturday 16 June 2001

Leslie Charteris: Call For the Saint (1948)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1948 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 842

The first story in this Saint book, The King of the Beggars, is much better than the second, The Masked Angel. It deals with an investigation of a protection racket targeting Chicago beggars, and rather surprisingly treats it as though doing so is a new idea; I can't really imagine that pre-war gangsters hadn't thought of it. It is typical of the series, and an exciting thriller.

The Masked Angel tackles match rigging in boxing, with a former no hoper given a big buildup as the Masked Angel and suddenly - suspiciously - winning all his fights. Apart from the fact that I don't like boxing, the story is rather predictable and the descriptions of the fights don't manage to convey much in the way of atmosphere. The idea that many fights have been fixed was maybe more surprising in 1948 than it is now, so the story might have dated. It is not Charteris at his best even so.

Thomas Kyd: The Spanish Tragedy (c. 1592)

Edition: Nick Hern Books, 1997
Review number: 841

Given how many devices are new in The Spanish Tragedy, it is absolutely astounding how well it works. Written in the early 1590s, possibly not by Kyd, it was the innovative precursor of techniques used by Marlowe, Shakespeare (Hamlet might be based on another, lost, play by Kyd), and the Jacobean revenge tragedies.

The plot of The Spanish Tragedy is a complicated revenge story, which is set up by the characters of Revenge personified and the recently killed Don Andrea, watching from Hell the events which follow Andrea's death. They have little bits of dialogue between the acts, like a chorus; Andrea is keen for his death to be avenged, and continually accuses Revenge of falling down on his job. (There is good reason for the accusation - Revenge actually falls asleep during the third act.)

The Spanish Tragedy was one of the first plays in English to follow the ideas of Seneca, though it did not do so completely slavishly (its four rather than five acts are quite unusual, and it doesn't have the action off stage). It includes a favourite device of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, the play within the play (in addition to the Christopher Sly-like scenes for Revenge and Don Andrea). It also has the distinction of innovating iambic pentameter blank verse, which makes the play easier to read than some of its contemporaries and seems more familiar to us than alternatives through Shakespeare's use of it.

It is clear that The Spanish Tragedy is technically innovative and accomplished, but it is more than that. Even across the gulf of over four centuries it manages to be engrossing and exciting, putting it in a class with the best drama of its time.

Friday 15 June 2001

John le Carré: The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)

Edition: Pan, 1978 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 840

The Honourable Schoolboy is a sequel to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The discovery of the Russian mole in an extremely senior position in the British intelligence operation known as the Circus has severely damaged its reputation, both in Whitehall and abroad. George Smiley, as acting head of the Circus, has the task of re-building confidence, with agents known to the Russians, and unwillingness throughout Whitehall to give him resources or share information.

The only possible source of intelligence that the Circus now possesses is analysis of the activities of the mole. By looking at his manipulation of operations, it is possible to tell something of both the holes in Soviet knowledge and what they themselves were trying to keep hidden. In the second category falls a Hong Kong bank account, into which vast amounts of Russian money have been deposited, and where previous investigations were quashed by the mole, who also destroyed many of the relevant files.

Smiley manages to find an agent whose existence does not seem to have been revealed to the Russians to send to Hong Kong to investigate, and manages to persuade Whitehall to let the Circus resume active operations. The agent is Jerry Westerby, son of a press baron (hence the Honourable of the title), and the novel is divided about half and half between Smiley's activities in London and Westerby's in Hong Kong and Indochina.

Smiley is clearly the character who holds le Carré's interest, and the London, office bound, scenes are far more interesting than the action in the East - just as in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy they are compared with the activities of Prideaux in Eastern Europe. This is despite the fact that le Carré's depiction of the corrupt world of Triads, opium, civil war and the disintegrating US presence is compelling. The reason for it is basically that Smiley is the only fully realised character, those around him being caricatures and Westerby a stereotype, not essentially any different from Prideaux.

The Honourable Schoolboy is not as good as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; the excitement is less. Smiley on the trail of the mole is much more interesting than Smiley trying to restore the reputation of the Circus, and the novel is therefore less involving. Readable, but not le Carré at his best.

Wednesday 13 June 2001

Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities (1863)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 839

The two quotations that everyone remembers from this novel come at the very beginning ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...") and at the very end ("It is a far far better thing..."). There are other memorable phrases ("Recalled to life", for example), and plenty of memorable scenes as Dickens depicts the arrogance of the French aristocracy of the eighteenth century and the turmoil of the revolution.

But A Tale of Two Cities is not just about memorable phrases and scenes. It is the Dickens novel which is most clearly plotted as a whole, where events flow from one to another and melodramatic coincidences are at a minimum. (The obvious example of the resemblance between Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton is long established by the time it is needed.) The novel is one of Dickens' shortest, and that may be a reason why it is better plotted, but it also lacks the wonderful casts of minor characters which fill most of his writing.

Having said that, the most memorable characters are the Defarges, particularly Madame, who has a disturbing malevolence. They are not as central to the plot as they are to the atmosphere in the Paris set sections of the novel, as it moves from sullen resentment of the aristocracy to the tyranny of the Terror. Dickens' handling of the history is closely based on Carlyle's account, and is even-handedly against injustice, portraying a terrible picture of the actions of both sides. We shouldn't forget, of course, that when Dickens was writing this novel, the French Revolution was comparatively recent history, as much as the Second World War is today, and well within living memory.

The story is one of personal heroism in a world gone mad, and Dickens' novel is a plea for humanity. It remains immensely powerful, perhaps more so than some of his works which campaign with a specific target, now long attained.

Tuesday 12 June 2001

Ann Granger: Beneath These Stones (1999)

Edition: Headline, 1999
Review number: 838

The twelfth Mitchell and Markby mystery is one of the best in the series (though I am perhaps influenced in that opinion by not having read one for some time). In many ways it fits into the standard model of the novels in the series, with Meredith Mitchell becoming involved on the fringes of one of Alan Markby's murder cases, while both of them wonder about where their relationship is heading.

Like Morse's Oxford and Wexford's Kingsmarkham, and other settings of mystery series, Bamford is an exceptionally dangerous place to live, with a high incidence of murder and violent crime. In this case, the victim is a farmer's wife from a smallholding, found on the railway embankment by a gypsy poacher checking his snares. (Danny Smith, by the way, is a character drawn without the prejudice which usually attaches to gypsies and others with unusual lifestyles in this particular genre.)

Sonia Franklin never fit in on the farm; she had come from a yuppy background in London, and life on a working farm wasn't what she expected it to be. She didn't get on with her stepdaughter, Tammy, and she was soon bored, so that she began to have affairs to pass the time. In the end, it doesn't seem terribly surprising that she had been murdered - something common to many murder mystery victims.

The big strength of this novel lies in the characterisation of the stoical twelve year old Tammy; Granger is one of the best writers of the traditional English mystery where it comes to depicting young people. (Think of the truly cringe inspiring efforts of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell as contrast.)

Saturday 9 June 2001

Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Savage Mind (1962)

Translation: 1966 (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972
Review number: 837

Many books that, like The Savage Mind, go on to become influential on the way that people think, have at their time of writing two purposes, of which one only ensures their survival. The immediate cause of the genesis of such a book is to make a specific point or answer some then current school of thought; in this case, Lévi-Strauss wanted to counter some ideas about totemism in anthropology. This first purpose then suggests a more general thesis, more philosophical and theoretical, more illuminating of the way in which people think; in this case, it concerns how human beings classify and understand the world around them.

I have no claims to be an expert - or even to be greatly interested - in anthropology. The argument about totemism is hard to follow (mainly because the opinions with which Lévi-Strauss is disagreeing are assumed to be known to the reader), and in the end is only interesting as a series of illustrations to the philosophical thesis about the need we have to classify our environment.

I am not sure that I would agree with everything that Lévi-Strauss has to say. He argues against the idea that the various classification schemes he looks at are antecedents of scientific method, feeling instead that they are substantially different. There are clearly differences, but I would feel that the history of science shows the development of modern method in the late medieval period, as experiment and verifiability began to be seen as important, but that the body of knowledge attained by that time in Western Europe is in many ways analogous to (say) the medical theories of a tribe in the Amazon. Possibly what Lévi-Strauss meant is that the ideas of the medieval West were more theoretical and analytical, the theory of humours for example generalising ideas like bitter tasting substances being good for stomach upsets.

On the other hand, he may be against the implication that science is a superior development, an advance on earlier thought systems. In some ways, this is clearly the case; we certainly seem to be able to understand the nature of the physical world more accurately than our medieval ancestors could - every time we turn on an electric light bears witness to this. On the other hand, to say that this makes science "better" goes against the trend of thought since the sixties, and Lévi-Strauss could easily be anticipating this.

As a logician, one thing which struck me is that the classifications which form the examples are almost exclusively binary; something is either in a group or out of it with no middle ground, even if this requires some strange manipulation to shoehorn some objects into one group. This is clearly related to one of the main functions of classification, which is to reduce the complexity of the world and make it easier to understand; a tendency to view things as black or white is much simpler than admitting to hundreds of shades of grey.

I wouldn't claim to completely understand The Savage Mind. There is too much from fields of knowledge unfamiliar to me, and Lévi-Strauss' argument is very complex to take in at a single reading. From the very first page, however, it is clear that the book is the product of a first-rate mind, and it is absolutely fascinating.

Saki: The Chronicles of Clovis (1911)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 836

Saki's third collection of short stories continues the trend toward the macabre shown in Reginald in Russia and The Unbearable Bassington. Many of them feature a new hero, Clovis Sangrail, who is a similar disenchanted upper class youth to but has a more malicious streak than either Reginald or Comus.

There are a fair number of stories in the collection, however, which do not involve Clovis. These tend to be the more supernatural, including The Music on the Hill, which is a further development of the idea of Gabriel-Ernest from Reginald in Russia of the savage demigod in the English countryside. Bringing this theme into a more domestic setting is one of Saki's most famous and most memorable stories, Shredni Vashtar, with its depiction of the childhood imagination as chilling as The Lord of the Flies.

The Chronicles of Clovis and Beasts and Superbeasts are Saki's most consistently excellent collections. The stories here are marred in one or two places by the fact that witty remarks are repeated, but that it a minor blemish.

Friday 8 June 2001

Michael Frayn: The Russian Interpreter (1966)

Edition: Penguin, 1967
Review number: 835

Frayn's second novel is more interesting than his first, The Tin Men, and shows the influence of Evelyn Waugh (in, say, Scoop) rather than J.B. Priestley. Paul Manning takes on part time Russian-English interpreting while working in Moscow to complete his Ph.D. thesis. He then meets the gorgeous Raya, and begins an affair, but makes the mistake of introducing him to his employer, English businessman Gordon Proctor-Gould. Raya and Gordon begin an affair of their own but, having no language in common, have to bully Paul into acting as their interpreter.

This being Soviet Russia, political aspects to this situation quickly emerge, with the thought occurring to both Paul and Gordon that Raya might turn out to be a police spy. Raya acts quite strangely, and starts pilfering Gordon's possessions; either she is forced to steal by poverty or psychology, or the thefts have a more sinister purpose.

There are numerous parallels with Scoop, particularly in terms of the characters. Paul, for example, is very similar except for his profession, to William Boot, while Raya is reminiscent of Kätchen. However, The Russian Interpreter is nothing like as funny as Waugh and, like several other Frayn novels, leaves me thinking that he is a good playwright.

Kurt Vonnegut: Timequake (1997)

Edition: Vintage, 1998
Review number: 834

In 1997, Vonnegut imagined that on February 13, 2001 there would be a timequake; the universe would revert to its position about ten years earlier, and the decade would be repeated exactly as before, with the massively important difference that everybody would remember what happened the first time around, but be powerless to change anything.

Vonnegut's novel is not a narrative of the ten year rerun. It is, instead, a series of commentaries on it, with all kinds of digressions. It is fairly obvious that this is going to produce a more interesting read than a straightforward narrative, especially as it enables Vonnegut to talk about individuals affected in different ways by the beginning and end of the rerun without having to describe experiences in between common to all. (Once someone has reacted to repeated past events with "Oh no, not again" and "Oh good, this again", there isn't a great deal left to say.)

Part of Timequake is autobiographical, little anecdotes from throughout Vonnegut's life, and another part is about Kilgore Trout, the author who is Vonnegut's alter ego in several of his novels. There is a description of them meeting, after the end of the rerun, which is a bizarre touch of irony (but typical of the author). Many of the stories about the two writers are extremely funny; this is one of Vonnegut's most obviously humourous novels.

Like all of Vonnegut's novels, however, Timequake also has something to say. It is about free will, fatalism, and apathy. It is about people living their lives on remote control, which is why the end of the rerun is greeted by accidents (as people driving cars don't realise that they need to be driving them proactively after years when thought and action are disconnected) and the by a syndrome akin to catatonia, Post Timequake Apathy, with people not knowing how to exercise free will. Vonnegut has been consistently suspicious of devices like TV which can reduce a person to a passive observer; he has campaigned against technological devices that he believes are dehumanising.

This was Vonnegut's last novel, as he wanted to retire, and it ends with a clambake attended by many of the people that he knew, or wanted to know, or lookalikes for some who were already dead. The guest of homour at this party is Kilgore Trout (not because of his writing but because of his behaviour when the rerun finished), and as a whole it provides a final ironical twist in a novel filled with them. Vonnegut was able to combine intellectual ideas with the most immediate humour, and Timequake is an excellent example of this talent.

Tuesday 5 June 2001

Terry Pratchett: Witches Abroad (1991)

Edition: Corgi, 1992
Review number: 833

At the time when this came out, I thought it one of Pratchett's least successful Discworld novels; now, on re-reading it, I have a higher opinion.

It is one of the stories involving the three witches in the coven in the remote village of Lancre. One of them has a magic wand left to her, as well as the responsibility of being fairy godmother to a girl many miles away in the town of Genua. Unfortunately, the wand doesn't come with instructions, and so the three witches set out for Genua, which is a kind of Discworld version of New Orleans.

There are two kinds of humour in Witches Abroad. The first is the way that the witches are like the most naive tourists, distrustful of the food, unable to speak the language, always comparing to back home and so on. The second, more interesting, source of humour is similar to that of some of Neil Gaiman's adaptations of fairy stories in Smoke and Mirrors. The girl has another fairy godmother, and she is addicted to making stories, which (the Discworld being magical) have power. Unfortunately, she insists on traditional happy endings, many of which are only superficially happy (granny remains dead at the end of Little Red Riding Hood, and marriage to the prince is unlikely to bring happiness if he is only a stooge for someone else who runs everything).

It is the way in which familiar stories are manipulated both by the author and by the witches which makes Witches Abroad different and interesting as a Discworld novel. It is not one of the funniest, but it is probably the most self-consciously literary, because of the irony of being a story about manipulating stories.

Saturday 2 June 2001

Joseph Heller: Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man (2000)

Edition: Scribner, 2000
Review number: 832

Heller's final novel, published posthumously, is about an American author in his seventies, struggling to get started on what he expects to be his final novel. He wants to create something by which he will be remembered, rather than something which will be compared disparagingly to his famous first novel, as all his subsequent fiction has been. (As he says, though, you can only burst triumphantly onto the scene once.)

Like the novel to which it makes clear reference, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, there are obviously many autobiographical elements to Heller's tale of Eugene Pota (POTA - Portrait Of The Artist). It is perhaps not intended to be such a general depiction of the nature of the artist (note the title changing "the" to "an"). After all, people in old age are more individual than children and teenagers, simply because they have had more time for their experiences to differentiate them.

The inevitable thing that the reader does is to compare Heller's last novel with his earlier work, precisely what Eugene Pota complains about. It seems to me to be gentler than the earlier novels that I have read, much more resigned to the world even than Closing Time. It is humourous, particularly in the false starts Pota makes toward his final novel, and it is full of ironic references to Heller (at one point Pota complains that he is stuck in a Catch-22, for example). It reads rather like a John Barth novel rather than a Joseph Heller one, and it is certainly much more self-consciously literary in character (which is of course because it is about writing a novel and is part of the joke).

I like Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man. It may lack the fire of Catch-22, the sense that what you're reading is one of the great novels, but it is clever and enjoyable, gentle, funny and accepting old age with dignity and wry sadness. It is probably Heller's most original novel, with (as always) the exception of his first.

David A. Kyle: Z-Lensman (1983)

Edition: Bantam, 1983
Review number: 831

The culmination of Kyle's trilogy continuing E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series concentrates on the second stage lensman Nadreck, from the Pluto-like planet Palain VII. (He is a Z-lensman because in a classification scheme for sentient beings in which humans are A, his species is of type Z, very alien indeed.) He is instrumental in seeing off several threats to civilization, including rebellious machines and psychic forces.

As with his earlier attempts at the continuation, Kyle is unable to make Z-Lensman match up to the original series. Nadreck is not sufficiently strange (this accusation could be levelled at the original novels, but it is not as severe a problem when he is not the central character), and his human helpers are interchangeable. Introducing the idea of survival after death doesn't work very well, especially as it forms an unnecessary addition to an already complicated plot. The writing is disjointed and leaves a great deal to be desired in terms of the sense of wonder and enthusiasm which is such an important part of Smith's own writing. Only worthwhile if, like me, you are something of a collector.

Friday 1 June 2001

Michael Moorcock: The City in the Autumn Stars (1986)

Edition: Millennium, 1992 
Review number: 830

The second, much longer, von Bek novel has as its hero the young man of the family in the later eighteenth century, who has already been involved with the Russian court of Catherine the Great and in the American Civil War. When the novel opens, he is a deputy in the revolutionary French National Assembly, but is fleeing Paris, disgusted by the increasing atrocities of Robespierre's reign of terror.

The adventures Manfred von Bek faces in southern Germany and then in the magical countries of the Mittelmarch are, like those of his ancestor in The Warhound and the World's Pain, a quest for the Holy Grail, motivated not by desire for the object itself but by love of a beautiful woman. The adventures are quite similar in character, except that Manfred does not face attack from the Dukes of Hell. This is because the theological situation envisaged by Moorcock has now changed; in the earlier novel, Lucifer sought the Grail to help him to become reconciled to God against the wishes of his lieutenants; now, both have abandoned humankind while discussing this reconciliation.

Some might consider the ending of the novel, which involves a recreation of the crucifixion at a time of astrological significance to influence future events, blasphemous. Since many of Moorcock's novels are about religious ideas from the standpoint of a non-believer, this is a charge which has fairly frequently been levelled at his writing. In this case, such an accusation is not, I think, justified, because of the way in which the reconstruction is set up. The motivation of those involved is based on the idea that the crucifixion is an important event in spiritual history, so that (on alchemical principles) a recreation at an appropriate time would have similar power. What is depicted is clearly not intended by the participants, nor I feel by the author, as a mockery.

The City in the Autumn Stars is structured so that it begins mundanely, and magical elements gradually creep in. It is the early part which is the best, and it shows just how good a historical novelist Moorcock could have been. As a whole, the novel is overshadowed by its predecessor, which comes across as more individual.

J.B. Priestley: Festival at Farbridge (1953)

Edition: Heinemann, 1976
Review number: 829

I had never really thought about the 1951 Festival of Britain, and had assumed that it hardly amounted to much outside the South Bank. Virtually every town and village in the country did something to mark the event, however, and Priestley's comic novel is about the preparations for this in the small town of Farbridge.

The main difficulty for me in 2001 is to try to think of the 1951 festival as something different from the limp and banal celebrations of the Millennium which have just concluded. The situation is different; the Festival of Britain was in part a reprieve following the years of self-denial of the War and its aftermath, and in part a celebration of a hoped for future, not just a coincidence of the way that the calendar works. People's lives are different; we now live in a world where just about every household is centred around the then rare TV; education is considered far less important, and there is no longer any serious attempt to consider traditional high art as better than popular culture; the idea of a duty to others is much less important in politcal and commercial life.

All this means that Festival at Farbridge is interesting as a historical document. It is not really successful as a comic novel, particularly when compared to, say, Low Notes on a High Level, and could not have been thought particularly funny even in the early fifties.