Friday 21 December 2001

T.S. Eliot: The Sacred Wood (1920)

Edition: University Paperbacks, 1960 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1022

The poetry of the past was extremely important to T.S. Eliot, and he wrote a fair amount of criticism. This is quite an early collection of essays, mainly about Elizabethan and Jacobean poetic drama. In most of them, the emphasis is on where earlier critics had gone wrong in their assessments of the significance and stature of the poets. While Eliot's writing is (unsurprisingly) insightful, this theme of re-examination and the tone in which it is carried out does make him seem very arrogant. (In the introduction to the second edition, he did say that some of his opinions had changed, without going into details about which, precisely.)

Generally, what Eliot has to say is interesting if rather academic. (Apart from anything else, there are untranslated quotations in at least three different languages.) He is particularly scathing about Gilbert Murray as a populariser of ancient literature - comparing a Greek actor speaking Euripides to an English one in his translation of Medea, he says that at least the original performer had the advantage of lines in his own language. With the concentration of the essays in general on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though, it is the essays on Marlowe and Jonson which are the most illuminating.

Michael Moorcock: The Black Corridor (1969)

Edition: Orion, 1996
Review number: 1021

The wonderfully atmospheric first few paragraphs of The Black Corridor immediately make it clear what the purpose of the novel is to be. Science fiction of the fifties and sixties in particular treat space travel as a glorious adventure, mankind (almost always male) against the stars. Here, though, the pioneer is a selfish, paranoid man who wants to save himself from the worldwide descent into 1984-style dystopian states.

Ryan is the only member of his family not in hibernation as the ship travels to Earth-like planets around Barnard's Star; he carries out the checks needed by the ship's systems during travel. In the meantime, he experiences nightmares about the past, to the extent that the reader begins to doubt whether the spaceship is real or the hallucination of a lunatic in an asylum.

The Black Corridor is a clever psychological study, told in the form of a classic science fiction story like those which Robert Heinlein specialised in at the time. By the way it is written, it exposes the limited assumptions about people that such stories made (though that was not their purpose - their authors sought to share their enthusiasm about space travel).

Thursday 20 December 2001

Anne McCaffrey: The Skies of Pern (2001)

Edition: Bantam, 2001
Review number: 1020

This latest Pern novel reads as though it is meant to round off the series. It is one of the most successful series of novels in science fiction, both long running and consistently high selling. The general trend has been for the novels to become more like soap opera episodes as time passes - a trend matched by the way that all of McCaffrey's output has become more homogeneous and unchallengingly predictable.

There are two main aspects to the story. The major dramatic event is a comet impact in Pern's oceans, a massive disaster. This is of course something inspired by the Schumacher-Levy impact on Jupiter, and is a dramatic yet extremely unlikely event. McCaffrey cites impressive technical assistance with the impact description, including oceanographic analysis of tsunami patterns based on the geography of Pern. The sort of panic this event can generate is shown by the way that governments have financed research to try to prevent it happening on Earth, while less dramatic but far more likely scenarios are much less sexy ways to spend money. (To be fair, it is relatively easy to see how to attack the problem of astronomical impacts, compared to, say, making the world's roads safe, or persuading Americans that spending a few minutes going through airport security is a worthwhile precaution.)

The other theme, continued from Masterharper of Pern, is the attacks of the Abominators, violent opponents of the changes brought by the information stored in Aivas, the computer which had survived from the original colonisation of Pern. People oppose technological advances for all kinds of reasons, but in her simplistic depiction of these Luddites as not too bright traditionalists, McCaffrey is going against the trends of the modern world. Rather than feeling that all advances are, by definition, evil, current unease about technology is partly due to the perception of past failures to correctly forecast and allow for the results of new applications of science (such as the link between increased burning of fossil fuels and global warning), and also apprehension at the dangers inherent in what we can do now or will soon be able to do, given the human race's past lack of restraint - I'm thinking of nuclear weapons and developments in genetics and biotechnology. It seems to me that fear for the future is a perfectly reasonable - and, indeed, intelligent - emotion to feel, especially as the sort of leaders the world has are not really such as to inspire much confidence.

This is, of course unlike the situation on Pern. There, rather unrealistically, de facto world rulers F'lar and Lessa have managed to be right in every crisis through the entire series of novels; their opponents have always turned out to be too wedded to tradition or to have their own agendas which are usually about personal power rather than the good of people generally, the motive of the two dragonriders. This is the sort of thing which makes this series less significant than it might be; easy to read, but not very deep.

Josephine Tey: To Love and Be Wise (1950)

Edition: Pan, 1959 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1019

I would defy anyone to work out the solution to the mystery in this novel, unless they have this particular Pan edition - it has an extremely poorly thought out cover picture which gives the whole thing away. (Therefore, no cover picture.)

American photographer Leslie Searle turns up at a London literary party, seeking out popular broadcaster Walter Whitmore, with whom he claims mutual acquaintances. Staying with him in the country, Searle makes quite an impression on the local community, especially on Whitmore's fiancée. Despite the jealousy this causes, the two men decide to collaborate on a book about the local river, travelling from its source to the sea by canoe. When Searle disappears, he is thought to have drowned in the river, his body lost; it looks like murder with no shortage of suspects, even if Whitmore is the main contender.

Tey's detective, Alan Grant, is shared between five of her eight crime novels, and is a neglected great of the genre. In this novel, his usual character seems to have been overcome with something of Campion, though this is partly because the setting is very reminiscent of Allingham - an artists' retreat in Suffolk (Orfordshire, as it is called here).

Wednesday 19 December 2001

C.S. Lewis: The Great Divorce (1945)

Edition: Fontana, 1977
Review number: 1017

One of the fruits of Blake's unorthodox theology was the series of engravings entitled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which (according to the arguments accompanying the plates) depict Swedenborgian universalist ideas - the salvation of every human being. Lewis, on the other hand, wrote The Great Divorce to illustrate how different heaven and hell are in his more orthodox Protestant theology, and to say something about the ways in which he believed a soul would end up in one or the other.

Although The Great Divorce is not a pure allegory (as is the much less successful The Pilgrim's Regress), it contains allegorical elements. The basic idea is that the inhabitants of hell - depicted as an endless, dreary town - are able to make a day trip to heaven. There, they seem so insubstantial that to walk on the solid grass is extremely painful; and there, those they knew when alive try to persuade them to remain, which they can do if they turn to God rather than concentrating on themselves.

Self-centredness is viewed here as the common factor in turning away from God, and the encounters in The Great Divorce are basically a series of elaborations of the forms that this vice could take. Lewis doesn't take the space to be particularly subtle or to do more than sketch in situation and personality in each case, but many of the discussions are quite memorable. Less interesting is the explanation of what is happening by the soul of George MacDonald, chosen by Lewis to be his guide to the spiritual realm as Dante did Virgil.

Though the ideas here are good, the limited range of examples chosen by Lewis - mainly to point readers away from the common idea that the worst crimes are the public ones like murder - means that The Great Divorce cannot be the best of Lewis' fiction.

Nikolai Tolstoy: The Coming of the King (1988)

Edition: Corgi, 1989
Review number: 1018

This novel, the first of a projected trilogy which hasn't yet appeared (and probably never will), made quite a stir among my more literary friends when I was a student. As Arthurian fantasy goes, it is unique in several ways, and, while tedious in places, it is generally engrossing.

The title leads the reader to expect a Sword in the Stone scenario, with Merlin tutoring the boy Arthur, but in fact Tolstoy has completely separated the two characters, making the king precede the wizard by about fifty years. The king of the title is not Arthur, but an even later ruler who, at the beginning of the novel, goes to Merlin's grave to consult with the ghost of the enchanter.

The Coming of the King is one of the most difficult novels about the Celtic Dark Ages to read, making almost no concession to the modern reader. Names and, frequently, concepts such as fate are given only in Celtic forms, and then not even in the ones most likely to be familiar to readers. There is a pronunciation guide, but no glossary. Forms of Celtic literature are imitated in ways which are sometimes disconcerting or off-putting (it certainly helps if you have read, say, the Mabinogion). In one way, this is a virtue: it makes the novel atmospherically Celtic; but The Coming of the King is not an easy read. (Traditional tales from other cultures are also worked in, including Beowulf and a touch of the Kalevala; these borrowings are more interesting to catalogue than to read.)

The best sections of this novel are the least portentous: the amusing story of Merlin as a precocious baby and the exciting siege of Deinerth. This is where Tolstoy forgets that he is writing mythology and gets carried along by his own story. (To try too hard to produce mythology is a common fault in modern fantasy authors, one which is an annoying legacy of Tolkien's influence. Even if there is something in the reader which is stirred by the epic ideas, this is stifled when these are expressed in turgid prose.)

Tolstoy went on to become involved in one of the bigger libel cases of the 1990s, when he was sued after suggesting that British officers handed over Yugoslav resistance fighters to Tito after the end of the war knowing that they would be massacred. The second and third books of this trilogy seem to have been forgotten in the stress of the massive damages awarded against Tolstoy; a pity. The Coming of the King, as a result, stands as a unique and different Arthurian fantasy, and this alone is a considerable achievement.

Tuesday 18 December 2001

Marion Zimmer Bradley & Holly Lisle: Glenraven (1996)

Edition: Baen Books, 1997
Review number: 1016

One of the perennial difficulties for the fantasy novelist who wants to involve earthly characters is how to take them to the scene of the action. (Once there, they pay the author back by requiring explanations of what is around them, making exposition easier and seemingly more natural.) I don't recall the precise device used in Glenraven occurring anywhere else, however, and it is always nice to see something new.

When Jayjay's marriage breaks up, she finds a travel guide to the tiny European country of Glenraven in a bookstore. She has never heard of it, but it sounds enchanting; she and a friend go there together. In fact, Glenraven is a magical kingdom, and Jayjay and Sophie have been summoned as the heroes to save it from an evil ruler who is destroying it. That means that the two of them are not going to have quite the holiday they expected...

In recent fantasy, the most similar scenario to that of Glenraven is that of Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom For Sale - Sold. Glenraven is not as lightweight as that novel, and doesn't exploit its subject for humorous purposes. (It does make a dig at much of the fantasy genre for minimising the squalor and misery inherent in the medieval setting.) The novels draws on the strengths of both writers, as a collaboration should, Bradley softening the brutality sometimes present in Lisle's work while gaining more of an edge. Glenraven also has a feminist agenda; it is in the still unusual position of having female heroes (and the cover picture interestingly suggests that this is not the case). This is an enjoyable novel which deserves to be better known.

Mary Stewart: The Wicked Day (1983)

Edition: Fawcett Crest, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1015

"The wicked day of destiny" is how Malory described the battle of Camlann, at which Arthur was victorious but was mortally wounded by his traitorous son Mordred. The tragic ending of the story interested the medieval mind more than it does our own, with our cultural yearning for the cosy, happy ending; and this is why today's retellings tend not to concentrate on the event which gave Malory the title for his whole poem, the Morte d'Arthur.

There are certain inconsistencies in the traditional portrayal of an evil Mordred, and Stewart in this novel has attempted to smooth some of them out, at the same time softening the ending. As a central character, he brings more life to The Wicked Day than there is in any of Stewart's Arthurian novels since The Crystal Cave. He is made an ambitious but not wicked young man, misled by false reports of Arthur's death to take the crown rather than taking advantage of the king's absence to rebel. My feeling is that this should make the ending more tragic, but in fact it isn't; this is mainly because it is not sufficiently real to be affecting.

The let down of the ending is one of the problems of The Wicked Day; it also suffers from repeating too much of earlier writers. While it would be virtually impossible to write an Arthurian fantasy that wasn't derivative in some way, much of the characterisation of the children of Morgause (Mordred along with Lot's four sons) is taken pretty much directly from T.H. White. Stewart is a bit more explicit about incestuous desire than White could be, but the psychology (particularly of the twins Agravaine and Gaheris) is identical. This is important, because the five of them are the most important characters in the novel, not excluding Arthur himself.

Thursday 13 December 2001

William Boyd: Armadillo (2000)

Edition: Penguin, 1999
Review number: 1014

The world of insurance is not really a very exciting one, but Boyd has managed to make it so in his novel about fraud and pretence. It concentrates on the profession which clearly has the greatest propensity for drama within the field, the insurance adjuster (who checks whether big claims that worry insurance companies are valid - leading here to suicides, death threats and assaults).

The central character is Lorimer Black, who starts the novel by discovering the body of a hanged man, driven to suicide by an insurance company's unwillingness to pay, is perhaps the most honest character in the novel, and he has created an entire new background for himself, disassociating himself from his Romanian origins. The plot is very complicated, but not too much so for enjoyment - the novel has made it to TV in a virtually unsimplified form without being impossible to follow.

Armadillo is a very well written, darkly funny novel, hopefully typical of Boyd, who is now going on my list of authors to read more from.

E.L. Doctorow: Loon Lake (1980)

Edition: Random House, 1980 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1013

One of Doctorow's more experimental novels, Loon Lake presents a bewildering collection of different techniques: traditional narratives, stream of consciousness, poetry. It is also a novel which continually reminds the reader of others, possibly an easy way for an author to put himself in the tradition of the great American novel; among those which are brought to mind are The Grapes of Wrath and the USA trilogy.

Loon Lake, a retreat for millionaire industrialist F.W. Bennett in the 1920s, is the central setting of the novel. Young hobo Joe turns up there, entranced by a woman seen through the windows of a private railway carriage. There too is poet Warren Penfield, Bennett's pensioner; as the novel follows Joe's path after he meets Bennett and leaves Loon Lake, so too in parallel it describes Penfield's journey there. (The mixed up chronology contributes to the experimental feeling of the novel.)

A difficult read, with even the most traditional parts of the narrative flipping between first and third person, Loon Lake is also atmospheric and interesting for a reader prepared to make the effort.

Wednesday 12 December 2001

Leslie Charteris: The Saint Returns (1969)

Edition: Hodder Paperbacks, 1970
Review number: 1012

The set up for this book is identical to that of its predecessor, The Saint on TV; so much so, in fact, that the foreword explaining that it contains scenarios reworked from the TV series is repeated verbatim. This has its ludicrous side, as it attributes the story ideas to John Kruse whereas the first is actually by D.R. Motton.

This particular story seems far-fetched even for the Saint. Simon Templar rescues a beautiful girl from two heavies, and she tells him that she is Mildred Hitler, daughter of Adolf, brought up in an Irish convent where the Mother Superior was the sister of a high ranking Nazi official, currently escaping neo-Nazis who kidnapped her to make her the figurehead for their movement. The point of the story is to work out what is really going on before the writer (Fleming Lee) explains; this isn't too difficult, and The Dizzy Daughter is not one of the better TV adaptations.

The Gadget Lover is no more convincing, but much more enjoyable. Someone has been hijacking Russian secret service equipment, so that (for example) hidden cameras explode when the last exposure is taken, killing the user. Simon becomes involved in their investigation, naturally entangling himself with a beautiful KGB officer. Taken from one of the fastest moving TV episodes, it becomes one of the best adaptations.

Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie (1900)

Edition: 4literature -
Review number: 1011

At first, Sister Carrie seems to be a conventional novel in a nineteenth century mould, the story of a young woman who comes to the big city of Chicago to seek a life which is better than that of her upbringing. She stays with her sister while looking for work, at first in department stores but then in dressmakers after her lack of experience tells against her.

Things become decidedly more modern when Carrie is taken up by a fairly wealthy man, and goes to live with him as though they were married. She does this basically because her work is unfulfilling and her sister and brother in law dull to live with; Drouet offers her a greater freedom. In fact, Carrie spends the whole novel trying to find happiness by casting off the conventions of late nineteenth century American life.

Carrie's family are not very important in the novel; the title doesn't really refer to her relationship with her sister, who is hardly mentioned once she moves in with Drouet. Instead, I think it is inteded to say to the reader, "This could be your sister!" Carrie yearns to be free and to be happy, but she is forced into dull domesticity or boring uncongenial work if she remains within the conventional limits of respectable society. I don't know if this was Dreiser's intention, but to today's reader, Sister Carrie seems to be an early feminist novel.

Holly Lisle: The Courage of Falcons (2000)

Edition: Gollancz, 2001
Review number: 1010

The culmination of Lisle's Secret Texts fantasy trilogy is really rather predictable. The major events of the novel have been extensively prepared in the first two volumes, and she sticks to the conventions of the genre more than before, so that there are no eleventh hour surprises.

Much of the effort Lisle has put into the series has gone into setting up the situation in the first two novels, particularly into the atmospheric Diplomacy of Wolves, so that the unwinding of the plot is not a major disappointment.

Tuesday 11 December 2001

Michael Moorcock: The Ice Schooner (1966-1985)

Edition: Orion, 1996
Review number: 1009

Although part of the general repackaging of Moorcock's fantasy output around the Eternal Champion theme, The Ice Schooner is not really that closely linked to the other novels. Having a hero and a quest is not really enough; there are few novels in the genre by any author which would share these common elements.

The much revised novel is set in a future Ice Age, so severe that oceans of ice cover almost the entire surface of the Earth. On these frozen wastes sail great ship-like wind powered sledges, hunting the land whales evolved from the sea creatures of our own time. Konrad Arflane is captain of such a vessel fallen on hard times until he rescues a dying man out on the remote ice. He turns out to be the ruler of an important city, but more relevantly to the plot, he gives Arflane a quest, to find the fabled lost city of New York, a vision, in his daughter, and a ship, a great ice schooner, to captain. The voyage to New York is the quest at the centre of the novel, as Arflane and Ulrica fall in love even in the presence of her husband.

The Ice Schooner is quite a minor piece of early Moorcock, even with the later revisions. Its apocalyptic setting is clearly influenced by the ecological disaster novels of J.G. Ballard, but it lacks the satirical edge. In fact, it is an enjoyable piece of straightforward fantasy with an unusual setting.

J.D. Robb: Holiday in Death (1999)

Edition: Berkley, 1998
Review number: 1008

From almost the very start of crime fiction as a recognised genre, detective stories have been produced which bring murder into the context of Christmas festivities. There are novels by Christie and Marsh which do this, though Robb is clearly more closely following the example of Ed McBain. The homicide and suicide rates do increase around Christmas time, which is a stressful time for many people, but that isn't the only reason why such novels are produced. There is of course the obvious commercial reason, that a Christmas theme ties in to the highest sales period, but there is also some fascination in the idea of violence marring the season of goodwill. In this novel, Eve Dallas is combining the search for a serial killer dressed in a Santa suit who gives his victims jewellery with themes from the successive verses of the Twelve Days of Christmas with gearing up to celebrate her first festive season as wife of billionaire Roarke.

The Christmas theme makes Holiday in Death a bit different from the earlier novels in this enjoyable series, but generally it is the mixture as before.

Friday 7 December 2001

Andrew M. Greeley: Contract With An Angel (1998)

Edition: Tor, 1999
Review number: 1006

The Faust story is about a man who makes a contract with the devil, selling his soul for magic powers and the caresses of Helen of Troy. In this novel, unscrupulous businessman Raymond Needham makes a contract with an angel, who appears to him on a nearly disastrous plane journey, in which he undertakes to follow angelic guidance for the salvation of his soul. There is a tendency for stories involving angels to be rather sentimental (several films could easily be cited as support for this), and though Contract With an Angel is no exception, it is an enjoyable read.

Though Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, his depiction of angels in his novels is not totally orthodox; but this has little direct effect on this particular story, even if his depiction of God as at least partially female might offend hidebound traditionalists. The angelic purpose is worked out almost entirely through Needham's attempts to restore broken relationships within his family; he is not successful in every case but manages to satisfy the demands of his guardians without much backsliding. (If neither of these statements were true, Contract With an Angel might have been a more literary novel, but probably less enjoyable.) Light and likely to leave a silly grin on the reader's face, Contract With an Angel makes an ideal pick-me-up.

Josephine Tey: Brat Farrar (1949)

Edition: Penguin, 1980
Review number: 1007

Tey's famous novel takes a theme common in Gothic fiction, impersonation of an heir, and creates a mystery story which more or less renders the idea unusable in the future without reference to her writing. Brat Farrar is a foundling who has been working on a ranch in the States; returning to the England where he grew up, he is accosted by a stranger. Alec Loding at first believed him to be his cousin Patrick Ashby, the heir to the family estate who had gone missing seven years earlier. Now he would be about to come of age, and once Loding believes that Brat (a corruption of Bartholemew) is not Patrick he comes up with an audacious plan to train him in every aspect of Patrick's life so that he could turn up and take the farm from his younger twin brother Simon.

While most of the Ashby family accept Brat as Patrick, Simon seems certain that he cannot be, not because of his resentment or because he has caught him out but for some other reason which seems to Brat to be not just menacing but slightly ominous, clearly connected to the reason for Patrick's disappearance. Brat's feelings about this are contrasted throughout the novel with his growing appreciation of becoming part of a family, and this is one of the reasons why Brat Farrar is so successful.

The reader knows from the start that Brat is an impostor, and so the interest of the novel lies in two areas: we want to know what happened to the real Patrick Ashby, and we want to know if Brat can carry off the deception. It is a far fetched story, but Tey makes it fascinating and believeable; and that is why this is a great thriller.

Thursday 6 December 2001

Roger Zelazny: The Dream Master (1966)

The Dream Master coverEdition: iBooks, 2001
Review number: 1005

Psychiatric care in the future is not a particularly common theme in science fiction, possibly because even though it has developed rapidly through the twentieth century it seems that many of its fundamental precepts are not yet very strongly established - so how can we guess what ideas and techniques will be available in the future? One idea that does seem clear is that dreams play some vital role, both in diagnosis and as part of the mind's own healing process.

So Zelazny's central character, Charles Render, is a dream shaper: his therapy consists of participating in and controlling to an extent the dreams of his patients. Too strong a psychosis or abnormal desire in the subject can overwhelm the mind of the therapists, but he hardly hesitates before embarking on the greatest challenge of his career. Eileen Shallot is also a psychiatric doctor, who comes to him wanting to be trained to become a shaper herself. The problem is that she is congenitally blind, and is at least partly driven by a desire to share the vision of those she will treat. Render needs to giver her therapy to overcome her anxiety about vision, showing her the world, at the same time dealing with the resentment of her guide dog, a genetically modified Alsatian with greatly enhanced intelligence who thinks that his mistress will cease to need him.

The major strengths of the novel are the powerful theme of the desire for sight, the unusual concentration on psychiatry, and the depiction of the dreams shared by Render and Shallot. Only one of them fails to work well, a recreation of a Walt Whitman poem which is a rather dull catalogue of visual images. Even if it is always a little strange to read a science fiction novel set at a date now past (1998), The Dream Master remains unusual and a powerful classic of the genre.

Wednesday 5 December 2001

Jean Anouilh: Colombe (1951)

Translation: Dennis Cannan, 1951
Edition: Methuen, 1959 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1004

Like Ardèle, which accompanies it in this Methuen volume, Columbe is about the right to freedom of expression. The young woman in the title role seems content to be the wife of aspiring and penniless musician Jean, until his call-up papers arrive. Then they are forced to ask his estranged mother, a famous actress, for help, which she gives them by providing Colombe with a part in the production in which she is starring.

This act, and the absence of her husband, brings Colombe into contact with a completely different world, full of men paying her compliments, full of expensive gifts and, above all, full of fun. Is this more important than dutiful devotion to her husband, his art, and their baby (which she seems quite grateful to be able to afford to pass on to a childminder)? Her new life also includes Jean's half-brother Paul, who is the opposite of Jean and to whom she is strongly attracted.

Colombe is remarkable for the way in which the character of the mother is drawn so quickly and skilfully, even though like the others (in what is after all quite a short play) she contains liberal amounts of stereotype. It is not among Anouilh's more profound plays, but is no doubt extremely effective on stage.

Kate Ellis: An Unhallowed Grave (1999)

Edition: Piatkus, 2000
Review number: 1003

There are, perhaps, a rather limited number of ways to connect archaeology to a murder mystery. You could have archaeologists discover a modern body, or a member of a dig could be killed, or be an investigator, or they could find an old body whose history parallels a modern crime, or they could be in the area where a completely independent crime takes place. I have read novels using all the first four ideas, if not the last. The way that Ellis' series of detective novels is set up means that they will quickly become repetitive, and she is not quite a good enough writer to ring the changes on the details.

This particular novel uses the fourth scenario, along with the use of the third, which is generic to the series, having as investigator an archaeologist turned policeman. In a Devon village, a woman is found dead, an apparent suicide hanging from the boughs of a yew tree in the churchyard. It is quickly established, however, that she had been at least partially strangled before the hanging - hands leaving a different pattern of marks on the neck from a rope. At about the same time, the skeleton of a medieval woman is found in a rescue dig at a potential housing development on the edge of the village; she had been rather more professionally hanged.

An Unhallowed Grave is enjoyable, even if the reader never loses the feeling that it is far fetched as the parallels between events now and in the fifteenth century are developed.

Tuesday 4 December 2001

Jean Anouilh: Ardèle (1948)

Translation: Lucienne Hill, 1950 (original title Ardèle ou la Marguerite)
Edition: Methuen, 1959 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1002

Ardèle is a tragic idea written in the form of a slightly absurdist French bedroom farce. Its central character is never seen or heard on the stage, which is another unusual feature. It is set in a château where a family conference has been called to discuss what can be done about Ardèle, the old maid of the family. A hunchback from her youth, she scandalises her relations when she and the new tutor, also a hunchback, fall in love.

This is an entirely hypocritical reaction, as every other family member is openly having an affair. (The exception is the General's wife, who never emerges from her room and whose periodic calling for her husband is dismissed as insanity.) Knowing that her future is under discussion, Ardèle has locked herself in her room and refuses to come out, despite the arguments made through the keyhole of her door.

The meaning with the play is connected to the right to have personal freedom, to love and be ones true self. Ardèle shocks the other characters not because of the social distance between her and the tutor, but because they have never considered her a fit person to love or be loved. Ardèle's passion is clearly far more deeply felt than the bedroom-shuffling antics of the rest of the family, and even evoked only through the words of the others she comes across the better deserving of the freedom to love.

Saturday 1 December 2001

John D. Barrow: The Universe That Discovered Itself (1987, 2000)

Edition: Oxford, 2000 (revision of The World Within the World, 1987)
Review number: 1001

Barrow's book, an updated version of The World Within the World, is a philosophical look at the history of science and contemporary scientific ideas with a rather unusual slant. It takes a list of nine statements about the laws of science and how they relate to the underlying reality of the universe, and then sees a general trend up to the work of Newton to establish these statements, followed in the twentieth century by the opposite trend with the development of new theoretical frameworks very different from the Newtonian one. These statements are things like "Space and time exist" or "The world can be described by mathematics", and are a set of basic philosophical assumptions about the universe, informing scientists' attitudes to physical theories.

The Universe That Discovered Itself is aimed at the experienced reader of popular science. Even though brief explanations are given, it would be difficult to follow without a previous acquaintance with relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, and the anthropic principle among other ideas. With a familiarity with these concepts and an interest in the philosophical, there is much pleasure to be obtained from the book. The title refers to the thought that we, as part of the universe, have discovered a great deal about it, and is particularly appropriate given the quite lengthy discussion of the role of the observer in quantum mechanics and particularly quantum cosmology.

The presentation is typical of Barrow, with each section enlivened by interesting and frequently amusing quotations, including the following anecdote. In an Oxford physics viva in the 1890s, a student was asked to define electricity. His response was that he did know but had forgotten, to which the examiner drily replied, "How very unfortunate. Only two persons have ever known what electricity is, the Author of Nature and yourself. Now one of them has forgotten".

I'm not sure how radical a revision was made to the earlier book, and there are some sections which seem to be less up to date than others, which is a pity. Still, I found The Universe That Discovered Itself a fascinating exploration of the philosophy behind modern physics.