Saturday 23 February 2002

Leslie Charteris: Send For the Saint (1977)

Edition: Coronet, 1978 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number:1076

This volume contains two stories from the TV series Return of the Saint, adapted by Peter Bloxsom in the same way that Fleming Lee adapted several of the stories from the earlier Saint series. Like many of these adaptations, they lack the unique features, particularly the humour, which mark the Saint out from other thriller heroes. As was by this point the usual practice for Saint books, the stories are set in the past, in the fifties. (The TV series, on the other hand, was I think intended to be contemporary, which must have made the adaptations a little bit more difficult; this is probably why there is very little in terms of period detail in the stories to identify the date.)

The first story, The Midas Double, starts when a Greek shipping magnate kidnaps Simon Templar from Athens airport. He is eventually persuaded to take a bizarre job; the millionaire is convinced that he is being impersonated by a double, who aims to discredit him by making it appear that he has been undertaking shady business deals.

The other story, The Pawn Gambit, has Simon infiltrating a company of mercenaries, to avenge the death of a wartime friend, and this story has a particularly world-weary Saint not at all like the character's usual self. Neither of them is really equal to the usual standard of the series, let alone to the best of it.

Friday 22 February 2002

Samuel Beckett: Collected Shorter Plays (1984)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1984
Review number: 1075

Contents: All That Fall (1957),
Krapp's Last Tape (1958),
Act Without Words I and II (1959),
Embers (1959),
Words and Music (1962),
Cascando (1963),
Play (1963),
The Old Tune (adaptation of La Minivelle, by Robert Pinget) (1963),
Come and Go (1966),
Eh Joe (1967),
Breath (1970),
Not I (1973),
Footfalls (1976),
Ghost Trio (1976),
Rough For Radio I and II (1976),
Rough For Theatre I and II (1976),
That Time (1976),
...but the clouds... (1977),
Ohio Impromptu (1982),
A Piece of Monologue (1982),
Rockaby (1982),
Catastrophe (1984),
Nacht und Träume (1984),
Quad (1984),
What Where (1984)

Beckett has a reputation as one of the most difficult twentieth century writers, many finding even his most accessible and most famous play, Waiting for Godot, impenetrable. As a follower of Joyce, there is certainly something in this, as is perhaps particularly apparent in the thirty or so short dramtic pieces collected here, which actually make up the bulk of his output.

They stretch the meaning of the word "play" somewhat; originally written for radio, film and TV as well as the stage, they include mimed pieces and pieces without action as well as ones where what is spoken is not in itself important in a traditional way. Some are extremely short (Breath, for example, lasting only seconds), while the longest is about an hour (radio play All That Fall).

What they share, in spite of the diversity of form, are the themes which are common to all Beckett's writing. These are also all present in Waiting for Godot, which can really be seen as the essential Beckett play. These themes are meaninglessness, decrepitude and ageing, guilt, lack of identity, and death. In some plays, this forbidding list is leavened by a Joycean fascination with language. (In fact, the precision of Beckett's use of words - and his prescription of performance practice - are among the most interesting aspects of his work, given his obsession with non-meaning. He clearly found it necessary to specify things exactly in order to get what he wanted.) One cannot help admiring Beckett's cleverness, and many of the pieces come to life in performance, but they could never be described as cheerful.

Paul Johnston: The Blood Tree (2000)

Edition: New English Library, 2000
Review number: 1074

The fourth of Johnson's crime novels set in an Edinburgh which is a dictatorship in a fragmented Scotland of the future has a slightly expanded horizon. The crimes, a particularly horrific pair of murders linked to a robbery from the Scottish Parliament building, seem to have connections to Glasgow, a democratic state which is basically the West Germany to Edinburgh's East.

The background is very well done once again, with the customary echoes of real totalitarian cultures of the last few decades. The mystery is difficult, cleverly constructed yet allowing a thriller style narrative. The characters continue to be convincing, particularly the relationships between central character Quint, his friend Davie and his lover Katherine.

This is a series which could (and hopefully, will) continue for many more instalments before Johnston's inventiveness begins to fail; and I hope that its positioning at the interface of the crime and science fiction genres will not be a barrier to its being considered an important work in both.

Thursday 21 February 2002

Jules Verne: Round the World in Eighty Days (1872)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 1073

Of the handful of Verne novels which are still popular today, this is the only one which is a pure adventure story, with no science fiction. Its basis is one of the most famous bets in fiction: a discussion in London's Reform Club prompted by a newspaper story that the completion of trans-Indian railway links now makes it possible to travel around the world in only eighty days by scheduled rail and steamer leads Phileas Fogg to bet that he can do this.

Of course, if the novel just consisted of reading timetables and sitting around on trains and boats, it would be a very dull adventure. So things are not as easy as this; it turns out that the railway in India isn't quite complete; the clownish antics of Fogg's servant Passepartout cause delay; and, believing that Fogg fits the description of a bank robber and that the bet is cover for flight a detective keeps on trying to delay him until an arrest warrant catches up.

It is really the race against time which has ensured the survival of the novel. In these days of rapid air travel, it has something of a romantic period quality, particularly since the decline of railway and sea travel would make it at least as difficult to follow Fogg's itinerary today.

Edith Wharton: Summer (1917)

Edition: Modern Library, 2001
Review number: 1072

The companion piece to Ethan Frome, Summer has the same remote New England setting (in a town named, appropriately, North Dormer which is just like the earlier novel's Starkfield), but in the opposite time of year. It is a summer which doesn't end, even though the story is spread over several months.

Charity Royall is brought up as the ward of the only lawyer in North Dormer; she comes from the Mountain, a community of vagabonds outside the town viewed as moral degenerates. Grown up, she fends off the advances of her guardian and falls in love with Lucius Harney, a visitor to the town related to its principal citizens. The novel is basically a battle between their desire and the reactions of those around them, complicated by Charity's feelings of unworthiness because of her background.

Charity's sexuality is much more explicitly described than that of Ethan Frome, though the novel is entirely possible because of her innocence - today she would just sleep with Harney, and that would be the end of it. Things are not uncomplicated; among the aspect of sex which are mentioned is a back street abortionist. Charity's life is far freer than Frome's, as she is able to make trips away from North Dormer, but she is trapped in the same kind of way by her background and situation. The earlier novel works better, though, perhaps because the sense of suffocation is stronger.

Wednesday 20 February 2002

Jonathan Sumption: Trial by Fire (The Hundred Years War II) (1999)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 2001
Review number: 1071

The second volume of Sumption's enormous history of the Hundred Years' War covers the period between the aftermath of Crécy and that of Nájera, just under twenty five years - basically the reign of John II of France. The first part up until the treaty of Brétigny marks one of the lowest points in France's fortunes in the whole war, with the country unable to do anything about the destructive raids of the routier companies, holding towns and villages to ransome, encouraged yet not controlled by the English; the after effects of the Black Death; the battle of Poitiers, with the capture of the French king and many high ranking nobles; revolution in Paris and other northern cities; and effective civil war between different members of the Valois dynasty.

The major cause of the French problems dates back all the way to the weakness of the late Carolingian kings. This led to power becoming diffused among the provincial nobility, causing cultural fragmentation and political disunity symbolised by the Angevin empire, where Henry II ruled more of France than the French kings. The major aim of the Capetian and then Valois monarchy over centuries was to centralise power into their own hands, but even in the fourteenth century this was far from being realised. Although France was much richer than England, collecting taxes was so difficult that much of this period saw the crown in financial crisis. Different communities tended to refuse to pay taxes, and even when they did often put unwelcome conditions on the money raised, such as reserving it for operations within their specific area (with the result that the most hard hit areas were unable to pay for defence and the others were unwilling). Rulers who had a high level of personal prestige were more easily able to persuade the different areas of France to grant them money, but continual defeat and perceptions that the money was used to enrich favourites reduced the reputations of the Valois monarchs almost to nothing.

Militarily, the English had the advantage of better generalship (Dagworth, Lancaster, Chandos, Knolles and the Black Prince all outclassed the French regularly), but they lacked the resources to hold on to their gains. Once the French managed to reform their finances - bringing in the franc in 1360 and setting up a new tax system to end decades where the main source of the crown's income had been unpopular manipulation of the silver content of the currency - the end of this phase of the war became inevitable. They still had to make concessions, the English holdings in Gascony being extended and gains in the area around Calais being confirmed, but the treaty of Brétigny and the accession of Charles V marked something of a new beginning.

The story of these turbulent decades is ably told by Sumption, the details he gives (principally drawing on French archives) helping to make the whole course of events much clearer. The history is truly a great (if old fashioned) achievement, and it is to be hoped that Sumption manages to bring the whole thing to completion in as accomplished a manner.

Tuesday 19 February 2002

Jack Vance: Lyonesse II: The Green Pearl (1985)

Edition: Grafton, 1986 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1070

The green pearl of the title is an artefact produced in the first volume of the Lyonesse trilogy through a method of some originality, and is basically the concentrated essence of the malign side of the witch Desmei. It doesn't in fact play a hugely important part in the novel which is mainly concerned with the actions of Aillas after his succession to the throne of Troicnet and with the attempts of King Casmir of Lyonesse to hinder him in his aims. Casmir's attempts to find out the meaning of a prophecy about the son of his daughter Suldrun, when as far as he is aware her only child was a daughter, are particularly important. (The details of what actually happened to Suldrun's child form the main story of Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden.)

The adult fairy story continues as it began; amusing, exciting, brutal, imaginative. Unique yet very recognisably in Vance's style, an excellent middle part for one of my favourite series in all of the fantasy genre.

Saturday 16 February 2002

Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome (1911)

Edition: Modern Library, 2001
Review number: 1069

There is often a tendency to romanticise American rural life in the days before modern communication, because people admire what they call the "pioneer spirit". When reading accounts from the time, such as the bleaker parts of Laura Ingalls Wilder's memoirs or Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, or this novel, it is clear that it was not in the least an idyllic existence; it was lonely hard work for (in many cases) little return.

The story of Ethan Frome comes in two parts. The framing chapters, a foreword and an epilogue, are told by a stranger who comes to the aptly named New England town of Starkfield in midwinter. There he becomes interested in the figure of Frome, a poor farmer injured in a sleigh accident twenty years previously. The main part of the novel tells the tale of the few days leading up to the accident. Frome's wife Zenobia has over the years since they married (when her vivaciousness provoked a desperate longing in Ethan, lonely after the death of his parents) become a cantankerous invalid, turning the farm's meagre profits into faddish patent medicines. A younger, even poorer, relation of Zenobia's, Mattie Silver, helps Ethan care for her and look after the housework.

The natural consequence of this is that Ethan finds himself increasingly drawn to Mattie, and when Zenobia announces that she has decided to throw her out and hire a girl who will be better at housework, he considers running away with her. But he can't even afford to do this and is driven into a corner from which there appears to be no way to make his life happier.

The other theme of Ethan Frome, then, is doomed desire, first that prompted by desperation (Ethan for Zenobia) then that of one sufferer for another (Ethan and Mattie for each other). The cold winters in which both parts are set, the quietness of the earth covered by drifting snow, form a smothering backdrop for the story which is as appropriate as the heat for Ethan Frome's companion novel of similar themes, Summer. The weather is as symbolic here as it is in the writing of Thomas Hardy.

There is much that is imperfect about Ethan Frome. One of its most obvious flaws is a frequently repeated criticism: the narrator, an outsider to Starkfield, suddenly knows a great deal about the precise actions and feelings of the intensely private Ethan of twenty years earlier. This is clearly a nonsensical conceit on Wharton's part, but the way in which the story is constructed is to a large extent dictated by the way in which she has set up her ending. Flaws apart, Ethan Frome has a strong impact; its atmosphere seems to me as memorable as, say, that generated in Turn of the Screw.

David Wishart: The Lydian Baker (1998)

Edition: Sceptre, 1998
Review number: 1068

There is considerable competition in the field of historical crime fiction, which has blossomed in the last decade or so, and the Roman period seems to be among the most popular (following the medieval). Even so, it is odd that I have not already come across the novels of David Wishart, of which this is the fifth. Like Lindsey Davis' Falco novels, the style of these Corvinus stories is in imitation of Raymond Chandler. Wishart is more serious than Davis, though, and (having been a classics teacher) more academic. This means that his novels stand somewhere between those of Davis and Steven Saylor.

Corvinus, an upper class Roman living in Athens, is a rather different central
character from Falco and Gordianus, both of whom are professional investigators. In The Lydian Baker, he becomes involved in a series of murders related to a large solid gold statue, which Corvinus is bidding for as agent for his stepfather, a keen art collector. The statue really existed and is at the centre of a real mystery. Originally given by Lydian king Croesus to the oracle at Delphi, the 1.5m statue disappeared before the first century AD, fate unknown. It was probably stolen by one of the groups which sacked Delphi in the previous couple of centuries (these included Greeks, Gauls and Romans). The statue was probably of a Lydian goddess, but it was nicknamed the baker because it was in the form of a woman holding a loaf and a wheatsheaf.

The Lydian Baker is an interesting mystery, with a detailed and convincing background. The occasional point may be beyond the reader's knowledge (most people are unlikely to get asides dependent on knowledge of untranslated Greek names), but that doesn't really harm. A more serious problem is that Wishart's unrelenting Marlowe pastiche becomes irritating after a while, but that hasn't stopped me wanting to catch up on the earlier novels in the series.

Friday 15 February 2002

Nigel Henbest and Michael Marten: The New Astronomy (1983)

Edition: Cambridge University Press, 1983 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1067

After almost twenty years, the contents of this book cannot really be described as "new" astronomy any more. It is a lavishly illustrated description of the then current achievements and methods in observational astronomy, with an emphasis on the discoveries made by extending this field beyond the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Developments since 1983 include massive expansion in satellite observations with the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope, detection of extra-solar planets, work to find incontrovertible evidence of black holes, more sophisticated computer analysis of data, and so on. Most of these are building on the methods described in The New Astronomy rather than being revolutionary and new in themselves.

The illustrations are of primary importance in The New Astronomy; the text is designed to explain the pictures rather than the other way round. It is appropriate that Cambridge have taken the unusual step of giving Michael Marten, the picture editor, a co-author credit. The two aspects of the book are well integrated, but it is the sumptuous illustration which makes the book stand out. I'm going to look out for a more recent equivalent (or, indeed, a revised edition) - it's a book which should be in the library of anyone interested in modern astronomy.

T.H. White: Candle in the Wind (1940)

Edition: W.H. Collins, 1958 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1090

In the last few centuries, one of the most important changes in English literature, particularly popular literature, must be the rise of the "happy ending". At the end of a novel, which is the form that over this period has come to dominate, it is conventional for the good to triumph and for the wicked to fail, be punished or redeemed. This was clearly not always the case, and in medieval heroic literature it is often almost the opposite which occurs; Beowulf may triumph over Grendel, but the poem ends instead with his death at the hands of another monster. Taking things to the death of the hero rather than having a fairy tale ending is due to the idea that this is the only way their story could really end (though to the medieval mind death was not of course the end at all). Its appeal as a device is probably connected to the presence of death all around; as our own deaths have grown more remote, we have become more reluctant to face up to them or talk about the subject.

The cycle of Arthur stories is so much centred around his death that it was used as the title of Malory's version: the Morte d'Arthur. White bases the fourth part of The Once and Future King on the last two books of Malory's tale, the first of which is preceded by "and here after foloweth the most pytous history of the morte of kynge Arthur". In these books, Agravaine and Mordred go to Arthur and accuse Lancelot and Guinevere of having an adulterous affair; reluctant as he is to officially find out about this (and White makes it clear that he already actually knows), they eventually force him to allow them to lay a trap and catch them together. This leads to a reluctant estrangement between Lancelot and Arthur, after the former kills Agravaine and the knights with him even though surprised unarmed. Lancelot flees to France, and when Arthur goes overseas and besieges him, Mordred proclaims himself king. This is the start of the civil war which ends in Arthur's death and the end of his empire and the chivalry he stood for.

It is not to be expected, then, that White should turn this tale into something cheerful. Neither The Queen of Air and Darkness nor The Ill-Made Knight are, even starting with less "pytous" material. What he does is in accordance with his method throughout the quartet of novels (the later published Book of Merlyn is an exception), is to aim to make Malory's story and the effect it would have had on its medieval audience accessible to the twentieth century. In this case, the main technique he uses is to make the participants in the tragedy elderly and tired of life, rather than the teenaged lovers found in most modern fiction. This gives an elegiac feel to the story. Everyone knows that it ends in a tragedy, including the participants, but they have no choice but to wearily go through the motions. It is almost like Beckett in this, though his plays have a black humour not present here. It is very calm, and very sad.

Thursday 14 February 2002

George Turner: Yesterday's Men (1983)

Edition: Sphere, 1984
Review number: 1066

George Turner's third novel in the trilogy which began with Beloved Son and Vaneglory uses a different idea to the others. Set several decades later than the earlier stories it is about a patronising attempt to recreate the "Gone Time" as the pre-apocalypse twentieth century is known by the smug "Ethical Culture". As before, the purpose of the novel is to show the consistency of human nature, despite the declarations of Ethical Culture members that deplored aspects of the Gone Time such as warfare have been eradicated from humankind.

The fall of civilization led to a renewal of tribal warfare in New Guinea, and when towns were re-established white settlers asked the Australian government for protection. The Australians set up a military unit to do this, but in order to distance themselves from the idea of combat, they organise it out of men from the edge of the bush, considered almost Gone Timers themselves, and they even make it operate in a Second World War context, using only 1940s technology. The whole idea is designated a sociological experiment, a hypocritical way to look at it if ever there was one.

All this is background; the story which drives the novel is about the making of a drama documentary with the unit which goes horribly wrong. This is of course a theme with which today's reader will be exhaustively familiar, as docusoaps and reality TV fill the channels, and this reduces the impact of the novel. Much of the plot is about behind the scenes manipulation of the project, for political reasons rather than, as would now be considered typical, for the sake of ratings. Turner's picture of the entertainment world has been rather overtaken by the times.

The purpose of the plot is to contrast the sleazy and hypocritical way that the Ethical Culture uses violence for political gain with the straightforward honesty of the soldiers. This is all too predictable, particularly when the reader has recently read the harder hitting Beloved Son. The arbitrary idea that the unit should be made to fit in with a Second World War setting - which is clearly motivated by a desire in Turner to reuse some of his own experiences - is unhelpful, blurring the genre of Yesterday's Men so that the SF technological trimmings seem to be no more than plot devices. This is certainly the poorest novel by Turner that I have read, making this trilogy one in which only the first instalment need be read.

Wednesday 13 February 2002

Alastair Reynolds: Chasm City (2001)

Edition: Gollancz, 2001
Review number: 1064

Reviews of Revelation Space, Reynolds' first novel, compared it to Dan Simmons' Hyperion. In terms of quality and subgenre, this comparison is justified; both are extremely good space operas. Chasm City is much more like Simmons in style and content than its predecessor; and without being derivative it maintains the standard.

Set in the same universe as Revelation Space, it takes place some time earlier. Its central character (and narrator) is former soldier and security expert Tanner Mirabel, from the backward world of Sky's End, ruined by generations of warfare. When his employer and his employer's wife are murdered in the jungle, Tanner follows the man who arranged the killings to Yellowstone, thirty light years away. This trip for vengeance is one he can't easily return from, as his home will have greatly changed - travel is slower than light though with suspended animation. Even so, knowing that the last news he heard about Yellowstone is years out of date, he is totally unprepared for what he finds on one of the most technically advanced planets. A massive plague has basically turned all the nanotechnology wild, causing huge numbers of deaths as it mutates and leaving a shanty town in place of the main settlement on the planet, Chasm City, and causing the destruction of many of the orbitals which once filled much of the available space around Yellowstone.

This is not the only problem facing Tanner on his arrival, as he is suffering from a form of amnesia which is an occasional side effect of the revival from cryogenic freezing, and he appears to have been infected with an engineered virus, a piece of nanotechnology used by a cult on Sky's End for indoctrination - a truly frightening science fiction idea which I have not seen elsewhere even though nanotech is a trendy subject at the moment. These things combine to produce doubts of his own identity, a strange (and ambitious) effect in a first person narrative which is convincingly done by Reynolds.

Chasm City is perhaps not as involving as Revelation Space, but it certainly confirms Reynolds as one of the outstanding new writers of science fiction of this decade.

Émile Zola: Nana (1880)

Translation: George Holden, 1972
Edition: Penguin, 1975
Review number: 1065

Because of its film versions (which are considerably toned down) and its controversial subject matter, Nana is Zola's best known novel. One of his series Les Rougon-Macquart, which together amounts to a study of heredity, Nana is the story of a prostitute in Paris just before the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

The portrait painted of this part of Parisian society is neither cheerful nor romanticised (as it was, for example, in Dumas' Dame aux Cammelias about thirty years earlier). Nana herself, who was a child character in L'Assommoir, has nothing going for her except beauty; she is stupid, vulgar, greedy, vain and capricious, a product of the worst slums of the city. She at least has the excuse that she is the inevitable result of her background, but the remainder of Zola's characters are no more pleasant. The members of high society are hedonistic hypocrites who are rushing headlong to their downfall (the Prussian invasion being given a moral dimension by the author). In the meantime, they are oblivious to the suffering they cause and to the mental and physical consequences of their actions, not to mention the degrading nature of the pleasures they seek. (Even though venereal diseases are not mentioned, their corruption is indirectly part of the novel, particularly towards the end.) Even the church is involved (in a depiction controversial at the time), waiting to garner those crumbs not wasted, rushing Nana's lover Count Muffat off the moment he repents and shows signs of wanting to return to the fold.

Zola's writing was extremely shocking in its day, with its strong emphasis on the unpleasant and unglamourous side of life; parts of Nana are still not an enjoyable read and it is unrelentingly bleak. The underbelly of nineteenth century life was a theme for several of its authors, notably Dickens in English, but Zola differs from the others in at least two ways. As I have already implied, his self-publicised emphasis on "realism" basically meant that the details of life over which a veil had previously been drawn now became the centre of attention. He is much more uninhibited than earlier authors. (His claim that his writing is more realistic is actually not quite true.) The other difference is that writers like Dickens and Gaskell were trying to change things; they wrote to campaign. Zola exaggerated society's ills for other reasons, for an artistic purpose, for the fascination of the exercise. (This is one reason why the novels are set a decades or so in the past rather than in the present favoured by the English writers mentioned above.)

Leslie Charteris: Catch the Saint (1975)

Edition: Coronet, 1977
Review number: 1063

It is here that Leslie Charteris abandons, explicitly, the idea that Simon Templar's adventures are to be considered contemporary to the time of writing, though there is little in either which dates them to any particular period between the thirties and seventies.

Returning to the past fails to re-invigorate Charteris' writing, unfortunately. The two stories - The Masterpiece Merchant, about a kidnapped painter, and The Adoring Socialite, about a hunt for a hidden crime boss, are among the least imaginative of the whole series. Ideas are re-used from earlier tales, notably The Saint in New York, and even from other sources, one twist coming straight from the film Charade. The writing is competent, and as thrillers the stories work reasonably well; the paucity of original ideas is the only reason for rating them lower than most of Charteris' work.

Sunday 10 February 2002

Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1966)

Translation: Michael Glenny, 1967
Edition: Everyman, 1992
Review number: 1089

The approval of the authorities was a major issue for artists in the former Soviet Union, particularly during the rule of Stalin. Shostakovitch, for example, managed to keep from being banned or imprisoned despite occasional condemnation, mainly by keeping his most private thoughts for chamber music which tended not to attract the attention of the censor to such an extent (and I suspect also because of his high profile in the West). Bulgakov was not so lucky, though he at least escaped the gulag. Successful in the early twenties, he was unable to publish anything between 1927 and his death in 1940. Much of the last seven years of this period was spent working on what proved to be his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. A censored version was finally published in 1966, and the full text only appeared in 1973.

It is obvious why the novel was unpublishable under Stalin's regime; in fact, it reads as though Bulgakov was trying to write something which would offend the authorities as much as possible. The novel adds up to a concentrated satirical attack on the Soviet state, making fun of bodies like the Union of Soviet Writers and even of the way people disappeared into the gulags and associated institutions such as mental hospitals. There is a fantastical supernatural side, as the devil visits Moscow and holds a magic show in a theatre, and everything is in some way linked to the execution of Jesus by the Romans; both of these were themes unlikely to gain approval in militantly atheist Soviet Russia. (Bulgakov indicates this ironically when he shows the authorities' reaction to a novel written by one of the characters about the execution.)

The Master and Margarita does not have a readily describable plot. Everything starts with the arrival in Moscow of the mysterious black magician Professor Woland and his companions, one a huge cat which speaks Russian and walks on its hind legs. The humour of the novel comes from the effect his actions have on the ordinary Muscovites - as he showers them with gifts which later disappear (particularly surprising to the women given the latest Parisian fashions), or tells enigmatic stories about Pontius Pilate or predicts the future - and the way state institutions react to the tales the citizens tell to try to explain what happened when his stunts get them in trouble. As a result, several scenes are set in a mental hospital in Yalta, in which the patients are also strangely concerned about Pontius Pilate.

The satirical aspect of the novel is very funny, and clearly owes a large debt to Gogol's The Government Inspector and Dead Souls. Although attempts have been made to match Bulgakov's characters to specific real world individuals, they seem to me to be intended to represent types of people, particularly the senior figures in the literary world, the bureaucrats at the theatre and the officially approved writers and critics of the writers' organisation MASSOLIT. It is more difficult to see the purpose of the Pilate episodes, but even without being understood they add something to the novel. (Even if it is just because they provide contrast, they are very effective.)

This particular translation is not made from the final full version of the manuscript (as it wasn't yet available), and is criticised in the introduction to this Everyman edition for missing a couple of subtleties; I would be interested to read a more recent version. However, enough of the original seems to come across and Glenny conveys the greatness of Bulgakov's vision, not diminished even in these post-Soviet times.

Friday 8 February 2002

Jules Verne: Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 1062

Not only was this the first Jules Verne novel I ever read, it was probably also the first adult science fiction. Like many of his novels, its title directly describes its contents: it tells of a journey of exploration into the mouth of an extinct volcano. In style it is clearly based on Victorian tales of adventure set in the normal world, where explorers in darkest Africa would be facing danger in the jungle. It is very like The Lost World; these two novels may well be among the most Victorian in terms of thought-world of all.

Verne's geology has been quite comprehensively outdated since Journey to the Centre of the Earth was published, but that is, by this time, one of the charms of the novel. Here we have an Earth with a cool centre containing sedimentary rock, open caverns large enough to contain considerable seas filled with living fossils (in an ecosystem without access to sunlight), and so on. Verne was writing long before ideas such as plate tectonics, but he wasn't even reflecting the most up to date ideas of his own day; most geologists believed that the temperature steadily rose through to the centre of the planet (even without convincing descriptions of the processes that might make this possible), and the relative cold beneath a volcanic zone is hailed as a vindication of the ideas of Humphrey Davy. The idea continued to be used for many years even as its scientific plausibility faded - Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar stories depended on it.

Verne's novels are not really meant to be about scientific accuracy; they are meant to be speculations in the form of exciting adventures, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth is certainly that.

Ruth Rendell: Wolf to the Slaughter (1967)

Edition: Arrow, 1982
Review number: 1061

When a woman goes missing and the Kingsmarkham police receive an anonymous note alleging that she was murdered, Wexford and Burden launch an investigation into the seedier side of English market town Kingsmarkham. (Burden feels, with his conservative outlook, that an unmarried woman who sleeps around should expect trouble.) A human side to the story is provided by the romance which develops between one of their junior subordinates, hitherto strongly focused on his career, and the daughter of a local villain.

Pretty typical of Rendell's Wexford novels, Wolf to the Slaughter is a short and enjoyable traditional detective story.

Wednesday 6 February 2002

T.H. White: The Sword in the Stone (1939)

Edition: W.H. Collins, 1958 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1081

Even without the Disney film, the first novel in White's Arthurian saga, The Once and Future King, would be a major classic of the fantasy genre. The story here is the familiar one of the childhood of Arthur, growing up ignorant of his identity with Merlin as a tutor, and yet it is told in a way which is different to any other version of the tale.

White's world is made by combining several backgrounds. His Arthur comes principally from Malory, with its late medieval setting, which is put together with a traditional picture of "Merrie England", with Robin Hood in the forest, and stereotypes of the English countryside before the First World War - hearty squires discussing jousting statistics as real ones would have talked about cricket. Entirely White's own, so far as I know, is the method of Arthur's education, as Merlin transforms him into a succession of animals.

It is in the character of Merlin that much of the charm of this novel subsists, the quality most clearly brought out in the film. The Sword in the Stone is a children's story, while the remaining volumes (four, including the rather different Book of Merlyn) are really aimed at teenagers and adults. It is humorous where the others are serious, even if there are chilling moments (Wart's time as an ant, in particular). There is also an anti-war message (or at least an anti-fascist one) encapsulated by the badger almost at the end, when he asks Wart whether he preferred being an ant or a goose; this is no doubt prompted by the situation in Europe while The Sword in the Stone was being written. It will surely be still enjoyable for most older children and adults and will continue to be so even if it is beginning to seem a little dated.

Steven Saylor: Honour the Dead (2000)

Alternative title: A Twist at the End
Edition: Constable, 2001
Review number: 1060

William Porter, better known as writer O. Henry, had a secret past which only came to light with his early death at the height of his fame. As a young man, he lived in the city of Austin, Texas, at a time when the state was moving away from its earlier Wild West lawlessness. There, he had embezzled money from the bank where he worked, and had run away to the Honduras, a country with which the US had no extradition treaty and which became the basis of Anchuria in Cabbages and Kings. When he was informed that his wife was dying from consumption, he returned, and after her death served a prison term. Even after he became successful, it is thought that he was the victim of a blackmailer, though it is not quite clear whether this was connected to his jail sentence (he was certainly afraid that revelation of his past would destroy his popularity) or whether some other secret was involved.

What Saylor has done is connect Porter's early life with a serial killing in Austin in the 1880s, while he was there, a sequence of horrific murders to rival Jack the Ripper's more famous Whitechapel killings at about the same time. Austin's police force used an investigation method which basically consisted of finding some black man with a connection to the victim, and asserting his guilt, something which even at the time began to cause something of a scandal. The obvious parallels with cases like that of Rodney King show that American law enforcement has not, however, advanced as much as might be hoped. (And the UK is hardly perfect, with the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six only relatively recently being officially exonerated.)

Many of the characters in Saylor's novel are real people; several of the ideas, including his solution to the mystery and, I suspect though he doesn't actually say, the mechanism of Porter's connection to it are fictional. Saylor's earlier Roman novels show that he is an expert in blending fact and fiction, a necessary quality in any successful historical novelist. Moving out of his familiar background while still remaining successful was quite a steep challenge (the work involved in research alone is not negligible), and so Saylor has shown considerable versatility.

Honour the Dead is a long novel, much longer than most of the Gordianus series, and it doesn't consistently hold the reader's interest. The case itself is fascinating, if repellent, and Saylor's conclusion feels satisfying once it is reached, but I never had any desire to read more than two or three chapters at a sitting. Good, but not Saylor's best.

Jack Vance: Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden (1983)

Edition: Grafton, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1059

Fairy stories are generally associated with quite early childhood, yet even in the bowdlerised versions presented for the young there can be quite unpleasant elements. This is even more the case with the originals of many of the common stories, the work of Hans Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. In Lyonesse, Vance has chosen to emphasise this aspect of this kind of tale, and has written a fantasy novel (first of a trilogy) which is distinctly an adult fairy tale.

The setting is a group of islands in what is now the Bay of Biscay - Lyonesse is often in Arthurian legends made into a Celtic equivalent of Atlantis. Once united, the islands are now divided into small kingdoms, the rulers of which are continually jockeying for an advantage which will allow them to dominate their neighbours. There are also magicians, a group very like those in The Dying Earth, and a variety of fairy folk, mischievous and frequently quite malicious.

The king of the small kingdom which has retained the name of Lyonesse, Casmir, has a daughter, Suldrun. She objects to being used as a pawn in his political scheming, promised first to one man and then another as a prospective bride, and he punishes her by shutting her up in a small area in the palace grounds leading down to the sea that she has turned into a garden to use as a retreat from palace life. Then a young man is washed ashore, a prince from the kingdom of Troicnet thrown overboard from a ship, and the two of them fall in love. Betrayed to Casmir, Aillas is thrown into an oubliette while Suldrun's confinement is made more secure, hiding for the time being the fact that she is pregnant.

Lyonesse tells the start of an interesting story, with a fascinating background and characters who transcend the limitations of fairy tale stereotypes. It is a wonderful classic of the fantasy genre, demonstrating how basic source material is capable of re-interpretation in new and exciting ways.

Saturday 2 February 2002

Jack London: The Assassination Bureau, Ltd (1963)

Completed by: Robert L. Fish
Edition: Penguin, 1995
Review number: 1058

This strange novel, left uncompleted by London in 1910, was finally published just after the assassination of J.F. Kennedy, guaranteeing that it would be a sensation of its time. It is a strange, unconvincing novel which mirrors London's concerns about law, morality and violence - particularly the idea of a society which countenances violence against itself.

The Assassination Bureau undertakes murder for payment, of men that its members are convinced are not worthy of life (the corrupt are the main examples given). When the head of the bureau, Ivan Dragomiroff, is approached by a young man and asked to take out a contract on himself, he refuses, but is eventually convinced that the work of the bureau is morally wrong and that therefore by his own rules he deserves to die. A bizarre chase across America follows, as he becomes a fugitive from his own employees (while, because of his own strict morality, continuing to allow the bureau access to its money for the expenses concerned with his own murder).

The difficulty in the novel is in believing in Dragomiroff's changing his mind, and the remorselessness with which he sticks to this decision in the face of the threat to his life. His incomprehensible character makes the rest of the novel seem arbitrary as well, and London is not a good enough writer to pick up the reader's interest in other ways. Interesting, but in the end disappointing.