Saturday 28 September 2002

Alain-Fournier: Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)

Translation: Frank Davison, 1959
Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 1120

Catcher in the Rye has been an important novel in the lives of many of its readers, helping to re-define ideas of what teenagers are like in the English-speaking world. To a French person a generation or so earlier, Le Grand Meaulnes, which is also about growing up, might well have had a similar effect. A further similarity between Alain-Fournier and J.D. Salinger is that the one novel amounts to virtually their entire output, though in the case of the French author this was because of his tragic early death on the Western Front rather than the reclusiveness of Salinger's later years.

The narrator of the novel is Francois Seurel, the son of a schoolmaster. He is approaching the end of his education when a new pupil arrives at the school. Augustin Meaulnes quickly becomes the leader of the boys in their wildest escapades in the countryside around the school. On one of these adventures Meaulnes becomes lost and ends up at a ruined country estate which is being prepared for a bizarre wedding. (This is why a filmed version of the novel was entitled The Lost Domain.) There he meets a young woman and falls in love, but once he returns to the outside world he is unable to find the chateau again, even though he becomes obsessed with the search.

There are three things which mark Le Grand Meaulnes out as a classic. The first is its evocation of childhood, particularly the magical nature of some of our experience in that period which often produces nostalgic feelings in later life. The second is in the symbolic nature of the domain itself, which is really the same thing: it stands for that which is left behind on entering adulthood, something which we can never find again no matter how hard we search. The third reason, also connected, is the relationship between Seurel and Meaulnes. This is one of idealistic hero worship on Seurel's part; there aren't quite homoerotic overtones, but it comes close (and of couse, as narrator, Seurel would be able to censor the story as he chooses). It is something typical of adolescence; though one would usually expect one of them to be younger than the other, here Seurel is given a slight infirmity which makes his hero worship of a contemporary more credible.

Le Grand Meaulnes has rather suffered for non-French readers for two reasons. Alain Fournier's untimely death meant that he didn't generate the international reputation during his lifetime that he might well have done; it is easy enough to believe that he might have produced work equalling the front rank of twentieth century French novelists. The other problem is that two key phrases are difficult (if not impossible) to translate. One is crucially the title, because "grand" is being used to carry far more than its dictionary translations, "big" or "great". The choice made here is to keep the French title (also marred for English speakers because the character's name is nearly phonetically equivalent to "moan"); this can only be off-putting. Other titles which have been used are The Wanderer, which is rather vague, and The Lost Domain, which introduces the other untranslatable phrase. This is "domain", used of the run down chateau and (crucially) the world it evokes in itself and as a symbol. The problem is again the baggage which goes with the word; the literal equivalent "country estate" has different connotations in English. For Alain-Fournier, it also designates an unreal world beside our own, like that Faerie of George MacDonald. In this domain the normal rules do not quite apply; once experienced, it is never forgotten, remaining an influence for ever. This is what Alain-Fournier has to say about childhood, and he uses the domain as a symbol to do so.

Salinger provided Holden Caulfield with a mission - to proclaim that adults are not always right, that teacher does not always know best. Alain-Fournier's characters are gentler, less iconoclastic. Even though they do things against the wishes of adults, the novel is from a world long before the kind of cynical teenage rebellion documented by Salinger. Since Salinger's picture of the teenager has gone on to become so dominant in modern culture, Le Grand Meaulnes has something of the air of a period piece. Yet as an evocation of the magic of adolescence, it remains an unsurpassed classic.

Wednesday 25 September 2002

T. Coraghessan Boyle: Water Music (1993)

Edition: Granta, 1998
Review number: 1119

The Georgian England portrayed in Hogarth's etchings is the inspiration for Boyle's lusty historical novel. Its spiritual home, where its best passages are set, is the gin soaked city of London, its alleys and gutters, whores and thieves. That is also the origin of one of Water Music's main characters, con man, vagabond, grave robber and would-be gentleman Ned Rise. His struggles against a capricious fate - every time he begins to make money, some disaster leaves him worse off than before - make his adventures entertaining reading. He is a comic rather than a realistic character, so the reader doesn't identify with him enough to feel much sympathy when his fortunes fail.

The major part of the novel, however, is set in West Africa, accompanying explorer Mungo Park's expeditions to the Niger river. The inhospitable country - the arid Sahel of his first trip, the jungle of the second - is more a commentary on the London scenes than a contrast with them. The misadventures of Park are reminiscent of Flashman (without the cowardice or a large part of the humour) and, even after Rise joins him, are unsatisfying.

Without Park, Water Music might well have been considered rather derivative of The Rake's Progress (both the sequence of prints and the opera based on them). Neverthess, it could have become the germ of a work which would be more satisfying than the novel as it is. Water Music is also reminiscent of Moll Flanders, though Defoe wrote many years before Boyle's novel is set. (Mind you, Handel's Water Music was also the product of earlier decades of the eighteenth century.)

In a note at the beginning of Water Music, Boyle warns the reader not to expect historical accuracy in the novel. He was interested in the feel of the years around 1800, not in getting all the details right. In many historical novels, though, the effectiveness of the background is a consequence of the author's research. At first sight, Boyle's not might seem to be an attempt to cover up laziness, but he clearly must have done some research, at least reading up on Park. In the end, there is probably little less that is historically inaccurate about Water Music than there is about many novels in the genre, even if it is clear that the London that it portrays is based more on Hogarth's drawings than on more sober descriptions. Boyle's disclaimer made me expect something like a fantasy novel which borrows some of its ideas from a historical setting, something like Jill Paton Walsh's Knowledge of Angels, or a cavalier treatment of history like the very silly George MacDonald Fraser Pyrates. This sort of freer setting might actually have suited Boyle better, though I found it difficult to see what he intended to say through Water Music, if anything.

I was interested and amused enough to read to the end of Water Music, but not, in the final reckoning, sufficiently impressed to bother looking out for any of Boyle's other novels.

Saturday 21 September 2002

Anthony McCarten: Spinners (1998)

Edition: Picador, 1999
Review number: 1118

Small towns have provided a fair number of novels with their backgrounds, particularly humorous novels (from Cranford onwards). This is because these places often combine backwardness with an inflated view of their importance and sophistication, and so are easy targets for satire. These novels are usually described as "dissecting" or "laying bare" the absurdities of small town life - unless they are "affectionate".

Spinners, McCarten's debut novel, falls squarely into the "dissecting" category. Set in Opunake, a New Zealand town centred around a frozen meat packing factory, it is about how the town is shaken up when a teenage girl claims to have been abducted by aliens. The problem is, it has all been done before and Opanuke isn't made either real enough or exaggerated enough to become truly comic. Spinners is not so much a dissection of small town life as it is a raking through the stereotypes of small town comic fiction. On the positive side, it does convey the way that small mindedness can constrict people living in a close knit community, but it doesn't really do this in a comic way. McCarten seems undecided whether to be humorous or vicious, and ends up not being either. It is possible to be both (see Main Street, for example, or Lake Wobegon Days), or for an excellent affectionate portrait of a small town try George Sumner Albee's wonderful By the Sea, By the Sea. Even the alien plot is better handled elsewhere; the TV series Roswell High showed the ways that people might react more convincingly.

Tuesday 17 September 2002

Brian L. Silver: The Ascent of Science (1998)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 2000
Review number: 1117

In the same way that new translations of classic works of literature need to appear for each generation to understand their relevance to them in particular, so too it is necessary for a new explanation of science for the general reader to be published every few years. The title of Brian L. Silver's book clearly invites comparison with Jakob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, and the equivalent in my teenage years was Isaac Asimov's Everyman's Guide to Science. The reasons why new books are needed are pretty obvious: as scientific and technological research proceed, the issues of interest to "the man in the street" or what science has to say about them will also change; twenty years ago many current controversies such as genetic modification of crops were futuristic science fiction.

Much of the ground covered is of course the same, but the good writer on basic science will stamp their personality on the material; they will make the story of scientific discovery their own. The particular slant an author takes is obviously going to be dependent on their ideas about science and its practitioners. Bronowski was interested in scientific progress, so The Ascent of Man turned out to be an integrated narrative. Isaac Asimov was interested in the all pervasiveness of science in the modern world, so that his book was a comprehensive general reference book.

The Ascent of Science is not as comprehensive as Asimov's book (which contains details on such things as the measurement of air pressure) and not as development oriented as Bronowski's (it is not, for instance, organised chronologically). What, then, are his concerns? In the last decades of the twentieth century, criticism of science (which includes both the well-informed and the mindless) has become increasingly vociferous, mainly as a result of debate about environmental issues. Silver is interested in this, and presents a lot more of the arguments there have been about scientific theories through history, rather than presenting currently supported ideas as gospel or acknowledging critics only be briefly ridiculing creationism as is done in many books for the general reader (for whom Silver appropriates the phrase "l'homme moyen sensuel"). He generally defends current scientific orthodoxy, while retaining some sympathy with those who attack science. (The penultimate chapter, "What the devil does it all mean?" includes some cogent criticisms of scientists, particularly those who take an overly grandiose view of their own work; he singles out certain enthusiasts for the Superconducting Supercollider and the Human Genome Project.) Above all, he wants to promote reasoned debate, and one of the major purposes of The Ascent of Science is to make it possible for a non-professional to take an informed part in such a discussion. This makes The Ascent of Science more concerned with the philosophy behind scientific thought than most books at this level, yet Silver's writing is always accessible. The well chosen bibliography would provide an excellent springboard for anyone wanting to learn more about the details of some aspect of science covered here.

The Ascent of Science is clear and well written, surely destined to become something of a classic of this genre. It is a real pity that Silver will never be able to update it (he died between completion and publication of the book). It has much to offer even those who know more about science, containing details and viewpoints which were new to me; accounts of the controversies of the past are particularly fascinating.