Thursday 28 October 2004

Robertson Davies: Tempest-Tost (1951)

Edition: Penguin, 1980 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1270

In some ways, the staging of an amateur theatrical event must seem to be an ideal focus for a satirist. The inflated egos, naked ambition displayed over so small an achievement is an obvious tool to dissect the vanities of the world. Its very obviousness is the problem: how do you use this subject without coming across as trite? Here, then, we see that to choose this as the background for his debut novel Robertson Davies was actually showing a high level of self-confidence. (This was perhaps to be expected in a writer who was already an experienced journalist and playwright.)

So what does Davies do to make Tempest-Tost an interesting variation on the amateur dramatics as satire theme? It's sharper than most, for a start - full of acid yet subtle jokes at the small mindedness of the Canadian provincial. (It would be just about possible to read Robertson Davies without realising that it is meant to be funny.) The majority of the jokes are character based; each member of the cast is exposed in some shortcoming, which usually arises because they are not as good at something as they think they are; in the Aristotelian manner, their downfall comes from hubris and yet this is not made tragic. (This is something which changes somewhat in Davies' later novels. In A Mixture of Frailties, the third novel of the Salterton trilogy of which this is the first, Solly Bridgetower, whose problem is his devotion to a demanding, suffocating and ungrateful mother, has his life made miserable after her death by the malicious provisions of her will.) Bringing in the director of the production - The Tempest, by the way, hence the title (even if it is quoted from Macbeth), from outside also makes this different. Valentine Rich is a native Saltertonian, who has gone to New York and become a success there as a theatre director. She returns as a favour to an old schoolfriend, and causes a great deal of tension because of her outlook, her refusal to admit that things cannot be arranged in Salterton's amateur theatre as they could be in professional New York productions. She has no truck with the idea that some people must be asked to do things for political reasons rather than because of their suitability. The clash between her values and the cosy traditional ideas of the amateur group enhance the satire enormously.

The third way that Davies moves Tempest-Tost out of the common is by the power of his characterisation. Though the various Saltertonians in the novel initially seem to be rather clich├ęd stereotypes - the popular, pretty young girl, the stuffy schoolmaster, the pedantic university lecturer, the tomboy, the taciturn gardener, and so on - they are almost all gradually revealed to be more complex than that with complicated interactions. Then there is the time and place - the sexual hangups of the mid twentieth century play a big part (especially the innocence of young men and women compared to their successors only a few years later), as do the special insecurities of a backwater town in Ontario (fiction Salterton's greatest claim to fame is that it was at one point considered as a possible capital for the Dominion of Canada). Like the inhabitants of Sinclair Lewis' even more bitter Main Street, the small mindedness of Salterton's inhabitants is quite amazing, and is (paradoxically) greatest amongst those who consider themselves the town's sophisticated elite.

Tempest-Tost is a wonderfully witty satire, full of barbed humour and, more than that, it is a novel full of memorable characters.

Tuesday 26 October 2004

Len Deighton: Spy Line (1989)

Edition: Grafton, 1990
Review number: 1269

The start of this novel, second in the Hook, Line and Sinker trilogy, marks the lowest point of the career of British spy Bernard Samson, at least during the period documented by Deighton. The first scene is set in a seedy nightclub, from which Bernard goes to the squat where he is living in one of the most sordid areas of Berlin, a derelict housing estate up against the Wall. Here he is hiding from his employers, who have a warrant out for his arrest on suspicion of treason - all part of the events following his wife's defection to the Communists. As it turns out, Bernard is safer on the run than when he returns to the department, to be immediately sent out on a poorly organised and dangerous mission to Austria.

Though this seems to be a typical mid-trilogy novel, just keeping the plot ticking over, it has a huge shock in store. It also contains the beginning of Deighton's response to the changes brought by glasnost. The thawing of the Cold War was obviously a momentous event in the life of anyone who made a living from it, whether the spies who are the characters in Deighton's novels or the writer himself. At the start, he is not too impressed; he has a Berliner tell Bernard a joke in the very first scene of Spy Line - the only difference glasnost has brought to the Wall is that the frontier guards now shoot with silenced guns.

Bernard portrays himself as at the mercy of the machinations of others throughout the entire series (though his self image is clearly not entirely accurate), and this is particularly true in Spy Line. This is presumably because he is not at all happy with his own role at this point in the saga; the time has come when the betrayals are his own and when he has to make a decision that will be hurtful to those close to him whatever he does.

As I have said before in discussing other Bernard Samson books, this is a series to read from the beginning; do not start here, but with Berlin Game.

Thursday 21 October 2004

Steven Mithen: After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000 - 5000 BC (2003)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003
Review number: 1268

In the last few years, the understanding that professional archaeologists have of life in the prehistoric world has advanced rapidly, but the new ideas have generally been quite slow to filter through to the level of the interested amateur, apart from the odd newspaper article when a particularly sensational story has been unearthed, such as the disproving of the "Clovis first" theory about the earliest inhabitants of the American continent, or the exposing of the Philippine's Tasaday tribe as a hoax perpetrated by the Marcos regime for its own reasons. In After the Ice, Steve Mithen provides a popular account of the current state of archaeological knowledge and theory, a worldwide survey of the story of 15,000 years - a period which basically extends from the height of the last Ice Age to the earliest agricultural cultures.

In this sort of account, the difficulty is to make the past come alive - to turn the trenches back into huts, the bones into people - while being able to show the reasoning behind the reconstruction, the boundaries between knowledge and supposition, and also to explain something of the scientific techniques used in modern archaeological investigation. Mithen uses a particular device to overcome this difficulty: he writes about what would have been seen by a time traveller he names John Lubbock, named after a famous Victorian historian, who in his own book Prehistoric Times did something similar to After the Ice, although right at the start of the study of the prehistoric past: this was the book which introduced terms such as Palaeolithic and Neolithic. John Lubbock carries a copy of Prehistoric Times around with him, which makes it possible for Mithen to discuss just how much our ideas about the past have changed in the last century and a half (and also our attitudes to non-white people). This generally works quite well, only occasionally becoming irritating; far less so than a description of the device makes it sound.

Apart from those with an interest in the past for its own sake, why should anyone read After the Ice? Mithen makes a case for this by considering global warming. Through this fifteen thousand year period, global temperatures rose dramatically (though not as fast as they are now), and many of the changes in the archaeology can be linked to the environmental changes that were local effects of this. The drastic move to agriculture - it should be noted that the early farmers had poorer nutrition than the hunter gatherers they replaced - has had amassive (indeed, incalculable) social impact. This is some food for thought as we look to the next century, when global warming is likely to impact a world containing thousands of times as many people.

One minor irritation occurs in connection with the footnotes. A lot of the more technical detail is relegated to notes at the end of the book, and there are many readers who, like myself, will want to follow them as they progress through the main narrative. The problem is that there are frequent errors in the numbering of the notes which can make this a frustrating process. To take an example, in the last chapter the note referenced as 2 in the text appears as 6 in the endpapers, with the notes in between also incorrect (3-5 become 2-4). I hope this will be corrected in later editions.

After the Ice is a fascinating book, and is essential reading for anyone interested in the prehistoric past. Maybe in a decade or two it will be out of date; and in a century and a half it may well seem to be a naive, forgotten relic of the past like Prehistoric Times has become. But for now this is the history book of the year.

Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent (1907)

Edition: Thomas Nelson
Review number: 1267

Almost since the English novel's origins, there have been writers who wanted to create literary versions of the melodramatic journalism which has been part of British life since the days of the Tudors. Dickens is perhaps the most notable example, with campaigning novels such as Nicholas Nickleby. The Secret Agent is very much part of this tradition, but takes it in a new direction: this is an important milestone towards the establishment of the literary end of the thriller genre, obvious successors including novels like Brighton Rock.

In the thirty years or so before the First World War, anarchist outrages were in the news in much the same way as terrorism is today. Sensationalist writing was rife, some of which was about as grounded in reality as the wildest ranting that can be found on today's Internet. The parallels extend to an equivalent of the 9/11 attacks - the assassination of the Russian Emperor Alexander II in 1881 (and attacks on other royalty). Hopefully there will not be a second parallel event to match the effective ending of the hysteria with another outrage - the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinant, followed by global war.

Conrad was no stranger to sensationalist plots; just think of Lord Jim, or The Heart of Darkness (the latter perhaps more shocking now, with its story of the dehumanisation of whte traders in colonial Africa, than it would have been at the time). The Secret Agent goes further, and also incidentally one of the few Conrad stories to make virtually no references to the sea.

The central character is the shady Mr Verloc; proprietor of a seedy shop atmospherically described in the novel's opening pages. For years, he has been supplementing the inadequate income provided by his business - a foreign embassy has been funding him to organise an anarchist cell in London. As a lazy man, this ideally suits him, as failing to make an impact is just proof of how difficult his allotted task actually is. Then, a change at the Embassy means that Verloc is given an ultimatum: produce results, or receive no more money. The target selected is the Greenwich Observatory, as symbol of the fetish of the age, science.

The Secret Agent isn't really about its plot, but about style and character (the most interesting being Verloc's wife). I've also found it the most accessible and appealing of Conrad's novels. It is less complex psychologically than Lord Jim or The Heart of Darkness, both of which are about how men's characters change; Winnie Verloc does not develop gradually but suddenly turns into a different person at the climactic point of the novel, when she makes a dramatic discovery.

The Secret Agent is, as far as I am concerned, the ideal introduction to Conrad's writing (it was the first writing of his that I read); and it has remained my favourite among his novels.