Saturday 27 November 2004

Ivan Turgenev: Smoke (1867)

Translation: Uncredited
Edition: Alan Sutton, 1985
Review number: 1275

Earlier in 2004, it was announced that the United Kingdom divorce rates had risen quite sharply, and one of the causes suggested by commentators was the way that the Internet has made it easier to trace old lovers, causing people to abandon their current partners in something of an attempt to recover lost youth. Though meeting someone from the past after a long time can cause something of a jolt, and people do tend to romanticise their past affairs (because they didn't suffer from the specific flaws that mar current relationships), it is likely that whatever it was that made it not work out the first time will still be there in some form, which means that picking things up where they were left off is probably doomed.

Shorn of the digs at Friends Reunited, this is basically the idea behind Smoke. Many years ago, the central character Litvinov was engaged to the young and beautiful Irina Osinin. Her family was aristocratic but impoverished, but she was offered a single chance to make her name in society. Urged to do so by her father and by Libinov (persuaded by her father that she should take the opportunity), she becomes a great success, and this proves the end of the match between the two young people. Now, ten years later and again on the verge of marriage, Litvinov is visiting the fashionable German spa of Baden-Baden, seemingly populated entirely by Russians, when he meets Irina again. Irina is now married, but clearly despises her husband, and she is still extremely beautiful. Litvinov is tempted to renew their relationship, but is torn by his duty and his desire to remain true to his fiancée - a sincere desire, despite the resurgence of all his old feelings for Irina.

The plot serves more as the hook for a series of satirical portraits of the Russian upper classes abroad, particularly in the first half of Smoke; these seem to be the main point of the novel. They are variously revealed as stupid, provincial, vulgar, superficial and vain - or as combinations of these qualities. The two main characters are more fully fleshed out than this, and much more sympathetically portrayed - and yet Turgenev is careful to make them flawed as well.

Smoke is the novel which first made Turgenev's name outside Russia, though today the earlier Fathers and Sons and the play A Month in the Country are deservedly far better known. This anonymous (and, I suspect, early and hence out of copyright) translation has obvious flaws (details such as the consistent use of the word "thrashing" rather than "threshing" to describe the processing of grain suggest to me that the translator was not a native English speaker, and some phrases use idiomatic expressions which are no longer current), but it does possess a certain liveliness which is presumably derived from the atmosphere of the original.

As a Russian novel about illicit love, Smoke is overshadowed by Anna Karenin - but that is of course true about most novels. It is one of the most accesible nineteenth century Russian novels, with none of the problems cited by some as reasons to avoid them - it is short, has a smallish number of characters with distinct names, and avoids dullness through the use of satire.

Saturday 20 November 2004

Salley Vickers: Mr Golightly's Holiday (2003)

Edition: Harper Perennial, 2004
Review number: 1274

There have been many novels written about the way in which the settled life of a British village can be transformed by the introduction of new ideas by cosmopolitan visitors. It might be thought that the advent of modern communications and media, particularly the TV soap opera, would have made this an obsolete concept, one that would be restricted to literature with a historical setting, but Mr Golightly's Holiday demonstrates that a successful contemporary novel can still use the theme.

The village in question is a fictional place on the edge of Dartmoor, and the cosmopolitan visitor is the title character (though he is in some ways less sophisticated than the villagers). He is a middle-aged businessman who books a holiday cottage for several months to take some time away from the company he runs and to think about bringing a successful novel he wrote some years ago up to date, maybe by turning it into the basis for a soap opera. This is where his own lack of sophistication comes in; he needs educating about how a soap opera works by a teenager he befriends. However, he certainly challenges the villagers' assumptions about how they run their lives, which is the point of the scenario.

The reviews quoted on the back of Mr Golightly's Holiday generally seem keen to compare it to Cold Comfort Farm. To my mind, there are two many differences between the two novels to make this a useful comparison for a prospective reader (though, from a marketing point of view, it is easy to see why the publishers would quote comparisons to one of the best loved English novels of the twentieth century). The village here is not as strange and over the top as the farm at Cold Comfort, for one thing, and Mr Golightly is nothing like as forthright in his attempts at reform as Flora Poste. These two factors combine to produce a much gentler novel, rather than the madcap satire of Gibbons. I would say that a closer relation is Mervyn Peake's Mr Pye, even if that is a far less well known novel.

This brings me to a major point of similarity between Mr Golightly's Holiday and Mr Pye, the part that religious ideas play in both novels. (This is another important difference between them and Cold Comfort Farm, where the only important religious theme is the description of the Quivering Brethren, ridiculing the more extreme non-conformist sects.) That there will be Christian ideas appearing in the novel is clear early on, when a woman walking her dog on Dartmoor suddenly hears a voice from a burning gorse bush - an incident that rams home just how bizarre Moses' similar experience recorded in Exodus must have seemed when he recounted it to his acquaintances. This particular event is to my mind the most interesting of the ideas in the novel, and even though it could form the basis of an entire plot in itself, it is not made as much of as some of the other Biblical ideas.

There are two Bible-derived ideas which form an important part of the novel. One of these is kept as a well-prepared surprise to the end; it is, unfortunately rather hackneyed and limp (sufficiently so that it forms the setup to several well known jokes). The other is constant reference to the story of Job - Mr Golightly receives a series of anonymous emails quoting one of the most famous pieces of poetry in the Old Testament, from the end of the book when Job confronts God to try to find out why he has been through so much suffering. This, too, is potentially interesting (since after all Job is one of the hardest hitting books in the Bible), but it is also not handled very well. The Biblical Job is an attack on facile reasoning about suffering in which an innocent man looses his family, his property and his health in what seems to be a very nasty and malicious prank on the part of God. Like the burning bush, this is a missed opportunity in a novel which could never be described as hard-hitting. (Robert Heinlein's science fiction retelling of the Biblical story, a novel itself named Job, is far more provocative.)

Though there are missed opportunities, and though Vickers has a distinct tendency to play safe when she has a choice to make, there is still much to enjoy about Mr Golightly's Holiday. It is well enough written, particularly in terms of characterisation, but if it had been more daring it could have been one of the best novels of 2003. Interesting, but could have been better.

Saturday 13 November 2004

Iris Murdoch: The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1987 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1273

A theme which runs through most, and possibly all, of Iris Murdoch's novels is that of love or affection which is misplaced or unequal. In The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, it is central to the novel, and it is a feature of all the relationships between the characters. So there is a mother whose teenage son is beginning to strain for independence; a man crippled by grief following the death of his wife; another man who is regretting the affair he has been carrying on for the last eight years, and so on.

The plot of the novel is basically the story of what happens when Blaise is driven to admit his affair - and small son - to his completely unsuspecting wife. This of course leads to dramatic changes in all the relationships depicted, which centre around the couple. There is little more to the novel than this; it is a study of character and relationships, and how they are transformed when this kind of cataclysm shatters their stable pattern. From a philosophical or psychological point of view, it is clear that Murdoch was interested in how character and relationships affect each other, and how circumstance affects them both. (This could also almost be suggested as the principal interest of the novel form itself.) It could be argued that the interplay between character and circumstance determines relationships, but Murdoch's view is a little more subtle, as characters are influenced and evolve through the action of the other components.

Unusually for an Iris Murdoch novel, there is not much discussion of religion in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, despite its title (which is not one of Murdoch's best, in my opinion). I am not sure why this is, though she may well have felt that adding more would detract from the various elements already present. The "Sacred and Profane" of the title would then refer to the different kinds of love in the novel and their varying degrees of what might be termed legitimacy. No relationship which is as one sided as those depicted in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine could be considered totally legitimate; this is a work about the shades of grey that determine our perception of this measure, and about how much this perception could differ from the black and white ideas of legitimacy which tend to be used by society generally.

Initially, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine does not seem to be one of Murdoch's better novels. This feeling is perhaps initially prompted by the sub-hippy culture title, but it also begins in rather a dull way. It becomes interesting immediately on the cataclysmic revelation of Blaise's infidelity. It is definitely worth persevering with, but even so it is not up there with The Sea, The Sea, The Bell or Under the Net.

Wednesday 10 November 2004

Len Deighton: Spy Sinker (1990)

Edition: Grafton, 1991
Review number: 1272

The final volume of the second Bernard Samson trilogy is absolutely and massively different from the five novels that precede it and the three that come after. Instead of narration by Bernard, with himself as the central character, we now get a (supposedly) objective third person narrative, which takes the setting back again to 1978 contemporary with that of Berlin Game and focuses on his wife, Fiona. (I say supposedly, because occasionally the objective mask is dropped, and remarks like one commenting that Fiona's public school background ideally prepared her for life as a double agent in East Germany are made.)

This sounds like a good idea; all along we have Bernard's not completely hones description of how he began to suspect his wife was a traitor, but then gradually discovered, following her defection, that she might be one of the most daring British agents of the Cold War. His position is as the victim of betrayal in both scenarios (as the husband of the agent, his particular difficulty is that he was left out of the secret). He is also not the central figure in his own drama, though the reader will tend to forget this because of the power implicit in being the narrator of the story. So how different is the picture from the point of view of the betrayer? This is Fiona's story, and it is perhaps to say something about her character that Deighton narrates in the third person, rather than producing a first person story from her side of things - more passive, perhaps.

In practise, it doesn't work as well as it sounds as though it should. Retelling the same story from a new point of view can work very well, when the new central character has something new to being to the tale (as in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, for example). Here, however, most of what we read either repeats what Bernard has said or is something the reader probably guessed from reading his account. (For example, we don't need to be given an explicit account to know that there must have been a high level meeting at which it was decided to keep the operation secret from Bernard.)

Another problem is that Fiona Samson is not as interesting or as believable a character as her husband. Of course, a large number of Deighton's earlier novels have central characters very similar to Bernard, so he had lots of practise before creating him, while Fiona is his only attempt at a female viewpoint character (barring short stretches from Only When I Larf). He may have been aware that she was less successful, and that is perhaps the reason why a fair amount of Spy Sinker concerns other characters - which in turn is a good reason why Fiona isn't given a first person narration.

As I have said before, to read Berlin Game is almost certainly enough to inspire you to go on and read the rest of the series, and there is certainly some interest here with the gaps that are filled in. But Spy Sinker is definitely the poorest of the Bernard Samson novels.

Saturday 6 November 2004

Ian McDonald: River of Gods (2004)

Edition: Simon & Schuster, 2004
Review number: 1271

India is, as pretty much everyone says, a fascinating place. Full of the ancient and embracing the modern, united by a colonial power yet, independent, maintaining that unity in the face of massive pressures both internal and external, home to hundreds of millions of people, who believe in thousands of gods and demons and live in conditions ranging between as poor and as wealthy as anyone on the planet. There have been massive changes since independence in 1947 (as chronicled by writers such as Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roi) - so a natural question is what will India be like in about fifty years time, on the hundredth anniversary of independence? Of course, no one currently knows, but Ian McDonald has given us his image of what the subcontinent might be like at that point, woven into an extremely traditional science fictional plot, the investigation of an alien artefact. The other main plot strand is the development - or, rather, evolution - of artificial intelligences known as aeais many times brighter than human beings, who are sought out and destroyed being considered a threat.

What is immediately interesting about McDonald's future is how little is actually different. Science fiction authors generally emphasise the changes; he gives more prominent to what remains the same. It is mainly the details that have changed - better computing, slicker entertainment (computer generated soap operas, personal aeai DJs to give you a customised soundtrack to the world); water has replaced oil as the resource to fight wars over, especially in a fragmented India where the monsoon has failed three years running; the ability to choose "designer babies" has created a Hindu middle class in which girls have suddenly acquired massive scarcity value, and where there is a neuter subculture vaguely like gay culture in the West today. None of these changes are terribly earth shattering in science fiction terms (compare this novel with Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, for example). And so as a result Indian society doesn't seem to have changed terribly much: most of what we read about would seem reasonably familiar to the characters of Midnight's Children.

While a science fiction fan like myself can definitely find "prior art" for the various elements of River Gods, McDonald has put them together to produce something which is convincing (if a little conservative), interesting and enjoyable to read.