Saturday 16 April 2005

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The House of the Dead (1862)

Translation: H. Sutherland Edwards, 1911 (revised 1962) (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Everyman, 1962
Review number: 1291

Russia has long been known for the harshness of its justice system, and its literature includes several notable depictions of cruel prisons, including much of the work of Solzhenitsyn. A long time before the gulags of Stalin, Dostoyevsky produced The House of the Dead, a work which proved to be the turning point of his career. Before this appeared, just before his fortieth birthday, he had produced several fairly minor works very much in the shadow of Gogol, either parodying or imitating the older writer. After it, he had found his own style, much more realistic and with a new interest in psychology; and he went on to produce some of the most famous and influential novels in any language, from Crime and Punishment to The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoyevsky was sent to prison in Siberia in 1849, after being identified as the ringleader of a group of Socialists. (His punishment was particularly cruel psychologically, as he was sentenced to be executed then reprieved deliberately at the last moment.) Although his sentence was four years hard labour, it was another few years before he was permitted to return to a more or less normal life, and some more again before he was able to write about it. Even then, he toned things down for public consumption; after some of the more horrific or unjust scenes, he took pains to point out that "This practise has now been stopped" (or a similar phrase), and he was less graphic in his descriptions than in a letter to his brother. He also adopted a fairly transparent device, using as a narrator a fictitious prisoner, whose papers were supposedly obtained by Dostoyevsky after his death. Solzhenitsyn would do something similar in A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, about a century later. He, however, was not so successful in persuading the authorities to turn a blind eye. (As an aside, it has for some time amazed me how transparent fictions like this could pass the censor in the nineteenth century - there are many examples from Italian opera; either those whose job it was to keep control of literature and drama were remarkably naive and stupid, or they were willing to collude as long as appearances were kept up.)

There are some truly unpleasant practices exposed in The House of the Dead, most notably in the descriptions of barbaric corporal punishment and the appalling conditions in the prison hospital. Both these scenes seem more shocking to readers today, when ideas of hygeine are more readily accepted and extreme cruelty rejected. Throughout most of the book, the main impression that the reader gets is that most prisoners stoically accept their lot, and the biggest problems being the psychological ones caused the futility of the life they are forced to lead and their loss of liberty. These seem to me to both be projections by Dostoyevsky onto the majority of prisoners (who continually refuse to accept the narrator as a companion, because of the noble birth he shares with Dostoyevsky) - they must have been part of the normal life of a Russian peasant, tied to the land of the men who (at the time the of Dostoyevsky's imprisonment) owned them. Valid or not, his ideas about the psychology of men under extreme pressure and the nature of good and evil formed the seeds of the central characters in his novels. To today's readers, Raskolnikov and the others may seem rather melodramatic and overdrawn, but they certainly have depth and vitality which goes beyond almost all his contemporaries. Their personalities are rooted in their situations, and change as their circumstances change, something which is true of few other literary creations, of any era. Among other nineteenth century writers, the only one I can think of who did this as consistently as Dostoyevsky is George Eliot.

Dostoyevsky's work is far more melodramatic, more extreme, than Eliot, of course, and part of that is presumably also rooted in the experiences he had in prison. The injustices of the life led there must have helped shape his ideas about good and evil, and moral culpability, which play such an important part in his important novels. This is easy to see, even though we cannot really know how closely his own experiences match the incidents related in The House of the Dead. This means that the book is the starting point for any serious reading of Dostoyevsky.

Iris Murdoch: Nuns and Soldiers (1980)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1980 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1290

The Sea, The Sea is one of my favourite Murdoch novels and one of her most famous; its follow-up is much less well known. It doesn't quite equal its predecessor, but it is well worth reading, more so than her later novels.

Nuns and Soldiers begins on a deathbed; Guy Openshaw tells his wife that she should marry again. She is reluctant to do this, feeling that it would be a betrayal, but then, quite soon after Guy's death, Gertrude falls unexpectedly in love with a much younger man, a poverty stricken painter. This horrifies her friends, partly for snobbish reqasons and partly because they assume that Tim Reede is really after Gertrude's money. When they discover that Tim had hidden from Gertrude the fact that he was already in a long term (if informal) relationship when he met her, they feel that their suspicions have been confirmed. Murdoch makes it clear that he really did fall for Gertrude and that he hid the relationship from pure embarrassment, but that is not how it looks to Gertrude's friends or (eventually) to Gertrude, and succeeds in making everybody miserable.

So why the rather strange title? There is a literal nun in the story, Gertrude's friend Anne, who has recently left an enclosed order after losing her faith. On the other hand, there are no real soldiers. The distinction seems to be more between passive and active characters, with nuns and soldiers being traditional archetypes of each. Most characters in this novel move from one to the other end of the spectrum (and back again), and the reader is also shown that the characters' self perception does not always match their position.

Nuns and Soldiers is not a happy novel, but it is a good one. It doesn't have quite the impact of The Sea, The Sea, possibly because it starts with a death bed scene and possibly because a fair amount of philosophical discussion is presented in the early chapters: there are both emotional and intellectual hurdles to get over before a reader can get into the story itself. The transformation of Tim Reede's character throughout the novel is interesting, but on the other hand some of the less characters are either very ordinary or have odd things done to them by the author. The Polish man nicknamed "the Count" is an example; Murdoch seems to vacillate about just how important a part he should play. (This is actually quite clever, as real relationships ebb and flow in ways normally drastically simplified in fiction.) Though it is fairly hard work on the conceptual level, Nuns and Soldies is made accessible by Murdoch's style, which keeps the story flowing along. What I particularly like about the novel are the scenes when characters discuss others behind their backs, which may be incidental to the plot but which say a lot about their relationships and perceptions of each other.

Thursday 14 April 2005

Len Deighton: Violent Ward (1993)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1994
Review number: 1289

One of Robert Heinlein's best known short stories, ...And He Built A Crooked House, begins with a whimsical description of the lunacy of America. This novel, with its tagline "If America is a lunatic asylum then California is the Violent Ward", brings that idea up to date, with a much bleaker view of Lost Angeles set during the Rodney King trial: the amiable eccentricity of Heinlein's early fifties suburbia is long gone.

Mickey Murphy is a shady lawyer, whose clients, though they include a well known film actor, tend to be on the edges of the underworld. He reluctantly becomes involved in something rather more serious than shady dealing, and this comes to a head against the background of increasing tension on the streets - a nice use of the "pathetic fallacy".

Deighton is a vintage writer covering familiar ground - the cynical, tough narrator involved in something he doesn't approve of, who knows a lot more about what is going on than he reveals to the reader is found in many of his novels. Given the LA setting, Violent Ward sometimes reads as though it could be the backstory of an ambiguous character who later turns up in one of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch novels. A similar background, more or less centred on the film industry, has appeared before in Deighton's work, in XPD and Close-Up, but this is a more straightforward novel than either. It is more successful than XPD in particular because it leaves out the various elements that combine to make that novel one of Deighton's least believable. On balance, Violent Ward joins City of Gold to be Deighton's best work of the nineties, a more fitting end to his career than the comparatively lacklustre final Bernard Samson trilogy.

Saturday 9 April 2005

Robin Hobb: Fool's Fate (2003)

Edition: Voyager, 2003
Review number: 1288

The final novel of The Tawny Man trilogy has a plot which is at its heart a traditional fairy tale, the epitome of a fantastic quest. Even the names of some of the characters could come from a fairy story. Prince Dutiful cannot marry his princess until he carries out the quest she has set him - to kill a dragon and bring its head to lay on the hearth of her ancestral home. On every level except this basic summary, however, Hobb does not follow tradition. The dragon, for example, is not ravaging Ellannia's homeland, but lies entombed alive in a glacier. And the quest is not set merely from a desire for Dutiful to prove his heroic worth, but there is a dark, secret motive behind it. Then, of course, there is the involvement of Fitz, central character of this and the earlier Farseer trilogy, a royal bastard who carries the powers of both kinds of magic known in the Six Duchies, the royal Skill and the despised Wit. Finally, there is the Fool, Fitz's closest friend and now known to be the White Prophet, who sees the attempt to travel to the far north and kill the dragon as the pivotal event in his dreams of the future.

Many of the characteristics that readers of the earlier novels will have come to expect from Hobb are here in full measure - the fascinating ideas, the engrossing storytellers, the believable characters - together with the gentler approach of this trilogy. This is not to say that Fool's Fate is lacking in events that affect Fitz, just that they are not so catastrophic as in the Farseer books which saw him, at one point, taking poison to escape torture and then having his dead body brought back to life. This novel features a Fitz approaching middle age, however, no longer fit or eager for such drastic adventures.

The most interesting part of the novel is the ending, so those who don't want to know should look away now. The general run of fantasy stories keep to the juvenile fairy story ending - bad guys polished off, the good live happily ever after. Usually, the book is made "adult" by arranging for some relatively minor good character to die off on the way, making it possible to claim that the author has produced something more than totally trivial escapism (and even then, the death may not be permanent - see for example David Eddings' Belgariad series). Hobb has an ending which is much more truly adult, with deaths, partins and renewal of relationships - and a lot of sadness. The final words of Fitz's narrative, ending not just this novel but I suspect the whole of Hobbs' chronicle of his life, are simply "I am content". I would say that this is really the closest a mature tale like this can come to happily ever after.