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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 28 February 2016

"Antigone" by Sophocles, translated by Robert Fagles

I saw Antigone at the Hope Theatre in Islington on Saturday 5th March.

It was beautifully played by a five woman cast in the round in a tiny, blackened cube of a room with an audience of perhaps 30 so close to the performance area that I worried about tripping the actors with my feet.

They started with one of the actresses reading from a book: "everyone knows that story"; they then gave a minute-long retelling of the Oedipus story so that we would know the background to this tale. Sophocles, of course, would never have needed to do this. Then the action started.

A feature of particular brilliance was that the chorus was played by the cast chanting a capella. This sung accompaniment to the main action made the chorus a key addition to the play.

But the actresses themselves were wonderful and the translation (which bore so many points of resemblace to the one I had read, below) was rendered into realistic dialogue. The Sentry who rushes in grumbling that he didn't really want to come and tell this dreadful news, don't shoot the messenger, and going all around the bushes to avoid telling the terrible tale was sharply told by King Creon to get to the point. These five actors made the play come alive as a very real contemporary dilemma: obey your conscience or obey the law. It really didn't matter that they talked about the gods. This adaptation was faithful to the original play and was still exceptionally relevant to day.

Antigone is the third of Sophocles' Theban plays, though, I am told, the first to be written. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus who famously killed his father and married his mother. But Antigone has fresh troubles. Her brothers, ruling turn and turn about as Kings of Thebes, have fought and killed one another. The new King, Creon, uncle to Antigone and father of her fiancé Haemon, has declared that one brother shall be buried with full honours while the other, the traitor, shall be left for the dogs and carrion birds. Antigone decides to bury the unburied brother in defiance of the law.

Creon is busy being King when a Sentry rushes in and unwillingly tells Creon that the body has been buried. Creon assumes (as the sentry thought he might in a 'don't shoot the messenger' moment) that the sentry or his mates committed the crime and tells the sentry that he will be killed if he can't produce the culprit. So the sentry decides to run off. But then he returns, having caught Antigone in the act of reburying her borther after the sentry and his mates had dug him up again. So Creon condemns the unrepentant Antigone to be walled up, presumably to starve to death.

And the chorus quote a saying: "Sooner or later/ foul is fair, fair is foul/ to the man the gods will ruin." Is that where Macbeth got it from?

Haemon comes along and Creon asks Haemon about the judgement and Haemon, in a wonderful piece of rhetoric, says that of course he honours his father and anything his father does must be right but the people of the twon are rather shocked by Creon's judgement. Creon and Haemon end up trading insults. Brilliant.

Then the famous blind seer Tiresias comes along and prophesies that Creon is going to regret his action ...

A classic. March 2016; 58 pages

Saturday, 27 February 2016

"Barchester Towers" by Anthony Trollope

The blurb on the back mentions Trollope's "matchless handling of plot" yet I have never known an author more prone to the spoiler! The plot such as it is revolves around the widow Bold and whether she will marry the odious Mr Slope or the feckless Bertie Stanhope or the saintly Reverend Arabin and since we are told at the end of chapter 15 (about a third of the way through) that she will marry neither Slope nor Stanhope we are left with the sub-plot which is will Mr Slope become Dean? Trollope spoils this too! At the beginning of Chapter 38 we are told that he has no chance to be Dean and yet Trollope wishes his characters to act as if they don't know this almost until the end of the book.

It is hard to forgive Trollope for being such a snob. "Could Mr Slope ... even have learnt the ways of a gentleman, he might have risen to great things." (Ch 8) Slope is damned by his lower class origins, and this in a novel devoted to the Church! Slope himself is snobbish, suggesting that "for people of that class [lower class people who talk funny] the cathedral service does not appear to me to be the most useful"; they are to be excluded from the cathedral (Ch 12).

But he does give us some delightful characters:
  • Bertie Stanhope the young waster who is still too honourable to propose to Eleanor Bold without first telling her that this is her sister's idea and that he is only after her money
  • The wonderful Reverend Obadiah Slope who is as oily as Uriah Heep and as contriving
  • The beautiful Signora Neroni, Bertie's crippled sister, who married an Italian good for nothing and gained her disability and a child who is the last of the Neros. The signora is a beautiful siren who lures, plays with and destroys men.
  • The formidable Mrs Proudie the Bishop's wife who contests with Mr Slope for the control of her husband and wins.
Unfortunately, like Dickens, Trollope finds it much more difficult to create good characters. Septimus Harding, meek and mild milk sop hero of the previous book, The Warden, in this Barsetshire series, is too good to be true; Mr Arabin, virginal Fellow of an Oxford College who throws it all up to become a little parish priest, is likewise unflawed. At least Eleanor Bold, Harding's daughter, who goes on to marry Arabin (why should I care about spoilers when Trollope doesn't?), is stubborn and headstrong, especially when she is misunderstood. But Trollope is orchestrating a morality play rather than anything more visceral.

The series continues with Doctor Thorne, where I am heading next but without any expectation of  more than a meander.

I have also read and reviewed Trollope's political Palliser novels:

  • Can You Forgive Her? in which Alice Vavasor oscillates backwards and forwards between goody two shoes John Grey and her wicked cousin George Vavasor. This book is blessed with a humorous counterpoint as rich and merry widow Mrs Greenow oscillates between rich farmer Mr Cheesacre who repeatedly tells everyone how well to do he is and penniless chancer and fraud 'Captain' Bellfield; the funniest of the palliser books
  • Phineas Finn, Irish charmer Phineas enters parliament and seeks marriage with Violet Effingham (he fights a duel over her) or Laura Standish (who rejects him for dour Scot Mr Kennedy whom Phineas subsequently saves from muggers) whilst being pursued by a poor Irish girl from home. Phineas suffers political tribulations but the best part of the book is the sadness over Laura's marriage.
  • The Eustace Diamonds, The wonderful minx Lizzie Eustace, who has married a dying man for diamonds and is determined to keep them despite legal attempts to win them back for the family, is Trollope's best character. She lies, she manipulates and she breaks the law to retian what she has convinced herself is rightfully hers.
  • Phineas Redux  Phineas returns, is again embroiled in woman trouble, and stands trial for murder. This should be the most exciting of the Trollope books were it not for the fact that Trollope writres his own spoilers.
  • The Prime Minister Plantagent Palliser, Duke of Omnium, becomes Prime Minister of a coalition but he is too concerned for his honour to be a successful leader and he struggles on the rack of his own conscience
  • The Duke's Children in which Plantagenet's children do their best to make unsuitable matches. The Duke finds it hard to apply his own liberal principles to his children.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

"The Spanish Tragedy" by Thomas Kyd

I watched The Spanish Tragedy at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington on Saturday 27th February 2016. As is common with modern productions they dispensed with scenery (which has little impact on this play) and reduced props to a minimum which I was a little disappointed with because I love the dramatic impact of things like the dagger and rope. They cut the Alexandro Viluppo sub plot and the characters of Serberine and Isabella.

There were also a couple of sex changes. I'm not really a fan of the trend of changing the sex of a character; I wonder why they can't just play it in travesty. Hieronimo became Horatio's mother rather than his father. This was OK. They deleted Isabella and gave some of her lines to Hieronimo. In some ways the grieving mother was more powerful than the grieving father.

However, Lorenzo  also changed sex. This worked less well. In the original, Lorenzo and Balthazar can  be male buddies contriving that Balthazar should get Lorenzo's sister:  this can really emphasise the ways in which the patriarchal society controls even the sexual choices of the women. It works well with the fact that Bel-Imperia has 'disgraced' herself with low-born Don Andreas and that now she must marry the man her male relatives choose for her; Horatio's death is a consequence of Lorenzo's control of his sister. But Lorenzo played as a woman undermines all this. It also makes one wonder why she didn't want Balthazar for herself.

Having said this, Janet Etuk played a magnificently evil Lorenzo brilliantly. She was full of little twitches and tics. It is a difficult character to play; it can be difficult to see the motivation for the evil; in some ways Lorenzo has to react to events (eg the framing of Pedringano which is in itself a high-risk strategy) and Etuk's Lorenzo was a lovely complex of self-preservation, ambition and hatred.

Revenge really worked as a character which surprised me. It reads as if it is a device to keep the audience interested. There was a chilling start in which Revenge, played brilliantly by Leo Wan, wanders onto the stage and starts staring at members of the audience before choosing one to lead on to the stage and leaving him there; this 'audience member' turned out to be Don Andrea's ghost. (Leo Wan also transformed himself into Pedringano by means of dark glasses and a cringing stoop; it was an acting masterclass to see how stance can create a completely new character).

They also made me appreciate some of the poetry. Some lines are as classic as Shakespeare and yet have a truly modern ring. Hieronimo (Rebecca Crankshaw) was especially good at delivering Elizabethan blank verse in a way that conveyed the raw power and emotion of every grieving human parent across the ages.

It was a really brilliant production and I was overwhelmed by the end. But I'd have liked a few daggers!

Professor Sir Jonathan Bate in a Gresham College Lecture originally delivered 27th March 2019 at the Museum of London points out that Kyd's use of the ghost of Don Andrea follows the Roman author Seneca whose “trademark is indeed the supernatural intervention that winds the plot of revenge tragedy”; “linguistically, the long opening speech by the Ghost of Don Andrea is modelled on Seneca’s Agamemnon, which begins with the Ghost of Thyestes”.

It is interesting how many parallels there are between A Spanish Tragedy and Hamlet. Both start with a ghost. The theme of both is revenge though AST is a father revenging the death of a son and Hamlet is a son revenging the death of a father; in both the revenge is prompted by the ghost. Horatio is a character in both (though he dies early on in AST). In both, there is a play within a play. Hieronimo, the Hamlet figure, feigns madness; his wife actually goes mad and kills herself. Hieronimo debates (briefly) whether to kill himself. In the final scene the stage is strewn with corpses. The big difference is that AST is focussed on revenge whereas Hamlet is focussed on the moral dilemmas.

It is clear that Shakespeare had seen The Spanish Tragedy; the early Taming of the Shrew contains too partial quotes from The Spanish Tragedy in the Induction and the characters of the Lord and Christopher Sly seem to be required to comment on the action scene by scene as Don Andreas and revenge do (but Shakespeare seems to have forgotten them after the first scene).

On the other hand, I wrote an novel (not yet published, if you'd like to represent me get in touch) which starred a character called Pedro and I wrote a short story which I might yet turn into a novel which stars Balthazar and that was before I had either read or seen this play.

The synopsis below refers to the published play, not to the way it was adapted

Act One:

Scene 1: The ghost of Don Andrea and the figure of Revenge leave Hell and come to watch the play. Don A was killed in a battle between the King of Spain and the Vice-King of Portugal (Portingale).
Scene 2: The Spanish general tells the King of Spain how the battle went. They won. Moreover Balthazar, Prince of Portugal, was captured. But there is a dispute about who captured him: both Lorenzo (son of Cyprian the Dike of Castille and therefore the King of Spain's nephew) and Horatio (son of Hieronimo, the Knight-Marshall of Spain) claim the capture: the King rules that Lorenzo wins the horse and arms and Horatio will get the ransom but that Prince Balthazar should be lodged in Lorenzo's house.
Scene 3: Back in Portugal the Vice-King is bewailing the death of his son. Alexandro suggests that Balthazar may still be alive but Villuppo falsely lies that he saw Alexandro shoot Balthazar in the back on the battle-field. Alexandro is arrested.
Scene 4: Bel-Imperia, Lorenzo's sister, who had an affair with newly-dead Don Andrea (he calls it secret but she chats about it with Horatio) asks Horatio how DA died; he reports that Balthazar killed him and that he, Horatio, got there too late to rescue DA. Lorenzo and Balthazar now walk in and it is clear that B has fallen in love with B-I. She rebuffs him angrily and exits, dropping her glove which Horatio retrieves and hands back to her; she gives it to him.
There is then a banquet at which Balthazar again professes that he loves B-I and Hieronimo puts on a rather daft masque that (unhistorically) celebrates the triumphs of the English in Portugal.
Scene 5: Don A protests that it isn't worth coming out of Hell to watch banquets and lovey-loving; Revenge promises conflict to come.

Act Two:

An interesting feature of Act Two is how the characters from time to time break out into extended passages of rhyming couplets. Is there a pattern to this?
Scene 1: Balthazar complains to Lorenzo that B-I does not reciprocate his love. Lorenzo counsels patience:
In time the savage bull sustains the yoke,
In time all haggard hawks will stoop to lure,
In time small wedges cleave the hardest oak, 
In time the flint is pierced with softest shower,
But B disagrees:
No, she is wilder and more hard, withal
Lorenzo thinks there might be another man and questions B-I's servant Pedringano; as soon as P prevaricates L (a truly hot-tempered man) draws his sword and threatens to kill him; P is bullied into admitting that B-I has the hots for Horatio.
Scene 2: Whilst P, L and B eavesdrop from the balcony, B-I and Horatio arrange a place to make sweet love:
Happily the gentle nightingale
Shall carol us asleep ere we be ware,
And, singing with the prickle at her breast,
Tell our delight and mirthful dalliance.
The image is interesting. Nightingales were supposed to stab themselves with thorns because Philomena had been turned into a nightingale after revenging herself her brother in law who had raped her. And 'prickle' of course alludes slyly to a man's penis.
Scene 3: The Portuguese ambassador and the King of Spain have agreed that B-I shall marry Balthazar; B-I's dad, Castille, the King of Spain's brother, will force his daughter to agree to this.
Scene 4: Horatio and B-I meet and get cosy;
Now that the night begins with sable wings
To overcloud the brightness of the sun,
And that in darkness pleasures may be done,
Come, Bel-Imperia, let us to the bower
And then it gets sexy. They kiss and say, in rhyming couplets:
BI: Nay then, to gain the glory of the field,
My twining arms shall yoke and make thee yield.
H: Nay then, my arms are large and strong withal;
Thus elms by vines are compassed till they fall.
BI: O, let me go, for in my troubled eyes
Now mays't thou read that life in passion dies.
H: O, stay awhile and I will die with thee;
So shalt thou yield and yet have conquered me.
And that last couplet is prophetic, but not of the 'little death' that comes with orgasm. Lorenzo and Balthazar and servants Pedringano and Serberine rush in. They hang Horatio and stab him and bundle B-I away. Sex has been replaced with death.
Scene 5: Horatio's dad, Hieronimo discovers the body:
Who hath slain my son? 
is a raw cry of grief.
O heavens, why made you night to cover sin?
he asks in a rejoinder to darkness that hides to permit pleasures of scene 4.
Then with his wife, Isabella, Hieronimo swears to identify and be revenged on the killers because
To know the author were some ease of grief
For in revenge my heart would find relief.
His wife agrees:
Time is the author of both truth and right,
[although Francis Bacon would have it that "Truth is the daughter of time" which isn't quite the same].
Scene 6: Don A protests that his mate Horatio has been killed and his beloved B-I made even more unhappy whilst Balthazar is still OK. Revenge promises he will enjoy what is to come.

Act Three:

Scene 1: The Vice-King of Portingale is still under the impression that his son, Balthazar, has been killed by Alexandro, despite his ambassador having negotiated a ransom for the release of Balathazar in the last Act. Fortunately, just as Alexandro is being tied to the stake to be burnt, the Ambassador arrives with the news that Balthazar is alive. Villuppo admits that he lied (for gain) and is arrested.
Scene 2: Hieronimo is grieving for Horatio:
O eyes, no eyes but fountains fraught with tears!
O Life, no life, but lively form of death!
O world, no world, but mass of public wrongs,
Confused and filled with murder and misdeeds!
which is a nice quatrain containing the three lines starting the same but the third continuing over two lines to remove the tyranny of form and give a more natural feel.
He asks heaven:
How should we term your dealings to be just
If you unjustly deal with those that in your justice trust?
which is a very good question. We often say: judge not by words but by deeds and the Bible comes close to this in Romans 2:6 when it says that God "will render to every man according to his deeds". On the 'do as you would be done by' principle then, Hieronimo is entitled to judge heaven by its deeds.
 He calls the night
sad secretary to my moans
There is some classic writing here!
Suddenly there falleth a letter from the sky, written by B-I in her blood. She is locked away from Hieronimo but reveals that her brother Lorenzo and Balthazar were those responsible for Horatio's death and urges Hieronimo to avenge his son. But Hieronimo suspects that the letter is a ploy to entrap him. He can't imagine why B-I would accuse her brother of murder or what reason L and B would have to murder Horatio.
Lorenzo and Pedringano meet Hieronimo and he asks to see B-I but L says she has been removed by his dad because she is disgraced; he asks H why he wants to see B-I but H won't say and leaves. Now L suspects that Serberine has told H about the murder so he pays P to assassinate S, telling him to shoot S at 8PM at Saint Luigi's Park. Then he tells his page to tell S to meet him, L, at the park at 8PM. Then he tells the Watch to keep watch at the park at 8PM. Treacherous!
Scene 3: P enters with a pistol. The Watch enter. S enters. P shoots S. The Watch arrest P and take him to Hieronimo's house.
Scene 4: Lorenzo warns Balthazar that they may have been betrayed. The page arrives with the news that P has killed S and B goes off to Hieronimo's house to prosecute P. Now a message arrives from P asking L for help; L talks in double meanings and sends a box to P with the message that P's pardon is in the box (but he warns the messenger not to open the box). Lorenzo, alone on stage, soliloquises: "Now stands our fortune on a tickle point" and then speaks Italian which means: "And what I want, no one knows; I understand, and that's enough for me."
Scene 5: The boy with the box opens it and discovers it is empty.
Scene 6: Hieronimo condemns P to death:
Thus must we toil in other men's extremes,
That know not how to remedy our own. 
P jokes with the hangman. The boy with the empty box is standing by and P thinks his pardon is in the box. But he gets hanged.
Scene 7: Hieronimo is still grieving for Horatio. Again there are wonderful lines:
... ceaseless plaints for my deceased son
The blust'ring winds, conspiroing with my words,
At my lament have moved the leafless trees,
Disrobed the meadows of their flowered green,
Made mountains marsh with spring-tides of my tears,
And broken through the brazen gates of hell.
The hangman enters with a letter from P to Lorenzo. H reads it; it reminds Lorenzo that P killed S for him and also helped to kill Horatio with Balthazar. H realises that B-I's letter told the truth.
Scene 8: Isabella, talking herbs (another hint of Hamlet), "runs lunatic".
Why, did I not give you gowns and goodly things,
Bought you a whistle and a whipstalk too,
To be revenged on their villainies?
she asks her maid.
Scene 9: B-I, sequestered, bemoans her fate.
Scene 10: Lorenzo, confident that the fuss over Horatio's murder has blown over, brings B-I to him and suggests to her, in front of Balthazar, that they killed Horatio because B-I was doing naughty stuff with him like she had done with Don Andrea, so he, acting on his father's orders, was killing H to preserve B-I's honour: it was an honour killing! Balthazar now tries wooing B-I.
Scene 11: Two Portuguese encounter Hieronimo and ask him the way to find Lorenzo (at whose house Balthazar is staying until the ransom is paid). Hieronimo tells them to follow the path into hell:
There is a path upon your left-hand side,
That leadeth from a guilty conscience
Unto a forest of distrust and fear ...
They laugh. He laughs. They conclude that H is either lunatic or senile. MORE presages of Hamlet, especially if we equate these two with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Scene 12: Hieronimo enters with a dagger and a rope, considering whether to kill himself, but decides against it and throws them away. "This way or that way?" isn't exactly 'To be or not to be' but it is the purport without the poetry. The King and the Ambassador and Lorenzo and Lorenzo's dad Castille arrive; H calls for justice from the King. The Ambassador announces the terms of the treaty with the King that Balthazar shall marry B-I. He also has the ransom due to Horatio. This sets H off into further calls for justice. He digs in the ground with his dagger. They all think he is mad. Lorenzo suggests that he should be sacked from the Marshalship; it would seem that the K has not heard of Horatio's death.
Scene 13: Another soliloquy from Hieronimo. He reflects that it is likely that L, to cover up his murder of H, will have himself killed. He suggests that the best way forward for his is to dissemble: "Thus therefore will I rest me in unrest,/ Dissembling quiet in unquietness,/ Not seeming that I know their villanies,/ That my simplicity may make them think/ That ignorantly I will let all slip..." Some citizens come in to plead for Hieronimo to hear their grievances; Don Bazuto is grieving for his murdered son which sends Hieronimo off into yet more paroxysms of grief:
O my son, my son, O my son Horatio! 
... Gentle boy, be gone/
For justice is exiled from the Earth." 
This scene was probably the most intense of the Old Red Lion Theatre production.
Scene 14: The assembled nobles of Spain and Portugal are gathered to celebrate B marrying B-I. Castille warns his son Lorenzo that there are rumours that L is preventing Hieronimo from gaining access to the King; L protests that he has been misunderstood so C sends for H, who arrives after B and B-I have come in, B speaking love and B-I reluctance. H pretends in front of C that he has no quarrel with either L or B.
Scene 15: The ghost of Don A is angry that H is reconciled with L and B. But Revenge promises DA that H is dissembling.

Act Four:

Scene 1: B-I berates Hieronimo for his apparent acceptance of his son's murder; he swears he will be avenged and she swears to help him.
Lorenzo and Baklthazar rock up and ask H to help them entertain B's father, Vice-King of Portingale. He recruits them to play the parts in a tragedy he has written about an assassin who murdered a husband so that the Turkish emperor could gain the husband's wife but she killed herself; the murderer then ran away and hanged himself. H says he will play the murderer; Lorenzo the husband, B-I the wife and B  the Turkish emperor. And each person shall play their part in a different language.
Scene 2: Isabella comes in with a weapon that she uses to chop down the arbour where Horatio was hanged and then stab herself.
Scene 3:  H prepares the play with Castille; he gives C the playscript to be taken to the King and requests that "when the train are passed into the gallery/You would vouchsafe to throw me down the key." B appears with props, half-bearded.
Scene 4: The performance begins. Despite the fiction that the actors are speaking in different languages, it is actually played in English. Whilst the actors are playing, the audience comment on the play.
The action of the play is brief. H, playing the assassin, stabs L, the husband; B-I, playing the wife, stabs B, the Emperor and then herself. Then Hieronimo, playing herself, reveals the body of Horatio and addresses the audience. He explains what he has done and runs off to hang himself. The audience realise that L and B-I and B are dead. They grab H and abuse him and threaten him with tortures so he will tell them who his confederates are. To foil them he bites out his tongue but, Castille observes, he can still write. The King of Spain gets a knife to sharpen the pen but instead stabs his brother and himself, so eliminating the royal line of Spain.
Scene 5: Don Andrea's ghost approves and tells Revenge where the dead people shall be placed in Hell.

Utterly, utterly brilliant.

Febraru 2016, 130 pages

Saturday, 20 February 2016

"A Time of Gifts" by Patrick Leigh Fermor

This book is an account of a walk the author made when he was only 18, across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. I too enjoy walking alone: I have walked the Thames from Greenwich to Windsor, from St Pauls to Canterbury Cathedral, from Oxford to Cambridge, the Avon from source to Severn, Shrewsbury to Gloucester, Brighton to Folkestone, and the River Lea. What I love about walking is the emptiness of countryside and the evening arrival at an interesting town where I can see a church or a castle and end up in an inn with wonderful food, fabulous beer and a comfortable bed (and a full English breakfast the next morning!) Solitary walking has provided some of the most memorable holiday experiences I have ever had. But I would never have dared when still so young to have attempted the walk this man did. Shorn of the comfort that I enjoy, he often slept rough and he went weeks without a bath. Nevertheless, as I read the book I have a great fellow feeling for another walker and I feel the wanderlust rise up in me again.

But what makes this book special is his wonderful gift with words. Here he describes the way Germnaic painters treat martyrdom:

Meaty, unshaven louts with breastplates crooked, hanging shirt-tails and codpieces half-undone have just reeled out of the Hofbrauhaus, as it were, reeking of beer and sauerkraut and bent on beating someone insensible. A victim is found and they fall on him. Leering and winking with bared teeth and lolling tongues, they are soon sweating with exertion. The ostlers, butchers, barrel-makers, and apprentices, and Landsknechts in moulting frippery are expert limb-twisters, lamers, stoners, floggers, unsocketers and beheaders to a man, deft with their bright tools and rejoicing at their task ... Four burly tormentors with their crossed staves bending under their weight, force an enormous crown of thorns on their victim's head and a fifth batters it home with a three-legged stool. When another prepares him for scourging, he places a boot for purchase in the small of the victim's back and hauls on the bound wrists till his veins project. The heavy birch-rods need both hands to wield them and broken twigs and smashed scourges soon little the floor. At first the victim's body looks flea-bitten. It is spotted later on, like an ocelot's. with hundreds of embedded thorns. At last, after a score of indignities, the moribund carcase is nailed in place and hoisted aloof between two pot-bellied felons whose legs are snapped askew like bleeding sticks. The last touch of squalor is the cross itself. Ragged-ended and roughly barked lengths of fir and silver-birch have been so clumsily botched together that they bend under the weight of the victim as though about to collapse, and the special law of gravity, tearing the nail-holes wider, dislocates the fingers and expands them like a spider's legs. Wounds fester, bones break through the flesh and the grey lips, wrinkling concentrically round a tooth-set hole, gape in a cringing spasm of pain.

Is that not wonderful writing?

Travelling through Holland he discovers that he is entitled to a night's sleep in the local jail. Then he enters Germany; Hitler has just come to power. In some towns he calls at the burgomaster and receives a chitty for a meal and a night's accommodation at the local inn; at other times he stays with the local von who then writes to other vons on the route for him; sometimes he dosses down in a barn and on one occasion he had to make do with a field in a snow storm. Food is tricky. He is having four pound notes left at British consulates along the way but when the cash runs out he is left penniless; in Vienna when his money fails to turn up he is reduced to a Salvation Army doss house and going door to door to sketch prosperous Viennese fro 2 schiliings each; this enterprise proves lucrative and he is able to bankroll another dosser's saccharine smuggling operations.

Later he takes a detour by train to Prague and his description of the city and the castle perched on its citadel reminded me so much of my holiday there. But he was also very good on how Bohemian history fitted with English history (and how Shakespeare got it so wrong in A Winter's Tale when he assigned a coastline to Bohemia). At then end of this volume he ends in Hungary.

A magical and entertaining travel book written by one of the most lyrical writers I have ever encountered.

February 2016; 284 pages

Brilliantly continued in Between the Woods and the Water

Other great travel books in this blog:
Travelling in Britain:
And others:

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

"To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf

I was supposed to read this while I was in the sixth form at school as part of a Twentieth Century Literature enrichment course (I took Science A-levels). Of all the books for the course this was the one I never read; I never even started it. Forty years on ...

I think it's brilliant! Woolf uses "stream of consciousness" (a phrase coined by Henry James's psychologist brother William) which means that we 'overhear' the thoughts of each character, some trivial, some profound, skipping from idea to idea like a goat with the attention span of a butterfly, rather like we really think. It seemed so natural to read. My only difficulty was that we were following the stream of consciousness of every character and the points of view changed often, sometimes without warning, and once or twice it was difficult to be clear on who was thinking what. And talk about a God's perspective! Woolf required us to believe that we could be privy not just to a single stream of consciousness, as with a protagonist narrator, but to all streams of consciousness as if we were Jungians tapping into the collective unconscious. And sometimes the characters themselves are bewildered by their own thoughts (evidence, perhaps, for the multiple scripts theory of consciousness explored by Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained): after Mrs Ramsay has thought "We are in the hands of the Lord ... instantly she was annoyed with herself for saying that. Who had said it? not she; she had been trapped into saying something that she did not mean." (I:11)

What Woolf has done with this novel is foregrounded thought and pushed plot, action and dialogue into the deep background.

The story starts with Mrs Ramsay promising her youngest-of-eight child, James (the most sensitive), that they will go to the lighthouse tomorrow. Mr Ramsay pours scorn on this idea, the weather will be poor. At the end of the book we discover that James has neither forgotten nor forgiven his father for this; James hates his father as a tyrant and through the book we see many instances of Mr Ramsay's neediness, needing reassurance and love, and thus becoming a succubus feeding off the love of his wife and children.

The large Ramsay family own a house on a Hebridean island (wrongly described by an American lecturer as being to the north of Scotland) and have invited loads of house guests including painter Lily, poet Augustus, old friend of Mr Ramsay (and fancier of Mrs Ramsay) William Bankes, Charles Tansley (made sour by his consciousness that he is the poor one among the privileged) and Paul who has gone off on a long walk with Mina where he will probably propose to her if they return safely. The first, longest section of the book ('The Window') is taken up with this day and the interactions within and between the family and the guests.

The next, section, 'Times Passes' is a selection of snapshots like the photos in an album. It is written from the perspective of the empty house; the only character being the cleaner. There are marriages and deaths, including two of the children and Mrs Ramsay herself, but these are almost throwaway comments enclosed always in square brackets.

In 'The Lighthouse', the final section, Mr Ramsay and some of the surviving children and some of the original house guests return to the house after an absence of many years (one of the best sections is from the perspective of the old lady who must make the house ready again after such long neglect). Mr  James finally makes it to the lighthouse and the description of the boat journey is beautiful (but at the same time the undercurrents are tremendous). Lily finally paints her masterpiece although she is unaware of the fact, thinking that it will grace a servants' bedroom for a few years before being rolled up and tucked away in an attic.

There are some wonderful passages in it, from page one where James, a child cutting pictures out with scissors, imagines killing his father with an axe, a father who is described as "lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one"; which description might apply to his character, sarcastic, ridiculing James's mother, satisfied with himself. Mr Ramsay seeks to teach even his youngest children that "life is difficult, facts uncompromising; and the passage to that fabled land where our brightest hopes are extinguished, our frail barks founder in darkness..."; thus on page two is made explicit the metaphor or the journey to the lighthouse. His main concern is that his work will not outlive him.

But while Mr Ramsay is cruel and demanding, Mrs Ramsay is forever giving and seen by several of her male house guests as the most beautiful woman they have ever see; even painter Lily puts her, with James, a Madonna, in her developing picture as "a wedge-shaped core of darkness". Mrs Ramsay's thoughts scatter from feeling protective of her brood to observing house guests (they should get married) to arrangements for the dinner to "Books, she thought, grew of themselves. She never had time to read them.", to worrying why her children were so late and the cliff paths so slippery, to "There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that".

Not only do characters have very many inconsistent thoughts but it is made clear that we all have different views of one another: Lily thinks of the now famous poet Augustus Carmichael and considers "how many shapes one person might wear."

There is, of course, one character who has no interior monologue; he doesn't even have a name. In the final section, in the boat, is Macallister's boy who rows for them when there is a calm and fishes when he is not rowing, and cuts a piece from one fish to use as bait before throwing the living but mutilated fish back into the sea. Presumably this lower class oik has no thoughts, no character, no soul; is indistinguishable from the brutes on whom he preys. Virginia is a bit snobbish: Lily lives on Brompton Road and Charles Tansley comes down to dinner in his ordinary clothes because he doesn't have a dinner suit (and because he wants to make the point that he doesn't have a dinner suit; he is an inverted snob).

In her diaries Woolf says that Ulysses by James Joyce is "the book of a self-taught working man, & we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, & ultimately nauseating. When one can have cooked flesh, why have the raw?" So she clearly didn't like the lower classes! For me this contrasts strongly with, for example, E M Forster's 'self-taught working man' in Howards End who is the tragic pivot who destroys other characters. 

At the end of the book James is steering the boat to the lighthouse. He hasn't forgotten how his father ridiculed his hopes on page one; he hasn't forgiven; he would still like to kill the tyrant. Oedipus!

The other major character is Lily, the painter. She worries mainly about the difficulties of painting. "Where to begin? ... One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions ... Still the risk must be run; the mark made" although she herself never marries, unable to take that risk. And it is Lily at the end: "It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision."

Lily provides us with a beautiful description of liminality: "Always ... before she exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt."

And Cam, in the boat travelling to the lighthouse, making stories in her head, offers a Deleuze and Guattari moment of smoothness and striation: "all those paths and the lawn, thick and knotted with the lives they had lived there, were gone; were rubbed out; were past; were unreal".

Brilliant (though I am still disturbed by Macallister's boy). I must read more Woolf soon.

February 2016; 154 pages

I have now read The Waves. It is a much more difficult book. It also uses stream of consciousness and six characters whose life stories interweave but there is no narrator's voice to tell us what is happening. In some ways it is a much more interesting book and in other ways much more frustrating. Not for beginners!

Sunday, 14 February 2016

"Volpone" by Ben Jonson

I saw Volpone performed by CandleLight Theatre Company at the Cockpit Theatre in north London at the matinee on 13th February 2016. They managed to communicate the humour of the play (though with perhaps more physical comedy than Jonson might have approved) while keeping true, so far as I could ascertain, the the majority of the text. Significant changes were in staffing: Volpone's dwarf, hermaphrodite and eunuch were compressed int the dwarf; the rather redundant 4 Avocatori were reduced to a single judge and the crowd of Act Two became audience participation! It was an energetic performance, especially from Volpone. The only reason why Ben J might have turned in his grave was that the ten strong cast outnumbered the audience.

This is my review of my reading of the script of this play

Volpone is written in a variety of forms. Volpone himself uses blank verse, as do most of the others, but there are moments on unevenly scanned rhyming couplets (it is as though Jonson seeks either rhyme or scansion but sees both as a luxury to be doled out as meagrely as might be, for example in the Epilogue) and occasionally prose.

Volpone, the Fox, loves gold. The very first two lives are:
Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!
Open the shrine that I may see my saint.
There follows a paean to gold:
Thou canst do naught and yet mak'st men do all things
He gets it by fraudulence. He pretends to be "turning carcass" on his death bed. His servant, ("his parasite") Mosca, the Fly, persuades Volpone's even more avaricious friends to give Volpone presents with the aim of inheriting Volpone's fortune.

In Act One the friends approach Volpone one by one. The first is Voltore, the Vulture, a lawyer with a keen nose for death. The second is old, partly deaf Corbaccio, the raven, the bird of death, who tries to persuade Mosca to give Volpone some medicine which Mosca fears is poison. Mosca persuades Corbaccio to write a will disinheriting his own son and naming Volpone as the sole legatee; after all the invalid Volpone is bound to die before Corbaccio. The third is Corvino, the Crow.

Mosca has some fine lines is cynicism:
Hood an ass with reverend purple,
So you can hide his two ambitious ears, 
And he shall pass for a cathedral doctor.

gentle sir,
When you do come to swim in golden lard,
Up to the arms in honey, that your chine
Is borne up stiff with fatness of the flood,
Think on your vassal; but remember me.

Those filthy eyes of yours, that flow with slime
Like two frog-pits, and those same hanging cheeks,
Covered with hide instead of skin ...
That look like frozen dishclouts set on end!
Brilliant stuff!

In Act Two, Volpone pretends to be a famous doctor (a 'mountebank', so called because he stands upon a bench) and tries to persuade the gullible to buy his quack remedy. Peregrine observes:
I have heard they are most lewd imposters, 

Made of all terms and shreds
At this time lewd meant ignorant. The terms and shreds sounds like an echo of Autolycus in The Winter's Tale.
Volpone fulminates, in prose, against rival medicine men:
Those turdy-facey-nasty-patey-lousy fartical rogues ... want not their favourers among your shrivelled, salad-eating artisans which is a great insults! These physicians prescribe nothing but water cocted with aniseeds. This term cocted means boiled as, presumably in concoct.

Celia, wife of Corvino, sees Volpone from the window of her room and throws down money in exchange for a bottle. He sees her and falls in love. Corvino, not penetrating Volpone's disguise, is furious with his wife for her immodesty at showing herself, he calls her a whore and promises to lock her up.
Death of mine honour, with the city's fool? 
A juggling, tooth-drawing, prating mountebank
And at a public window? Where, whilst he
With his strained action and his dole of faces
To his drug lecture draws your itching ears,
A crew of old, unmarried, noted lechers
Stood leering up like satyrs?
Well, you shall have him, yes!
He shall come home and minister unto you
The fricace for the mother [a massage for hysteria]. Or, let me see,
I think you'd rather mount? Would you not mount? 
And he proposes drawing a line around her like a conjuror would around a spirit (as in Dr Faustus by Marlowe) so she is trapped within the magic circle.

However, Mosca persuades Corvino that Volpone is recovering his health and so less likely to die and leave his money to Corvino; the only solution is to furnish Volpone with a young lady (Mosca pretends that Volpone is impotent); Corvino hits on the scheme of pimping his own wife and, having berated her for immodesty, tells her to dress herself gorgeously for a feast with Volpone.

Mosca begins Act Three with some classic lines:
I fear I shall begin to grow in love
With my dear self ...
... I know not how,
Success hath made me wanton. I could skip
Out of my skin, now, like a subtle snake,
I am so limber. Oh, your parasite
Is a most precious thing

He then persuades Bonario, a good person and Corbaccio's son, to hide in a balcony so he can observe his father disinheriting him. Meanwhile, Corvino tries to persuade Celia to sleep with Volpone. Dragging her to the house he tries to force her into Volpone's bed. She is incredulous. Does he intend to watch her make love to Volpone?
Celia: Before your honour?
Corvino: Honour! Tut, a breath.
There's no such thing in nature; a mere term
Invented to awe fools. What is my gold
The worse for touching? 
I grant you, if I thought it were a sin 
I would not urge you. Should I offer this
To some young Frenchman or hot Tuscan blood
That had read Aretine, conned all his prints, [Aretino had published pornographic sonnets which accompanied erotic prints]
Knew every quirk within lust's labyrinth
And were professed critic in lechery,
And I would look on and applaud him,
This were a sin; but here 'tis contrary,
A pious work, mere charity, for physic,
And honest polity to assure mine own.
She is still reluctant so he threatens her with terrible tortures and tries to bribe her with promises of jewels, asking (with heavy irony)
Will you disgrace me thus?
He is persuaded by Mosca to leave her there so that the husband might not witness the wife's shame. When he is gone, Volpone leaps off his couch, reveals himself as the mountebank, and tries to seduce Celia but she still resists. In the nick of time Bonario intervenes, wounding Mosca in the face and running off with Celia.

Act Four. Bonario and Celia are on trial accused by Volpone, in absentia, represented by Voltore; Corbaccio and Corvino are the perjured witnesses, trying to cover up their shame by heaping guilt upon son and wife. They prevail, Bonario and Celia are taken away to be sentenced.

Act Five. Volpone now dreams up his final jest: he will 'die' having written a will in favour of Mosca. In an echo of Act One the suitors each come to see Mosca only to discover that they have been left nothing. Reeling from the disappointment, Voltore now goes back to court to retract the statements he made but Volpone, revealing only to Voltore that he is actually alive and therefore still able to name Voltore his heir, persuades Voltore to fake a fit and pretend to have been possessed, so retracting his retraction. Keeping up? Mosca continues to say that Volpone is dead. Volpone realises that he has tricked himself out of his own fortune by leaving it to Mosca; in revenge he reveals himself to the court. Mosca is sentenced to the galleys, Volpone to imprisonment, Voltire is debarred, Corbaccio forced to leave his fortune to Bonario and retire into a monastery and Corvino is made to divorce his wife, returning her to her father with three times her dowry.

It's not Shakespeare but it is a damned fine romp and full of many delightful touches (foreshadowings, ironic twists etc) that turn this farce into dramatic art.

February 2016; 208 pages

Other contemporary plays reviewed in this blog include:

  • The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd: the forerunner to Hamlet? Jonson is supposed to have played the part of Hieronimo.
  • Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

I also saw the RSC production of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist at the Barbican Theatre (close to Blackfriars, where it is set) on Saturday (matinee) 17th September 2016

Friday, 12 February 2016

"England, England" by Julian Barnes

Business tycoon Sir Jack Pitman turns the Isle of Wight into a heritage theme park full of replicas of all England's history from Stonehenge to the Royal Family, from Robin Hood to Manchester United. But things begin to go wrong when the actors playing the historical characters start to become the characters themselves.

Martha Cochrane lands a plum job on the Planning team and begins an affair with Paul the Ideas Catcher. But a relationship begun at work is not necessarily fit for purpose at home.

I think this is Barnes attempting a comic novel. It reminded me of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop. But, fittingly for a book whose core idea is that of authenticity and replicas, it is a poor imitation of Scoop.

For me, the essential problem (and this is ironic in a book that deals with the morphing of characters, 'I am as I behave') was that the fictional characters in whom I was supposed to believe were mainly stereotypes. Sir Jack is the perfect example, the clichéd corporate boss, complete with his concealed but rumoured to be humble origins, his belligerence, his vanity and his infantile sexual tastes. Dr Max is the ultimate television historian with his ambivalent sexual orientation, his long sentences full of academic words, his buffed, sometimes lacquered fingernails and his slight, possibly affected, speech impediment. Kingy-Thingy is the standard lecherous male, probably played by Leslie Phillips. Paul the ideas catcher is Mr Corporate Subservient, a façade for people to bounce off. Only Martha makes any attempt at reality.

The plot is all really rather predictable too.

Despite the fact that this was nominated for the 1998 Booker, won by Amsterdam, I thought this was a very disappointing contribution from the man who wrote A Sense of an Ending.

February 2016; 266 pages

Monday, 8 February 2016

"Wide Sargasso Sea" by Jean Rhys

This post is not yet finished

This is the prequel to Jane Eyre, the story of Antoinette Cosway, later Antoinette Mason, later Bertha Mason, the first wife of Mr Rochester. It starts with her childhood; she lives with her mother on a decaying plantation surrounded by newly liberated and angry slaves. They are burnt out of their home and rescued by Mr Mason who marries Antoinette's mother who then goes mad. Following her step-father's death, Antoinette is 'sold' to Mr Rochester, a second son in need of money who marries her for her extensive dowry. An idyllic honeymoon goes sour when accusations are made about Antoinette's ancestry (the letter arrives almost exactly half way through the book) which suggest hereditary insanity (possibly caused by white blood tainted with black?). Mr Rochester (never explicitly named), once an attentive lover, becomes distant. She tries to win him back with Obeah and love potions which he perceives as an attempt to poison him; he shags a servant girl. Antoinette, called Bertha by her husband, goes mad and is taken to England. The final part of the book is narrated by Grace Poole, her keeper.

There were moments of extraordinary beauty in the book. The descriptions of the colourful and shrieking West Indian countryside were perfect and sometimes made perfect metaphors: "small pale flowers too fragile to resist the wind". Yet somehow the physicality enters with Mr R: perhaps it is because his part, part two, is the section which deals with two young adults on their honeymoon whilst section one deals with the perceptions of a child. There were wonderful moments: "The rain began to drip down the back of my neck adding to my feeling of discomfort and melancholy."; A man who has "A magnificent body and a foolish conceited face."; "The room was full of the scent of crushed flowers" )after Mr R has stepped on a wreath of frangipani; interesting use for wreath which can be for bridegrooms or, as the dialogue suggests, for emperors but can also betoken funerals).

The unreliable narrator is very much to the fore. Given that one of the narrators (Antoinette) goes mad and that there seems to be blame attached to the other main narrator (Mr R), this could scarcely not be the case. But the whole damn island is full of lies. Mr R finds a road in the jungle and asks one of the West Indians: "No road" is the reply. Blank denial,  bare-faced lying. These people all lie and not just the blacks but all of them. There is never any idea of what might be the truth.

One of my favourite lines is: "I was young then. A short youth mine was."

A very interesting, very short novel. February 2016; 123 pages