About Me

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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

Thursday, 31 March 2016

"The Double" by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is a delightful short novel by Dostoevsky written in 13 (is this significant?) chapters.

As with much of D's work, it concerns a very ordinary man, an Everyman, full of the hesitancies and uncertainties that characterise most of us, in an extraordinary situation. D's dialogue really brings this home: the hero's first remark (talking to himself as he looks in the mirror) is: "what a thing it would be if I were not up to the mark today, if something were amiss, if some intrusive pimple had made its appearance, or anything else unpleasant had happened; so far, however, there's nothing wrong, so far everything's all right." Brilliantly ordinary. He is searching his face for spots like any teenager (although he is quite a lot older, we assume). But he is looking in the mirror.

This is just one of many breadcrumbs scattered around in the very first pages. He has already waken up and then laid in his bed "as though he were not yet certain whether he were awake or still asleep, whether all that was going on around him were real or actual."

He goes out, riding in a hired carriage, and is embarrassed to meet his boss. Then he does that thing we all do, he pretends not to notice him. Then he is not sure about this: should he "pretend that I am not myself, but somebody else strikingly like me," he says to himself.

He goes to his doctor although he pretends he is "quite himself, like everybody else" but he is behaving so strangely that the doctor is concerned. The problem, Mr Golyadkin reassures his doctor, is not himself but all the others who are ganging up on him. And he goes off to meet some aristocratic friends in their big house (although the servants have orders not to admit him). On the way he meets some clerks from his office who laugh at him. He is the sort of person, he tells them, who "only mask themselves at masquerades" and his rule is "if I fail I don't lose heart, if I succeed I persevere". But "who's the hunter and who's the bird in this case?"

Then, in the middle of a snowstorm, G meets a man he thinks he recognises but can't quite remember where from. "He would not for any treasure on earth have been willing to meet that man" and he runs away, followed by "a little lost dog, soaked and shivering". He does home to see the stranger sitting on his own bed; the stranger is his double.

And next day the double has started work in his own office.

Next night he welcomes G2 to his home and gives him a meal. But G2 writes a sinister little poem (it reminded me of Sting's stalking song, Every Breath You Take:
"If thou forget me
I shall not forget thee;
Though all things may be
Do not thou forget me"

Things get worse. G2 takes credit for the work G does. G2 eats pies at the restaurant and G has to pay for them. G tries to confront G2 but every time he makes a mess of it. But he knows (we don't) that everything will be all right in the end: "one day, the wolf will have to pay for the sheep's tears."

At last we come to the climactic scene at the end ...

"The door opened noisily, and in the doorway stood a man, the very sight of whom sent a chill to Mr Golyadkin's heart. He stood rooted to the spot. A cry of horror dies away in his choking throat. Yet Mr Golyadkin knew it all beforehand, and had had a presentiment of something of the sort for a long time ... With a crushed and desperate air our hero looked about him."

Classic. April 2016; 135 words.

Monday, 28 March 2016

"The Citadel" by A. J. Cronin

The Citadel is the book that launched Cronin's career as a best-selling novelist. It is regarded as having been influential in the setting up of the NHS.

It is a very simply told tale of a young idealistic doctor in the 1920 to 1930s who works in a Welsh mining village before becoming a GP in London and being sucked in by the Harley Street crowd. It is fascinating as a document in social history, showing the conditions and abuses of the medical profession of that time. It has a lot of detail about individual diseases, many of which have now been wiped out by better working  conditions, less poverty, better sanitation and antibiotics. The drugs and medicines proscribed by the doctors (which they make up themselves) are often useless and blatant attempts to make money from a gullible (and ill) public.

The start of the book is constructed in little episodes. Just after young Dr Andrew Manson has arrived as a completely wet-behind-the-ears newly-qualified medical assistant, assisting the practice owner who has had a stroke, he teams up with another young idealistic assistant to blow up some sewers which are leaking into the water supply. He assists at a difficult birth. He goes underground after a fall at the mine to amputate an arm so that a young miner can be taken out. It is a classic television series format: individual episodes linked by character and a slow background development of his relationship. He gets married and moves to another town. He gets further qualifications and moves to London. There, in business for himself, he starts to exploit a few lucky breaks and becomes a society doctor. His marriage starts to fall apart.

I preferred the start when the adventures were more isolated to the longer sweep of the later parts. But the book is sparsely written and it is difficult to say why it had such appeal. The life and death situations inherent to medical practice make it exciting and Cronin is not afraid of some finely judged sentimentality (nothing too slushy) which often brought a lump to my throat. But this isn't great literature: it is a well told narrative.

Other Cronin books I have read are:

March 2016; 294 pages

Saturday, 26 March 2016

"Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" by Ross King

How the Sistine chapel was painted with a side order of Raphael working in the Papal Apartments.

The great thing about a Ross King book is that you learn history and history of art and at the same time you find out about the details of an artist's life. For example, originally the Sistine chapel ceiling was covered with stars, typical for vaults of that period, but subsidence led to cracking and an ugly white line of Polyfilla (or its Roman contemporary) across it so they had to repaint it. When Michelangelo started (on the flood scene) he had great problems with discolouration and mildew until someone reviewed the formula for the plaster he was using (which included Volcanic ash rather than sand) and realised he was using too much water. Michelangelo made sketches all the time of everything he saw and regularly reused things from other works of art: he seems to have stolen David's pose from a statue in Rome. Raphael also 'borrowed' often from Leonardo: the contrapposto pose of Eve in his Temptation seems to be a version of a sketch he made of Leonardo's Leda which is perhaps just as well since the original was destroyed Madam de Maintenon, the second wife of Louis XIV. Even just discovering what contrapposto means and why artists use it made the book worth reading! Another example is Botticelli's Venus.

This book is actually three stories woven into one. Michelangelo and his team of assistants are toiling away on their scaffold frescoing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (standing, bending backwards, not lying on their backs which myth arose from a mistranslation of the Italian). Meanwhile Raphael is frescoing the Pope's private apartments with scenes such as The School of Athens. And il papa terribile, the warmongering Julius II, is fighting the Venetians and the French for mastery of the Papal States.

Three immensely contrasting personalities. Julius is larger than life, growing a white beard in defiance of canon law, hunting pheasant with guns in defiance of canon law, and eating, drinking and making love to excess (in defiance of canon law). Meanwhile, Raphael is a sweet young man with an incredibly sunny disposition, beloved by everyone, especially women, from baker's daughters to high class courtesans. And Michelangelo is slovenly, depressive, ugly, and probably chaste, moping about on his own. There is a story that an isolated Michelangelo met Raphael and his crowd of admirers one day and sneered at him for being a 'bravo'; Raphael returned by pointing out the Michelangelo was friendless like a 'hangman'.

There is so much of interest in this story told as usual with Ross King's easy-to-read narrative style. It's wonderful.

March 2016; 296 pages

Other great Ross King books I have read include:

Friday, 25 March 2016

"Weir of Hermiston" by Robert Louis Stevenson

This is the last book by RLS and it was left unfinished at his death, rather like Edwin Drood was by Charles Dickens. It finishes in the middle of a sentence ...

RLS was responsible for the pirate novel with Treasure Island, a novel which is almost perfect as it can be. The villain, one-legged Long John Silver, was based on a one-legged friend of RLS, W. E. Henley, a poet, who also knew J M Barrie the author of Peter Pan. Henley's daughter, who is buried beside him in Cockayne Hatley churchyard, as a child could not pronounce her rs. She called Barrie her 'fwendy-wendy' which is where the name of Peter Pan's girlfriend Wendy Darling comes from (and all subsequent Wendys).

I read Treasure Island when I was little and still remember having nightmares about blind Pew, tappping his way along the street.

RLS also wrote the horror classic Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, one of the very few novels to have created a mythic stereotype (perhaps Frankenstein, Dracula, and Treasure Island itself might be among the others).

Not content with that for a lifetime, he also wrote the brilliant adventure yarn Kidnapped in which the cattle-headed David Balfour is put on a boat by his evil uncle Ebeneezer and sent to be sold as a slave in the Americas but is rescued by the colourful, vain, dandyish Jacobite rebel Allan Breck Stewart; together they race through the heather across Scotland with a price on their heads.

I even enjoyed its sequel Catriona.

Weir of Hermiston is about a father, Weir the elder, a hanging judge, and his son, Archie Weir, who is rather ashamed of his dad and, having spoken out against the father, is exiled to be the laird of the family farm in Hermiston. There Archie, also called Erchie (the poorer characters speak broad Lallan Scots, the posher characters English) meets and falls in love with Christina, aka Kirstie, not to be confused with her aunt also called Kirstie, who has four black brothers made famous after their bloodthirsty revenge on the robbers who killed their father.

The fragment that we have sets the scene. Archie's father is a stern and rather horrid character, blackly drawn. Archie is a chip off the old block in some ways, being self-disciplined, but at the same time he takes after his dead mother (hers is a brilliant portrait of a pious lady completely down-trodden by her husband and regularly taken advantage of by servants). Old Kirstie regrets being an old maid and is jealous that the little boy she looked after is in love with young Kirstie. Young Kirstie is another wonderful character, well aware of clothes and the effect that a look can have on a lad, innocent in some ways but already old in the ways of coquetry.Into the Eden that is the Scottish countryside comes a snake in the guise of one of Erchie's old friends from Uni (although Erchie was only ever an acquaintance in the old days and is not so friendly now, extending the duties of a host with none of the tenderness for a guest) who guesses the secret love affair and decides to worm his way into the affections of young Kirstie. And the four black brothers include farmer Hob, Glasgow merchant Clem, and shepherd-poet Dand.

Wonderful characters and a wonderful setting, told in a mixture of English and beautiful Scots, looking set to create a great tale. The plan that we are left with is rather a melodrama involving seduction, murder, a prison-break and exile. Perhaps it is as well he never finished it.

March 2016; 111 pages

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

"The Europeans" by Henry James

This is a delightful little book, the fourth novel James wrote and rather reminiscent of Jane Austen.

The Baroness and her brother Felix have travelled from Europe where they were born to Boston to look up their American cousins. As the novel begins they are clearly short of money and presumably fortune hunting, Felix is an agreeable young man and the Baroness who has morganatic marriage with a minor European princeling is in the process of being divorced.

There is an immediate contrast between the sober, perhaps unhappy, introspective, virtually silent, reserved, buttoned-down Americans who are from the Boston merchant class and who are quietly, modestly, unspectacularly very wealthy and the happy-go-lucky carefree Felix, used to living on his wits and few talents, and the Baroness, cultured in the rather heavy handed styles of the courts of Europe. The young unmarried men of the Bostonian families are drawn to the Baroness as moths to a flame and the question becomes which one of them will propose and be entrapped in what will probably be an unsuitable marriage. And which of the girls will fall for Felix?

The characters are drawn subtly and well. Right from the outset, James uses dialogue and action to raise intriguing questions about each character.

It starts beautifully. The Baroness is looking out of her Boston hotel window at a graveyard, the stones covered in snow. She watches people, mainly women, scrambling onto a bus, she likens it to a life boat. The brother assumes that there is a very handsome man inside.

She is out of sorts whilst her brother Felix is, as always excessively optimistic, full of gaiety. She says he is too good-natured and he replies; "Good natured - yes. Too good natured - no." She thinks they have made a mistake but he says: "There are no such things as mistakes."

This is a storming start. The characters are beautifully contrasted: the carefree but happy brother, the depressed but elegant sister. Very little is told to us but we can work it out from the conversation. It becomes clear that they have travelled from Europe to America to discover the cousins that they have never seen before and that they hope the cousins are rich because they are on their uppers (though not enough to descend into working for a living).

In the next chapter, we meet Gertrude. Gertrude is 'odd' though wee are never quite told what is wrong with her; probably she has too much rebellious joy in her to fit in with the rest of the family, all of whom have gone to church. Mr Brand, the utterly wholesome minister,talks with her in the garden, trying to persuade her to go to church, but she declines and he goes off. One feels that he is probably in love with Gertrude. And when he has gone, Felix arrives to meet the long lost family.

And we are off. The decadent Europeans meet the upright, puritanical Bostonians. As well as Gertrude there is her sister Charlotte, much more of a decent young woman, her solid and stolid father, the picture of righteousness, and her brother Clifford who has shocked the family by being suspended from Harvard for sixth months for getting drunk. He is characterised as a delightfully innocent young man who desperately wishes to have amorous complications but is far too shy to achieve them, so he becomes gauche instead. Clifford is a brilliant character and, again, it is all there is the dialogue. Show, don't tell!

The Actons are around as well. Robert traded in China and his sister Lizzie (a pert little miss in the single scene she is allowed to play) is supposed to be on the verge of becoming engaged to Clifford.

So the scene is set for a classic romantic comedy:

  • Will Felix try to seduce Charlotte or Gertrude?
  • Will Gertrude end up with Felix or Mr Brand (does he have a first name?)
  • Will Clifford or Robert Acton  end up with the Baroness?

Throughout, the dialogue is beautifully constructed and the conversation scintillating and brilliant. But unlike Oscar Wilde, there are no epigrams for the sake of epigrams. These people say the things they say because of who they are. There are no epigrams but there are some absolutely delightful quotes:

  • "She seems to me like a singer singing an air. You can't tell till the song is done." (Chapter 3)
  • "Forming an opinion - say on a person's conduct - was with Mr Wentworth a good deal like fumbling in a lock with a key chosen at hazard." (Chapter 7)
  • "We may sometimes point out a road we are unable to follow." (Chapter 7)
  • "If we have ever had any virtue among us, we had better keep hold of it now." (Chapter 9)

The only thing that I didn't like in this book (and I have said this repeatedly in this blog) is when the author uses a foreign language without any translation. I hate this! It is Henry James saying: I have lived in Paris; I can speak French. If you're going to write for an English (or American) audience WRITE IN ENGLISH!!

Apart from that I adored this little book.

Other James books I have read and reviewed:
Washington Square which has a similar theme: will the Doctor prevent his daughter from contracting a marriage with the unsuitable man with whom she has fallen in love?
What Maisie Knew: Maisie grows up unwanted by either of her parents who are too involved with having affairs and getting married again. The only people who seem to want her are her step-parents. Can there be a happy ending?

March 2016; 173 pages

Saturday, 19 March 2016

"Bel Canto" by Ann Patchett

Loved it.

"When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her" is a great first line. Within a few lines we are hooked, wondering why the lights went out. And then the terrorists burst in.

It is a birthday party for the head of a Japanese company hosted in the house of the Vice President of a Spanish American country which hopes that the Japanese company will invest in their country. The mogul is an opera fan so his favourite diva has been paid a fortune to sing. There are many honoured guests including the French ambassador, a Monsignor and a humble priest who loves opera and knew a friend of a friend. The president should have been there - it was him the terrorists were hoping to kidnap - but he stayed away to watch his favourite TV programme. So the terrorists (three generals and a bunch of teenagers) take the guests hostage and settle in for a long siege.

Under these conditions, people learn to appreciate different things, people change, people learn about themselves and others. Most of the besieged are mesmerised by the singing and the charisma of the great opera star. The French ambassador realises how much and how deeply he loves his wife. The Vice President settles into his role as a host and starts to clean his own house, for the first time ever taking pleasure in doing domestic chores. Gen the translator, a shadow of the media, becomes the most important person in this polyglot micro-world. Love begins to blossom.

The teenage soldiers are really children. Exposed to things they have never experienced before, they begin show previously hidden talents. One is a wonderful singer who could be an opera star. One learns to play chess. One learns how to tell the time. But hanging over them is the shadow of their inevitable fate. They are children but they are doomed.

Patchett writes beautifully. The story is told from multiple points of view, a difficult perspective but we never lose sight of who is thinking what. There are perfectly formed descriptions which tell just enough and never too much. There are moments of lyrical love, love in all its aspects, and there are moments of brutality and fear and there are some very funny bits as well (my favourite is Beatriz, a girl terrorist soldier with a wonderfully teenaged attitude problem). But we never forget the tension and the end which is coming.

This is a book which makes you glory in the joy of life and the potential of human beings and the wonder of love and then breaks your heart.

Is there anything in the fact that Carmen, one of the female soldiers, shares her name with the tragic eponymous heroine of Bizet's Opera and that Beatriz, another female soldier, whose name means 'brings joy' is the literally poisonous eponymous heroine of Rappacini's daughter, a Spanish American opera which premièred in 1991?


March 2016; 318 pages

Patchett has also written Commonwealth, a very different book although it is also told from multiple points of view. It is about an American 'blended' family. The six children run wild in their summer holidays. Tragedy results. Guilt haunts. Read it!

Thursday, 17 March 2016

"The Broken Heart" by John Ford

To be honest, this play is a bit of a ragbag. Perhaps the version we have isn't complete. RADA cut out the subplot of the soldiers and the ladies in waiting without losing anything; they also cut out the cheeky male servant of Bassanes. But they couldn't tidy it up completely without rewriting an entirely new play.

There are a number of starts that show potential and then get forgotten. For example, in A1S3 Orgilus goes into hiding as a poor scholar and is recruited to act as a messenger between his sister and her lover. This is done with a lot of comedy and it has the potential to be a running comic theme or, alternatively, should Orgilus seek to bar the match, to have a lot of sinister possibilities. That's the last we hear of it. Orgilus approves his sister's match, despite Prophilus being best friend of the hated Ithocles, so the whole episode of his sister's promise and her marriage fizzles out into a sub-plot with no drama left in it.

There are bits that just confuse. In A3S2 Bassanes and Graulis are creeping through the palace at night. Why? They are discovered. So what? They are told off for disturbing Ithocles. Some time later Bassanes 'realises' that Penthea is with Ithocles and thinks that the brother and sister are having an incestuous fling (Ford had a bit of a thing about brother sister sex) and draws his swortd but it really doesn't spring form the tiptoeing in.

Mostly the problems with the play come from the characters sudden changes. Bassanes is a brilliant self-tortured jealous husband, a sort of comedy Othello, but when Penthea protests her innocence switches into an adoring and rueful man. Even one of the servants thinks he must have been gelded. One moment Nearchus is jealous that Calantha has given her ring to Ithocles, the next he is cool that they are getting married. Calantha is dancing when she hears that her father, her best friend and her fiancee are dead; she dances on. Later she explains that she was just messing with our minds. Someone is.

Ithocles has, before the play starts, done something shockingly bad by splitting betrothed sweethearts Orgilus and Penthea and forcing Penthea to marry the older Bassanes. Orgilus seems to forgive him for most of the play but then enacts his bloody revenge. Penthea forgives Ithocles so much that she pleads his suit to Princess Calantha.

This play should be strangled at birth were it not for moments of perfect poetry. There is a lot of spectacle: singing, dancing, murder, suicide and there is comedy but it lacks convincing psychology for most of the characters.

I first saw this on Friday 17th April 2015 at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse (the covered playhouse in the Globe complex) sitting on backless wooden benches; the discomfort rather distracted from my enjoyment of the play.

I saw this at RADA on Saturday 19th March. Luke Brady was a rather comic king Amycles, good humoured even when dying, and a suitably serious Tecnicus. Polly Mirsch was perfect as Penthea in the mad scene; her body language was wonderfully nervous and her delivery extracted the full poetic value of the lines. Tom Edward-Kane as Bassanes had perfect comic timing as he traded insults with Grausis, equally well played by Jordon Stevens. Even the grunts carried pathos and comedy.

Ithocles is a hell of a part. He is a successful soldier who did this very bad thing as a boy and now regrets it. He has to reconcile himself to Penthea, woo Calantha and trade insults with Nearchus and his servant. This is a character more unstable than mercurial, bordering on the schizoid. Thomas Martin was convincingly brash and aggressive and if he never seemed overly upset when his sister died perhaps that reflected the ambitious bastard he was playing.

Matt Gavan was excellent as a sinister and bitter Orgilus. He resisted the temptation to ham up the sinister asides. I don't know how anyone could play the 'nice' Orgilus and convince the audience that Orgilus is deceiving everyone by this act. Gavan's Orgilus was at his best when he killed and when he died.

The director, Iqbal Khan, notes the "challenges of this complex and profoundly moving play". I think RADA has been brave to attempt it and the reward for their courage has been a successful production.

This is a somewhat abbreviated synopsis of a complicated plot

Act One:
Scene 1: We are in Sparta. Orgilus explains to his father, Crotolon, why he is going to Athens. He had been betrothed to Penthea but when her father died her brother Ithocles married her off to Bassanes. But Bassanes is jealous, believing she will run off with Orgilus (which Orgilus protests he does not intend) and mistreating his new wife because of this. Orgilus believes that his departure to Athens will stop Bassanes being jealous.
Before leaving, Orgilus makes his sister Euphranes promise that she will not get married without his permission. A brother or course is in charge of his sister's sex life.
Scene 2: Ithacles has been victorious in war and Princess Calantha crowns him with a laurel wreath in the poresence of her father King Amyclas. They depart to leave a couple of soldiers Groneas and Hemophil who comically woo (by boasting of their martial exploits) reluctant ladies in waiting Christalla and Philelma. When the scornful ladies leave G and H resolve to 'treat em mean to make them keen'.
Scene 3: Ogilus hasn't gone to Athens but disguised himself as a scholar at the philosophy school of Ternicus. O then sees his sister and Prophilus courting; O walks past with his nose in a book. E admits she loves P but needs to get permission from dad and brother. E fears they are overheard by O but when he realises that O is just a poor scholar (O talks academic nonsense) promises to buy him books if he will act as go-between.
Scenes 2 and 3 could easily be played for comic effect possibly with a sinister undertone, which might make the later descent into revenge and hatred a greater and more shocking contrast.

Act Two:
Scene 1: This is a brilliant scene. The two servants are both very funny and very astute. Bassanes, the jealous husband, tells Phulas his servant to block a window to prevent his wife lusting; he threatens to harm Phulas is Mrs B (Penthea) receives a letter; the extravagance of Bassanes' threats makes this scene wonderful. Phulas, pretending to be an idiot, tells his the news: multi-coloured beards, dancing bears and dragons and oh by the way there's a new law mandating divorce in cases where the husband becomes jealous. B, who mixes adoration of Penthea with vexatious aggression, has a right old ding dong with her maid, old Grausius, whom he calls a "juggling bawd ... damnable bitch-fox" and threatens to "chop thee into collops". But when all but B and G leave the stage he suborns her into spying on her mistress, a role which she accepts.
Scene 2: Ithocles, successful general, soliloquises on ambition. Armostes and Crotolon enter, arguing, A trying to persuade C to let Euphranes marry Prophilus; C saying they must wait till Orgilus gives permission. I joins the argument, recommending Prophilus but C is bitter and angry, reminding I of the part he played in tsaking Penthea from Orgilus and marrying her to Bassanes. I admits it was a foolish act of a young boy and offers reparation. C agrees that E should marry P.
A load of people now come in: E who agrees with her father C that she will marry Prophilus; B and Penthea, B still suspicious etc; when they go I is left with Penthea and arranges a private rendezvous in the palace grove. Bassanes overhears and is suspicious: "If I be a cuckold and can know it,/I will be fell, and fell."
Scene 3: Prophilus has escorted Penthea to the grove where he leaves her under the 'protection' of the disguised Orgilus. The disguised 'scholar' speaks words of love to Penthea who tells him to get lost. But then O reveals himself. She is torn between her marriage vows and her betrothal love for O. She decides that O doesn't deserve second dibs and she will stay true to Bassanes. She tells him again to go and he goes. Now B comes in with Grausis whom he scolds roundly for falling asleep, so failing in her trust. They meet Penthea and then all go off to see Ithocles who, aparently, has been taken ill.

Act Three:
Scene 1: Tecnicus warns Orgilus against doing something stupid: "let not a resolution/ Of giddy rashness choke the breath of reason." T is acting as the old man who warns the young hero in a fairy tale. But Orgilus is determined to go back to the world. Tecnicus gives a speech warning him that "real honour/ Is the reward of virtue" and "He then fails/ In honour, who for lucre or revenge/ Commits thefts, murders, treasons, and adulteries ... honour must be grounded/ On knowledge, not opinion". O goes and Armostes enters, bringing a casket contain a prohecy of the Delphic oracle; the King summons T to give counsel about it.
Scene 2: Someone sings a song asking whether you can do impossible things such as "paint a thought" or "Rob a virgin's honour chastely?" Bassanes and Grausis are creeping through the palace. Ithocles is with his twin sister Penthea; he is dying. He apologises to her for marrying her off to Bassanes instead of Orgilus. Penthea is bitter, she loved O and is a whore for being married to B when promised to O. She wants I to kill her. I tells her he loves Calantha, princess of Sparta, but C doesn't know it, nor even Prophilus his best mate. Bassanes enters with others and a dagger; he thinks that Ithocles is making advances to Penthea. Ithocles, obviously feeling a bit better, draws his sword. Penthea tells Bassanes she hasn't been unfaithful and he, slightly swiftly and unconvincingly, declares her a chaste goddess and kneels for forgiveness. Ithocles decides that B is unstable and he must protect his sister; lots leave and only B and G remain.
This is getting complicated.
Scene 3: King Amyclas is about to betroth Calanthus his daughter and heir to Nearchus, king of Argos. I, who loves her secretly, and O, who hates I, arrive. I apologises to O for the wrong he has done him and promises to serve him faithfully.
Scene 4: O tells his dad C that he likes and respects Prophilus but that he can't forget that P is I's best mate. C is angry with O and suspicious that he 'came back from Athens' before even being sent for; he suspects O; O lies and tells him that Athens has an infection.
Scene 5: Penthea, forecasting her own imminent demise, asks Calantha to be her executrix and tells C that I loves her.

Act Four
Scene 1: Nearchus is wooing Calantha, trying to take from her a ring. She throws it on the ground near I who picks it up and returns it. Nearchus and his servant have the hump. Tecnicus has a sealed prophecy for the King and says he is going away forever. He tells Ithocles: "When youth is ripe, and age from time doth part,/The lifeless trunk shall wed the broken heart." He tells Orgilus: "Let craft with courtesy a while confer, / Revenge proves its own executioner." O assumes that T is in his dotage.
Scene 2: Bassanes is sorry for being jealous. Too late. Penthea has gone mad and let her hair down (the stage direction says she enters with "her hair about her ears". In some wonderful poetry she regrets she won't have children, recognises Orgilus as one she once loved and then faints. She hasn't slept or eaten for ten days.
Scene 3: The King Amyclas is dying. He doesn't understand the explanation of the oracle. When Calantha asks to marry Ithocles he assents, even though he had previously planned for her to marry Nearchus. Orgilus, in a sinister aside, notes of Ithocles that :"The youth is up on tiptoe, yet may stumble."
Scene 4: Penthea is dead. Ithocles is caught in a booby trapped chair prepared for him by Orgilus who then stabs him to death.

Act Five:
Scene 1: The remorseful Bassanes is scared of Orgilus
Scene 2: Calantha is dancing. As she does, Armostes whispers that her dad the king is dead. She goes on dancing and he is shocked. Then Bassanes tells her Penthea is dead. She dances on and he is shocked. Then Orgilus tells her Ithocles is murdered. She keeps dancing to the end and he is "thunderstruck". Then she tells the company that she heard these rumours and Orgilus confesses freely he killed Ithocles. She condemns him to death. He chooses to bleed to death; he himself will be the surgeon. He dies.
Scene 3: Calantha, now queen, makes various appointments. Then she puts a ring on the finger of the corpse of ithocles. She kisses him and her heart breaks; she dies. Armostes remembers the prohecy: "The Lifeless Trunk shall wed the Broken Heart".

Monday, 14 March 2016

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

This is the famous story of the man who has a portrait in his attic which gets older as he stays young. It is, I think, a retelling of the story of Faust.

Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man (the homosexual undertones are scarcely undertones; they are blatant and startling for the time when it was written) whose portrait is painted by the artist Basil Hallward. The book starts with Lord Henry Wootton meeting Hallward in his studio and admiring the portrait. Hallward sees Dorian as his muse. There are little breadcrumbs such as the image of Lord Henry pulling a daisy to pieces and saying "Genius lasts longer than beauty" but our impression of LHW is that he speaks mainly in epigrams.

In Chapter Two we meet Gray. Suddenly the mood darkens. We've had the prologue; this is now the scene in which the die is cast. LHW becomes a Mephistophelean tempter. Are you really a bad influence? asks DG and LHW replies "to influence a person is to give him one's own soul"; he then proceeds to do just that.

LHW teaches the Epicurean philosophy of live life to its sensuous extreme: live now and pay later. "if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream - I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of medievalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal ... But the bravest man among us in afraid of himself. The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self-denial that mars our lives."

He then tempts directly: "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful ... you have had passions that have made you afraid, thoughts that have filled you with terror, day-dreams and sleeping dreams whose mere memory might stain your cheek with shame -" This sounds like a direct reference to Wilde's latent homosexual desires, especially when we discover that LHW has 'touched' DG: "had touched some secret chord that had never been touched before, but that he felt was now vibrating and throbbing to curious pulses." Whew!

Now they go outside into the garden to cool off. DG is scared: "Why had it been left for a stranger to reveal him to himself? ... He was not a schoolboy or a girl. It was absurd to be frightened."

Now LHW scares DG by describing how his beauty will fade: "You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you ... Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful ...  Ah! realise your youth while you have it."  He links this ageing with the need that he has already described to live life now to the full, lest we regret: "Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to." As Ogden Nash once pointed out: the sins of omission are worse than the sins of commission; at least for the latter you had fun at the time.

And DG is hooked. He goes back to the studio and looks at the portrait. "This picture will always remain young ... If it were only the other way! If it were I who was always to be young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that - for that - I would give everything! ... I would give my soul for that!" So the Faustian bargain is proclaimed.

Then Wilde foreshadows what will happen, although DG gets it the wrong way round: "If the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now! Why did you paint it? It will mock me someday - mock me horribly!"

And he keeps on hammering the message home. Which is the real Dorian: the one in the flesh or the portrait? Basil, the artist, proclaims that it is the picture.

Chapter Two is the storming heart of this novel.

In Chapter 3, LHW goes about his social whirl of a life and floods us with Wildean epigrammatic wit: clever but somehow bloodless; usually constructed by using contradictions such as "He was a hero to his valet, who bullied him" and saying something deliberately antagonistic to received opinion: "His principles were out of date, but there was a good deal to be said for his prejudices."  But he resolves, devilishly, that he would dominate Dorian: "He would make that wonderful spirit his own. There was something so fascinating in this son of Love and Death." (He has discovered that DG's birth was the result of his mum running away with some sort of servant who was swiftly killed in a duel; DG's mum died soon after he was born.) Mostly this chapter does little to progress the story, though the old Duchess of Harley wishes that LHW would "tell me how to become young again." He tells her "To get back to one's youth, one has merely to repeat one's follies" because "the only things one never regrets are one's mistakes" which is a little better than the usual shallow Wildeism.

In Chapter Four, Dorian falls in love with an actress, Sybil Vane, in a strange theatre introduced with a cascade of alliteration: grimy and grassless and great and gas-jets and gaudy and greasy and gorgeous and guinea. By the end of the chapter he is engaged. In Chapter 5 the girl talks to her mother; their brother is going to sea the next day and wants to know whether his mother ever married his father (no); he also threatens the pseudonymous 'Prince Charming' who is courting Sybil. But then, in Chapter 6 & 7, Dorian takes Basil and LHW to see his actress; she acts dreadfully and Dorian breaks off the engagement. He walks all night (this is a transformation scene) and when he gets home he finds that his portrait has changed: "there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth." He resolves to resist temptation and to be good. He writes to Sibyl reinstating the engagement but when LHW comes to the house he tells DG that SV committed suicide. He hides the portrait in a locked room (his old school room which sounds symbolic).

"He felt that the time had really come for making his choice ... Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins - he was to have all these things. The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame: that was all. ... If the picture was to alter it was to alter. That was all. Why enquire too closely into it?" We are now half the way through the book.

Wilde now writes of Dorian's years of dissipation. He does this by multiple references to history such as the antics of the early Caesars like Tiberius and Caligula and Nero. Dorian experiments with jewellery and perfumes and music. There is again a lot of gay references such as to King's favourites and St Sebastian. He becomes the target of society's disquiet and a number of young men with whom he is asssociated are ruined but mud never seems to stick to Dorian. Then Basil Hallward comes back to him and we are two thirds of the way through the book.

From here on events rush rapidly to their inevitable conclusion. There is still plenty of room for Wilde to pad the narrative out with witty conversations. At least he saves the final twist for the final paragraph.

Some parts of this novel (eg Chapter 2) are written almost perfectly but there are whole scenes which do little to advance the narrative and only serve to showcase Wilde's epigrammatic wit. This short book could be considerably shorter as a result.

March 2016; 177 pages

"Fashionable Nonsense; Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science" by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont

Sokal in 1996 sent a spoof article to "Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity" a cultural studies journal; they published it in a special issue dedicated to rebutting the attacks on postmodernism by scientists. Following the success of this hoax, this book is dedicated to chronicling the absurdities written by postmodern writers such as Jacques Lacan, who asserts "This sort of torus really exists and it is exactly the structure of the neurotic"; Luce Irigaray who claims that Einstein was interested in "accelerations without electromagnetic reequilibrations", whatever they are and the E=mc2 is a sexist equation because it "privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us"; Jean Baudrillard who talks of "Our complex, metastatic, viral systems, condemned to the exponential dimension alone (be it that of exponential stability of instability), to eccentricity and indefinite fractal scissiparity, can no longer come to an end."; and of course Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari who assert among many other things that "a function is a Slow-motion".

In between these dissections of the bizarre assertions of these writers (why do they all seem to be Francophone?) these authors make some excellent points about the Scientific method, undermining the strict Popperian falsification thesis, whilst denying the Duhem-Quine underdetermination thesis with some sound common sense.

"There are several ways to swim, and all of them have their limitations, but it is not true that all bodily movements are equally good ... There is no unique method of criminal investigation, but this does not mean that all methods are equally reliable (think about trial by fire)." (p 80)

The analyses of daft postmodernists tend to get a bit boring but the understanding of these writers about how science really works seems to be spot on.

March 2016; 279 pages

Sunday, 13 March 2016

"The Discarded Image" by C S Lewis

This is a book about the Medieval world view written by the master of medieval literature who also happened to be the author of the Narnia books (and therefore of interest to me in my researches into liminality) and a Science fiction trilogy starting with Out of the Silent Planet.

Lewis argues that the Medieval Model, their cosmological picture of the Universe, appeared in modified form throughout their poetry, even down to Paradise Lost.

Lewis sees medieval man as fundamentally "an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems", instancing the codes of chivalry and courtly love, the Summa of Aquinas and the Divine Comedy of Dante (p 10)  but what particularly distinguished the medieval academic from those of either before or after was his heavy reliance on the written word: "They are bookish. They are indeed very credulous of books. They find it hard that anything an old auctour has said is simply untrue." (p 11) But Lewis is writing about literature and what he calls the "backcloth for the arts" selects from the Model of the Universe "only what is intelligible to a layman, and only what makes it appeal to imagination and emotion." (p 14)

He writes briefly about dreams. Microbius, following the Oneirocritica of Artemidorus from the 1st century AD, divides dreams into five, the first three useful (because prophetic) and 'true': (p 63)

  • allegorical (p 63)
  • prophetic giving a vision of the future (p 64)
  • oracular: listening to someone forecasting the future (p 64)
  • preoccupied: reviewing the events of the day (p 64)
  • surreal including nightmares (p 64)

Lewis goes through the hierarchies of angels of pseudo-Dionysius and is very detailed about the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius but it is his side sayings that are best.

We learn, for example, that Medieval man had little sense of aporia:

  • "All sense of the pathless, the baffling and the utterly alien - all agoraphobia - is so markedly absent from medieval poetry when it leads us, as so often, into the sky." (p 99)
  • Dante "is like a man being conducted through an immense cathedral, not like one lost in a shoreless sea." (p 100)
  • Medieval literature is swamped by the classics and 'even' Arab influences and there is very little room for old Norse, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon influences save for some of the old romances and ballads,"things that can only live on the margins of the mind" (p 9)

There are one or two horrible bits of racism when he speaks degradingly of Africans trying to ape Western culture; he clearly thinks they are too savage.

But there are also a number of little gems:

  • the Antipodes was the region where people had their feet on backwards (p 28)
  • "Nothing about a literature can be more essential than the language it uses" (p 6)
  • the words feigned, figment and fiction have a common root (p 65)
  • as do the words 'grammar' and 'glamour' which both mean scholarship (p 187)
  • "The beauty of clothes is either theirs (the richness of the stuff) or the skill of the tailor - nothing will make it ours." (p 83) ... "Nobility is only the fame ... of our ancestors' virtue." (p 84)
  • "Medieval art was deficient in perspective, and poetry followed suit. Nature, for Chaucer, is all foreground; we never get a landscape." (p 101)
Overall this was a well-written and delightfully illuminating book.

March 2016; 223 pages

Read my review of the biography of C S Lewis: a tender account of a man who was first class mediaeval scholar but became a best seller in three different ways.

Friday, 11 March 2016

"Washington Square" by Henry James

James is sometimes considered as one of the originators of the modern novel but this is a rather old fashioned book; written in 1880, the year before the Portrait of a Lady, it comes close to the end of the early James. The story is straightforward and narrated in a linear fashion by a third person omniscient narrator who from time to time speaks directly to the narrator. The sentences are simple and straightforward without the convoluted sentences of his later prose.

The story revolves around Catherine Sloper, the plain, dull-witted but determined daughter of a rich New York doctor. Catherine, who has an excellent income left to her by her late mother and prospects of considerably more when her father dies, is courted by Morris Townsend, an idler who has already run through one fortune and is clearly intending to marry Catherine for her money. Dr Sloper is determined to put a stop to this, taking Catherine for a year abroad to Europe to forget him and threatening to cut her out of his will if she does marry Townsend. However, the Doctor's widowed sister Mrs Penniman, who is a foolish woman obsessed with the ideals of romantic fiction, schemes and plots to bring the young lovers together (this allows a certain amount of comedy: all the other characters are exasperated by Mrs Penniman's foolish contrivances). Most importantly, Catherine has fallen in love with Morris. But Morris wants the Doctor's money as well.

It is a tight little book and the four characters are well drawn. One feels very sorry for Catherine, crushed between the determination of her father and her own love of a man she gradually comes to realise doesn't love her back. One suspects the worst but I won't spoil it by telling you what happens.

In many ways it reminded me of The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope in which the stubborn woman marries the waster despite her father and then lives to regret it.

There are some delightful perceptions:
Mrs Penniman, at this, looked thoughtful a moment. 'My dear Austin,' she then inquired, 'do you think it is better to be clever than good?'
'Good for what?' asked the Doctor. 'You are good for nothing unless you are clever.'
(Ch 2)

Catherine was always agitated by an introduction; it seemed a difficult moment, and she wondered that some people ... should mind it so little.
(Ch 4)
I came across this characteristic again in the protagonist of Dostoevsky's short novel The Double

'Well, I never knew a foreigner!' said young Townsend, in a tone which seemed to indicate that his ignorance had been optional.
(Ch 5)

A nice little book and soooooooo much easier to read than the later James.

March 2016; 151 pages

Sunday, 6 March 2016

"Doctor Thorne" by Anthony Trollope

Doctor Thorne is the third in Trollope's Barsetshire series of novels coming after The Warden and Barchester Towers.

Doctor Thorne, a cousin of the grand Thornes of Ullathorne who appear in Barchester Towers, is a simple country daughter who lives with his niece Mary. Mary's parentage is mysterious, though as is usually with Trollope the mystery lasts no more than a few pages; I have never met any novelist more determined to give the game away. Mary's father was Doctor Thorne's rakish brother Henry who seduced and impregnated Roger Scatcherd's sister; as a result Roger, a stonemason and great drinker, bashed Henry to death (getting six months for manslaughter; who said modern courts were lenient!) and the mother got married and moved to America leaving the baby girl in the care of her uncle the doctor.

Roger Scatcherd's wife had also been wet nurse to Francis Gresham, son and heir of Greshambury.

Twenty one years on, Frank comes of age. He has more or less grown up with Mary around and he has fallen in love with her. But his family estate is burdened with debts. Already Roger Scatcherd, who has made a fortune post-prison as a railway magnate, has bought a significant portion of the estate and Frank's dad owes Roger another eighty thousand pounds or so. So Frank's family want him to marry money and stop making love to Mary. They (and everyone else except the Doctor who soon confides in Roger, now Sir Roger (Bart)) are unaware that Mary is potentially the heiress to Sir Roger's three hundred thousand pounds.

Frank is sent away to de Courcey Castle (despite protesting that he needs to go back to Cambridge where he is close to finishing his degree) to meet Miss Dunstable, heiress to the Oil of Lebanon fortune, who turns out to be a terrible funny, sensible girl who really likes Frank as a friend but, after he proposes to her, advises him to marry Mary. This proposal comes in the centre of the book and is, in one sense, the turning point. This is the growing up of Frank, the point from which his boyish passion is replaced by a manly love. From now on, although Frank will be tempted, we are sure that (with the repeated assistance of Miss Dunstable the good fairy) he will stay true to Mary.

The main tribulations seem to be around sending Frank away for varying periods of time and preventing communication between him and Mary (either deliberately or through the vagaries of the Post Office). At the start these 'cooling off periods' are necessary so that various other plot elements have time to come to fruition. Towards the end, when there is yet another fortnight delay, the aim seems merely to be to pad out the novel: was Trollope paid per word?

In the end, what we all knew was going to happen from the start happens and they all live happily ever after (except Augusta who is betrayed a second time in a rather nasty chapter that could easily be removed entirely from the narrative).

A fairy story with a bad witch, a good fairy, a young romantic hero, an ineffective Baron Hardup, and a sweet innocent Cinderella who is transformed from rags to riches. The only truly brilliant character is Miss Dunstable, a lady past her prime marrying age who nevertheless enjoys the attention of strings of would-be husbands on account of the Oil of Lebanon but who stays sane whilst being pursued by these unspeakables by having a brilliant sense of humour. Otherwise the characters are either too good to be true (Dr Thorne, Mary, Frank, Beatrice, the Squire, even Sir Roger, his wife etc) or pure villains such as Sir Louis and the avaricious and extravagant Lady Arabella.

Another Trollope. March 2016, 468 pages

I have also read and reviewed Trollope's 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.