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

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

"Things fall apart" by Chinua Achebe

Why did Achebe choose for his title three words from W B Yeats, an Irish writer? Was it because the Irish were also colonised by the English and became free? Or is there another reason? Does anyone out there know?

This is the classic story of Nigerian village life. Parts one and two are in the years before colonial rule. In part three there is friction as the Christian missionaries arrive and, soon after, the colonial police.

But is it really about that? Or is it about Okonkwo? The story traces his life. As a young man he is a famous wrestler and a three-wived farmer who strives as hard as he can to eradicate the memory of his father who was a lazy man and a musician. Okonkwo is man as macho as they make. He conforms to the customs of the tribe; his ambition is to be one of the big men. But somehow, things never quite go right for him. There is one dreadful season when his crops fail. He has problems with sons and daughters. He is forced to move his family away from his village. And in the end, of course, the rapid social changes engulf him and, for him at least, things fall apart.

It is a fascinating and tender portrait of village life. People are people. There is a lovely moment when a young girl is crying because she has broken a water pot and her mother promises to buy her a new one. What the mother doesn't know is that when the pot fell and broke the girl giggled but then decided she had to pretend to cry or she'd get into trouble. There are many little details like this.

It feels as real as it can be. This means that it doesn't seem to be guided by any message. Things just happen, one after another. In western story-telling conventions, the wicked deed that Okonkwo does would be the cause of his tragedy, like in Macbeth (though without the wifely influence). But in this story the retribution is left to the Gods, as in Greek stories. This means that the bad things that happen to Okonkwo, which come after he has done something bad, seem to be the result of bad luck. Perhaps this is the point. Perhaps a secular European like myself cannot hope to understand that it is the gods who are exacting revenge.

But perhaps there is more mythology to this. Okonkwo's son, who becomes a Christian and disavows his family and culture, takes the name Isaac. Perhaps this refers to the story of Abraham in Genesis who took his son Isaac and bound him and would have slaughtered him as a sacrifice as his god had commanded had not god in the nick of time changed his mind and told Abraham to spare the boy. Perhaps this explores what would have happened had Abraham killed the boy.

I don't want to make too much of this but this doesn't fit the western novel tradition. The novel assumes that there is a point to what is being written. The characters have character arcs; the bad things they do return to haunt them and the good things will be rewarded. The story has a similar arc. This tale doesn't seem to work on that level. It is more a social history of the village than anything I can understand as a novel.

I also expected that there would be a greater contrast between the innocent villagers and the terrible effects of white society. It is true that the Nigerian village life seems ordered and settled; there is no suggestion that it contains the seeds of its own destruction. The only mistake the villagers make is in being too nice when the missionaries arrive to build their church. But there are many ways in which one can see the arrival of colonial society is an improvement. It brings trade and this brings wealth. The first people recruited by the church are those who, seemingly through no fault of their own, are outcasts from village society; it also rescues the newborn twins who are traditionally abandoned in the forest. There is a great deal of superstition in the village, much seems pointless and some malevolent. The society is very heavily patriarchal and women have a very subordinate role. Of course I am judging all these things from my own encultured and limited viewpoint. Nevertheless, to this reader it made the apparent arbitrariness of the plot more forced.

Perhaps this isn't really a novel, more an ethnography.

The unflowery style of the prose reminded me of the first two chapters of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

Many of the great lines seem to be proverbs and “Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” (p 6):

  • He always said that whenever he saw a dead man's mouth he saw the folly of not eating what one had in one lifetime.” (p 4)
  • the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them.” (p 7)
  • the bird says that since men have learnt to shoot without missing, he has learnt to fly without perching.” (p 20)
  • you will never hear. You grew your ears for decoration, not for hearing.” (p 62)
  • a man's life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors.” (p 107)
  • it was like beginning life anew without the vigour and enthusiasm of youth, like learning to become left-handed in old age.” (p 114)
  • what is good among one people is an abomination with others.” (p 123)
  • Never make an early morning appointment with a man who has just married a new wife.” (p 124)
  • The words of the hymn were like the drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth.” (p 129)
  • When a man blasphemes, what do we do? Do we go and stop his mouth? No. We put our fingers into our ears to stop us hearing.” (p 140)
  • when he stood or walked his heels came together and his feet up opened outwards as if they had quarreled and meant to go in different directions.” (p 163)
February 2018; 183 pages

The sequel, No Longer At Ease, tells the story of Okonkwo's grandson.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

"Hamlet" by William Shakespeare

I saw Hamlet performed by the RSC in Stratford on 30th July 2013.

I also saw Hamlet performed by a different RSC cast in Northampton on 3rd March 2018 starring Paapa Essiedu as the Prince. It sought to make itself distinctive with the addition of African drum music to a production featuring a mainly black cast; they updated the weaponry to pistols so Hamlet shot Polonius but you can't have that with the complicated poisoned rapier sword play bit at the end and so they used fighting sticks one of which converted into a poisoned dagger stick. Complicated. Otherwise it was a faithful rendition of the play. The lead was stunningly good and Polonius and Claudius turned in strong performances.

I also saw a live recording of the 2018 Globe Hamlet. James Garnon was particularly brilliant as Claudius. The partnering of a short woman playing Laertes with a tall man as Ophelia was challenging; it looked inappropriately like comedy especially when Ophelia's verdant chest hair was plainly on display.

Literary taste has its fashions: at the moment Hamlet is regarded as Shakespeare's masterpiece. It was his longest play and is rarely performed to its full length.

It was probably written between late autumn of 1599 and early February 1601 though there were probably additions made afterwards. It was almost certainly written after Julius Caesar (late summer 1599) because there is an 'in' joke about JC. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in Shakespeare's Workmanship suggests that there was an Ur-Hamlet which was around as early as 1589 and was probably written by Kyd who also wrote The Spanish Tragedywhich, by the way, Hamlet in some points of plot and structure curiously resembles.” He also suggests that the reason that Hamlet treats his girlfriend Ophelia so viciously is because in one version of the story (The History of Hamblet, originally written in French by Francis de Belleforest and later translated into English) included an Ophelia who was a kind-hearted courtesan.

Dramatic devices
One thing that Shakespeare was particularly brilliant at is fracturing his own verse in order to convey the fractured thoughts of the character beset by emotions. Thus Hamlet's speech in Act One Scene 5 when the Ghost has just revealed to him that his mother has killed the man (his uncle) who murdered his father is full of shortened lines, caesuras, non-sequiturs as he tries to express his anger. This reminded me of the speech in Act One of The Winter's Tale in which King Leontes decides that his wife is having an affair with his best friend.

Another dramatic device which Shakespeare uses so well is the moments of comedy to interrupt tense moments. At the end of Act Four Claudius has laid his plans to murder Hamlet and Gertrude has announced that Ophelia has killed herself. Act Five starts with a couple of clowns cracking jokes as they dig a grave. Of course the ultimate use of this device is in Macbeth where the King has just been murdered when we hear knocking which turns out to be a knock on the Castle gate which is answered by a comic gateman, drunk and pretending to be Hell's Porter, in the only laugh in the whole play.

Yet another dramatic device that Shakespeare used to great effect (he was a half decent playwright) is the use of alternative plots to contrast with the main plot. For example: Hamlet considers suicide, Ophelia kills herself; Hamlet pretends to go mad, Ophelia actually goes mad; Hamlet seeks revenge on the man who killed his father, Laertes seeks revenge on the man who killed his father. This intertwining of the two families is like the mixing up of King Lear's personal tragedy, betrayed by daughters, with Gloucester's tragedy, betrayed by a son.

Pretending. Hamlet pretends to go mad. The King betrays himself by his reaction to a play (The Mousetrap) which is only pretence.

Equality of rank. This play ends with the death of the hero Hamlet on stage. Except that it actually ends with the news that, off stage, two bit players, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. This, with the graveyard scene at the beginning of this act, seems to be Shakespeare saying, as Hamlet has already asserted, in death we are all the same.

I haven't had an opportunity to fully understand this theme yet but thanks to Sarah Ryan who has alerted me to the idea of breath in Hamlet.

The poetry
Famously, the first line of 'To be or not to be' is not an iambic pentameter, or is one with what is called a 'weak' ending, ie with an extra syllable added on. Shakespeare's ability to break the strict metre is perhaps why his work seems more natural than Marlowe, the inventor of heroic verse in drama.

Shakespeare also, over the years he worked, reduced the number of rhyming couplets he employed. Love’s Labour’s Lost, an early play, has 279 blank verse lines, 1028 rhymed; The Winter's Tale, a late play, has no rhyming. Hamlet retains rhyming couplets for rounding off some acts. The end of the play is finished with a rhyming couplet succeeded with a half-line as if this is not the ending at all:
Take up the bodies: such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers sound.

The Ghost

Professor Sir Jonathan Bate in a Gresham College Lecture originally delivered 27th March 2019 at the Museum of London points out that the ghost on Hamlet appears to be Roman Catholic since it says that it is “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away.” This references the idea of Purgatory which was specifically denied by the Protestant reformers. Given that Hamlet has just returned from the “Wittenberg University, birthplace of the Lutheran Reformation” this increases his doubt as to the “honesty” of the ghost. This is why he stages the play within the play. Shakespeare's ghosts are almost always ambivalent figures which may or may not be real or figments of the hauntee's imagination (when Old Hamlet appears in Act 3 Hamlet can see him but Gertrude can't) and this Catholicisation of the ghost adds an additional doubt as to whether the ghost's assertions (specifically of murder) are honest.
A summary of the plot: (beware spoilers!)

Act One
Scene 1: on the castle battlements

Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio relieve Francisco from sentry duty. On previous nights B & M have seen a ghost on the battlements but H doesn’t believe them so he has come to see for himself.

The ghost enters and H recognises it as the recently deceased King Hamlet. He calls on it to speak but it stays silent. They agree to tell young Prince Hamlet.

Horatio reviews the political situation. Old King H defeated Fortinbras of Norway in battle and so claimed all his lands. Young Fortinbras has “sharked up a list of landless resolutes” (raised an army of unpropertied desperadoes) to try to win his inheritance back.

Scene 2: Claudius in court

Claudius explains that, following “our dear brother’s death” he has married the Queen. He sends ambassadors to the King of Norway, uncle to young Fortinbras, to suppress F.

Laertes asks to be allowed to return to France; Polonius his dad agrees so C approves this.

Claudius asks young Prince Hamlet why he is still so gloomy.

Gertrude points out that “all that lives must die” and asks why Hamlet seems to be upset about this. Hamlet takes the word ‘seems’ and says that his black clothes and his sighing and his crying (“the fruitful river in the eye”) and his sad face, all these are ‘seems’ but he is sad inside.

Claudius points out that all dads die. He then tells Hamlet that he isn’t allowed to return to Wittenberg. Gertrude reinforces this and Hamlet promises to obey her (by implication, not the King).

They all go. Then Hamlet, left alone on stage, delivers his first (and best?) soliloquy:

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter. O God! O God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world.

He continues, in fractured sentences, to speak about the contrast between his beloved hero dad and Claudius and the haste with which Gertrude (“frailty, thy name is woman”) married with his dad “but two months dead - nay not so much ... within a month ... A little month ...within a month ... O most wicked speed ...

He concludes: “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue

Horatio (a friend from Wittenberg), Marcellus, and Barnardo, arrive. Hamlet remembers his dad:

He was a man. Take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again.”

at which point Horatio says “I think I saw him yesternight” and they tell H about the Ghost and H resolves to see the Ghost “tonight”.

Scene 3: The other family

Laertes is taking his leave of his sister Ophelia. He warns her that Hamlet’s love may be but “the trifling of his favour” and that even if he is serious he can’t expect to be allowed to marry whom he pleases because he is royal. So Ophelia must take care not to become dishonoured.

Be wary then; best safety lies in fear;
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.”

OK, says Ophelia, but don’t you, brother, be a rake:

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whilst, like a puffed and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.”

Polonius, dad to L & O arrives to send L off with a whole host of sayings encapsulating fatherly advice:

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice.
For the apparel oft proclaims the man
Neither a borrower nor a lender be

Laertes goes and Polonius quizzes his daughter about Hamlet’s intentions, pointing out that she must be careful not to be seduced.

Scene 4: The battlements again

To the background of a party enjoyed by Claudius, Hamlet, Marcellus and Horatio meet the Ghost. The Ghost beckons Hamlet and Hamlet, despite the warnings of the other two, follows it offstage.

Scene 5: The Ghost and Hamlet

The Ghost is soon to go to Hell; Hamlet says “Alas, poor ghost!

The Ghost tells H that he is

Doomed for a certain time to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

He tells Hamlet that H must

Revenge his [father’s] foul and most unnatural murder.

The people were told that old Hamlet had been stung by a serpent while sleeping in his orchard but

The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.

He goes on to explain that Claudius poured poison in his ear while he slept.

Hamlet, speaking after the Ghost has gone, is much affected. He speaks in fractured lines, indicative of his stress:
...Yes, yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!
My tables,
My tables - meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

Horatio and Marcellus, seeking Hamlet, find him. They ask him what has happened but he replies in “wild and whirling words”. He seems to be concerned that if he tells them what the Ghost has said they will reveal it and he makes them swear upon his sword (and the Ghost cries out to them from underground “swear”) that if they see him pretending to be mad (“How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself”) they shall not give him away even by shaking their heads or pronouncing an ambiguous remark.

Act Two
Scene 1: Polonius and Reynoldo

P long-windedly instructs R to go to Paris to check up on P’s son Laertes; he tells R to pretend Laertes is a bit of a wild boy to see if the friends take the bait and acknowledge L’s naughtinesses. P spying on his son will be mirrored by Claudius asking R&G to spy on Hamlet; the deception P is using will also be mirrored.

R goes and Ophelia enters and says that Hamlet has been behaving strangely. Polonius assumes that H is mad with love for O. He goes to tell the King.

Scene 2: Claudius, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern

C tells R & G that H has been behaving strangely. And, reflecting P’s address to R in the last scene, he asks them to befriend H and report back to C so that C can help to remedy the malady. They agree.

P tells C that he knows the cause of H’s strange behaviour. But first C has to talk the the ambassador back from Norway with good news: the King has pensioned Fortinbras and sent him to fight the Poles.

Now Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude that Hamlet is mad. Very long-windedly he explains that Hamlet has professed love for Ophelia and she has rebuffed him and this is why he is mad. To prove it he proposes that Claudius and Polonius hide behind a curtain while Hamlet is taking a walk and eavesdrop on his thinking aloud.

Now Hamlet enters and talks to Polonius. Suddenly he is talking in prose. This is a famous speech. H says things that can be interpreted as madness but can also be interpreted as profundities.

Polonius leaves and R&G enter. Hamlet continues to talk in double meanings. He persuades R&G to tell him that they were sent for by the King and he tells them that it is himself, Hamlet, who is being spied upon because he has “of late ... lost all my mirth”. “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, ... And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me ...” Which is a shame, says Rosencrantz, because they have met some actors and sent them to entertain Hamlet. Hamlet quizzes RG carefully about the actors and, when they arrive, welcomes them, but when Polonius returns Hamlet plays his madness again.

Now Hamlet barters speeches (about Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, killing Priam as Troy is being sacked; there is a parallel here with Hamlet, as son of a great warrior, killing a King) with the actors, whom he has met before (presumably in Wittenberg).

Dismissing the actors, who leave with Polonius, he detains the First Player and asks him to perform The Murder of Gonzago with an additional sixteen lines which Hamlet will write to be inserted.

Hamlet is alone. He reflects aloud on what he has been thinking. Isn’t it odd that an actor can simulate a feeling and make others feel it too?

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his whole conceit
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Cheers in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing.
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?

And, after berating himself for cowardice, continues:

I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaimed their malefactions.

He intends to get the players to re-enact the Ghost’s version of his murder and Hamlet will watch the King closely to see if he betrays himself. Then H will know that the Ghost spoke the truth.

Act Three
Scene 1: The soliloquy!

Claudius and Gertrude are quizzing Polonius and Ophelia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about Hamlet’s “confusion” or “lunacy”. R&G can’t be sure if he is mad or cunning. They mention the proposed play and Claudius agrees to watch it. Gertrude exits and Claudius and Polonius hide so they can spy on Hamlet talking to Ophelia.

Hamlet, thinking himself alone, ponders suicide:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th'unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

He notices Ophelia and tells himself to shut up. When she tries to return the tokens of love that he sent her before he denies he ever loved her and, with riddling arguments, suggests that all men are sinners and women should breed no more such.

He goes and Ophelia is distraught that her beloved Hamlet has gone, as she thinks, mad.

But Claudius, emerging for hiding, thinks that Hamlet is not so much mad as dangerous and proposes sending Hamlet to England so that sea air or travel might mend his brain.

Scene 2: The play

Hamlet carefully instructs the players how to enact the play. He instructs Horatio to watch Claudius carefully during the play; if Claudius does not give himself away during the speech Hamlet has inserted then the Ghost has been lying.

The court watch the play, Hamlet sitting next to Ophelia and making a number of innuendoes. Claudius does indeed give himself away.

After, as Hamlet discusses the play with Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come to tell him that Gertrude wants to speak to him.

Scene 3: Claudius

Claudius is furious. He decrees that Hamlet will be sent, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to England.

Polonius tells Claudius that he will hide behind the curtain to eavesdrop on Hamlet with Gertrude.

Claudius, left alone, prays:

O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t -
A brother’s murder

As he kneels Hamlet tiptoes in. He draws his sword. He could kill Claudius here and now. But if he kills C while C is praying, C will go straight to Heaven and that wouldn’t avenge his father, currently in Hell. So he leaves.

Scene 4: The stabbing of Polonius

Gertrude talks to Hamlet while Polonius hides behind the arras curtain. Gertrude, feeling threatened by her son, calls for Help and the hidden Polonius takes up the cry. Hamlet stabs the curtain and kills Polonius (although H thinks it might be Claudius).

Hamlet tells Gertrude what he knows and Gertrude is ashamed for marrying her husband;’s brother. The Ghost returns, visible only to Hamlet, and Gertrude thinks her son is mad.

But he enjoins her again not to sleep with his uncle any more and, reminding her that he has been sent to England, leaves, dragging the body of Polonius after him.

Act Four
Scene 1: C & G

Most unusually, Gertrude remains on stage from the end of Act 3 to the start of Act 4. Claudius enters to ask why she is upset and where is Hamlet? And she tells him her son is:

Mad as the sea and wind when both contend
Which is the mightier.

which might be a way of telling (in a riddling way typical of her son) that there is a royal battle on here. Then she tells Claudius that H has killed Polonius.

Claudius realises that Hamlet is a threat (C himself might have been behind that curtain) “To you yourself, to us, to everyone” and tells R&G to find the body.

Scene 2:

R&G ask H where the body is but he won’t say.

Scene 3:

Claudius has a problem: Hamlet should be punished but

He’s loved of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgement but their eyes

so he has to get rid of H. He sends H to England with a secret letter telling the English to put H to death.

Scene 4: Fortinbras

Fortinbras sends a messenger to Claudius to seek safe conduct for his army.

Scene 5: Ophelia’s mad scene

Horatio is telling Gertrude that Ophelia has gone mad. And O herself crosses the strange, singing snatches of ballads, being mad.

Claudius lists their troubles. Polonius is dead and was buried in secret, which was “done but greenly”. And Laertes has come from France and got a rabble backing him.

Laertes breaks in at the head of the mob, demanding to know what happened to his father. Claudius prevaricates. Ophelia returns, singing mad songs. Laertes is distressed and Claudius promises him justice.

Scene 6: The letter about the pirates.

Sailors bring Horatio a letter in which Hamet says he has been captured by pirates.

Scene 7: C &L plot to kill H

Claudius explains himself to Laertes.

A messenger comes from Hamlet. C is surprised. Hamlet is back in Denmark.

Claudius proposes that they get Hamlet and Laertes to have a swordfight. Laertes proposes that he puts poison on the tip of his sword so that Hamlet will be killed if L even scratches him. Claudius proposes putting poison into a drink in case H escapes the scratch.

Gertrude enters with the news that Ophelia has drowned herself.

Act Five:
Scene 1: The graveyard

A couple of clowns, telling rubbish Shakespearean jokes, are digging Ophelia’s grave. Hamlet and Horatio arrive and Hamlet broods on death particularly when presented with Yorick’s skull. Hamlet realises that we all must die.

Ophelia’s funeral procession arrive. Hamlet, watching from the side, is shocked that Ophelia is dead.

Laertes leaps in the grave after his sister and tells them to fill it up. Hamlet leaps in after him. Laertes grabs Hamlet. Hamlet tells Laertes that his grief as boyfriend is greater than the grief of Laertes as brother.

Scene 2: Finale

Hamlet tells Horatio how, on board ship, he found the letter from Claudius to the King of England telling him to kill Hamlet. So Hamlet rewrote a new letter asking the King of England to put R&G to death. Then he escaped with the pirates.

Now Osric arrives and gives Hamlet the challenge: will he fight Laertes for a bet? Hamlet agrees though Horatio advises against.

The area is prepared for the fight.

Hamlet apologises to Laertes. But they are still going to fight.

As they are fighting Gertrude drinks out of the poisoned cup.

Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned sword. They scuffle. Rapiers are dropped and swapped. Hamlet wounds Laertes with the poisoned sword.

Gertrude faints. She tells Hamlet she has been poisoned and dies.

Hamlet shouts:

O, villainy! Ho! Let the door be locked.
Treachery! Seek it out.

And Laertes replies

It is here, Hamlet. Hamlet, thou are slain.
No med’cine in the world can do thee good.
In thee there is not half an hour of life.

And he reveals; “The King, the King’s to blame.”

Hamlet, being told that the sword point is poisoned, stabs Claudius and makes him drink from the poisoned cup. Claudius dies.

Hamlet, naming Fortinbras as his heir, dies. His last words: “the rest is silence

The English ambassador arrives to tell everyone that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead".

Other versions:
Ian McEwan tells some of the story from the point of view of an unborn baby, aware that his uncle has cuckolded his father, in Nutshell, a novel.

February 2017

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

Sunday, 25 February 2018

"Career of evil" by Robert Galbraith

This is the third novel following the adventures of one-legged private investigator Cameron Strike and his assistant soon-to-be-married Yorkshire lass Robin Ellacott. It maintains the down-to-earth tradition with many real details but this is less whodunnit and more dark thriller than the previous books. A woman's severed leg, addressed to Robin, arrives at the office. Strike quickly realises that this is a threat aimed at him and his business and decides that there are three men seeking vengeance on him. We plunge into the dreadful world of sex killers, drug addicts, pimps and paedophiles.

And the other plot continues the will she - won't she relationship between Robin and her fiance Matthew. The only thing Robin wants to do is work for Strike (how much does she fancy him?) She fears losing her job; when Strike puts her on the boring stuff to try and keep her safe from the predator stalking the streets she is afraid he will see her as more trouble than she's worth. But Matthew just wants her in a safer (and better paying) job. And he thinks she fancies Strike. Or Strike fancies her. Can this pair navigate the shoals and shallows of engagement all the way to the hymeneal altar?

In counterpoint we are given moments from the point of view of the perpetrator as he roams London, stalking Robin whom he wants to kill. And when he is frustrated he has the urge to find another woman, stab her to death in a sexual orgy of penetrative violence, and cut pieces from her as his trophies. And as he follows Robin the tension builds. Will she be his next victim?

Very visceral with some extraordinary scenes. Very, very dark.

Previous Strike books:

Some of my favourite lines:

  • "Mist lay in thick, soft layers like cobweb over the treetops." (p 198)
  • "He looked out upon the ghostly park and was transfixed by the effect of the rising sun on leafy branches arising from the sea of vapour. You could find beauty nearly anywhere if you stopped to look for it, but the battle to get through the days made it easy to forget that this totally cost-free luxury existed." (p 198)
  • "The dirty places of the capital where criminality, poverty and violence bred like bacteria" (p 248)
February 2018; 572 pages

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

"The Child Inside" by Suzanne Bugler

Rachel is Andrew's wife and mother of Jonathan; ten years ago she miscarried Jono's sister. The resultant grief has split her from Andrew; Jono has entered the angry and embarrassed and resentful stage of adolescence, exacerbated by the fact that he is now at a posh school and all the other parents seem so much cooler than his own: “He stands there, staring at his feet and wrestling with his demons” (p 4). Rachel's unresolved grief is tearing the tiny family apart

A chance meeting in Kew takes Rachel back to her teenage years when she went to parties hosted by the ultra-cool Vanessa; even then Rachel felt the outsider, observing the rich and smooth and lucky having fun, and when Vanessa died she was not invited to the funeral and took that as exclusion. Rachel always feels that she was the outsider: “I was just the one on the edge of things; the hanger-on.” (p 15); this is reinforced when she meets the the posh mothers of the boys at her son's new posh school: “People like me, and my family, should always stay in their place on the sidelines, on the outside, forever looking In, and longing. I hate myself for even trying. I hate myself that I should care.” (p 33) And, of course, trying so hard NOT to be the outsider (“I was the audience on the other side of the rope, reaching over.” p 118) she has scrimped to put her boy into the posh school, to join a world where he knows he doesn't really belong, so that he too is an outsider. This portrait of an adolescent boy from the outside is beautiful and cruel and heart-breaking: “I see his face flushed and petulant. He is tired. He wants to go home. Jonathan lives in a world where there is just himself to think about; just to his own wants and needs ... that I could be anything more than just his mother ... is unthinkable to Jonathan. That there could ever have been anything more to my life would never enter his head. It's just not possible.” (p 18)

Now Rachel obsessively  (in a rare moment of humour: “Andrew says I am obsessive. He says it all the time.” p 33) tries to reach back into the past, almost stalking the remaining members of Vanessa's family. She meets Vanessa's brother. Angry at her sterile life (“I am just a middle aged woman out of nowhere. I am what you become when you disappear.” p 53; “I am what I am: wife, mother, the springboard from which other people leap, the carpet on which they stand.” p 99) she embarks on an affair. An affair which of course she can justify, because of her anger and her misery: “I may have betrayed Andrew, but hasn’t he betrayed me too, in shutting me out, in driving me to this?” (p 166)

This is an almost perfect book. It is oh-so-ordinary life with all its pressures and agonies; it needs no more than that. It is built into a perfectly paced four-act structure. It builds into a nail-biting climax. Towards the end I was torn between not wanting to read any more because it was so terrible and not being able to stop reading.

And the last line is perfect too.

There were so many brilliant observations. Here are a few:

  • Andrew always accepts what I say without question, and I don't know if that is because he trusts me, or because he doesn't really care.” (p 19)
  • I picture myself inside an envelope; I tuck myself in, the sides, the bottom, the top. I fold myself away.” (p 20)
  • I am ashamed of myself for being ashamed.” (p 83)
  • every social interaction a weighing-up and a judgement, a laying-out of assets to be displayed.” (p 123)
  • When I met Andrew I knew that he was kind, honest, decent. I thought that I would be safe with him, but I know now that there is no such thing as safe; there is only fear and denial.” (p 128)
  • I think of the ones who survived and the ones who didn't, as though their teenage years were a sort of weeding-out process.” (p 145)
  • I am a hot from running, hot from Simon. I am wet from Simon. I sit there, looking like a housewife and feeling like a whore, with the wet of him still taking its time to seep out of me, and soak into my clothes.” (p 163)
  • And who am I, covering up what I have done with a bit of lipstick, when I have another man's scent - another man's bodily fluids, for heaven’s sake - still warm upon my skin?” (p 165)
  • I do not need to hear how lucky I am. I have heard it too often and it simply doesn't wash anymore. They are words to keep me down, that is all.” (p 222)
  • I start to cry; stupidly, useless and horribly noisily, in the confines of my small and functional bathroom. Andrew has left his bathrobe pegged on the hook beside the door. It hangs there like a slumped, dark shadow of a man; redundant and abandoned.” (p 277)

There are, of course, parallels between this story and that of Madame Bovary ...

February 2018; 343

Saturday, 17 February 2018

"The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction" (third series) edited by Anthony Boucher and J Francis McComas

When I was a kid (in the 1960s) I used to go to the library in Sunbury-on-Thames and read. They had these SciFi collections. I loved them. Now they seem quaint. They beautifully reflect the culture and concerns of 1950s America. The Bomb. A world post-apocalypse (still a concern of Sci Fi today). And interstellar travel meeting strange new creatures. This collection, dating from 1954, is a classic of its kind.

In Attitudes by Phillip Jose Farmer a gambler on a strange world observes aliens in an activity that he believes is a kind of gambling game. He joins in. But has he understood the signs rightly? The priest doesn't think so. A brilliant central scene; the obsession of gamblers is clearly shown. But the first scene seems misleading; it has overtones of Pascal's wager and Faust but it seems redundant. And the twist at the end was easy to spot.

In Maybe Just a Little One by R Bretnor a schoolteacher invents a nuclear reactor in his basement. Fuelled on beans. His community think he's mad. A very off-beat tale.

The Star Gypsies travels from town to town helping the destroyed communities with primitive technology, showing them how to make a sickle and a bicycle.

In The Untimely Toper by L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt Mr Pearce is cursed by a newcomer to the bar so that each time he gets drunk he goes to the rest room and when he comes out finds that a day, or a week, has passed by; the time seems to be proportionate to how drunk he gets. This story contained some great lines:
  • "If he had ten times as much brains as he has and cheated on the entrance examination, he might be able to get into a home for the feeble-minded.
  • "A look on his face that I'd not be wanting to take to bed with me at night"
Vandy, Vandy by Manly Wade Wellman is the  story of a musician finding an old hillbilly family who were celebrated in song; the devil who is bothering their daughter is the same man as the one who bothered their great-great grandmother; he has magically been enabled to live for 300 years ...

Experiment by Kay Rogers is a very short story about a Venusian falling in love with his slave girl (an earthling) even though Venusians don't love.

  • "A faint, slanting shadow lay along either cheek subtly pointing to her lips." (p 98)

Ward Moore's Lot was the best story of them all. A man is driving his fractious family along a grid-locked road away from his Los Angeles suburb after the Bomb has dropped. He has had the foresight to pack the station wagon with all the things necessary for survival (fish hooks, needles ...) But his wife is in complete denial. She wants to phone her friends although the phones are out. She wants to stop at a gas station with clean rest rooms and at a motel for a decent bath and a nice meal. The two boys (the sixteen year old fast turning into a juvenile delinquent and a younger lad) whinge away from the back. Only his daughter understands the gravity of the situation. And all the time the radio utters reassuring messages. This story about a family on the road was brilliant; Lot, fleeing from the destruction of the Cities of the Plain.

P M Hubbard's Manuscript found in a vacuum was a very short take off of A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille.

In The Maladjusted Classroom by H Nearing Jr a teacher in a military school solves a timetabling problem using the fourth dimension and a Klein bottle he has invented.

In Child by Chronos by Charles L Harness a woman, born after her father has disappeared, presumed dead, tells of her difficult relationship with a mother who makes a firtune by foretelling the future. A clever twist on time travel.

New Ritual by Idris Seabright is the story of a chest freezer with the power to grant wishes.

W B Ready's Devlin was almost unreadable. In fact I skipped lots. I think it was about the devil who arrived at a town without a piping band and helped the menfolk form such a band and then did a pied piper act.

Captive Audience by Ann Warren Griffith was the story that has (almost) come true! Little discs are placed in products by advertisers so that, after being triggered by radio, the products themselves advertise to you. Most people are hooked on this cacophony of inescapable advertising; it has actually been made illegal to possess earplugs.

In Snulbug by Anthony Boucher a wizard conjures up a time-travelling demon so that he can find out what is going to happen tomorrow and make a fortune, only to discover that time travel isn't that easy. A delightful characterisation of a surprisingly Yiddish salamander:

  • "The demon ... dived into the flame, rubbing himself with the brisk vigor of a man under a needle shower." (p 214)

Shepherd's Boy by Richard Middleton is a very short ghost story.

  • "Above me in the blue pastures of the sky the cloud-sheep were grazing, with the sun on their snowy backs, and all about me the gray sheep of earth were cropping the wild pansies" (p 230)

Alfred Bester's Star Light, Star Bright is a rather poorly written story with some extraordinarily unconvincing characters which was nevertheless nominated for a Hugo Award.

The stories are interspersed with poems, many by Winona McClintic. None of the poems floated my boat.

It was fascinating what the obsessions were in the science fiction community of those days (and also how much tolerance where was for alternatives such as ghost stories). There is a clear interest in plot rather than character which makes a strong contrast with short stories being written today. I bathed in nostalgia but I was rather disappointed by the quality. This collection is not as good as the Sixth collection which is reviewed here.

February 2018; 252 pages

Friday, 16 February 2018

"The Ministry of Utmost Happiness" by Arundhati Roy

The story starts in a graveyard in Delhi where Anjum (born Aftab, a hermaphrodite s/he has had surgery to relinquish her male parts to transgender to the female she wants to be) now lives after leaving the house she lived in for years with a community of hijras (eunuchs and transgenders who are officially recognised as a third gender in some parts of India). Nimmo, a hijra in the community, tells her that God made Hijras because "He decided to create something, a living creature that is incapable of happiness. So he made us." And when Anjum (still Aftab) says thay the hijra community seems happy she replies "Who's happy here? It's all shame and fakery ... No one's happy here ... For us the price-rise and the school-admissions and beating-husbands and cheating-wives are all inside us. The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can't." (p 23)

This is the story not of Aftab/ Anjum but of India. And India is one country at war with itself. The war is between the castes, between the Moslems and the Hindus, between the various terrorist factions and the military in the hatred-ravaged state of Kashmir. "in Delhi there was no war other than the usual one - the war of the rich against the poor."(p 392)

"How to tell a shattered story?
By slowly becoming everybody.
By slowly becoming everything." (p 436)
This is the technique Roy adopts. This story has multiple narrators and over fifty other characters. It jumps around in time. It is as chaotic and confusing as the slums in Delhi it describes. Pinto (2017) compares it with postmodernism: "This is fiction as kaleidoscope, constantly changing, and flirting with failure."

It is, I suppose, a three part structure. The first third of the book is set in Delhi and recounts the adventures of Anjum the hijra. It ends with the arrival of a baby, abandoned on the pavement, an arrival heralded in quasi-Biblical terms which leads one to believe that something special and magical is about to happen.
  • She appeared quite suddenly, a little after midnight. No Angels sang, no wise men brought gifts. But a million stars rose in the east to herald her arrival.” (p 95)
  • A thin white horse tethered to the railing, a small dog with mange, a concrete-coloured garden lizard, two palm-striped squirrels who should have been asleep and, from her hidden perch, a she-spider with a swollen egg sac watched over her.” (p 96)
Then suddenly we are into the second third of the book. Delhi and Anjum are forgotten. Now we learn, from a variety of sources, including the first hand testimony of the only first person narrator, a government official (suggesting that it is only when a representative of the government is speaking that we can use the form 'I'?) and from her childish short stories and from pages of random invective from her mother about the adventures of Tilo, a well-to-do high caste girl who is well-fancied by three men, one a Kashmiri freedom-fighter, one a campaigning journalist and the third the naforementioned government official. Perhaps the symbolism is that these are the three (male) interests who are fighting over Mother (if only by adoption of the quasi-miraculous baby) India. This part of the story explores the terror and counter-terror in which ordinary Kashmiris are slaughtered by the thousands to satisfy the political machinations of cruel and uncaring men (and one woman).

And then comes the third part of the story. Back to Delhi. Loose ends tied together. More testimonies.

But she can write. Her descriptions bring life to her characters and the city of Delhi is just another wonderfully colourful and complex character:

  • "She lived in the graveyard like a tree. At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home. At dusk she did the opposite. Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches." (p 3; opening lines)
  • "When people called her names - clown without a circus, queen without a palace - she let her hurt blow through her branches like a breeze and used the music of her rustling leaves as balm to ease the pain." (p 3)
  • "He laughed. She laughed at his laugh." (p 4)
  • "Need was a warehouse that could accommodate a considerable amount of cruelty." (p 6)
  • "The first time she made her way past the crowd - the sellers of ittars and amulets, the custodians of pilgrims' shoes, the cripples, the beggars, the homeless, the goats being fattened for slaughter on Eid and the knot of quiet, elderly eunuchs who had taken up residence under a tarpaulin outside the shrine" (p 11)
  • "God's carotid burst open on the new border between India and Pakistan and a million people died of hatred." (p 13)
  • "brash emissaries of a new ruling class, barely aware of their own hubris." (p 15)
  • "it was the only place in his world where he felt the air make way for him." (p 19)
  • "The fan had human qualities - she was coy, moody, and unpredictable. She ... wasn't young any more and often needed to be cajoled and prodded with a long-handled broom and then she would go to work, gyrating like a slow pole dancer." (p 20)
  • "Anjum began to rewrite a simpler, happier life for herself. The rewriting in turn began to make Anjum a simpler, happier person." (p 34)
  • "They were buried in unmarked graves that disappeared over time and contributed to the richness of the soil and the unusual lushness of the old trees." (p 58)
  • Shadows just a deeper shade of night” (p 61)
  • Nothing scared those murderers more than the prospect of bad luck. After all, it was to ward off bad luck that the fingers that gripped the slashing swords and flashing daggers were studded with lucky stones embedded in thick gold rings. It was to ward off bad luck that the wrists wielding iron rods that bludgeoned people to death were festooned with red puja threads lovingly tied by adoring mothers.” (p 62)
  • Around her the City sprawled for miles. Thousand-year-old sorceress, dozing, but not asleep, even at this hour. Grey flyovers snaked out of her Medusa skull, tangling and untangling under the yellow sodium haze. Sleeping bodies of homeless people lined their high, narrow pavements,, head to toe, head to toe, head to toe. looping into the distance. Old secrets were folded into the furrows of her loose, parchment skin. Each wrinkle was a street, each Street a carnival. Each arthritic joint a crumbling amphitheatre where stories of love and madness, stupidity, delight and unspeakable cruelty had been played out for centuries. But this was to be the dawn of her resurrection. Her new masters wanted to hide her knobby, varicose veins under imported fishnet stockings, cram her withered tits into saucy padded bras and jam her aching feet into pointed high-heeled shoes. They wanted her to swing her stiff old hips and re-route the edges of her grimace upwards into a frozen, empty smile. It was the summer Grandma became a whore.” (p 96)
  • Shit was just processed food” (p 107)
  • “The sharp smoky smell of stale urine” (p 112)
  • They had told their stories at endless meetings and tribunals in the international supermarkets of grief, along with other victims of other wars in other countries. They had a wept publicly and often, and nothing has come of it. The horror they were going through had grown a hard bitter shell.” (p 115)
  • A part of the city they oughtn’t to be in. No signs said so, because everything wash a sign that any fool could read: the silence, the width of the roads, the height of the trees, the unpeopled pavements, the clipped hedges, the low white bungalows in which the Rulers lived. Even the yellow light that poured from the tall street lights looked encashable - columns of liquid gold.” (p 135)
  • People crowded the counters of the all-night chemists, playing Indian Roulette. (There was a 60:40 chance that the drugs they bought for genuine and not spurious.)" (p 136 - 137) 
  • I could picture the string of pearls she sang about being broken in the urgency of love making, her voice languorously following the beads as they skittered around the bedroom floor.” (p 171)
  • I am being made an escape goat.” (p 203)
  • She thought of the city at night, of cities at night. Discarded constellations of old stars, fallen from the sky, rearranged on Earth in patterns and pathways and towers.” (p 224)
  • R.C. often dropped his voice mid-sentence and spelled out random words, as though he was hoodwinking an imaginary eavesdropper who didn't know how to spell.” (p 232)
  • Friends turn into foes. If not vocal ones, then silent, reticent ones. But I've yet to see a foe turning into a friend.” (p 268)
I just don't know. Is this the classic Indian novel to rank with the greats such as Finnegan's Wake and War and Peace? Or is it a mess?

I suppose I am really asking whether the Delhi pavement is the epitome of vibrant, vigorous, chaotic life or whether the chaos overwhelms and it becomes a hellish horror of over-activity.

Your call.

February 2018; 437 pages

Saturday, 10 February 2018

"What Happened" by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Clinton is the wife of Bill Clinton, former president of the United States, who went on to become a Senator for New York, US Secretary of State under Barack Obama, and Democrat candidate for US President in 2016 in a race in which she gained more votes than her rival Donald Trump but lost to him because of the archaic US Electoral College rules. This book tries to explain how her campaign, which everyone (including herself and, it appears, Mr Trump) thoughtshe would win, failed so spectacularly.

It is written in a very straightforward style. As is typical of US books it is obsessed with facts, in particular poll ratings, the names of people, and what she eats. She would appear to read a lot of inspirational books especially those written by religious people.  I found that these details tended to get in the way of the narrative.

It's not a rant. There is a lot of careful policy. Clinton comes over as extremely thoughtful, searingly honest, and very caring, although it is interesting that the norms she accepts (such as self-help, reducing taxes, being the world's policeman) are really rather right wing in the context of European politics.

Some interesting comments:

  • "To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis on which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle." (p 9; quoting Timothy Snyder)
  • Attempting to define reality is a core feature of authoritarianism.” (p 9)
  • It wasn't all yoga and breathing: I also drink my share of chardonnay.” (p 27)
  • There is an opioid epidemic in the US. In 2015 over 33,000 people overdosed and died. “A woman in treatment [for opioid addiction] told me, ‘We're not bad people trying to get good. we're sick people trying to get well’.” (p 62)
  • Gun violence ... is the leading cause of death for young black men [in the US], outstripping the next nine causes of death combined.” (p 178)
  • Change might be the most powerful word in American politics. It's also one of the hardest to define.” (p 197)
  • “Service is the rent we pay for living.” (p 215; quoting Marian Wright Edelman)
  • President Obama once compared Vladimir Putin to a ‘bored kid at the back of the classroom. ... he's got that kind of slouch’.” (p 327)
  • De Tocqueville ... wrote that revolts tend to start not in places where conditions are worst, but in places where expectations are most unmet.” (p 442)

February 2018; 464 pages

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

"Artemisia" by Alexandra Lapierre

Artemisia Gentelleschi was a woman artist during the Baroque. She worked for Popes and Kings. Her art, which often depicts Biblical women at violent odds with men, is recognised as among the best of this period. She's in the Uffizi, Seville Cathedral, the NY Metropolitan Museum, and the Prado amongst other places. She was the first woman artist to be elected to the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence. And she was the victim in the first ever fully-documented rape trial.

This is a historical novel although it is firmly based on the evidence so it is perhaps more of a fictionalised biography. The events, we are led to believe, occurred. The sense that is made of them, the feelings of the actors in the story, are speculative.

Growing up in her father's art workshop in Rome, Artemisia showed a precocious talent. Aged seventeen she was raped by Agostino Tassi, a specialist in perspective and trompe l'oeil who collaborated with her father and gave her lessons. For the next nine months Artemisia and Agostino conducted an affair; the excuse given is that Artemisia, having been deflowered and dishonoured, could only hope that Agostino would marry her. She thought he was free. His first wife had died (he had been accused of hiring assassins to murder her) and she didn't know that he was living with his wife's sister (technically incest) by whom he was having children. When she discovered that he had no intention of marrying her (and later that he couldn't, since the assassins had failed and his first wife was still alive and paying him off) she accused him of rape. The trial proceeded according to the laws of Italian justice. Agostino was jailed, awaiting sentencing (time in the galleys, or exile, or death), while the witnesses were tortured. So Artemisia had her fingers crushed but maintained her story. Meantime a young boy, working for Agostino, falsely accused her of sleeping around and maintained his story during the strappado, being strung up and hung by his wrists while his arms were tied behind his back which was not only excruciating but led to dislocation of the shoulders; this boy was willing to undergo this ordeal twice because of the promise of a pay off from Agostino. Finally the verdict was against Agostino and he was exiled but, pulling strings, never actually left Rome. Instead Aretmisia found a husband and left for Florence where she mingled with Buonarotti, the great-nephew of Michelangelo and a famous playwright, and Galileo as well as the last embers of the Medici clan. She had four children, three of whom died. 

In her later life, after her good-for-nothing husband finally disappeared, she divided her time between Venice, London and Naples, having affairs with Nicholas Lanier, a musician at the court of Charles I, and the Spanish Duke of Alcala, one time governor of Naples, by whom she had an illegitimate daughter.

She was a stunningly talented artist and she lived in a world of struggle, hardship, early death. She fought against the society-imposed disadvantages and restrictions of being a woman and, despite the patriarchal attitudes towards female sexuality she had a number of lovers. She mixed with popes and kings. But most of all her work makes her immortal.

Some of my favourite lines:

  • "A galley cuts through the mist over the Thames and docks heavily to the accompaniment of a De Profundis, lugubriously intoned by Capuchin monks" (p 3) The opening sentence seems perfect for a book about a Baroque artist.
  • Her father "put her to work, observing her progress with the dread that she would not succeed, and the fear that she would succeed too well." (p 46)
  • "She loved him as people loved their sins." (p 137)
  • "Did he die of the French malady - syphilis - from which so few recovered that the hospital in the Corso, charged with admitting its victims, bore the extremely optimistic name, Hospital of the Incurables?" (p 138)
  • "You cannot have happiness in this life and immortality for all time to come. You have to choose." (p 191)
  • A display at the Pitti Palace in Florence in 1615 showed the moon "with craters and volcanoes, areas of light and shade. One could also see Jupiter and its four satellites, which Galileo had recently baptised the Medicean Stars." (p 208)
  • "Artemisia had learned many things in the Via della Croce. Tassi, who boasted everywhere of having taught her how to 'handle a brush', did not mean these words merely in the painterly sense." (p 280)
The biography of a fascinating artist, with a useful dramatis personae and useful maps and colour plates of her paintings. A wonderful insight into an interesting time made all the more vivid by the clever device of turning it into a novel. 

January 2018; 442 pages

Monday, 5 February 2018

"The Long Shadow" by Mark Mills

For a thriller, this book starts slowly. Although it is very early when Ben realises that the producer who has bought his film script is an old school friend, a billionaire, living under a new name, and this discovery intrigues the reader, there is a long while before the book develops from here. In the meantime Ben tastes a high life which he is sufficient of a connoisseur to recognise: the very best vintages of wine and whisky, the most beautiful works of art. This is the usual thriller fare of a hero who knows everything and is just masquerading as an ordinary guy. With just a day surfing the internet he is able to effortlessly negotiate the purchase of a speedboat. He is more than competent at both tennis and cricket. Plus a beautiful woman throws herself at him on first sight and another promises a more fulfilling relationship for later. Inevitably we later discover that Ben is a wonderful lover.

What redeems this book is the hero's moments of vulnerability. The moment he looks at the road beneath the wheels of his motorbike and worries about whether the engine will seize up and fling him off. There is a beautiful depiction of his relationship with his son, who lives with his mother, the hero's divorced wife. When Mills is writing about the hero's relationship with his son, or with his ex-wife, there are moments of tenderness and reality. This was entrancing writing which deserved to be in the foreground, rather than serving a slightly unconvincing plot.

Even when this plot gets going it burns slowly. Ben is drawn into the world of the super-rich. There are hints that all is not as it seems. The main story is interspersed with flashbacks to the two boys at a rather feral prep school; these also suggest that the apparent friendliness of 'Victor' (ex-Jacob) might have ulterior motives. But development of these ideas is left very late and the denouement, when it arrives, is rushed. In the end I didn't believe that Victor, with all he had to lose, should seek out Ben.

But there were some great lines:

  • "the creeping caution that comes with age, the same anxiety that had rendered his parents all but housebound." (p 22)
  • "When you boil it back to the bones, what else is there? ... Just death, and the foolish hope we can somehow cheat it."(p 54)
  • "Ben knew he had spoken - he had felt his jaw move - but it was as if the word had been uttered by another." (p 99)
  • "Plato was right when he said an old man may become twice a child, but I don't see there's any earthly reason why he shouldn't be a good child - polite, intelligent, considerate." (p 352)

Overall a good read but the wonderful human interest story was inappropriately shackled to the shallow thriller format. February 2018; 453 pages