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

Monday, 30 September 2019

"Wise Children" - the play by Emma Rice

This is a play adapted from the book Wise Children by Angela Carter. The title is based on the saying:  “It is a Wise Child that knows its own father, but wiser yet, the father who knows his own child.” (Act 1 Scene 5)

Nora and Dora are twins living in Brixton, London UK. Dora is telling the story on their 75th birthday which also happens to be the 100th birthday of their father and uncle, twins Peregrine and Melchior Hazard. N & D are carrying on the theatrical tradition of their grandparents Ranulph and Estelle and theatrical knight Sir Melchior. Twinship, theatre and illegitimacy are themes that recur in this convoluted story.

Other quotes I enjoyed:
  • Nora was always free with it and threw her heart away as if it were a used bus ticket. She had a passion to know about life and all its dirty corners.” (Act 1 Scene 7)
  • It’s every woman’s tragedy that, after a certain age, she looks like a female impersonator.” (Act 2 Scene 3)
  • Old father Thames lies between Brixton and glamour like a sword.” (Act 2 Scene 3)
  • Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people.” (Act 2 Scene 3)
  • He was not the love of my life but all the loves of my life at once.” (Act 2 Scene 3)
September 2019

Sunday, 29 September 2019

"H.G. The History of Mr Wells" by Michael Foot

I suppose that I should have expected that Michael Foot, once leader of the British Labour Party, should write a biography of H G Wells in which his politics are given far more prominence than his novels. Although H G Wells is principally remembered now for his science fiction classics of The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and the War of the Worlds, these barely receive a mention in Foot's biography. Of far more interest to Foot is the development of Wells's socialism, his battles with the Fabian society and George Bernard Shaw, his defence of free speech, and his journalism. The science fiction is barely quoted but novels such as Tono-Bungay, which describe social conditions, are. Of especial interest is the development of Wells's feminist ideas from his early sympathy with his mother, worn down through drudgery, to his youthful advocacy of free love (he swiftly divorced his first wife following an affair with the woman who became his second; he then had affairs with many other women including author Rebecca West who wrote the brilliant The Return of the Soldier  - her son writer Anthony West is Wells's son - and Maura who told Somerset Maugham that she liked Wells because “his body smelt of honey"; C 10), to a review of one of his books which Foot quotes for several pages which changed his opinions and the way he portrayed women in his books. I am not saying that socialism and feminism and politics were not extraordinarily important to Wells but I am suggesting that this highly-prolific writer must have spent a large part of every day involved in the craft of writing and something more about how this side of his life would have been welcome.

Frankly I preferred the biography by Lovat Dickson; it was better balanced. 

Nevertheless, Foot manages to convey the extraordinary qualities of HG. There are extensive quotes of Wells himself:

  • The world has forgotten now the hate and bitterness of disappointed parentage.” (C 1)
  • All over Europe and America youths and maidens ... were being caught helplessly young and jammed for life into laborious, tedious, uninteresting and hopeless employments [and] being denied the most healthy and delightful of freedoms of mutual entertainment [ie sex]” (C 2)
  • There were millions of young people in the world in the same state of sexual suspension and unrest as myself, quite unable to free themselves sweetly and honestly from these entangling preoccupations.” (C 2) I love the phrase 'entangling preoccupations' - a perfect double entendre
  • Patriotism is not a thing which flourishes in the void - one needs a foreigner.” (C 3)
  • Having permitted the child to come into existence, public policy and the older standard of justice alike demand ... that it must be fed, cherished, and educated not merely up to a respectable minimum but to the full height of its possibilities.” (C 3)
  • The Christian states of today are, as a matter of fact, engaged in slave-breeding. The chief result, though of course not the intention, of the activities of priest and moralist to-day in these matters, is to renew a vast multitude of little souls into this world, for whom there is neither sufficient food nor love nor schools, nor any prospect at all in life but the insufficient bread of servitude. It is a result that endears religion and purity to the sweating employer.” (C 3)
  • Through all the world go our children, our sons the old world has made into servile clerks and shopmen, plough drudges and servants; our daughters who were erst anaemic drudges, prostitutes, sluts, anxiety-racked mothers, or sere, repining failures.” (C 3)

Other great moments:

  • ‘When Adam delved and Eve span/ who was then the gentleman?’ All the real work was done by Adam and Eve; and the gentleman, if he existed at all, all was a parasite. And when he first heard the couplet ... it is hard to believe that he did not see Adam as his wayward, unlucky, but still inspirational garden-addicted father and Eve as his broken, shamefully overworked mother.” (C 1)
  • In The World Set Free Wells “seized upon some recent highly tentative revelations about the splitting of the atom and transformed them into a full-scale description of what an atom-bomb war might entail ... fearful as the explosions might be, the subsequent ineradicable effects of the radiation might be even more fearful ... terrorists could carry their world-destructive potions in suitcases.” (C 5)
  • An arrangement was made that they should meet in Ragusa ... and depart together afterwards for a honeymoon without the formalities.” (C 9)
  • His book [The Autocracy of Mr Parham by H G Wells] showed ... how the English parliament might be closed down as easily as Mussolini had performed the feat in Rome.” (C 9)
  • All American presidents speak the language of Thomas Paine, although few of them know it.” (C 9)
  • He likened the thought processes of the British Communist Party to that of the Roman Catholic Church, much to the fury of both.” (C 10)
  • A few of his latter-day critics ... called him a misogynist ... It seems that this strange notion may have been unloosed by Malcolm Muggeridge in one of his last spasms of Christian charity. He could shake any stage upon which he appeared with terrible anathemas, preferably with a sexual connotation, against his opponents, all the more virulent if they were dead and could never answer back.” (C 10)

Wells also wrote:

and lots more!

September 2019; 307 pages

Saturday, 28 September 2019

"In search of Columbus" by Hunter Davies

This book, issued to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus reaching America, has an unusual structure with its chapters alternating between the biography of Columbus and a travelogue as the author follows in the explorer's steps; thus Hunter Davies visits modern Genoa Portugal, Palos, the Bahamas, Seville, Haiti, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Valladolid. The modern adventures are, perhaps, the most interesting as the author a string of dodgy hotels in seedy towns. But the Columbus biography is also recounted and some of the more obvious legendary aspects are assessed.

In the end the author's summary is: “He was a man who made extraordinary discoveries and was a truly great navigator, but he was a bad conqueror and a bad governor.” (C 16)

I learned lots of interesting facts, quite apart from the main story:
  • Prince Henry the Navigator (I read his biography which is reviewed here) set up his university of the sea at “the southern tip of Portugal ... a point near Cape St Vincent, said to have mystic significance. known for centuries as Promontorium Sacrum, or Sacred Promontory, which the Portuguese translated into Sagres.” (C 3)
  • C sailed to Bristol to for wool but then went on to Iceland for fish. (C 3)
  • C lived with his wife in Porto Santo off Madeira from 1480 to 1482; here his son Diego was born. He was given charts by his mother in law; his dead father in law had sailed under Henry the Navigator. A story is told in which he found a wrecked ship and rescued the helmsman who told him about a land on the other side of the ocean and draw a map before dying in the arms of Columbus. (C 3)
  • A 1490 globe by Martin Behaim shows that it is littered with islands (including St Brendan, Cipnago and Candyn) all quite close to the Azors, the Canaries and the Cape Verde islands. (C 3)

  • By MartinBehaim1492.jpg: Encyclopedia Larousse illustree - 1898derivative work: PawełMM (talk) - MartinBehaim1492.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12185606
  • The Pinta may have been a nickname meaning ‘painted one’ or whore. (C 7)
  • The officers included: (C 7)
    • Admiral (Columbus) in charge of fleet
    • Captain responsible for ship (Columbus on Santa Maria, Martin Pinzon on Pinta, Vincente Pinzon on Nina)
    • Master in charge of seamen, cargo, supplies, and sailing
    • Pilot in charge of navigation
    • Boatswain who organised the crew
  • Columbus set sail on his First Voyage the day after all Jews had been expelled from Spain (the day before there were a lot of ships in harbour) (C 7)
  • Columbus was only 9% out on distances travelled and he didn’t use an astrolabe. (C 7)
  • First port of call was Gomera in the Canary Islands where he had a love interest! (C 7)
  • Columbus fiddled his log to make the crew think that they were travelling smaller distances than they were, probably because he didn’t want them to worry about how they would return. (C 7)
  • Bahamas first settled by English religious community on Eleuthera under William Sayle. (C 8)
  • ‘Bahamas’ from Spanish ‘las islas de la baja mar’: the islands of the shallow sea (C 8)
  • 700 islands in the Bahamas: 22 of them occupied. (C 8)
  • Columbus describes ‘perros mudos’ (mute dogs, ie dogs that don’t bark?) on the Bahamas; perhaps normal dogs that hadn’t learned to bark like, so it is said, the dogs of the eskimoes. (C 9)
  • ‘Hammock’ comes from Arawak word ‘hamaca’. (C 9)
  • When Columbus, driven by a storm, landed in Lisbon the first person he encountered was Bartolomeo Dias “whose triumphal return to Lisbon in 1488 Columbus himself had witnessed.” (C 9)
  • Portuguese King stabbed his own brother-in-law (C 9)
  • Martin Pinzon arrived back in Palos in Pinta hours after Columbus returned on Nina; Pinzon went home and died five days later. (C 9)
  • First European case of syphilis in 1494, one year after Columbus returned (C 11)
  • Columbus noted Indians in Paria, Venezuela had handkerchiefs similar in design to those the Portuguese imported from Guinea. Evidence of pre-Colombian African - S American trade? (C 13)
  • US Government stamps issued in 1893 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of [the year after] the voyage: 1c “Columbus in sight of land” shows him clean-shaven; 2c “The Landing of Columbus” (which occurred a few hours afterwards) shows him with a full beard. (C 21)
Some great quotes:
  • In the end, most able-bodied young men leave for good, to work elsewhere, abandoning a surplus of young women, who have no work at all, and a lot of children ...The older men often end up looking after three families, to all intents and purposes with three wives.” (C 14)
  • Being an economist is very much like being Columbus. You don't know where you are going, when you will arrive, and you don't recognise it when you get there, but it's all paid for by the government.” (C 16)
  • A rogue sees himself in every other man.” (C 17)

Very readable: 295 pages

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

"The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club" by Dorothy L Sayers

On Armistice Day, Lord Peter is at the Bellona club when one of the older members is found dead in his armchair. But when did he die? If it was before 10.36 he predeceased his sister and so the bulk of her fortune goes to her niece. If it was after 10.36 her fortune would have passed, through him, to his grandsons, both of whom were in the club. Can Lord Peter, assisted by the trusted Bunter and Scotland Yard detective Charles Parker, solve the mystery? And is there any evidence of foul play? Of course there is!

Some great quotes
  • The planet’s tyrant, dotard Death, had held his gray mirror before them for a moment and shown them the image of things to come.” (C 2)
  • If nobody saw him, he can't have been here.” (C 9)
  • Books, you know, Charles, are like lobster shells. We surround ourselves with ‘em, and then we grow out of ‘em, and leave ‘em behind, as evidences of our earlier stages of development.” (C 18)
  • Birth is beastly - and death - and digestion, if it comes to that. Sometimes when I think of what happening inside me to a beautiful suprème de sole, with the caviare in boats, and the croûtons and the jolly little twists of potato and all the gadgets - I could cry.” (C 20)
I have set myself the task of reading all the Lord Peter Wimsey novels (mostly again) in order. The ones I have read and reviewed in this blog so far include:

There are also Wimsey books written since the death of DLS by Jill Paton Walsh. These include:

  • The Attenbury Emeralds in which Lord Peter, in 1951, recalls the circumstances of his first case, the Attenbury Emeralds, which have gone missing again.
  • The Late Scholar: in which Wimsey returns to Oxford

September 2019; 245 pages

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

"In Bluebeard's Castle" by George Steiner

Subtitled some notes towards a re-definition of culture, this book is based on four lectures given at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, as a response to the 1948 Notes Towards the Definition of Culture of T S Eliot.

It is written in four parts (presumably originally four lectures):

The Great Ennui
This attempts to characterise the period between 1820 and 1915 which has been called the “garden of liberal culture”. Steiner rightly points out that this period is seen in hindsight through spectacles tinted a heavy shade of rose. “Anyone who takes the trouble to find out, will come to realise what a day's work was like in a Victorian factory, what infant mortality amounted to in the mining country of northern France in the 1870s and 1880s ... that the intellectual wealth and stability of middle and upper middle-class life during the long liberal summer depended, directly, on economic and, ultimately military, dominion over vast portions of what is now known as the underdeveloped or third world.” 

Nevertheless, Steiner seems to believe that he can see trends within this period, involving the great shake-up of the French revolution and Napoleon, and involving the spread of urbanization, which caused the development of a distinctive culture of ennui (defined as “febrile lethargy; the drowsy nausea ... of a man who misses a step in a dark staircase.”) Sex was beginning to be written about: “Nothing that I know of at an earlier period truly resembles the self-dramatizing, self-castigating eroticism of Hazlitt’s extraordinary Liber Amoris (1823).” (But what about Ovid?) Cities were growing: “The megalopolis whose uncontrollable cellular division and spread now threatens to choke so much of our lives ... The urban inferno, with its hordes of faceless inhabitants, haunts the nineteenth-century imagination.”

In the end, he seems to suggest, every culture will destory itself but it will burn most brightly at the end like a supernova star: “Is it reasonable to suppose that every high civilization will develop implosive stresses and impulses towards self-destruction? Does so delicately balanced, simultaneously dynamic and confined an aggregate as a complex culture tend, necessarily, towards a state of instability and, and finally, of conflagration? The model would be that of a star which, after attaining a critical mass, a critical equation of energy exchanges between internal structure and radiant surface, will collapse inward, flaring out, at the moment of destruction, with just that magnitude of visible brilliance which we associate with great cultures in their terminal phase.”

  • Most history seems to carry on its back vestiges of paradise. At some point in more or less remote times, things were better, almost golden. A deep concordance lay between Man and the natural setting.
  • Madness, death are preferable to the interminable Sunday and suet of a bourgeois life-form.
  • Salammbo by Flaubert: “This frenetic yet congealed narrative of bloodlust, barbaric warfare and orgiastic pain.

A Season in Hell
Here he argues that Eliot’s 1948 work was necessarily incomplete in that it failed to address the Nazi genocide of Jews. He sees the distinctiveness of anti-semitism as somehow bound up with the fact (as he sees it) that Moses invented monotheism.
In polytheism, says Nietzsche, lay the freedom of the human spirit, its creative multiplicity.
Pauline Christianity ... while retaining something of the idiom and centralised symbolic lineaments of monotheism ... allowed scope for the pluralistic, pictorial needs of the psyche ... in their proliferation of saintly and angelic persons.

We conduct a good part of our lives amid the menacing jostle of the crowd.

In a Post-Culture
Here he argues that art is an attempt to gain immortality: “There is nothing natural, nothing self-evident in this wager against mortality ... In the overwhelming majority of cases - and the gambler on transcendence knows this in advance - the attempt will be a failure, nothing will survive.

This may imply that perhaps, perhaps as a result, the preservation of a work of art may be worth a few, or even many, deaths: “Where it is absolutely honest, the doctrine of a high culture holds the burning of a great library, the destruction of Galois at twenty-one or the disappearance an important score, to be losses paradoxically but none the less decidedly out of proportion with common deaths, even on a large scale.”

It may be that the coherence of an ancient thing is harmonic with time.” so you can replicate but not recreate it.
Voltaire and Arnold regarded as established the crucial lemma that the humanities humanize.” but we know that death camp commandants enjoyed classical music.
In the old days there were divisions between strata of society: “The line of division separated the higher from the lower, the greater from the lesser; civilization from retarded primitivism, learning from ignorance, social privilege from subservience, seniority from immaturity, men from women. And each time, ‘from’ stood also for ‘above’.”The immense majority of human biographies are a gray transit between domestic spasm and oblivion.

We know now ... that material progress is implicated in a dialectic of concomitant damage, that it destroys irreparable equilibria between society and nature. Technical advances, superb in themselves, are operative in the ruin of primary living systems and ecologies.
I found this bit hardest to accept. He is arguing for the preservation of his favoured culture. The problem, as I see it, is that globalism and the technological explosion have led to an exponential increase in art and culture and that each one of us no longer has a sufficient lifetime to master everything. Two hundred years ago a well-read man might have had a library of a thousand books. I have read and reviewed on this blog over a thousand books over the last few years and yet I am only aware of how many books I have not yet read and the impossibility of keeping pace with the tsunamis of books being published each year. So, if you are going to argue that Homer and Racine and Goethe ought to be read by everyone there needs to be massive evidence to back up your argument. Steiner does not offer evidence, he just orates.
  • Would we have something at least of the main legacy of our civilization made accessible to the general public of a modern, mass-society? Or would we rather see the bulk of our literature, of our interior history, pass into the museum?
  • Already a dominant proportion of poetry, of religious thought, of art, has receded from personal immediacy into the keeping of the specialist.
  • The catastrophic decline of memorization in our own modern education and adult resources, is one of the crucial, though as yet little understood, symptoms of an after-culture.
  • Let us suppose that the Victorian public school boy ... to whom the text of Homer, of Racine, of Goethe, offered natural purchase, were always but a small number, a conscious elite. ... Restricted as it may have been, that elite embodied the inheritance and dynamics of culture.
  • The absence of the history of science and technology from the school syllabus is a scandal. It is an absurdity to speak of the renaissance without knowledge of its cosmology, of the mathematical dreams which underwrote its theories of art and music.”
  • The flower-child in the Western city, the neo-primitive chanting his five words of Thibetan on the highway, are performing an infantile charade - founded on the surplus wealth of that same city or highway.
  • Grasp the riddle of ... our apparently imprinted a sense of harmonic accord, and you will touch on the roots of human consciousness.

The problem with all of this work is the lack of evidence. Steiner may be a very well read man and it may be that everything he has read has led him to develop these ideas. But he sounds so dogmatic and so certain of his ideas and they seem to be founded on so little evidence and, crucially, he never seems to consider that there might be alternative theses developed from a different selection of readings. So I wasn't convinced.

I love the power and beauty and elegance of his rhetoric though.

We cannot turn back. We cannot choose the dreams of unknowing. We shall, I expect, open the last door in the castle even if it leads ... on to realities which are beyond the reach of human comprehension and control ... because opening doors is the tragic merit of our identity.

September 2019; 107 pages

Monday, 23 September 2019

"Circe" by Madeleine Miller

Miller's first novel was the wonderful Song of Achilles in which Patroclus narrates. This is another story woven from the Greek myths. But now it is Circe, a nymph and a witch, who speaks. She is semi-divine and immortal. She falls in love with Glaucos and transforms Scylla into a monster. She travels with Daedalus to the court of King Minos in Crete to assist her sister, the wife of Minos, in giving birth to the Minotaur. And she meets and has a child by Odysseus.

She is fantastically cynical about her relatives, the Gods and Titans, and the way in which immortality and omnipotence warp character:

  • Gods love nothing more than novelty.” because they are immortal and thus easily bored(C 1)
  • Who worships the gods? “A happy man is too occupied with his life. He thinks he is beholden to no one. But make him shiver, kill his wife, cripple his child, then you will hear from him.” (C 8)
  • Monsters are a boon to gods. Imagine all the prayers.” (C 8)
  • Gods ... find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters.All that smoke and savour rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.” (C 10)

She is equally eloquent about mortals:

  • Their bodies crumble and pass into earth. Their souls turn to cold smoke and fly to the underworld. There they eat nothing and drink nothing and feel no warmth. Everything they reach for slips from their grasp.” (C 2)
  • This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun.” (C 10)
  • Every moment mortals died, by shipwreck and sword, by wild beasts and wild men, by illness, neglect and age. ... No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke.” (C 12)

She can do wonderful description:

  • He stood up - I will not say gracefully, for he was too solidly built for that - but easily, like a door swing on a well-fitted hinge.” (C 9)
  • I stayed and watched her dance, arms curving like wings, her strong young legs in love with their own motion.” (C 10)

Other wonderful moments of poetry:

  • I felt a rushing in my throat, which was my love for him, so great sometimes I could not speak.” (C 3)
  • Nothing is empty void, while air is what fills all else. It is breath and life and spirit, the words we speak.” (C 3)
  • It was all like bees without a sting.” (C 4)
  • Until that moment I had not known how many things I feared. Huge, ghostly leviathans slithering up the hillside, nightworms squirming out of their burrows, pressing their blind faces to my door. Goat-footed gods eager to feed their savage appetites, pirates muffling their oars in my harbour, planning how they would take me.”(C 7)
  • I thought you would have learned that lesson in our father’s halls. None shrank and simpered as you did, and yet great Helios stepped on you all the faster, because you were already crouched at his feet.” (C 11)
  • Timidity creates nothing.” (C 11)
  • Hands, those appendages men use to mitigate the world.” (C 15)
  • ‘Your wife sounds like a clever woman.’ ‘She is. I cannot account for the fact that she married me, but since it is to my benefit, I try not to bring it to her attention.’” (C 15)
  • Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if they can be no story unless we crawl and weep.” (C 16)
  • They have wrinkles, but no wisdom.” (C 16)
  • If she was forbidden something ... she would not simply submit. She would set about parsing the constraint down to its atom, and try to eke a way through.” (C 18)
  • His youth had swelled in him, ripening. The dark curls hung into his eyes, and his voice had deepened. Girls and boys would sigh over him, but all I saw were the thousand soft places of his body where his life might be ended. The bareness of his neck looked obscene in the firelight.” (C 19)
  • There was a sort of innocence to him, I thought. I do not mean this as the poets mean it: a virtue to be broken by the story's end, or else upheld at greatest cost. Nor do I mean that he was foolish or guileless. I mean that he was made only of himself, without the dregs that clog the rest of us. He thought and felt and acted, and all these things made a straight line.” (C 23)
  • I know how lucky I am, stupid with luck, crammed with it, stumbling drunk.” (C 27)

A beautifully written book. September 2019; 333 pages

This is one of the books that my friend Fred has given or loaned to me (he also lent me the Song of Achilles). Other great books in the Fred collection include:

  • The Ancient Olympics by Nigel Spivey
  • A Time of Gifts: a wonderful travel book about a man walking through Europe between the wars; beautifully written
  • Dynasty: the story of the first Roman emperors by the wonderful historian Tom Holland
  • Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner; a memoir of a man who grew up in Germany during hyper-inflation and the rise of the Nazis
  • The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace: a true story of a world obsessed with tying feathers and the crime that this provoked
  • Amo, Amas, Amat ,,, and all that by Harry Mount: a book that tried but failed to encourage me to learn Latin
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: a Booker Prize winning novel narrated by ghosts

Sunday, 22 September 2019

"Unnatural Death" by Dorothy L Sayers

The third in the series of novels starring aristocratic amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey. This introduces Miss Climpson, a lady who gossips with ladies in the same way as Bunter can gossip with servants, and Charles Parker can do the Scotland Yard legwork, providing extra antennae for his Lordship.

An old lady who was dying, dies perhaps a little too soon. But there is no evidence of any unnatural causes. Her great-niece inherits despite the old lady leaving no will. There might be no case at all, until one of the maids from the house is discovered dead and a £5 note in her possession is traced to a mysterious vamp called Mrs Forrest.

DLS is certainly able to write a good description: “A cat spring up upon the bench, stretched herself, tucked her hind legs under her and coiled her tail tightly round them as though to prevent them from accidentally working loose.” (C12)

Other quotes
  • It isn't very difficult to write books. especially if you either write a rotten story in good English or a good story in rotten English, which is as far as most people seem to get nowadays.” (C3)
  • Nurse Philiter decided that she was to be asked to go to a mental case and that the patient had come to fetch her in person.” (C4)
  • ‘I say what I think,’ said Mrs Peasgood. ‘Then I'm glad I haven't such uncharitable thoughts,’ said Miss Murgatroyd.” (C5)
September 2019; 277 pages

I have set myself the task of reading all the Lord Peter Wimsey novels (mostly again) in order. The ones I have read and reviewed in this blog so far include:

There are also Wimsey books written since the death of DLS by Jill Paton Walsh. These include:

  • The Attenbury Emeralds in which Lord Peter, in 1951, recalls the circumstances of his first case, the Attenbury Emeralds, which have gone missing again.
  • The Late Scholar: in which Wimsey returns to Oxford

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

"We have always lived in the castle" by Shirley Jackson

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and FRichard Plantagent, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead." (First paragraph)

Constance and Mary Katherine (nicknamed Merricat) lived in the family home with disabled, slightly deranged Uncle Julian. They are the survivors of a family meal when someone laced the sugar with arsenic, a crime for which Constance was tried but acquitted. Down in the village they are feared, mocked, ostracised. Sometimes ladies come to take tea with them, fascinated by the sinister atmosphere.

Then, almost exactly halfway through the book, cousin Charles comes to stay and, six years since the murder, Constance starts to talk of moving on. What can Merricat do to preserve her way of life?

The narrator, Merricat, may be eighteen but she sounds like a little child in her inner dialogue encompassing magic and fantasy. There are moments when her thoughts turn violent, as when she hates the sneering villagers and imagines walking over their bodies. But at home, in the extensive grounds of the family mansion, as she explores with her cat, Jonas, her thoughts become lyrical. This is a world of magic as when Merricat brings leaves and soil into the bedroom where Charles sleeps and hides the furniture so that he won't know where he is and will have to leave, as when she buries objects to remind herself of events and people, and as when those buried objects sometimes prevent her from going places. Is she retarded? Is she mad?

Constance, on the other hand, is the personification of sane domesticity, cooking and cleaning to keep her beloved Merricat safe.

The revelations, the twists and the turns, are all signalled well in advance, but as a sinister evocation of the margin between magic and madness this book holds one's horrified but fascinated attention.

Many wonderful lines, including:

  • "The sun was shining and the false, glorious promises of spring were everywhere, showing oddly through the village grime."
  • "When Jim Donell thought of something to say he said it as often and in as many ways as possible, perhaps because he had very few ideas and had to wring each one dry."
  • "We eat the year away. We eat the spring and the summer and the fall. We wait for something to grow and then we eat it." This book is dominated by food ... and the events in it were triggered by a poisoning.
  • "The trees pressed too closely against the sides of the summerhouse, and breathed heavily on its roof."

This was the last novel from Shirley Jackson, who also wrote Hangsaman.

I had the feeling, as I was reading it, that it may have been based on the Lizzie Borden case. Lizzie has long been suspected on murdering her father and stepmother (with an axe) but was acquitted and lived afterwards for many years with her sister in what must have been an uneasy household. Lizzie's fictionalised story was told in See what I have done by Sarah Schmidt.

September 2019; 146 pages

Other books which have 'castle' in their title include:

  • In Bluebeard's Castle by George Steiner (literary criticism)
  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wold 
  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (a classic novel; also made into a film)
  • The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro (short stories with a linked, memoir theme)
  • The Castle by Franz Kafka (a classic novel)
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (dystopian future novel; also an Amazon prime series)
  • The Castle of Adventure by Enid Blyton (a children's novel)
  • King of the Castle by Susan Hill (a novel)
  • The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (a classic gothic novel)
  • Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth (a gothic novel from Jane Austen's time)
  • Hatter's Castle by A J Cronin: a novel about a megalomanical bullying patriarch set in Scotland

Sunday, 15 September 2019

"Tono-Bungay" by H G Wells

H G Wells made his name with science fiction classics such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine but he also wrote a number of 'normal' novels such as Kipps (on which the musical Half a Sixpence is based), Love and Mr Lewishman, and The History of Mr Polly. Tono-Bungay attempts to straddle these genres. The title refers to a patent medicine which the narrator's uncle invents and which makes his fortune, but it is made clear that the scientific justification for this medicine is nil, it has no curative powers. However, the narrator spends some considerable time developing flying machines (the book was written in 1909 just six years after the Wright Brothers and in the same year as Louis Bleriot crossed the channel so flight was very much in the scientific headlines of the day) and he also makes an expedition to Africa to collect a radioactive material (radioactivity was discovered in 1896 and the first intimations of its dangers date to about 1906). However, despite these scientific overlayings which may have been included for the sake of selling the book, the main thrust of the novel is an autobiographical account of Wells's early days, fictionalised and adapted, and the great success of Tono-Bungay may be seen to equate with the great success of Wells's fiction.

There is a structure:

  • The fist part of the first chapter contains a classic hook: "And once (though it is the most incidental thing in my life) I murdered a man …"The first section describes a number of things which are to come. 
  • The first mention of the patent medicine Tono-Bungay occurs almost exactly at the 25% mark.
  • There is foreshadowing: "‘He's always wanting something to happen,’ said my aunt Susan. ‘Some day he'll get a shower of things and they'll be too much for him.’" (1.2.4) 
However, to a large extent, the autobiographical details distort the plot. Wells as the first-person narrator states: "I suppose what I'm really trying to render is nothing more nor less than Life – as one man has found it. I want to tell – myself, and my impressions of the thing as a whole, to say things I have come to feel intensely of the laws, traditions, usages and ideas we call society, and how we poor individuals get driven and lured and stranded among these windy, perplexing shoals and channels." (1.2). He also makes much of the fact that his desk is strewn with untidy notes an one might agree; there are times when the book seems to ramble.

It moves from his childhood as the son of the housekeeper living in a big house to his apprenticeship with his uncle, a village chemist. He then travels to London to study science but gets distracted by wanting to marry. He is enabled to marry by taking a job with his uncle managing the distribution of the patent medicine; his marriage is a loveless and more or less sexless disaster. These follow, more or less closely, the facts of H G Wells's life as recounted in his biography for example that written by Lovat Dickson.

The last part of the book contains a dreadfully overwritten melodramatic love scene and some passages of purple description.

His early life also provide ammunition for Wells to rail against:

  • The class system of his time:
    • "The great house, the church, the village and the labourers and the servants in their stations and degrees, seemed to me, I say, to be a closed and complete social system." (1.1.2)
    • "In that English countryside of my boyhood every human being had a ‘place’. It belonged to you from your birth like the colour of your eyes, it was inextricably your destiny." (1.1.3)
    • "The public schools that had come into existence in the brief glow of the Renascence had been taken possession of by the ruling class; the lower classes were not supposed to stand in need of schools, and our middle stratum got the schools it deserved, private schools, schools any unqualified pretender was free to establish." (1.1.6)
    • I wandered up through Rochester once, and had a glimpse of the Stour valley above the town, all horrible with cement works and foully smoking chimneys and rows of workmen's cottages, minute, ugly, uncomfortable and grimy. So I had my first intimation of how industrialism must live in a landlord's land. (1.2.1)
  • Capitalism:
    • "The whole trend of modern money-making is to foresee something that will presently be needed and put it out of reach, and then to haggle yourself wealthy. You buy up land upon which people will presently want to build houses, you secure rights that will bar vitally important developments, and so on, and so on." (1.3.1)
    • "See what the world pays teachers and discoverers and what it pays businessmen! That shows the ones it really wants." (2.2.2)
    • "the quickest way to get wealth is to sell the cheapest thing possible in the dearest bottle." (2.2.3)
    • "Advertisement has revolutionized trade and industry; it is going to revolutionize the world. The old merchant used to tote about commodities; the new one creates values. Doesn't need to tote. He takes something that isn't worth anything – or something that isn't particularly worth anything, and he makes it worth something." (2.3.2)
    • "The whole of this modern mercantile investing civilization is indeed such stuff as dreams are made of. A mass of people swelters and toils, great railway systems grow, cities arise to the skies and spread wide and far, mines are opened, factories hum, foundries roar, ships plough the seas, countries are settled; about this busy striving world the rich owners go, controlling all, enjoying all, confident and creating the confidence that draws us all together into a reluctant, nearly unconscious brotherhood." (3.1.3)
    • "for this the millions toiled and perished in suffering, in order that a few of us should build palaces"(4.1.2)
  • Church goers:
    • "He made no fight against the world at all, he was floundering in small debts that were not so small but that finally they overwhelmed him; whenever there was occasion for any exertion his wife fell back upon pains and her ‘condition’, and God sent them many children, most of whom died, and so, by their coming and going, gave a double exercise in the virtues of submission. Resignation to God's will was the common device of these people in the face of every duty and every emergency." (1.2.1)
    • "They were the self-appointed confidants of God's mockery of His own creation."(1.2.1)
  • Mrs Grundy:
    • "For all that is cardinal in this essential business of life she had one inseparable epithet – ‘horrid’." (2.4.1)
    • "She had an idea of love as a state of worship and service on the part of the man and of condescension on the part of the woman." (2.4.1)
    • "The man gave presents, did services, sought to be in every way delightful. The woman ‘went out' with him, smiled at him, was kissed by him in decorous secrecy, and if he chanced to offend, denied her countenance and presence. Usually she did something ‘for his good' to him, made him go to church, made him give up smoking or gambling, smartened him up. Quite at the end of the story came a marriage, and after that the interest ceased." (2.4.1)
    • "One side of the road for men, and the other for women, and a hoarding without posters between them. Every boy and girl to be sewn up in a sack and sealed, just the head and hands and feet out until twenty-one. Music abolished, calico garments for the lower animals!" (2.4.2)
    • "Anyone who knows about these things, knows there's just as much mystery and deliciousness about Grundy's forbidden things as there is about eating ham. Jolly nice if it's a bright morning and you're well and hungry and having breakfast in the open air. Jolly unattractive if you're off colour." (2.4.3)
    • "It's easy to make allowances now; but to be young and ardent and to make allowances, to see one's married life open before one, the life that seemed in its dawn a glory, a garden of roses, a place of deep sweet mysteries and heart throbs and wonderful silences, and to see it a vista of tolerations and baby-talk! A compromise. The least effectual thing in all one's life. "(2.4.5)
    • "Desire which fills the universe before its satisfaction, vanishes utterly – like the going of daylight – with achievement." (2.4.10)

Other quotes

  • "Most people in this world seem to live ‘in character’; they have a beginning, a middle and an end, and the three are congruous one with another and true to the rules of their type." (1.1.1)
  • "When she told you it was a fine morning, she seemed also to be telling you you were a fool." (1.1.4)
  • "She was that strange product of the old time, a devoted, trusted servant; she had, as it were, banked all her pride and will with the greater, more powerful people who employed her, in return for a lifelong security of servitude – the bargain was none the less binding for being implicit. Finally they were to pension her, and she would die the hated treasure of a boardinghouse. She had built up in herself an enormous habit of reference to these upstairs people, she had curbed down all discordant murmurings of her soul, her very instincts were perverted or surrendered. She was sexless, her personal pride was all transferred, she mothered another woman's child with a hard, joyless devotion that was at last entirely compatible with a stoical separation." (1.1.7)
  • "the son of a servant counts as a servant." (1.1.9)
  • "The body betrayed an equatorial laxity, an incipient ‘bow window'." (1.2)
  • "They seemed to be adrift in a limitless crowd of dingy people, wearing shabby clothes, living uncomfortably in shabby secondhand houses, going to and fro on pavements that had always a thin veneer of greasy, slippery mud, under grey skies that showed no gleam of hope of anything for them but dinginess until they died." (1.3.7)
  • "I had thought of London as a large, free, welcoming, adventurous place, and I saw it slovenly and harsh and irresponsive." (1.3.7)
  • "I did not want simply to live or simply to live happily or well, I wanted to serve and do and make – with some nobility. It was in me. It is in half the youth of the world." (2.1.1)
  • "It was a relationship so alien to my orderly conceptions of honour, to what I could imagine any friend of mine doing, that I really hardly saw it with it there under my nose." (2.1.3)
  • "I have no advice to give anyone, none, – except to avoid regrets. Be yourself, – seek after such beautiful things as your own sense determines to be beautiful. And don't mind the headache in the morning…. "(2.2.4)
  • "The real trouble of life, Ponderevo, isn't that we exist – that's a vulgar error; the real trouble is that we don't really exist and we want to. That's what this – in the highest sense – muck stands for! The hunger to be – for once – really alive – to the fingertips!…" (2.3.2)
  • "None of us want to be what we are, or to do what we do. Except as a sort of basis. What do we want? You know. I know. Nobody confesses. What we all want to be is something perpetually young and beautiful – young Joves, young Joves, Ponderevo' – his voice became loud, harsh and declamatory – ‘pursuing coy half-willing nymphs through everlasting forests…’" (2.3.2)
  • "There's all these patent grain foods, – what Americans call cereals. I believe I'm right, sir, in saying they're sawdust.’" (2.3.2)
  • "the way in which the young people of this generation pair off determines the fate of the nation; all the other affairs of the state are subsidiary to that. And we leave it to flushed and blundering youth to stumble on its own significance," (2.4.1)
  • "Though Marion ‘liked' music, she didn't like ‘too much of it‘," (2.4.2)
  • "I became an inordinate cigar smoker; it gave me moods of profound depression, but I treated these usually by the homoeopathic method, by lighting another cigar." (3.3.1)
  • "the intellectual level of palmistry and genteel fiction, pink" (3.3.2)
  • "‘You want to make a flying-machine,’ she pursued. ‘And when you fly? What then? Would it be for fighting?’…" (3.3.3)
  • "This way in which men and women make audiences for one another is a curiously influential force in their lives. For some it seems an audience is a vital necessity, they seek audiences as creatures seek food; others again, my uncle among them, can play to an imaginary audience. I, I think, have lived and can live without one. " (3.3.5)
  • "Radioactivity is a real disease of matter. Moreover it is a contagious disease. It spreads. You bring those debased and crumbling atoms near others and those too presently catch the trick of swinging themselves out of coherent existence." (3.4.5)

Reflecting on the story, Wells as narrator says it is "The immense inconsequence of my experiences. It is, I see now that I have it all before me, a story of activity and urgency and sterility." (4.3.1) Not the best blurb.

On the other hand novelist Arnold Bennett hailed Tono-Bungay as “Wells’s most distinguished and powerful book”.

September 2019

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

This is a big book. There were times when I flagged. There were times when I skim-read. There were times when I wondered what the point of certain scenes was. But having reached the end I believe that this might be a great book, the sort of book that haunts you.

Having seen the movie, which I think is terribly flawed and underlines by contrast the greatness of the book, and having reflected on the book from the perspective of what is now nearly six months, I am more and more convinced that this is a great book.

It is a classic Hero's Journey story (see below) and it is a battle between the forces of life, represented by Boris, and the forces of death, Freud's destrudo, represented by the narrator-protagonist, Theo.

I have only recently finished Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a book about a disaffected boy at college and the terrible secret he becomes involved with and the guilt and death it brings. Except that the disaffected boy starts younger and ends older, a man, in The Goldfinch, it has all the same elements.

It starts with a bang. Tartt started The Secret History with a Prologue that described a murder in which the narrator was involved; this provided a compelling hook. The hook in her The Little Friend is the death by hanging of an eight year old boy. She does much the same in this book; in the first part of the first chapter the narrator is hiding in an Amsterdam hotel and it becomes instantly clear that he has been involved in a crime. In the fourth part of the first chapter the narrator, Theodore Decker, visits a New York art gallery with his mother only to become the victims of a terrorist bomb.

His mother dies; he is physically unscathed. In the rubble an old man gives him a ring and urges him to save a painting from possible flames; concussed and dazed he somehow escapes from the building unnoticed by rescue workers with ring and painting. The ring he returns to a charming furniture restorer in Greenwich Village but he hides and keeps the painting (The Goldfinch, truly a key painting in the history of art being painted by Fabritius who is supposed to have been the pupil of Rembrandt and the teacher of Vermeer thus providing the link between these two masters) until he realises that it is too late to return it; other paintings stolen during the bomb attack have brought their thieves long prison sentences and whopping fines. So through the remainder of his childhood and into his early manhood he is pursued by guilt over the death of his mother, PTSD from the bombing, and fear of being discovered as a thief.

Soon he is shipped out to Las Vegas to live with his gambler father and father's bar hostess girlfriend; with new friend Boris, son of a mining engineer, he has a perfectly feral adolescence, drinking heavily and smoking weed, stealing food from supermarkets, and, sometimes, going to school. Boris, the fast-talking Ukranian who has already lived a full lifetime including living on the streets in the Ukraine (one wonders about what his father was doing at that time) is the most brilliant character and the book is most fun when Boris is around.

The Goldfinch has been criticised for having stereotypical characters: the gangsters from Eastern Europe, the unstable gambler/ ex-actor, the bullied geek, the dodgy antique dealer, the kindly old furniture restorer, the whole cast of posh old ladies and bright young things that make up New York's upper class. Yes, these are stereotypes but I certainly came to believe in Boris and Hobie and Theo. There are flesh on these bones.

Magical realism? Or just magic?
I believed for a while that there was some sort of supernatural theme. When the mother goes into the museum she describes the neighbourhood as a time warp (later in the book Theo describes a time warp as “a way of seeing things twice, or more than twice.”; 6.iv) and after the explosion the old man talks some nonsense which seems to refer to the painting's previous escape from a warehouse fire. Disaster seems to follow the Goldfinch; Theodore certainly experiences an unusual amount of death.

The Life Force versus the Death force: Boris and Theo
One might see The Secret History as contrasting an Apollonian and a Dionysian perspective. In the same way I think that The Goldfinch contrasts Life and Death. Theo sees life from the gloomiest of perspectives: “It was like someone had thrown an x-ray switch and reversed everything into photographic negative, so that even with the daffodils and the dog walkers and the traffic cops whistling on the corners, death was all I saw: sidewalks teeming with dead, cadavers pouring off the buses and hurrying home from work, nothing left of any of them in a hundred years except tooth fillings and pacemakers and maybe a few scraps of cloth and bone.” (9.v) Perhaps his gloom is unsurprising given how many people close to Theo die. On the other hand Boris is the personification of vitality. He is a Jack Kerouac character, full of life and enthusiasm, utterly without fear or (conventional) morality. He brought the book alive.

And I loved the moments when the prose became mesmerisingly intense, as when Theodore has a vision of New Yorkers as dead men walking.
  • The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game. Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms. Oh, isn't he cute? Awww. Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hells awaited them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital ...It was rotten top to bottom. Putting your time in at the office; dutifully spawning your two point five; smiling politely at your retirement party; then chewing on your bedsheet and choking on your canned peaches at the nursing home.” (9.v)

I suppose that Theo, the narrator, the protagonist, the central character, has seen in the painting of the Goldfinch something of himself. About half way through he reflects on the painting:
  • The painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like that odd airy moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept moment. When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point: a flickering sun-struck instant that existed now and forever. Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature - fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.” (6.iv)

This, I suppose, is the message: that Theo is, as we all are, chained to his perch; that this is "a cruel life for a little living creature". At the end Theo reflects: “In this staunch little portrait, it's hard not to see the human in the finch. Dignified, vulnerable. One prisoner looking at another.” (12.vii)

As a consequence, Theo has what Boris calls a "mist of sadness, sort of, around your head" (6.xiii) (and isn't it clever how the 'sort of' turns what might otherwise be a potentially pretentious authorial interjection into a line of dialogue). Of course Theodore means 'gift from god' but, as Boris says: “God has tortured Theo plenty. If suffering makes noble, then he is a prince.” (10.vii)

Boris is perhaps the very opposite of Theo. Whereas Theo is all gloom and nihilism, Boris is Life. Theo worries. Boris doesn't. “With Boris, the future had never appeared to enter his head any further than his next meal ... And yet to be with Boris was to know that life was full of great, ridiculous possibilities.” (8.ii)

And in the end Theo asks why we should assume that everyone will want to do the good, the sensible things? “Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer ... ‘Follow your heart.’ ... What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster? ... If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight towards the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? ... Or - like Boris - is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing in the holy rage calling your name?” (12.vii)

Other great lines:

  • They really knew how to work this edge, the Dutch painters - ripeness sliding into rot.” (1.iv)
  • Part of her was there, but it was invisible. The invisible part was the important part. This was something I had never understood before. ... Both parts had to be together. You couldn't have one part without the other.” (1.v)
  • Her voice ... was hollow and infinitely far away; even when she was standing right next to you she sounded as if she were relaying transmissions from Alpha Centauri.” (3.iii)
  • His conversation sometimes made me feel as though I was talking to one of those computer programs that mimic human response.” (4.ix)
  • Many of my classmates disliked Thoreau, railed against him even, as if he (who claimed never to have learned anything of value from an old person) was an enemy and not a friend.” (5.x)
  • None of us ever find enough kindness in the world do we?” (5.xxv)
  • You could study the connections for years and never work it out - it was all about things coming together, things falling apart, time warp ... the strange chance that might, or might not, change everything.” (6.iv)
  • The money’s not important. ... All money represents is the energy of the thing, you know? It’s how you track it. The flow of chance.” (6.iv)
  • This was how you went wrong: this fast.” (6.xix)
  • The secret is, is always fix their attention away from where the slippery stuff’s going on. That's the first law of magic ... Misdirection. Never forget it.” (6.xx)
  • My endless cramming felt a lot more like self-destruction than any glue sniffing I'd ever done; and at some bleary point, the work itself became a kind of drug.” (7.vii)
  • As I moved about through the stagnant silences, the pools of shadow and deep sun, the old floors creaked underfoot like the deck of a ship, the wash of traffic out on Sixth Avenue breaking just audibly against the ear.” (7.vii) 
  • Depression wasn't the word. This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavour from the dawn of time.” (9.xi)
  • A more practical or less scrupulous man would have worked this skill to calculated ends and made a fortune with it ... fucked it harder than a five-grand prostitute.” (9.v)
  • Sometimes I got the disconcerting sensation of wading around in knee-high waters hoping to step into a drop-off, a place deep enough to swim.” (10.iii) 
  • First question ... does God have sense of humour? Second question: does God have cruel sense of humour? Such as: does God toy with us and torture us for His own amusement, like vicious child with garden insect?” (10.vii)
  • The painting had made me feel less mortal, less ordinary. It was support and vindication; it was sustenance and sum. It was the keystone that has held the whole cathedral up.” (10. x) 
  • Great technical skill, but overly refined. Obsessive exactitude. There's a death-like quality.” (10.xvi)
  • To understand the world at all, sometimes you could only focus on a tiny bit of it.” (10.xxiii)
  • I had the queasy sense of my own life ... as a patternless and transient burst of energy, a fizz of biological static just as random as the street lamps flashing past.” (11.x) 
  • Worry! What a waste of time. All the holy books were right. Clearly ‘worry’ was the mark of a primitive and spiritually unevolved person. ... People had been raging and weeping and destroying things for centuries and wailing about their puny individual lives, when - what was the point? All this useless sorrow? Consider the lilies of the field. Why did anyone ever worry about anything? Weren’t we, as sentient beings, put upon the earth to be happy, in the brief time allotted to us us?” (11.xvi)
  • The world is much stranger than we know or can say ... Maybe this is the one instance where you can't boil down to pure ‘good’ or pure ‘bad’ ... Like, your two different piles? Bad over here, good over here? Maybe not quite so simple.” (12.v)
  • If bad can sometimes come from good actions ... where does it ever say, anywhere, that only bad can come from bad actions? Maybe sometimes - the wrong way is the right way? yYou can take the wrong path and it still comes out where you want to be? Or spin it another way, sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still turns out to be right?” (12.v)
  • The reason why why anyone loves a piece of art. It's a secret whisper from an alleyway.Pss you yout, you. Hey kid. Yes you.” (12.vii)
  • Who was it said that coincidence was just God’s way of remaining anonymous?” (12.vii) 
  • Why am I made the way that I am? Why do I care about all the wrong things, and nothing at all for the right ones? ... How can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is illusion, and yet - for me, anyway - all that's worth living for lies in that charm?” (12.vii)
  • It can never have understood why it was forced to live in such misery: bewildered by noise (as I imagine), distressed by smoke, barking dogs, cooking smells, teased by drunkards and children, tethered to fly on the shortest of chains. Yet even a child can see it's dignity: symbol of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding its place. Refusing to pull back from the world.” (12.vii)
  • No one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here's the truth: life is catastrophe.” (12.vii)
  • Better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts. No release, no appeal ... no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death.” (12.vii) 
  • If disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time - so too has love. Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality. It exists; and it keeps on existing. And I add my own love the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.” (last words)
I think that it is a great book, a very important book, for all its flaws. Dickens has flaws. Trollope has many flaws. Does this mean they are not great? Tartt is a great writer.

Does this book conform to the Hero's Journey arc? (Spoiler alert)

The Goldfinch closely follows the 'Hero's Journey' story arc. The quotes describing stages in the arc are taken from Write Away by Elizabeth George.

Ordinary World: “what the life of the protagonist is like prior to the primary event ... the status quo of the hero.”Theo lives with his Mum in NY
Call to AdventureA terrorist bomb in an art gallery kills Theo's mum and almost literally blasts him out of his ordinary world. A dying old man gives him a ring and urges him to take the painting of a Goldfinch.
Refuse the Call: “the hero's initial unwillingness to become involved in the unfolding situation requires the intersection of another character”Theo hides the painting in his mother's flat while living with respectable people in NY. It is only after some time, and reluctantly, that he returns the ring to Hobie and meets Pippa again.
Crossing the first threshold: “the story gets rolling, sometimes in actuality and sometimes metaphorically.”
Theo's father takes him to Las Vegas where he meets Boris. He takes the painting with him.
Enemies: the hero “begins to understand the nature and identity of his enemies.”The authorities: who will seek to have him imprisoned if they know what he has done.
Lucius Reece
Approach to the inmost cave: “a place of fear (can be psychological or metaphorical) as well as danger”His descent into drug-fuelled nihilism
His increasingly crooked antique dealing

The visit to Horst's apartment is an almost literal visit to a cave.
OrdealHis confession to Hobie followed immediately by the engagement party?
The road back: “things are not going to be the same in that world because the hero is not the same person who left it in the first place. So the road back has his own dangers”His journey with Boris and other gangsters to Amsterdam to recapture 
Resurrection: “One last moment in which something occurs to test the solidity of what's the hero has learnt on his journey. ... Surviving this final ordeal leads to the transformation [rebirth] of the protagonist.”Theo tries to kill himself
Returns with the elixir: “the lesson he learnt”The Goldfinch has been given to the authorities; Theo can return to NY.

Having said this, I found the pace of the book uneven. One of the difficulties of the structure is that Boris, the helper in the magic desert world of Las Vegas, has to come to help Theo in New York and this helping has to be at a very grown-up level; therefore time has to pass while Boris gers older. This accounts for the eight year gap in the narrative but the need to reestablish an older Theo (with adult problems for Boris to come and solve) needs to take time and at this point the pace, for me, began to flag. But I understand the need for Tartt to have created the structure as she did.

In the end it is the prose and the character of Boris that, for me, transcend any other problems about the book and nudge into the premiership of greatness.

The movie
I have belatedly (February 2020) seen the movie of the book. Ouch. The movie takes the Hero's Journey and scrambles it, using multiple flashbacks, rendering the story almost incomprehensible (I was repeatedly explaining things to my partner who hadn't read the book).

I think my sense of disappointment was exacerbated by having seen the film 1917 a few days before. 1917 is another Hero's Journey and it follows the sequence of stages almost one by one: the Call, the Refusal of the Call etc. As a result it delivers a powerful story.

The book (after the brief prologue) starts with a bang: the explosion in the gallery. The movie leaves this until much later in the film. WHY?

The experience of seeing the movie underlines for me the greatness of the book. A Hero's Journey complete with a little bit of other-world set in uncompromising New York (and the quasi magical realm of Las Vegas); a contrast between libido and destrudo, life and death; a fast-paced story which opens with a bang. What's not to like?

September 2019; 772 pages

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

"Clouds of Witness" by Dorothy L Sayers

The second murder mystery featuring aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey; a sequel to Whose Body.

Wimsey returns from holidaying in Corsica to discover that his brother the Duke of Denver has been arrested on suspicion of murdering a house guest who had been engaged to Wimsey's sister Lady Mary. Wimsey is assisted in his investigation by Mr Parker from Scotland Yard who becomes increasingly infatuated with Lady Mary.

A classic murder mystery full of excitement (Wimsey gets shot at one stage ; the trial of the Duke is in the House of Lords).

It was written and set in 1926 and contains some delightful pointers to those far-off days:

  • Wimsey undertakes a dangerous flight across the Atlantic in chapter 15 only seven years after Alcock and Brown's first non-stop transatlantic flight and one year before Lindbergh's solo triumph
  • There is a radio forecast broadcast on '2LO' the earliest callsign of the BBC (C 15)
  • There is a reference to the "exhilarating properties" of "Indian hemp": cannabis was banned in the UK in 1928 (C 4)
  • The phrase "broad awake" is used; it is nowadays more normally 'wide awake' (C 1)

One of the difficulties with DLS is that she was so very clever and tended to expect knowledge in others:

  • One of the keys which helps Lord Peter solve the crime is that the victim had, amongst his bedroom reading, a copy of Manon Lescaut, a book I had not read at the time of reading this. 
  • There are lots of words in French, without translation, which regular readers of my blog know is one of my pet hates. The three page letter written in French is  translated, fortunately!
  • Even Mr Parker, educated at Barrow-in-Furness grammar school, knows theology. He tells Lord |Peter at one point: "There are many difficulties inherent in a teleological view of creation." (C 3)

Key moments:

  • The first chapter, which sets out the initiating murder, takes up the first 10% of the book. Jane Smiley in 13 ways of looking at a novel states that a novel's thesis must be set out in the first 10%.
  • Lord Peter is shot at almost exactly the 50% part; this is the key turning point of the book.
  • Another key moment, a key alibi, arrives almost exactly at the 75% mark. At this point we are left with no suspects. But in another few pages Lord Peter has solved the mystery.
  • Jane Smiley in 13 ways of looking at a novel says that the climax should come at the 90% mark. This is more or less the moment when the key piece of evidence is read out at Denver's trial.

Other good lines:
"When you flatly deny everything a person says it does sound like contradiction to the uninitiated." (C 9)

September 2019; 299 pages

I have set myself the task of reading all the Lord Peter Wimsey novels (mostly again) in order. The ones I have read and reviewed in this blog so far include:

There are also Wimsey books written since the death of DLS by Jill Paton Walsh. These include:

  • The Attenbury Emeralds in which Lord Peter, in 1951, recalls the circumstances of his first case, the Attenbury Emeralds, which have gone missing again.
  • The Late Scholar: in which Wimsey returns to Oxford

Monday, 2 September 2019

"Homegrown Hero" by Khurrum Rahman

This is a gritty thriller set principally in Hounslow, West London. Javid Qasim ('Jay') is the son of an Afghan terrorist leader in hiding who has become an MI5 agent and has foiled a terrorist plot to machine gun Oxford Street shoppers; as a result a fatwa has been issued against him. The fatwa is to be carried out by a 'sleeper' terrorist, Imran Siddiqi (Imy), who has fallen in love with white girl Stephanie and her young son Jack and so doesn't want to be reactivated; he and his new family are being threatened by the terrorist organisation is he does not kill Jay. Throw in a side plot involving young boys being recruited by a white supremacist organisation and including suicide by hanging, acid bombs and throat slitting (that's the hook in the prologue) and we have the ingredients for an action-packed thriller.

I enjoyed the humdrum setting of this story which involved double-decker buses, an IT call centre, community centres and a chase through Debenhams department store. I enjoyed the humorous start in which Imy is unable to extract information from Jack. I found the level of violence disturbing and even more disturbing was the bleak outlook: it seemed that everyone had to take sides in an endless vendetta of revenge attack provoking revenge attack.

Told in multiple voices, principally those of Jay and Imy but also that of Daniel, each chapter introduced with the name of the narrator.

Some good lines:
  • "'I've told you.' Jack glanced outside the window at the buses lit up within Hounslow Bus Garage. 'I'm not telling you'." (C 1) Cheerfully oxymoronic.
  • "I zombied in there five days a week and spent my time sitting on a chair that stopped twirling around the same time as Fred and Ginger." (C 2)
  • "Nobody goes to Slough; it makes Hounslow look like Venice." (C 20)
My wonderful wife bought me a subscription to Books and Beer; each month I receive a crime book and some cans of beer. The other titles I have received so far are:
  • Most Wanted by Robert Craik: a fast-paced thriller set in California
  • The Devil's Dice by Roz Watkins: a whodunnit set in the English Peak District
  • Only Killers and Thieves by Paul Howarth: a stunning tale of crime and revenge, of temptation and sin, of evil and redemption set in 1880s Queensland and as gritty as only the Australian Outback can get.
  • Snap by Belinda Bauer: a brilliant story about a young lad who, having become a burglar in order to survive, discovers his mother's killer.
  • Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic: a murder mystery set in Australia in which the PI is deaf
  • The Mongolian Conspiracy by Rafael Bernal: classic Chandleresque Mexican noir
  • The Closer I Get, a thriller in which an author is stalked by an obsessive fan.

August 2019; 390 pages