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Shakespeare, like any Englishman of the sixteenth century, was required by law to use the language of the conquerors, but because he was Shakespeare he became a master of the tongue. His lines throbbed with life and vitality. They say that he hated writing plays about the Turkish sultans and their triumphs, that he would much rather have written of Richard III and King John and Henry IV, our English kings before the Turkish Conquest. But he wrote of Turks in the Turkish tongue, and made such a job of it that to this day the Turks revere him and blush to think he was an Englishman.

Robert Silverberg is known as one of the literary architects of steampunk, experimenting with alternate histories in his novels. This book is yet another return to the trough, with a Muslim dominated Europe and the Americas ruled over by the Aztec Empire. It is a slim volume, but one which raised a number of questions for me.

Dan Beauchamp is descended from a proud line of Englishmen who refused to abandon their Christian faith during the Turkish rule of Europe. Making the signs of the Islamic faith in public, but holding mass behind closed doors, Dan is tired of hiding. He decides his fortunes lie to the West and sets sail for the Hesperides. The continent was discovered by Portuguese sailors late in the 16th century, shortly after Europe recovered from a devastating plague that wiped out three quarters of the population. The New World did not prove to be as welcoming as the sailors had hoped and they were sacrificed to the Aztec gods. The year according to the Gregorian calendar is 1985. Mankind has not yet invented air travel.

Dan sails from London, now known as New Istanbul, for Mexico. He has studied Nahuatl in secret for months and is determined to make his fortune and attach himself to a member of the Aztec Imperial Court as a bondsman. During the long voyage Dan happens to make the acquaintance of a high ranking member of Aztec society, who advises him to seek out the rebel prince Topiltzin. After making the acquaintance of a sorcerer who explains that this world is just one of many, Dan is warned that his choice to follow power-hungry nephew of King Moctezuma will lead to tragedy and disaster. Nevertheless our hero sets off to find a new kingdom for his prince to rule, convinced he is close to forging his own future in Industrial Mexico, far from the devastation of conquered England.

There are some similarities here to Silverberg’s novella Sailing to Byzantium, which also featured a traveler from a dominant Muslim superpower arriving in a very different America from the one we know. The Gate of Worlds was written in 1967, which I find fascinating as it is a steampunk work that dabbles in quantum theory, with the sorcerer Quequex explaining to Dan Beauchamp how every decision creates a new world within the multiverse of possibilities. It explores the differences in the timeline, with a far more devastating outbreak of the Black Death leaving the European mainland unable to defend itself from a Turkish invasion. Fewer than nine million inhabitants live in Britain. America is never discovered by Columbus. Africa is free and independent. Asia is under a Russian yoke. I love the idea of William Shakespeare writing epics lauding the Turkish invasion though.

The book also disturbs with its thesis that without an expansionist Europe, significant technological advances would never have been made. The Aztec and Incan civilizations seem happy to retain their tribal natures well into the twentieth century. Cars are unreliable, steam-powered, miniature trains. Given the date of publication I am surprised at the degree to which it resembles the central argument of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, which came out in 1997. Diamond argues that a densely populated European population, that had survived devastating waves of disease and internecine warfare, had a greater incentive to become expansionist, defeating the indigenous peoples of conquered lands courtesy of the three elements of the title. Willingness to kill, infectious disease and technological invention.

Beyond all this theorizing, Silverberg has given a steampunk veneer to the 19th century novel of fortune, akin to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island or Kidnapped. If that’s something you think you would enjoy, The Gate of Worlds might be for you. Personally I left it feeling troubled by its implications.

Right, I’ve decided to try a themed week for the blog.

So from August 9th I will be hosting a Children’s Literature Week on ‘A Book A Day..’ choosing a selection of titles written for younger readers.

I have yet to read anything by Australian author Garth Nix, so I will include him on the list.

Also Damsel by Susan E. Connolly, a wonderful debut by a talented, young Irish writer.

Suggestions for further titles would be welcome. I have already read so much Tolkien, Pullman and Lewis I’ve got fauns and elves coming out of my ears. So I’m looking for something I have not yet encountered, preferably books set in the ‘real world’.

Let the experiment begin!

Now we, having had the advantage of that bird’s-eye view to which allusion was made earlier, know all about this gendarme. We are aware that he was not a remorseless bloodhound on the trail, but merely a likeable young man of the name of Octave who was waiting for pie. We, therefore, are able to behold him calmly. Our eyes, like stars, do not start from their spheres, nor do our knotty and combined locks part and each particular hair stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

Mr Gedge’s did. He was a mere jelly of palpitating ganglions.

Before reading the biographical note on this book’s dust-jacket, I had no idea Wodehouse spent the majority of his life in the United States. His writing seems so quintessentially English, that the idea of him typing away somewhere in Long Island just seems odd. This book adjusts the balance in my mind, as most of the characters are American, chasing up opportunities for advancement, or even a criminal scheme or two, in Old World Europe.

The book opens with the henpecked Mr Gedge, who lost his riches in the Crash of 1929 and is dependent on his upwardly mobile wife for funds. She intends for him to be made Ambassador to France, a fate he is desperate to avoid. Particularly having to wear a silly hat on ceremonial occasions. He is dreading the hat. His wife has invited a Senator Opal and his daughter to visit them in their leased chateau in Saint Roque, Brittany. She seems very confident that the Senator will agree to sponsor her husband for the role, despite the two men loathing one another. While the Senator and Jane Opal are staying in London en route to France, they encounter Packy Franklyn, a Yaleman and the fortunate beneficiary of a generous inheritance. He has promised his principled fiancé the Lady Beatrice that he will remain in London and avoid all possible shenanigans, capers, fooling around and other activities common to the flibbertigibbet. He of course falls at the first hurdle, deciding to follow the Opals to Saint Roque. Jane intends to marry an intense young novelist named Blair Eggleston, who unfortunately is penniless. To aid the course of true love, Packy sets about trying to help the young couple convince the quick to anger American Senator. His powers of invention soon land everyone staying at the chateau in a confusion of plots, blackmail, theft and confidence tricks that quickly go awry.

This is a delightful book with many surprises. I am trying to be careful to not give too much away, as there are more twists in this Gallic farce than your average There’s a hilarious scene with two characters impersonating French men trying to communicate under the watchful eye of a third party in pidgin French. As with many Wodehouse novels, this is a story about class and class consciousness. Mrs Gedge wants to advance up the rungs of the social ladder. Packy intends to marry a British aristocrat. Jane’s father values nothing more in life than wealth, which is why Blair makes for such an unlikely match. The servants at the chateau are also more than extras in the background, each with their own intrigues and secrets. Packy finds himself musing as to why he is going out of his way to help Blair and Jane. Is it due to the essential nobility that belongs to a gentleman? Or is he simply bored with his life and up for some fun.

Fun is what this book is, a brightly packaged little bundle of joy.

Shortly Tom came upon the juvenile pariah of the village, Huckleberry Finn, son of the town drunkard. Huckleberry was cordially hated and dreaded by all the mothers of the town because he was idle, and lawless, and vulgar, and bad – and because all their children admired him so, and delighted in his forbidden society and wished they dared to be like him. Tom was like the rest of the respectable boys in that he envied Huckleberry his gaudy outcast condition, and was under strict orders not to play with him. So he played with him every time he got a chance.

I find it amazing how often a story heralded as a classic soon becomes divorced from any sense of what made it special in the first place. I am sure everyone is familiar with the story of Tom Sawyer and can conjure up in an instant the appearance of Tom’s friend Huckleberry Finn. The story has been filmed countless times, there was even a Soviet version in 1947, but to people of a certain age who grew up in the 80’s, I imagine this is the version you are most familiar with. What I find surprising is that my would-be ‘knowledge’, of the book is a pale and diluted imitation of Twain’s work, still full of wit and vigour.

There’s a line in The West Wing that I’ve always been fond of – Ich hub uuz deh gebracht which apparently is Yiddish for ‘I’m having the strongest memory’. When I started reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I suddenly found myself remembering an afternoon sitting in class in a Christian Brothers school in Ballyfermot, Dublin. The teacher would sometimes read books to us, including J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe inspiring in me a life-long love of reading, particularly fantasy novels. On this day she read to us from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and chose the scene where Tom meets Becky Thatcher. My teacher enjoyed putting on the accents and started to imitate that high-pitched drawl common to Southern belles. Suddenly I felt my cheeks burning, my shoulders tensed and I found myself trying to squeeze beneath my desk. Strange new feelings of excitement, embarrassment and shame came over me. It was very unsettling, the sensation alien and perplexing.

It strikes to the heart of Twain’s writing, however, which is to depict the adventures of his child heroes in the American South with all the nostalgic innocence that is demanded, but also allowing for the adult intrigues and mysteries that children witness without fully understanding.

Tom Sawyer is an impulsive, yet fiercely intelligent young boy, living with his Aunt Polly, half-brother (and snitch) Sid and cousin Mary. He is forever getting into scrapes of one kind of another, fighting in the streets, or exploiting the gullibility of the other children. He runs a rapid trade in bartering marbles and curiosities. The incident with the white picket fence that occurs at the beginning of the novel is two-fold scheme of Tom’s that allows him to pocket the many odds and ends offered to him by the other boys in tribute, and fool his Aunt into thinking he has completed his punishment. He enjoys playing Robin Hood with Joe Harper. They both know the book by heart and recite each line as they trade blows. The arrival of Becky Thatcher sets Tom to wooing her, with his own particular take on ‘engagement’.

Of course Huckleberry Finn is the most well-known of Tom’s companions, who lives the kind of life that Sawyer desperately wants to lead. While he goes to school and attempts to learn Bible verses for prizes, Huck Finn wanders the town at his leisure, sleeps wherever he chooses and does not care to dress in his Sunday best. One night the boys stumble upon a sight that terrifies them, something far more horrible than anything they could have dreamt of in all their imaginary adventures as pirates on the high seas, or thieving in Sherwood Forest. The murderous Injun Joe stalks Tom’s dreams as he tries to decide what to do in this all-too-real adventure.

Twain writes in a manner that is familiar and warm, yet also cutting. Real romance and real adventure occur in childhood, everything afterwards is just an echo. His descriptions are dense, yet essential to the breezy mood. A beautiful read.

In the middle of the afternoon, she went down to the first floor and bought a card in the greetings-card department. It was not a very interesting card, but at least it was simple, in plain blue and gold. She stood with the pen poised over the card, thinking of what she might have written – ‘You are magnificent’ or even ‘I love you’ – finally writing quickly the excruciatingly dull and impersonal: ‘Special salutations from Frankenberg’s’. She added her number, 645-A, in lieu of a signature.

Patricia Highsmith’s books are tightly plotted and emotionally jagged noir mysteries. From the chameleon-like Tom Ripley to Strangers on a Train’s Charles Anthony Bruno, the author specialized in characters with a lump of ice in their hearts. The Price of Salt is something quite different. It has the requisite Highsmith paranoia and emotional blackmail common to her other novels, but it draws upon her own life, the plot inspired by a brief period the author spent working in a department store. It is a story about an affair between shopgirl and aspiring stage designer Therese Belivet and Carol Aird. Unusually for a Highsmith novel the book is ultimately hopeful, the love between the characters genuine and was considered revolutionary at the time of publication for being a story about homosexuality with a happy ending.

Therese is a young woman just out of boarding school with artistic ambitions trying to make it in New York. Estranged from her family, who packed her off to boarding school once her father died, she has become solitary and possessed of changeable moods. She is in an unfulfilling relationship with an aspiring artist named Richard, who is a lot more secure than she is, both emotionally and financially. He also seems to merely be dabbling in art, whereas Therese pounds the pavement trying to get stage designer jobs with theatre companies. To make some extra cash she takes a job working in Frankenberg’s department store selling toys in the run up to Christmas. The monotony and boredom of the job suddenly evaporates one afternoon when she meets a customer named Carol, whom she helps find a doll to give to her daughter as a Christmas gift. Therese leaps at the chance to strike up a friendship with the cool and contained woman, who is involved in bitter divorce proceedings. As the two grow closer, Therese realizes that she loves Carol and that she feels nothing romantic for the feckless Richard. However, the more she gets to know this woman who seems so self-assured and calm, the more she realizes that it is Carol who has everything to lose, as her ex-husband Harge is eager to use whatever leverage he can to win full custody of their daughter. What possible future do the two of them have together, if their love carries such a terrible price?

Highsmith writes with a singular intimacy and intensity, establishing the conflicting thoughts that rush through Therese’s uncertain mind. When Therese meets the elderly shop assistant Ruby Robichek one night for a quiet meal, the encounter proves to be a brief vignette on a life wasted by loneliness and failure. Ms Robichek is a presentiment of what could happen to Therese if she gives in to convention and abandons her desires. We also begin to understand just how pressurized Carol Aird’s life has been to date, with her husband and in-laws arrayed against her. She describes how Harge chose her to be his wife in the way he might have chosen a carpet, as an object he could possess. Her crime is not that she is a lesbian per se, but more that she refuses to toe the line and lead a conventional life as a doting wife. Richard’s confident belief that Therese will agree to marry him is also rooted in the narrative conventions of typical male and female relationships. He has put the time into getting to know her and surely this is what happens next?

This edition of The Price of Salt comes with a quote from Terry Castle of The New Republic arguing that the transgressive sex and climactic cross-country car chase of the novel inspired Nabochov’s Lolita. I feel this is a tacked on conclusion that risks equivocating Humbert Humbert’s paedophilia with homosexuality. The novel is a corrective to the dour fates assigned to lesbians in pulp fiction, (suicide; acceptance of a dutiful husband).

An underappreciated classic.

Saturday July 15

I watched the Inside Downing Street documentary tonight. What a fine figure of a man he is. He is masterful, charming, clever and has a good head of hair. He is altogether impressive. Alistair Campbell is the man I would like to be.

Right today’s is going to be a quick one, as I am due to travel to Sydney by train in…an hour. Bringing some Patricia Highsmith along for the journey. No not that one! So at any rate, I chose a book I knew I could fly through. The Adrian Moles Diaries series by Sue Townsend is like a sweet, sweet pixie stick, suck it down and ask for another. I have not read any books in the series since his ‘teenage years’, so I’ve got the Blair era to look forward to.

The book’s prologue has a note from Mole himself revealing that his diaries covering the period from the end of the Millennium to the aftermath of the 9/11 was seized by police due to his being charged under Home Secretary Blunkett’s terrorism legislation. Also that horrible Townsend woman continues to stalk him and sell fictionalized accounts of his life to the BBC!

Adrian Mole is a failed poet, failed cable television chef and failed husband, currently raising two sons from different relationships. Glenn Bott-Mole at twelve is already more confident and more capable than his father, although he has inherited his mother’s dropping of ‘aitches’. This is the era of Jaimie Oliver, so he soon takes over cooking the family’s dinners in the kitchen. Adrian’s second son William, whose mother Jo-Jo has returned to Nigeria to be remarried, is worryingly sensitive and enjoys Barbie. His own parents are once again separated, having each married Pandora Braithwaite’s father and mother. Adrian’s mother is ecstatic to finally be ‘lower-upper middle class’, and her new husband Ivan’s obsession with technology is very au courant. Meanwhile Mole senior is stuck in a house filled with Millenium Dome memorabilia, plant-life and koi fish. Pandora herself of course, Adrian’s enduring love, is a local Labour MP who yearns to escape her constituents and consults him on policy as he is the perfect representative of ‘middle England’.

Adrian strikes up a doomed relationship with his social housing officer Pamela Pigg, whom he repeatedly tries to convince to change her name by deed poll. His attempts at a novel continue, accidentally plagiarizing J. K. Rowling at one point and his epic love story set during the Stone Age before the evolution of language receiving a scornful review from his son Glenn.

Somehow Mole always manages to get it wrong, despite being, as Pandora observes, perfectly English in every way. He is also, however, gullible and entirely self-deluded, a hypochondriac who drives his local GP to distraction. Now in his thirties he has not changed so much from the pretentious teenager who used to measure his penis with a ruler. Through him the disappointments of the Blair era and the beginnings of the ‘Long War’, are observed with a wry light.

I look forward to seeing how he gets out of calamitous arrest. It’s good to be back.

For many years now the more refined literary fictions have relied on the techniques of omission. The authors tastefully leave out of their narratives all the emotion and most of the drama. In the manner of Samuel Beckett or Ann Beattie, they supply 10, 000 lines of oblique irony with which the reader is expected to construct his or her own story on a blank page.

After the damp squib of DeLillo, I decided I needed some satire and bite. Which is why I turned to Lewis Lapham. 30 Satires is a collection of essays published between 1986 and 2002. Like all good satirists while some of the material is dated (the Reagan presidency, Steven Seagal comes in for a bit of a drubbing) the incisive wit is still fresh and vibrant. True satire does not fade away. Read H. L. Mencken’s coverage of the Scopes Monkey trial for example. The anger and passion on display is still very much alive.

Lapham’s collection features essays on American politics and culture for the most part. He adopts either the discursive style, or in the form of a letter that represents an imaginary dialogue with a personage representing the target of choice. Jefferson on Toast has Lapham posing as a screen writer brainstorming ideas for a right-wing Hollywood producer on a historical film that rehabilitates the rule of Britain over the colonies. After all, their values were indistinguishable from the values of the Republican right who support Big Business. Then there’s the chilling missive from a talent agent to a mother looking to launch her six-year old daughter into an acting career. Natural Selection has Lapham suggest to the mother that she have her child take lessons in live fire-arms, in the event of her school being besieged Columbine-style. She can take out the violent teens and then give tearful witness to Barbara Walters, capturing the news cycle. Fame must come at all cost.

There are also attacks on the media for their coverage of the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Junior. The very same media outlets that bought paparazzo photos of a hounded Princess of Wales, were all of a sudden calling for the blood of the same photographers they employed. Barbara Walters appears again whispering to her co-hosts during coverage of the media frenzy ‘They take money’. John F. Kennedy Junior’s heritage as a member of American ‘royalty’, seemingly was not made of equally sturdy stuff. Lapham reports that days after the initial wave of condolences, the coverage focusing on intimate encounters with the dead son of a dead President, a backlash suddenly flourished. The reason being a form of inverted ‘tall poppy syndrome’. The Kennedys as a political clan were seen to be less deserving of the character of royals, than the millionaire bankers and corporate leaders who rule America in all but name. The public’s capacity for belief in fairy tales could only stretch so far.

Philosopher Kings has Lapham addressing the frustrating search for ‘public intellectuals’. Look to the celebrities, he suggests. They command the attention of the people. Plato’s ideal is long out of fashion. If you want to find today’s thinkers, do not search the study halls of Harvard, or Yale (I am reminded of the Wachowski Brothers casting Cornel West in their Matrix sequels), send Madonna’s manager an email, asking who she thinks should run the country. Sky Writing is a similarly disillusioning take on the publishing industry, were a writer’s media profile far outstrips their literary talent in terms of importance. The goal for writers is to be successful, not to be writers and so they should really investigate more productive means of becoming famous. Committing a crime for example.

Lapham’s political essays address the rise of Pat Buchanan, the 1999 primaries featuring George W. Bush’s folksy stump speeches and the ill-fated campaign of Elizabeth Dole, but he reserves especial ire for President Bill Clinton. A liar and a hypocrite, Lapham expresses open disgust with Clinton for not stepping down, but also aims at the Starr investigation for its self-serving publicity. Mayor Giuliani’s campaign against the Saatchi exhibition also features, with broadsides launched against both sides of the dispute.

Satirists and cynics are often dismissed for cutting off their nose to spite their face, but in truth they often serve a moral agenda that holds society accountable to a higher standard. Lapham is undoubtedly a moralist, though one with a grim sense of humour. Recommended reading.

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