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Thou dost not know me, Holly. Hadst thou seen me but ten hours past, when my passion seized me, thou hadst shrunk from me in fear and trembling. I am of many moods, and, like the water in that vessel, I reflect many things; but they pass, my Holly; they pass and are forgotten. Only the water is the water still, and I still am I, and that which maketh the water maketh it, and that which maketh me what I seem, seeing that thou canst not know what I am.

It is always a great pleasure for me to encounter a classic adventure serial or novel and still be gripped by the narrative. Too often the trickle-down effect caused by plagiarizing and imitative creators robbing the beats of these original tales in the years since its publication lessen the impact. H. Rider Haggard has been a writer I have avoided precisely because of this. ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ has appeared in different guises not only in the writer’s own sequels featuring Allan Quatermain, but the work of J.R.R. Tolkien with the Lady Galadriel and of course in John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey.

As was the fashion of the time with fantastical adventure stories, Haggard plays up the conceit that this is an account of true events. So the story we are reading is in fact a document received by an nameless editor – the author himself – from one L. Horace Holly. The manuscript describes an incredible journey taken by Holly and his charge Leo to Africa, hoping to unravel a dynastic mystery connected to the younger man that stretches back in time to the pre-Christian era and may have led to the death of his father. Accompanied by long-suffering manservant Job, the group follow the directions left to them on a preserved clay shard , only to be shipwrecked and left stranded in a dangerous and unexplored region of the continent.

The group are rescued from certain death at the hands of a hidden civilization of man by the wise and venerable Bilali. Holly and Leo manage to communicate with the old fellow via a corrupted modern day version of his language and are informed that ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’, the white-skinned ruler of these people desires to see them. What unfolds is an adventure that becomes increasingly perilous for these proto-Indiana Joneses – being Cambridge academics that are also a dab hand at fighting off a multitude of opponents when the occasion arises – and one that may cost the young Leo his very soul.

My edition of She comes with an introduction from Margaret Atwood, lampshading the present-day relevance of the book by claiming Ayesha as prefiguring feminism. This feels unnecessarily shallow. The quotation I opened this review with comes from the most interesting section of the book, wherein Haggard flirts with the anti-Christian substance of She Who Must Be Obeyed. Ayesha is fascinated by Christ’s message of peace, because in her eyes this is a typically weak and perilous philosophy for the cruelties of existence. It is a fantastic scene, because Holly is of course merely spouting the party line of what Christianity represents, as opposed to the realities of conquest, occupation and oppression that empowers the Church as an institution.

In that sense Ayesha in fact prefigures the secularist critique of Christianity, albeit in a fantastical way.

Haggard work is of its time, so there remains issues of chauvenism, racism and anti-semitism (towards both Jews and Muslims) in play here. If the modern reader can accept these caveats, the book can be enjoyed as an adventure story with ambitions beyond its seeming rip-roaring escapism.

She by H. Rider Haggard

For indeed I am the sort of charlatan they seek to discredit. I am not what they say I am, but my deceptions are harmless and, I do believe, helpful at a time of personal loss.

I am a very nervous sleeper and sadly in our new abode the sound of passing vehicles – not to mention overhead flights – causes our little unit to wobble somewhat. Every time I jolt awake. This, as you can imagine, is quite annoying. But then I made the mistake of joking that any other creaks and steps could be the sounds of our own personal poltergeist. My beloved other half immediately freaked. See personally I cannot really see any reason to fear the ‘other side’, psychic phenomena, ectoplasmic stains, or indeed fallen angels. I lie awake at night terrified about home invasions and a piece of satellite falling from space and impacting on my roof…but the supernatural? Completely uninterested in it.

Magic as such is something I have difficulty with, because it seems like so much empty spectacle. There is a necessity to believe in order to be halfway impressed to begin with. In The Prestige Christopher Priest attempts to straddle that borderline,  that fudging of spectacle and the occult.

The rivalry between two late 19th century magicians comes to consume both their lives, a dual obsession that spurs them into more audacious feats. The Prestige presents the respective accounts of this contest from the points of view of Alfred Borden and Rupert Angier. This is not merely competitiveness, with both parties going out of their way to sabotage their rival’s acts. As they are both practiced in exploiting the gullibility of their patrons, whether it be through stage magic or séances for the dead, they know the weak-spots of each other’s craft, the key moment to stage and accuse the performer of being a fraud.

Then Borden’s act ‘The Transported Man’, involving him appearing in two places on stage mere moments apart, drives Angier to even more outrageous efforts. Borden has not employed any trickery that the other magician recognizes. He has somehow managed to achieve genuine magic. In his attempts to top the ‘Transported Man’, Angier travels to America and returns with a revolutionary new act ‘In A Flash’. Having consulted with the genius scientific recluse Nikola Tesla, Angier seemingly has confounding the laws of physics itself. Both men become so consumed by thoughts of revenge, that their intentions soon border on murderous.

The story is bookended by their descendents attempting to discover the reasons behind this intense rivalry, which has actually survived their deaths – assuming that the diaries left by Angier and Borden actually do present an accurate picture of events.

This is the second book by Priest that I have read. The first, The Inverted World, rested on a central idea that was quite interested, but the book overall felt strained. The Roshomon approach of The Prestige should create a sense of mystery, but once Borden’s secret – hinted at by suggestive choices in language during his diary – becomes clear, the book feels like it is frustratingly delaying the moment of the reveal.

Priest’s writing imitates the suspense and suggestiveness of the magician’s performance, but the characters are so deluded by their mutual hatred that their insistent company becomes wearying. The shared love of a woman named Olivia comes to seem spurious – is she just a beard for their homoerotic fascination for one another?

There is an interesting moment when Angier describes his impressions of Tesla “when I had seen his lecture in London he had all the appearance of a member of my own profession, taking the same delight in surprising and mystifying the audience, yet, unlike a magician, being more than willing, anxious even, to reveal and share his secrets.” Of course that was Tesla’s tragedy, that he did not guard his insights jealously enough.

The historical asides of this book are momentarily interesting, but for the most part The Prestige feels overlong and wearying with its venom and spite.

The Prestige

The crowds in St. Peter’s Square parted as the Prod Bigot Incompetents rushed the IRA Jesuit.

Father Ryan O’Brian was almost taken by surprise as the howling bluenoses came charging through the crowd, decked in Rangers strips and King Billy tattoos. Not a sight you saw every day in Vatican City.

“Aw, not youse lot again,” he sighed, producing a heat-seeking surface to surface missile launcher and a Stanley knife from under his cassock.

BAM!

Stephanie, early on in my blog-writing career, tried to convince me not to use any swear-words in these reviews. I have a foul mouth sometimes, so it was tough. This book, however, this book almost defeated me. It has more cursing per square inch than a pub showing Monday night football.

The plot, such as it is, is concerned with the millennia long history of conflict between the Church and the State. We meet Jesus and his disciples in a scene reminiscent of Cyrus addressing the gangs in Walter Hill’s The Warriors. The Apostles are in fact a revolutionary brotherhood of peace and love and Jesus has returned to them to rap about eternal life. Of course then Saul shows up and ruins everything, deciding following the massacre to follow the letter of Christ’s teachings if not the spirit and found the monolithic Holy Roman Empire. We then cut to Henry VIII, speaking along with his courtiers in a thick Glasgow accent, breaking from Rome and sparking the present-day conflict.

Father Ryan O’Brian is at the centre of the conflict, a wiley assassin who specialises in playing one side against the other. The Pope presides over a corrupt cabal of deviants who are attempting to undermine the Queen of England. She, in turn, is a foul-mouthed monster, whose three sons are plotting to murder her in order to acquire the throne.  O’Brian is not able playing his cards close to his chest in these colossal conflict, he appears to be unkillable. God literally loves him too much.

Scatology rules the day in this book, building to an appropriately literal apocalypse, but the moment I decided I was actually having fun was when the author inserted an ad for defunct publisher Attack! Books into the book itself! I found an interview with editor Steven Wells outlining the approach behind these hyper-pulp novels. The scene with the unnamed Queen, face smeared in baked beans (….I guess it’s a fetish) laughing herself into hysterics while reading various titles from the imprint such as Tits-Out Teenage Totty, Satan! Satan! Satan! and Ebola 3000, followed by a postal address for any prospective new readers to order their own copies.

Now that’s funny.

Yes the language is rotten to the core. I am sure your average person on the street will be offended by Udo’s descriptions of venal priests, idiot princes and a psychotic Queen. He intersperses chapters with a series of extracts from conspiracy theories regarding the death of the Princess of Wales, the ties between the Royal Family and Nazism and in turn Hitler taking inspiration from the structure of the Jesuit order. The overt message of the book is that these two institutions cannot be trusted, built as they are on a history of conquest and war.

Oh and Jesus was a socialist.

This is one of the greatest books ever written. To say that Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BCE- 17 CE) known as Ovid, was possessed of a monumental genius, is to somewhat understate his influence on writing, painting, sculpture, music and poetry for the last two millennia. There are few if any artists of worth, certainly of the western tradition (indeed other traditions have such geniuses from whom we could all learn), who have not been enthralled by his brilliant imagery, his insight into the human condition, the sweep of his epic narrative, his capacity to depict the depths of human depravity and the heights of love.

The cover of this Penguin edition, with its very clear and lyrical translation by David Raeburn, has a picture of Bernini’s incredibly beautiful sculpture of Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne (1622), a scene from the dozens of stories in the Metamorphoses that are all threaded together by the theme of change, as life is indeed change, capturing the touching moment of Apollo and Daphne’s agonized frustrated lovemaking as she is transformed into a tree. The Metamorphoses weaves a difficult path brilliantly through Ovid’s vast knowledge of history and mythology, borrowing and rewriting Virgil, Lucretius and Homer to suit his own ends. This makes a great deal of sense, for in the life of an artist there comes a point of re-evaluation – an assessment and acknowledgement that she or he has arrived at the point they have through the influence and insights of others.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, reacting somewhat to the Roman idolized image of the gods, depicts them as deeply ambivalent beings. Some of the stories show them as monsters, vicious cruel murderers and rapists. Jove or Jupiter, is a dreadful being. As the king of the Gods with weighty responsibilities on him, he is also a psychopath, a serial rapist who uses his power to tryst with females of his fancy, fathering countless offspring to his wife’s horror and vengeful rage. This is hardly a sterling example of a moral life, an example of the kinds of godly behaviour in the Metamorphoses that leaves much to be desired.

So we are left with a dilemma. The world order, the nature of existence, is terribly out of joint. How does one live? What constitutes a moral existence? What hope is there for humanity when the gods are mad or corrupt or all too human? Ovid describes the world and leads us to the doorway of moral choice. He describes these beings, these gods, largely products of a complex evolutionary cultural anthropomorphosis, as being as capable of horrible acts as they are equally capable of heartbreaking tenderness. When the sun god, (Helios to the Greeks, also Apollo to the Romans, but Phoebus to Ovid) allows his all too overconfident ambitious son Phaeton to take the reins of his sun chariot on its daily journey round the Earth, things go terribly wrong. This is when Phaeton, filled with cock-sure ignorance, loses control of the sun-chariot and sets the world on fire, almost burning the earth, is killed by a bolt from Jupiter to stop the destruction of everything. Thus the Earth is shrouded in darkness as the heartbroken Phoebus covers his radiant being with his cloak in inconsolable sorrow at the loss of his beloved son. It is a terrible time, a tragic moment, handled with incredible tenderness by Ovid.

Pain, joy, ambition, jealousy, longing, loneliness, the burden of giftedness, overwhelming infatuation, the loss of love, lies, deceit, moments of hilarity, power politics and horrific acts of revenge – in other words the full sweep of the human condition – mark his subject matter, and in the Metamorphoses, Ovid deals more than anything else with what it means to be a human being, trapped in time, a mere plaything of the fickle and vengeful gods. He deals with this subject with a level of emotional and psychological accuracy that leaves an unforgettable mark on the reader. It’s not without significance that Shakespeare was a lifelong reader of Ovid, and returned to him over and over to seek new themes for his plays and poetry.

Rome remains the cultural centre of Ovid’s personal universe, and the glory of Rome is his joy and love. Despite all its horrors and imperial cruelties it remains his personal point of reference. It is a mark of the poet Ovid’s truly extraordinary self-assurance that at the end of this very large and very readable book, filled as it is with super heroes and gods, monsters and victims, saints and mystics, he modestly asks Emperor Augustus to immortalize him. After all, he argues, he has written the Metamorphoses. This same emperor, disdaining Ovid’s tendency to write rather explicit poems about sex and seduction and taking lovers and, moreover, how to keep ones lover, as in the Amores and the Ars Amatoria, had exiled the heartbroken poet (a banishment celebrated by Turner in a painting in 1838). Ovid, who found the world of Rome his inspiration, never got over his exile and he never stopped wanting to go home. The cliché of an artist never being fully understood in his own time is very true of Ovid, who died in what is now Romania, where he is celebrated as one of their own.

BIO ORAN RYAN

Oran Ryan

Oran Ryan is a novelist, poet and playwright from Dublin.  His poetry, short stories and literary criticism have appeared in magazines worldwide.  His novels The Death of Finn and Ten Short Novels by Arthur Kruger, both published in 2006, and One Inch Punch, his third is to be published in 2011.  His work has also appeared in the anthologies Census 1 (2008), Census 2 (2009), Living Streets, Anthology of the Ranelagh Arts Festival (2009), Dublin 10 Journeys, One Destination (2010).  His play Don Quixote Has Been Promoted was performed at the Ranelagh Arts Festival 2009; his has been shortlisted for the P J O’Connor Award; his words were performed on stage at the Stone Theatre in Manhattan, New York in 2008 and in 2010 his Radio Play Christmas 1947 was performed live as part of KRCB FM 91.1 Twisted Christmas 8 Live performance in California, as well as broadcast on KRCB over Christmas 2010.

The Place of Dead Roads’ is a picaresque novel, the centrepiece of the ‘Cities of Red Night’ trilogy, and stands as an excellent introduction to William Burroughs’ thematic and stylistic concerns.

The novelist Peter Ackroyd characterised ‘Cities of Red Night’ – and by extension, its sequels – as “an obsessional landscape” and the choice of adjective is telling. Burroughs’ concerns are broad, cosmic, fundamental but the tent-pegs of the whole circus are, by necessity, ground-level: addiction, power, alienation, beauty and attraction, ugliness and repulsion. He is an existential writer and thinker, like Camus and hence the ‘naked lunch’ of his most infamous work: the moment when one sees “exactly what is at the end of one’s fork” without evasion or denial.

The Place of Dead Roads’ details the lot of one Kim Carsons; child of the Old West, outlaw gun-fighter, rogue shaman and Man with a Plan. His life charts the transition from a landscape dominated by the often savage realities of the Frontier to a 20th Century reality, tacitly preoccupied with the science fiction concerns of the Modern era and ruled over by “evil old men who play poker” and “are constitutionally immune to the effects of bourbon”.

Obstensibly a western, ‘Place of Dead Roads’ is one of Burroughs’ most conventionally novelistic works. It’s the book of his that I always recommend to people new to him,  along with ‘Junkie’ his first book, a fictionalised memoir of heroin addiction. Both books have an overt through-line running from beginning to end that functions in lieu of a ‘plotline’, both expand subjective vision into something world-encompassing, bizarre and bordering- often tipping over- into alien dreamscapes.

A word of supposed issues of ‘difficulty’: Burrough’s prose has a bristling, tense quality that he often allows to disintegrate into seemingly disjointed and agrammatical poetry. This doesn’t happen “without warning” but is a feature of style, used to convey the impressionistic agrammatical nature of Thought, Dream and Character. This shift from style to a deliberate sort of ‘anti-style’ is based the ‘Cut-Up Method’, the random rearrangement of words in a  text to create a collage without the thought-conditioning influence of ordinary grammar.

Dream was important to William Burroughs. He dispenses with the conventions of traditional narrative often as abruptly as one’s dreaming mind will and with similar purpose- to communicate an urgent sense of a particular place, mentality or counter-intuitive connection, without the distancing affect of descriptive prose.

This aside, the writing is curt, concise and indeed precise. Burroughs picks his moment to go “experimental”,aiming to urgently communicate his concerns, concerns about the present, the forgotten past, concerns about an post-human future and above all the realities of CONTROL. You’ll also learn a lot about guns, shamanism and the occult and you’ll read about a lot of fine young men having sex with each other. Highly recommended for heads.

Review by Ruairi Conneely, Seven Towers Books.

Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked

In position for the drive,

Bone-shaken, bumped at speed,

The nurse a passenger in front, you ensconced

In her vacated corner seat, me flat on my back –

Our postures all the journey still the same,

Everything and nothing spoken,

Our eyebeams threaded laser-fast, no transport

Ever like it until then, in the sunlit cold

Of a Sunday morning ambulance

When we might, O my love, have quoted Donne

On love on hold, body and soul apart.

Seamus Heaney? Oh it’s on now. I haven’t forgiven you yet, you vino voleur, you grog guzzler – I will have my vengeance!

‘cough’

And yet – when I read the poem quoted above, titled Chanson d’Aventure one of the early entries to this collection, I could not help but remember my father back home in Ireland. That frustration with wanting to say what is on your mind, but incapable of giving expression to these thoughts due to physical infirmity. Heaney’s words are instantly evocative for me of witnessing my dad’s irritation at his condition. The poem itself refers to the writer’s own stroke in 2006 (I just wasted ten minutes searching the Irish Times website to find mention of this. A golden goose for whoever can find it for me).

I should not be surprised really. A lot of Heaney’s work conjures up images of an Ireland I know, instantly familiar and well realized here through verse. The title is take from one of the poems collected here, which is dedicated to Terence Brown and describes the action of passing ‘bags of meal‘, along a line of aid workers. In this moment the individual becomes a part of a chain of humans, united in a rare moment of communal activity. The work is true, the goal worthy, allowing the insecurities and seperateness of the individual to vanish. An annihilation of self that he suspects can only be equaled by death itself: “A letting go which will not come again/ Or it will, once. And for all.”

My favourite poem from the selection here is The Conway Stewart, a beautiful transformation of a new pen into a living creature, an ally for the poet to help in the composition of future works:

The nib uncapped,

Treating it to its first deep snorkel

In a newly opened ink-bottle,

I am also fond of An Old Refrain which contrasts the ordinary English words for countryside fauna with the local idomatic descriptors of Heaney’s Northern Irish childhood.

Where I start to look in askance at the page is the later poems referring to the Aeneid and provincial French poetry. On the one hand I admire the effort to place poetry drawing a connection between Irish countryside life with Provence, but it is not an association that comes naturally. For one the poet mentioned here Eugène Guillevic seems like a more natural companion to English masters like William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy. Peppering verse with different French words does not help the attempt at solidifying the connection between Ireland and the Continent. Ireland is part of Europe, but I feel as if this attempt to be more European only succeeds at turning a blind eye to life in my homeland. I am reminded of John Banville‘s early attempts to be a more European author:

“So I decided, with no cosmopolitan experience, to turn myself into a European novelist of ideas: Banville, the modern European master. I was young. I was reckless. There are people who tell me they think Doctor Copernicus and Kepler were my best books, but I feel now that in those novels I took a wrong direction, that I should have done something else.”

Even that famous neologism of Ireland’s most famous literary expat James Joyce – ‘riverrun‘ – appears in the poem Colum Cille Cecinit. Joyce is literary Ireland, but how many of the Irish have read Ulysses, or even A Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man? Perhaps that is an unfair question, but it played on my mind when reading some of these poems. They seem isolated from life at home.

Yes the material is familiar to me and I do not think Seamus Heaney could fail to evoke strong memories of home and the past if he tried, but I suspect for me it is not enough.

 

The fat of the land has become the fat of the supermarket; and the fat of the supermarket has settled around our waistlines. Hunger is not the spectre that stalks the lives of men and women in modern consumer societies: the enemy now is greed.

When I first read Richard DawkinsThe Selfish Gene I became fascinated with the notion of memes. I was enthused to discover that someone had invented a theory for ‘viral culture’, a unit that represented the transmission of ideas. Dawkins also wrote in a very clear way about evolutionary science, in a manner that engaged the reader and explained concepts that rarely escaped the academic lecture hall. While I do not always agree with Dawkins, as a proselytiser of scientific theories his status on the world stage is essential in contributing to the exchange of ideas.

So when Richard Girling, a writer for the Sunday Times magazine, opens his discussion of greed as a component of human nature with a summary of Dawkins’ notion of the ‘selfish gene‘, my expectations were raised. As I have said above, Dawkins is a fine writer, one who inspired vociferous argument from other equally eloquent science writers, such as Daniel Dennett and Steven Jay Gould.

Girling rephrases Dawkins’ argument in his own words, before segueing into an anecdotal discussion of greed. Western society is one with a preponderance of available food, possessions and sex, with Girling initially drawing a connection between contemporary actions and early hominid acquisitiveness.

The difficulties with even this initial section of the book arose for me from the opening chapter. There is a confusion of tone, the scientific discussion mismatched with jocular asides and observations of British society. For the majority of the book Girling makes comparisons between his observations of life in the UK with the various studies of greed under discussion. As a result the arguments presented feel insular, perhaps understandably so given his career in the British press. Still this felt limited.

Further problems emerge when he tackles the global economy, the history of the church, feminism and third world poverty. Perhaps you can tell where I am going with this. So much of the material here is familiar. Well of course, I hear you say, this is the 287th book you have read in as many days. You are going to retrace your steps every now and again.

When Girling mentions the gross profits earned by Goldman-Sachs, I remember reading A Colossal Failure of Common Sense. When the crimes of the Church fall under discussion, I sigh, having endured the horrific descriptions of abuse featured in Geoffrey Robertson‘s excellent book. His condemnation of the WTO and the World Bank is reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.

There is this sense that Girling has simply absorbed the work of so many other writers and theorists and is simply splurging his interpretation back onto the page. Greed is a fascinating theme, but there is no coherent argument throughout. Is this a work of science, sociology, or economics? Of course an account of this element of human behaviour should touch on these disciplines, but the book itself feels like it is dipping in and out.

You know what? I blame Alain de Botton. Opening with appeals to various received ideas and then indulging in conversational anecdotes, it is the same formula employed by that populist philosopher.

Indulgent, repetitive and superficial. I was not greedy for more.

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