Book review: Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford 1949

‘Love in a Cold Climate’, a companion volume to ‘The Pursuit of Love’, tells the story of an extended family of aristocrats’ lives and loves between the wars. It was published in 1949, when the world it describes was already becoming a distant memory. The large armies of domestic servants – it is said, only half-jokingly, that the Montdore’s have a valet whose sole job is to fold the newspapers in the library – were already hard to sustain in the 1930’s. But if you are looking for any nostalgia in this novel for a privileged way of life soon to disappear, then look elsewhere, because while Mitford’s characters may be dancing on the edge of extinction, they are blithely unaware of the fact, and the forces massing to bring them down are only hinted at. The great depression might mean fewer balls, but for some characters we might as well still be in the nineteenth century.mitford

This is not a plot-led narrative – it is more an ensemble piece in which eccentric characters comically go about their business trying to find a way to get through to the next meal. This for example is a typical day for one of the principal characters:

“I had an early luncheon at home…After lunch? Hair. Washed and set. …Then tea with Daddy at the House, rest after tea, dinner.. and bed”. 

The story is narrated by Fanny, a distant cousin of Polly, who observes the adventures of Mitford’s cast of characters in a non-judgmental way, always on the borders of the action but never really participating, the still heart of a novel of quickly changing affiliations:

“Sooner or later everybody in that set becomes the lover of everybody else, so that when they change their lovers it is more like a cabinet reshuffle than a new government”

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Book review: Sourcery, by Terry Pratchett

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‘Sourcery’ is book five in Terry Pratchett’s magisterial Discworld series. It features the return of Rincewind, the world’s worst wizard of whom it was said that when he “dies the average occult ability of the human race will actually go up by a fraction”.Sourcery

In the Discworld we have seen thus far, (i.e. in books 1-4) the wizarding community is generally held in low regard. Wizards have their uses but are not particularly respected or valued. The fact that Rincewind is their most travelled representative does not help that situation of course. But all this changes in ‘Sourcery’, when the eighth son of an eighth son goes on to have an eighth son, the result being that rarest of magical phenomenon, a wizard squared, a Sourcerer, the most powerful wizard on the disc. Continue reading

Book review: An Awfully Big Adventure, by Beryl Bainbridge, 1989 (Spoiler free, for a change)

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‘An Awfully Big Adventure’ represents three firsts for me – it is the first Beryl Bainbridge novel I have read; this is the first deliberately spoiler-free review I have written; and never before have I finished a novel and immediately gone back to the beginning and started again. I suspect from the way the novel is so cleverly constructed Bainbridge may have intended this to happen. What I do know is that it is wonderful, even with the one big issue which I have with the novel, which I will come to in a minute.Bainb Continue reading

Book review: The Third Man, by Graham Greene, 1949

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I’ve read plenty of novels that have been turned into films, and I have even read one or two novelisations, but this is a one-off: Greene was commissioned to write a third manscreenplay, and given a location in which it should be set, but before writing the script he wrote the novel on which the screenplay was going to be based. It is almost as if he couldn’t cut out this initial part of the process. In the preface to the novel he explains:

“‘The Third Man’ was never written to be read….To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story.”

That didn’t prevent him agreeing to the publication of the novel of course! Continue reading

Book review: 1606 William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear by James Shapiro

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I am coming late to the Shapiro party, and that is only in part because I got stuck halfway through this actually very readable account of  England in 1606 and the plays Shakespeare wrote in this year. (Quite rightly Shapiro cheats a little and also spends some time in 1605, looking in detail in particular at the events of the Gunpowder Plot.)1606

Dating Shakespeare’s plays is never easy. The exercise assumes that the plays were written at a specific time, whereas there is plenty of evidence that once written and performed the plays continued to be revised for different performances (for example a shorter version of the play might be required for a court performance). But the overwhelming consensus is that King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra were written in 1606, and were first performed in that year. So Year of Lear is slightly misleading, but more concise than Year of Lear, Macbeth and so on.

I make no claims to expertise on these issues, so the extent to which Shapiro’s analysis is reliable or otherwise is beyond me. Certainly it sounds authoritative; there is also a wealth of footnotes and bibliography supporting the text. In dating Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra to 1606, Shapiro inevitably upset the Oxfordian lobby, that remarkable group of people who are convinced that Shakespeare’s plays were written by the Earl of Oxford. In order for this group’s theories to “work” they need Lear and the others to have been written much earlier, before James 1 came to the throne in 1603. So they felt/feel compelled to attack Shapiro’s central concept – that the events of the time can be seen reflected in the plays of the time – even though Macbeth in particular seems profoundly influenced by James’s interest/obsession with witches, and the pursuit of Jesuits in England following the Gunpowder Plot.

Anyone writing about Shakespeare in the context of the times in which he lived has to exercise a lot of care. These are without question not autobiographical plays, and any attempt to link events in Shakespeare’s personal life to his plays is bound to fail. At the same time we know a lot more about the major political events that happened in England at the time Shakespeare lived, so it is only reasonable to ask to what extent these events informed his plays, both in their original conception and their subsequent evolution. It is hard to imagine that it is a coincidence that Shakespeare wrote a play – Lear – showing the dangers of a disunited kingdom while at the same time James was arguing with Parliament for union between his two thrones, England and Scotland, or that a play showing the consequences of regicide – Macbeth – should just accidentally have turned up on stage as the consequences of the attempted regicide of the Gunpowder Plotters still reverberated around the country.

While undoubtedly very scholarly, Shapiro’s book is not an academic tome. It is accessible and relatively easy to read. The chapters on the Gunpowder Plot and its aftershock are quite thrilling, if not also rather gruesome. One gets a vivid picture of Jacobean London and England, the world in which Shakespeare was living and working. Some of the content was not new to me – it must be extraordinarily hard to find new things to say about Shakespeare, rather than just presenting content in new ways. But there were certainly snippets of new insight – new to me, anyway – such as the fact that Shakespeare’s daughter was a recusant (i.e she refused Anglican communion) or that his landlady in St Olave’s parish in London almost certainly died of the plague. I had never noticed before Shapiro pointed it out that the plague, such a dominant feature of life in England at the time, never really plays anything other than a peripheral part in Shakespeare’s works.

If this is a topic that interests you, and it really should, Shapiro’s 1606 is highly recommended. He wrote a similar book on 1599, and also what looks like a pretty definitive guide to the ‘authorship’ debate, which I have to admit I have added to my Amazon wish list!

Book review: The Valley of Fear, by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1914

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‘The Valley of Fear’ is last and the least well-known of Conan Doyle’s four Holmes novels (the others being ‘The Study in Scarlet’, ‘The Sign of the Four’, and ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’). It features a brief appearance by that Napoleon of crime, Professor Moriarty. We last saw Moriarty some 20 years earlier in 1893 tale ‘The Final Problem’, Conan Doyle’s unsuccessful attempt to kill Holmes off.vall-00

The novel opens with Holmes receiving an encrypted message from an informer within Moriarty’s criminal network. A follow up message intending to provide the encryption key instead informs Holmes he has changed his mind, for fear of discovery. Nevertheless Holmes is able to decrypt the message. It is a warning that a murder plan is underway, naming the intended victim, a Mr Douglas of Birlstone Manor. Minutes later, Inspector Macdonald arrives with news that the victim identified in the note has been killed. Holmes deduces this is all Moriarty’s work, but his suspicions are dismissed by the officer. Continue reading

Book review: Animal Farm by George Orwell, 1945

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Why reread ‘Animal Farm’? I could spin you a line that the novel has a new importance in our post-Brexit world, but the honest answer is that my list of reviews looks a bit sparse without this novel. I can’t really claim to have read extensively across the great novels written in English without including ‘Animal Farm’ can I?AF

I was interested to see how it had changed. To be clear, I don’t mean the words on the page will have changed, of course. But all literature exists in a specific cultural context, and as that context has changed dramatically since ‘Animal Farm’ was first published, and even since I first read it (in the 70’s, I guess) the novel is bound to be different. Continue reading

Book review: The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark, 1970

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What a disconcerting, puzzling book this is. At barely 100 pages it is little more than a long short story, but Spark gives the reader a lot to think about in this strange tale of her lead character’s last few hours on earth.

“She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling”. Continue reading

Book review: The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy, 1886

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Authors of classic works of literature tend to gain a reputation in popular culture – Lawrence is raunchy, Dickens is long-winded and a bit preposterous, Joyce impenetrable, Pinter full of pauses, and Shakespeare “difficult”. Sometimes these download (4)reputations are justified; more often they are cliches that are dispelled as soon as one reads the author concerned. But they are astonishingly pervasive, and sometimes damagingly so. Tell a student that Shakespeare is difficult often enough and sooner or later they will believe it. I am sometimes guilty in falling for these stereotypes, and I did with Hardy. Based on the evidence of a reading of the undeniably bleak ‘Jude the Obscure‘ (which I can’t believe I reviewed six years ago!) I accepted the idea that Hardy is depressing, slow, and that his characters invariably come to an unfortunate end.

‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ confounded many of those expectations. It is fast paced and packed with incident. But literary clichés don’t come from nowhere, and most have some truth in their origins. True to his instincts Hardy ensures that this novel’s protagonist and his family are never able to escape completely the consequences of the fatal decision taken in the opening chapter. Continue reading

Supplementary: The Day of the Triffids – a closer look at murder/suicide

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Yesterday’s post on ‘The Day of the Triffids’ was getting overly long, and I wanted to spend some time looking more closely at the scene below from chapter 5, ‘A Light in the Night’. I think it demonstrates Wyndham’s “less is more” technique. it also provides a further perspective on the question of how to respond to overwhelming tragedy from which there appears no escape.

Bill and Joella have found a flat in which to hide overnight on the first night after the mass-blinding. They have chosen an opulent third floor flat to celebrate what they both think will be their last night of ‘civilised’ living. While Joella is out scavenging for clothes, Bill witnesses the following scene. I have included it in full because I think it merits it:

“As I stepped outside, another door farther down the passage opened. I stopped, and stood still where I was. A young man came out, leading a fair-haired girl by the hand. As she stepped over the threshold he released his grasp.  “Wait just a minute, darling” he said.

He took three or four steps on the silencing carpet. His out-stretched hands found the window which ended the passage. His fingers went straight to the catch and opened it. I had a glimpse of a fire-escape outside. “What are you doing Jimmy?” she asked. “Just making sure” he said, stepping quickly back to her and feeling for her hand again.

“Come along darling”. She hung back. “Jimmy I don’t like leaving here. At least we know where we are in our own flat. “How are we going to feed? How are we going to live? In the flat darling we shan’t feed at all, and therefore not live long. Come along sweetheart don’t be afraid”. “But I am Jimmy, I am”. She clung to him and he put one arm around her.

“We’ll be alright darling, come along”. “But Jimmy that’s the wrong way…” “You’ve got it twisted round dear. It’s the right way”.

“Jimmy, I’m so frightened. Let’s go back”. “It’s too late darling”. By the window he paused. With one hand he felt his position very carefully. Then he put both arms around her., holding her to him. “Too wonderful to last”, he said softly. “I love you my sweet, I love you so very, very much”. She turned her lips up to be kissed. As he lifted her he turned and stepped out of the window…

I found this is a chilling scene. It is mutely observed by the narrator. He makes no attempt to intervene, not a sound. He could have tried to help this loving young couple, but decides to do nothing. Passively he accepts the young man’s judgment that death is the preferable option for the blind. Note by the way that this is clearly a murder/suicide – the young girl is frightened and suspicious (perhaps they have already discussed their options previously).

Bill’s observation is detailed – he watches them carefully. He describes events more in the manner of an omniscient narrator than an observer, without judgment. He glimpses the fire escape outside, hears the fear in the girl’s voice, counts the man’s steps to the window, and notices that he finds the catch easily, rather than fumbling for it. He records their conversation word for word, even the telling repetition of ‘very’ in the final line. The fact that he records this scene in such detail, when he looks away from so many others that must be occurring all around him, suggests he feels it has a particular significance.

Bill has already seen a suicide by jumping earlier in the novel, by a doctor in the hospital; he also has met a man in a pub who goes to join his wife and children in death by gas after getting properly drunk:

“Wha’s good of living blind’s a bat?. . . Thash what my wife said. An’ she was right-only she’s more guts than I have. When she found as the kids was blind too, what did she do? Took ’em into our bed with her an turned on the gas”

Suicide is a rational, sensible, even brave, option in the new world, is the implication.

The scene ends with an ellipsis and a paragraph break. In the next scene no mention is made of what Masen has witnessed – he chooses not to tell the reader (nor Joella) what happens to the couple after this point. A more horrific description would have followed their fall, the screams, the crunch of mangled bodies on pavement, the blood slowly pooling. Wyndham gives us none of this, just those three little dots after the word “window”.

Is this an example of the author protecting the reader from the worst of the apocalypse, making it more cosy? It is interesting that it is Bill only who witnesses this scene – Joella is conveniently out ‘shopping’. Personally I found the scene powerful and effective, and a description of their fall and death would have added little. The reader is left to fill in the gaps with their imagination. But I accept that this narrative approach allows readers to also look away if they choose, to decide not to engage emotionally with the enormity of what is being shown, as Bill effectively does.