Book Review: Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, by E W Hornung, 1899

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Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman has not aged well. While his contemporary Sherlock Holmes has prospered in the twenty-first century, with films, television adaptation and yet more ‘inspired by’ novels, Raffles languishes largely forgotten. In this post I am going to explore the reasons for this neglect and suggest a possible way back into the stories.Raffles

Raffles, conceived by Hornung as a counterpoint to his brother-in-law Conan-Doyle’s master detective, is the archetypal gentleman thief. By day, he is a member of London society, and a noted cricketer. By night he is a burglar – a ‘cracksman’. His accomplice and biographer is Bunny Manders, who narrates these stories and looks up to Raffles, one might even say adores him. But more of the homo-erotic undertones of the stories in a moment.

In his wonderful essay Raffles and Miss Blandish, George Orwell compared the Hornung stories with a more contemporary detective tale which offended his sensibilities. He described Raffles as

still one of the best-known characters in English fiction. Very few people would need telling that he played cricket for England, had bachelor chambers in the Albany and burgled the Mayfair houses which he also entered as a guest.

That was in 1944, but the same could certainly not be said now. Orwell’s anatomy of Raffles centres on the acute observation that the

“truly dramatic thing, about Raffles, the thing that makes him a sort of byword even to this day… is the fact that he is a gentleman. Raffles is presented to us and this is rubbed home in countless scraps of dialogue and casual remarks — not as an honest man who has gone astray, but as a public-school man who has gone astray. His remorse, when he feels any, is almost purely social; he has disgraced ‘the old school’, he has lost his right to enter ‘decent society’, he has forfeited his amateur status and become a cad…In making Raffles a cricketer as well as a burglar, Hornung was not merely providing him with a plausible disguise; he was also drawing the sharpest moral contrast that he was able to imagine.

But this is not all, because with his laser-like precision on matters of class, Orwell identifies that while Raffles may be a gentleman, his position in society is less secure than a casual reader might think:

Raffles…is a story of snobbery, and it gains a great deal from the precariousness of Raffles’s social position. A cruder writer would have made the ‘gentleman burglar’ a member of the peerage, or at least a baronet. Raffles, however, is of upper-middle-class origin and is only accepted by the aristocracy because of his personal charm. ‘We were in Society but not of it’, he says to Bunny towards the end of the book; and ‘I was asked about for my cricket’. Both he and Bunny accept the values of ‘Society’ unquestioningly, and would settle down in it for good if only they could get away with a big enough haul. The ruin that constantly threatens them is all the blacker because they only doubtfully ‘belong’. A duke who has served a prison sentence is still a duke, whereas a mere man about town, if once disgraced, ceases to be ‘about town’ for evermore. 

Well, as we will see, there are different forms of disgrace.

Much, perhaps too much, has been made of Raffles’s relationship with Holmes. Hornung didn’t help this reflex reaction by dedicating this book to “ACD” and suggesting the stories were a form of flattery. A criminal version of Holmes would indeed have been fascinating, but Raffles doesn’t fit the bill. He is far too clumsy a thief, relying on crude strategems including violence, and is very nearly caught by the police, something that would never happen to Holmes. In the second story in this collection, ‘A Costume Piece” Raffles tries to steal jewels from the millionaire Reuben Rosenthall. He breaks into his house, only to be captured red-handed by the alert Rosenthall and companions who were waiting for him all along. He escapes by the simple strategem of running away, although he does come back later to rescue the hapless Bunny, disguised as a policeman. In another story, ‘Gentlemen and Players’, Raffles secures an invitation to a country house party. The rich visitors seem easy pickings, but a complicating factor involves a successful burglary by some professional thieves. Raffles takes the opportunity afforded by the theft of walking into the victim’s bedroom and taking her remaining jewels. No bravery, cunning nor skill required, just an invitation to the right kind of house party.

We are constantly told Raffles is a gentleman, but his code of ethics is not as clear cut as you would expect. He is quite prepared to murder his blackmailer for example, and only avoids doing so because someone has beaten him to it. In fact the scene where Raffles first contemplates murder is chilling in its amorality; Raffles seems alive with the thrilling prospect of the crime:

The biggest man alive is the man who’s committed a murder and not yet been fund out… Just think of it! Think of coming in here and talking to the men, very likely about the murder itself, and knowing you’ve done it; and wondering how they’d look if they knew! Oh it would be great, simply great! 

Bunny – and what a childish nickname for a grown man to have – adores him. The Wikipedia entry for Hornung  claims that Raffles and Bunny were “were based partly on his friends Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas”. By 1898, the year the first Raffles story was published, Wilde had already completed his prison sentence for perjury, and was living in Paris. His name became synonymous with homosexuality, and it would have been a brave author who openly used Wilde’s relationship with Douglas as a model for his characters. But the homo-eroticism between Raffles and Bunny, albeit a somewhat one-sided attraction of the younger man for his hero, is undeniable. They first meet at school, where Bunny is Raffles’s “fag”; when the stories begin Bunny has lost all his money gambling, is facing disgrace, and is considering suicide. Raffles offers him a way out of his troubles – an exciting and seductive new life of sin and crime.

Once Raffles and Bunny’s ‘crimes’ are seen as a metaphor for gay love, the stories come alive as an “in plain sight” confession of “the love that dare not speak its name”. In fact it is hard to read many of their exchanges without spotting a gay sub-text.

I’ll do it again…I will…I’ll lend you a hand as often as you like! What does it matter now? I’ve been in it once. I’ll be in it again. I’ve gone to the devil anyhow. I can’t go back, and wouldn’t if I could. Nothing matters another rap! When you want me I’m your man.

Bunny repeatedly tries to break away (break up?) from Raffles – he knows what he represents is wrong, but finds it compellingly attractive, both hating and wanting it at the same time. When in “The Return Match” Raffles seeks him out, lays his hand on his arm and says “Come up to my place”, Bunny can’t resist:

“To me, at all events, there was never anybody in the world so irresistible as Raffles…I made my excuses …but his arm slide through mine…and even while I argued we were on his staircase in the Albany.”

Elsewhere Bunny is openly affectionate towards Raffles, and comes close to accepting his feelings:

It was Raffles I loved. It was not the dark life we led together, still less its base rewards; it was the man himself, his gayety, his humour, his dazzling audacity, his incomparable courage and resource. And a very horror of turning to him again in mere need of greed set the seal on my first angry resolution. But the anger was soon gone out of me, and when at length Raffles bridged the gap by coming to me, I rose to greet him almost with a shout.

This affection burns at its brightest when Bunny is tortured by jealously seeing Raffles flirt with a young Australian women on their ill-fated cruise in The Gift of the Emperor:

What he could see in her—but that begs the question. Of course he saw no more than I did, but to annoy me, or perhaps to punish me for my long defection, he must turn his back on me and devote himself to this chit from Southampton to the Mediterranean. They were always together. It was too absurd. After breakfast they would begin, and go on until eleven or twelve at night; there was no intervening hour at which you might not hear her nasal laugh, or his quiet voice talking soft nonsense into her ear. Of course it was nonsense! Is it conceivable that a man like Raffles, with his knowledge of the world, and his experience of women (a side of his character upon which I have purposely never touched, for it deserves another volume); is it credible, I ask, that such a man could find anything but nonsense to talk by the day together to a giddy young schoolgirl? I would not be unfair for the world.

I think I have admitted that the young person had points. Her eyes, I suppose, were really fine, and certainly the shape of the little brown face was charming, so far as mere contour can charm.

I admit also more audacity than I cared about, with enviable health, mettle, and vitality. I may not have occasion to report any of this young lady’s speeches (they would scarcely bear it), and am therefore the more anxious to describe her without injustice. I confess to some little prejudice against her. I resented her success with Raffles, of whom, in consequence, I saw less and less each day. It is a mean thing to have to confess, but there must have been something not unlike jealousy rankling within me.

References to their physical attraction for one another, the compelling nature of their relationship, the enjoyment of one another’s company, and the recognition that what they are engaged in is wrong by the moral code of society, but thrilling and rewarding nonetheless, crowd the stories’ pages. Raffles toys with Bunny’s affection, keeping him guessing at all times about his motivation. Bunny blindly follows wherever Raffles leads, even when it ends up in a prison cell.

I suspect the simple reason why Raffles is no longer read widely, is that despite this interesting element of modernity, the stories are just not very good. Raffles rarely has a cunning plan of any kind, and Bunny is so dim that the fun of understanding more than him about what is going on palls quickly. Raffles isn’t half as charming or interesting as he thinks he is. Add to that some appalling racism which yes, is of its time, but which Conan Doyle somehow managed to largely avoid, and these stories are not yet ready for a revival. Perhaps when this inevitably happens it will involve a degree of reinvention that they sorely need.

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Book review: Moving Pictures (Discworld 10) by Terry Pratchett, 1990

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At this point (1990) in his writing career, Terry Pratchett was producing two Discworld novels a year. He’d published Sourcery (Discworld 5) and Wyrd Sisters (DW 6) in 1988, Pyramids (DW 7) and Guards! Guards! (DW 8) in 1989, and Eric (DW 9) already in 1990, before he produced Moving Pictures for the Christmas sales at the end of the year. By any reckoning this is an extraordinary sustained level of output, all the more so given that Moving Pictures is such a rich and cleverly written novel.Moving Pictures

I am fairly sure when Sir Terry was writing these novels there was no overall grand plan in his head. (I may have read that somewhere). People have retrospectively tried to impose some order on the novels, and grouped them around the principal topics – the Witches series, the City Watch series, and so on. Several of the Discworld novels use as their inspiration the coming of round world technology to the Disc – The Truth (printing), Going Postal (Clacks/telegrams), Raising Steam (trains) and so on. Monstrous Regiment is sometimes included in this group but I am not sure why – maybe it will become clearer when I eventually reread it!) These groupings can be contentious, but they do make the series more accessible to new converts to the cause of all things Pratchett, so are therefore a good thing. Moving Pictures is the first in the Industrial Revolution series of novels, and is a quite affectionate satire on the rise of cinema in the early part of the twentieth century, the Century of the Fruitbat.

Pratchett isn’t interested in subtly disguising his targets, so the small out of the way coastal area where movies begin to be made is called Holy Wood. Holy Wood is watched over by a guardian who performs strange rituals to protect the site from the strange spirits that are trapped in the hill. When the guardian dies, sand starts to trickle away from Holy Wood Hill, allowing the spirits or some kind of unpleasant entity to escape. It quickly infiltrates the vulnerable minds of the alchemists of Ankh-Morpork. Alchemists are a disgruntled group of marginalised not-quite wizards, best known for blowing themselves up and turning gold into less gold. Without quite understanding how, the alchemists quickly invent cinema – moving pictures – and decide to decamp to Holy Wood, starting a gold-rush of sorts as people head out to the coast in search of stardom, bedazzled by the glamour of Holy Wood. One such ingenue is Victor Tugelbend, the oldest student in the Unseen University, skilled at not passing his exams. He sets out to become a star, followed by numerous citizens of the capital including Cut My Own Throat Dibbler, Detritus, a troll bouncer from the Mended Drum, and Gaspode the Wonder Dog, who between them represent some of Discworld most popular secondary characters.

Victor breaks into the movies, literally, with the help of the talking Gaspode, and is introduced to Ginger, his co-star. All the while people are largely unaware of the strange magic that Holy Wood is casting over them. There’s a lot of scene setting as Pratchett lays the ground the novel’s finale, but it’s worth it. The pay off is a magnificent parody of King Kong and Gone With the Wind. Pratchett scatters funny references to movies throughout the novel – this is probably the richest novel for this feature, often with several clever little references to cinema or other aspects of popular culture on every page. This must make it a nightmare to translate!

Moving Pictures is of course much more than an affectionate parody of the film industry. Cinema is in any event something of a soft target – the early days of the movies in particular were ridiculous in so many ways, but they did give us some great films. They did cause people to behave out of character, but was there really any great harm done? So this is not a satire with any significant purpose, more a very light-hearted, at times even silly, commentary on the industry. There’s so much to enjoy here, from spotting the references to the wonderfully strong cast of characters, many such as Gaspode making their first substantial appearance in the series. There is a darker element to some of the Discworld novels, but it is almost completely missing here – whatever it is that escapes from Holy Wood Hill and infects the minds of men, women and animals, is ill-defined but relatively easily defeated.

Pratchett always has something interesting to say even when his is being at his most light-hearted, such as this wonderful paraphrasing of A Room of One’s Own:

“You know what the greatest tragedy is in the whole world?… It’s all the people who never find out what it is they really want to do or what it is they’re really good at. It’s all the sons who become blacksmiths because their fathers were blacksmiths. It’s all the people who could be really fantastic flute players who grow old and die without ever seeing a musical instrument, so they become bad plowmen instead. It’s all the people with talents who never even find out. Maybe they are never even born in a time when it’s even possible to find out. It’s all the people who never get to know what it is that they can really be. It’s all the wasted chances.” 

Eric was undoubtedly a blip, something that had all the hallmarks of a rush job, but Moving Pictures was equally obviously written with love and care. It’s wonderful, and a great place to start the collection if you have spurned the chances offered by Wyrd Sisters or Guards! Guards!

 

Book review: The Ballad of Peckham Rye, by Muriel Spark, 1960

Let’s look first at that title, The Ballad of Peckham Rye. In what sense is the novel a ballad, a “poem or song narrating a story in short stanzas; a slow or romantic song”? In using this formulation Spark is light-heartedly comparing her story to a Peckhamtraditional love song, where hearts are broken, women are done wrong by their menfolk, and strangers come to town for a showdown with the law. Juxtaposing this idea with the suburban location of Peckham Rye, an area of London traditionally ripe for mockery, undercuts the essential silliness of the idea. Incidentally, why is South London treated as comedy gold in this way – c.f. Citizen Smith of the Tooting Popular Front or the Trotters of Nelson Mandela House? The online dictionary I consulted goes on to further define a ballad as “typically of unknown authorship, having been passed on orally from one generation to the next.” The story of the central event of this novel, the jilting of Dixie Morse at the altar, complies with this definition and becomes a piece of local folklore, told and retold by the Peckham residents long after the central characters have moved on.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye opens with the aforementioned jilting by Humphrey Place of his bride Dixie at the altar with the immortal phrase “No, to be quite frank, I won’t”. His decision is widely ascribed to his friendship with Dougal Douglas, the novel’s central character. Spark then goes back to the point when Dougal arrives, apparently from out of the blue, in Peckham. He is employed by textiles manufacturers Meadows, Meade & Grindley to “bridge the gap between industry and the arts”. It’s never really clear what this means or what his duties are, other than they involve lots of off-site research among the working people of Peckham. Dougal has the ability to strike up close friendships very quickly, and he soon becomes close to a range of characters including the tragic Merle Coverdale, stuck in an unhappy, mechanical affair with her boss, and the reluctant groom to be, (or not) Humphrey Place. Others are more suspicious of Dougal, not least Dixie, concerned about the impact he is having on fiance Humphrey, and electrician Trevor Lomas leader of a local gang of youths, who think he may be a spy.

There’s a strong flavour of Joe Orton to this novel. A very confident stranger arrives from nowhere and causes havoc in the lives of a settled community, encouraging the breaking of taboos. Dougal embarks upon what Wikipedia accurately calls a “mission of disruption” across Peckham. His spurious “human research” on the “moral character” of the people of the area allows him to avoid going into work, and to take a second non-job at a local textile manufacturers. In his spare time he even more bizarrely also works as a ghost writer for retired actress Maria Cheeseman. This juggling act can’t last, and when his landlady has a stroke and Ms Coverdale is murdered by her lover, the scene is set for the wedding rejection we know is coming. Humphrey rejects marriage to the money obsessed Dixie because Dougal has introduced him to the idea that there is more to life than work and domesticity. Dougal leaves Peckham as suddenly as he arrived, and we are told continues his career of chaos elsewhere.

Spark flirts with magical realism in this novel, but always backs away. For example it is suggested that the crook-backed Dougal has two lumps on his head where horns have been surgically removed. The ideal that he is a devil sent to cause chaos in Peckham is hinted at elsewhere – for example he refers to his inability to cross water, and describes himself as “one of the wicked spirits that wanders through the world for the ruin of souls” – but we never really take this seriously, unlike in works such as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s much earlier Lolly Willowes where the devil really does arrive in the English countryside.

The novel captures the poverty of expectations of early 1960’s suburban London, and the possibility that there is more out there somewhere. It’s not a significant piece of work, and is understandably over-shadowed by the magnificent Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I suspect it is the kind of novel that would reveal more depths if re-read, but for now I am going to look for more elsewhere.

Book review: The Machine Stops, by E M Forster, 1909

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The Machine Stops is a strangely prescient Edwardian novella by an author better known for his writing on the delicate nuances of class behaviour amongst English people abroad. I tend to think of Forster as a modernist, but this text is closer to the Victorian science fiction of Wells and Verne than it is of the Bloomsbury authors Forster is commonly associated with. Forster

In The Machine Stops Forster describes a world set far in the future, where humanity lives underground, all their needs met by the omnisicient, all powerful, ‘Machine’. People live alone in isolated cells and only communicate using a version of skype (obviously Forster doesn’t call it that, he wasn’t that far-seeing, but that’s what it in effect is, even down to the fact that nuances of expression are lost on the video screens) and avoid all physical interaction with one another. They also appear scared of the sun, which I believe is intended to remind us of Wells’s troglodyte Morlocks in ‘The Time Machine”.

Vashti, a “swaddled lump of flesh”, is the character we follow through the eyes of an omniscient narrator. The story opens thus:

“Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee.”

Who is it that is inviting us to imagine this room? Someone is telling us a story about a time set a long way in our future, but also I would suggest, in the past of his hypothetical audience, when cell-living, near universal in the time of the Machine, is no longer the norm, so much so that it has to be pictured rather than just known. Thinking of an hexagonal room requires no great feat of imagination unless it is or has become something out of the ordinary. Is this Forster inviting his 1909 readers to imagine a future, or the narrator looking back on the time of the Machine before its stopped?

Some of this writing is clumsy – ‘hexagonal in shape’ – is tautology surely? “Hexagonal” would have sufficed. However the room’s shape leads the narrator to the text’s first, complex, image – it is like both a cell and simultaneously like part of a beehive. The use of the word cell suggests that Vashti – and everyone else living in the control of the machine – is its prisoner, entirely dependent on it for food, water, light etc. At the same time the room is part of a hive community, in which everyone has a pre-determined role in life and little choice in their future.

Vashti is contacted unexpectedly one day by her son Kuno, who has a mysterious message he can only tell her face to face. Against her best instincts she travels by plane to his cell, where he outlines his concerns about the Machine and the soullessness of existence underground. He hints that the surface world is not, in fact, uninhabitable, as people have been led to believe.

Vashti rejects her son’s confidences, and returns to her empty life of routine and order. Rather than stopping suddenly the machine slowly begins to fail over a period of years, before an final cataclysmic collapse in which Vashti, Kuno, and everyone else living underground dies.

The topicality of Forster’s observations about the risks of mankind becoming overly dependent on technology need hardly be spelled out. We are now all highly reliant on machines, (rather than a machine), but we are still vulnerable to the kind of technical or mechanical failure Forster anticipates. We also live very sheltered, sedentary lives compared to our grandparents, and are retreating from nature. In other words technology is a mixed blessing. Forster also anticipates the rise of social media, and its impact on social relationships. He notes of Vashti that

“she knew several thousand people; in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.”

But is the text ultimately anything more than a curiosity? Certainly it is that, without doubt, but I am not surprised Forster moved on to novels about middle class people and their subtle class distinctions, because as a story The Machine Stops is a failure. The two main characters are two-dimensional. The ending is sign-posted in the title, so hardly comes as a surprise. And as social commentary the story is a little preachy. When you compare what Wells was able to do with similar ideas one begins to appreciate how little Forster makes of his unquestionably original insights.

 

400 up

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Eric, the post I published earlier today, was my 400th post as the Reading Bug. This is as good an excuse as any to be a bit self-indulgent and look back over the three years since I moved across from Blogger (best move ever). 400

Most popular post? By far the post that gets the most views is the one I wrote on Clothing in Jane Eyre. Why? I have no idea. It must tick some mysterious search engine optimisation boxes. I get very few comments on the post despite all the traffic, so I may never know why it attracts so many visits. Second but some way back is this post on whether the marriage of Dorothea and Casaubon, the mismatched couple in Middlemarch, was ever consumated. This was supposed to be a light hearted piece of speculation about the imaginary sex-lives of a fictional couple, but it got away from me a bit.

Most reviewed author? Terry Pratchett of course, with 14 separate novels reviewed, albeit some co-authored, and with many more to follow. Runner up? Ian McEwan, with seven novels reviewed.

Favourite review? Tricky one that. I think it’s a draw between this review of Frankenstein, which speculates that the monster was a figment of Victor’s disturbed mental health, and this review of J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, which spotted a link between this novel and A Christmas Carol which at the time I thought was that rare thing, a genuinely original insight. Least favourite novel reviewed – it has to be Lionel Asbo I am afraid, which at the time I described as “Only Fools and Horses rewritten as torture porn”. Ouch. I actually think Amis can be a wonderful writer, but he got it spectacularly wrong that time.

It’s been fun, and if you have been, thanks for reading.

Book review: Eric, by Terry Pratchett, (Discworld 9) 1990

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Eric, the ninth Discworld novel, was originally published as a Discworld story to distinguish it from its predecessors in the series. It came in a large format with illustrations throughout by Pratchett’s then cover illustrator, Josh Kirby.eric

This is going to make me hugely unpopular with Pratchett fans everywhere, but I have never been a big fan of Kirby’s work on the Discworld covers. For a start the emphasis seems always on under-dressed young women in various states of peril. If this was done tongue in cheek then he might have got away with it now and again, but the covers are essentially childish, and the books are not. I think this didn’t help Pratchett get the recognition his work deserved, and although a new illustrator took over when Kirby died in 2001, by then a lot of the damage had been done. Brandon Sanderson once famously wrote of STP (in an essay which described the Discworld novels as “the highest form of literature on the planet” which even I think it a bit of a stretch) that

“I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to discover Terry Pratchett. I avoided him during much of my early reading career”.

Could it be that Sanderson was put off by the covers perhaps?

(Incidentally, since writing this I have also found this quote from Sir Terry himself on LSpace.org, The Annotated Pratchett file:

The next UK paperback reprint of TCOM (they do a couple a year) will not have a Kirby cover. This is an experiment — there’s been feedback to me and to Transworld that suggests there are a large number of potential DW readers out there who think they don’t like fantasy and don’t get past the Kirby covers.”

Well there you have it.)

Anyway, Eric is now available widely without the art work, as are all the Discworld novels, so each to his own. Eric is a gently humorous retelling of the story of Faust, as the front cover of most editions with the word Faust struck through and replaced by the word Eric leaves little doubt about. It’s part of the continuing adventures of Rincewind, the original Discworld hero, who we left trapped in the Dungeon Dimensions at the end of Sourcery.

Rincewind is summoned out of these dimensions by a teenage demonologist, Eric, who like all teenagers wants to meet the most beautiful woman in the world, live forever, etc. Rincewind is compelled to play the part of the world’s least convincing demon, although strangely he does seem to have powers to fulfil Eric’s wishes. A very unfunny parrot provides a form of chorus as they travel to Klatch, followed shortly behind by the luggage, to Troy, or the Discworld equivalent Tsort, and finally Hell. There’s a ‘doing it by numbers’ feel to the plot, closely following as it does the source story, with only glimpses of the humour and thoughtfulness that characterises a typical Discworld novel. After they escape from Hell – of course – and go on their way, the story pretty much peters out rather than ending with any satisfying conclusion.

Normally I am falling over quotes to use in a post about a Discworld novel – with Eric that’s more of a challenge. For example:

“What’re quantum mechanics?”

“I don’t know. People who repair quantums, I suppose.”

just isn’t that funny, is it, let alone telling us something essential about life as the best STP quotes often do. Or take this below-par use of the word ‘horology’, I hesitate to call it a pun, which only Eric would be amused by:

“The Tezuman priests have a sophisticated calendar and an advanced horology,” quoted Rincewind.
“Ah,” said Eric, “Good.”
“No,” said Rincewind patiently. “It means time measurement.”

“Oh.”

I am not going to labour the point, this was a bit of a dud, and I am going to move swiftly on to the wonders of some of later novels.

 

Book review: Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, 2017

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When Lincoln in the Bardo won the 2017 Booker prize, much of the media coverage focused on the apparent ‘difficulty of the novel’, probably encouraged by Saunders’s interviews on the topic. In fact the novel is wonderfully accessible, once the reader has adapted to the slightly unusual narrative technique.

The novel has many different narrators – by one count over 160 – and it cuts quickly between these different voices. On the page it is presented like this:

An exceedingly tall and unkempt fellow was making his way toward us through the darkness.
hans vollman

This was highly irregular. It was after hours; the front gate would be locked.
the reverend everly thomas

The boy had been delivered only that day. That is to say, the man had most likely been here –
roger bevins iii

Quite recently.
hans vollman

As you can see, the author has helpfully indicated which character is speaking, which is normally fine – I found myself quickly adapting to this technique, which seems a commonsense way of avoiding the “he said, she said” reporting of conversation which can be dull. Often it is not particularly important which character is narrating, because the three above act largely as a kind of chorus to the action, finishing one another’s sentences, as here, but when it matters it is simple enough to check. Less frequent narrators are usually given distinctive voices, speech patterns, or language. Note incidentally that it is virtually impossible to describe this approach without using the language of the spoken word – voice, speech, speaking, etc. This is because these sections of the novel are effectively a script. If the text was written this way it would not be a cause for comment or seen in any way as difficult:

Hans Vollman: “An exceedingly tall and unkempt fellow was making his way toward us through the darkness.”

The reverend Everly Thomas: “This was highly irregular. It was after hours; the front gate would be locked.”

Roger Bevins III: “The boy had been delivered only that day. That is to say, the man had most likely been here.”

Lincoln in the Bardo takes as its inspiration the death from typhoid of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, in 1862, as the civil war was beginning to take a toll on both sides. In his grief Lincoln visited the crypt where his son was interred. Saunders cuts between historical details of the event taken from what appears to have been a lot of research with a much stranger story in which Willie’s spirit is received by the ghosts of the cemetery, who in turn reveal their own personal accounts of how they died. “Bardo” is apparently the Tibetan Buddhist name for a form of purgatory, a transition period between death and rebirth which is where these ghosts choose to remain, mostly refusing to accept the fact of their deaths.

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Abraham and Willie

They instead believe themselves to be injured, but with a chance of exiting their “sick-boxes” (a euphemism for coffins) and returning to their former lives. They argue that as they are able to think and feel, they cannot be dead, although the word itself is scrupulously avoided. The principal narrators, quoted above, are Hans Vollman, who longs to return to his unconsummated marriage, forever cursed him with a freakishly engorged member, Roger Bevins iii, ashamed of his gay feelings, who cut his wrists only to change his mind moments too late, and Reverend Thomas, hiding in the Bardo from the threat of eternal damnation, and trying to find in his memories the reason for his fall.

The arrival of young Willie provides a distraction from the eternity of waiting they face, as they struggle to persuade him to move on. He is reluctant to do so because of his grieving father’s visits. Saunders builds a compelling portrait of these and the other inhabitants of the bardo, a cast of desperate, sad, lonely and disturbed “survivors” refusing to accept the fact of their own deaths, under regular siege from recruiters – angels or demons – from the next world. Many of the ghosts are hideously deformed with physical representations of their moral failings or the worries that tie them to the world of the living: for example a miser is “compelled to float horizontally, like a human compass needle, the top of his head facing in the direction of whichever of his properties he found himself most worried about at the moment”. These sections of the novel are often disturbing – the idea of death as something that can be ignored by strength of will alone is not in itself original, but the troubled lives of so many of Saunders’s characters are sometimes not easy to read. The portrait of Lincoln, a devastated father trying to continue his burdensome duties as President, is convincing, and strikes a different tone from the strangely light, almost comic scenes in the cemetery. Lincoln comes to see his bereavement as the price he must pay for committing his country to a war in which so many other sons and fathers were to die.

I can see why this novel won the Booker, although I confess I have not read any of the other short-listed candidates. This was a £1 charity shop buy of a near immaculate copy – someone obviously wasn’t that impressed – which always makes the read that little bit sweeter!

 

Book review: We Have Always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, 1962

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I’m trying to read more authors I haven’t read before. Shirley Jackson is a writer I have heard about mainly through references to her chilling short story, The Lottery. As I understand it, The Lottery is widely read in American schools, although it is much less well known in the UK. We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Jackson’s final novel, published three we have alwaysyears before her death, and tells the story of two sisters, Mary Katherine (Merricat) and Constance Blackwood, who live with their aging and infirm uncle Julian in their isolated home in New England. The Blackwoods were and are a prosperous family. They remain aloof from the common people of the village and make them walk around their property to reach the main road rather than allowing them a short cut across their estate. This creates tension between the villagers and the Blackwoods, tension which turns  ugly later in the novel.

Merricat narrates the tale, and it is clear from the opening that this is not a normal family:

“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 Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.” 

Older sister Constance never ventures further than the garden in the grounds of the family home. We soon learn why – she was tried and acquitted of murdering her family by poisoning their sugar bowl. Although sometimes described as a mystery, it doesn’t take Holmesian powers of deduction to work out who the real poisoner is – the character with the morbid obsession with death, who has sadistic fantasies about the people of the village who taunt her on her twice weekly shopping trips:

“I am walking on their bodies”

“I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die”

“I would have liked to come into the grocery some morning and see them all… lying there crying with the pain and dying”. 

Merricat is a troubled young woman. She uses a primitive, childish form of witchcraft to protect her family, marking the boundary of their property with fetishes and totems. She is consumed with harmful thoughts and haunted by OCD rituals. At this point in the story Constance’s mental health, in particular her agoraphobia, appears to be recovering. She welcomes visitors and talks of going down to the village. Merricat feels threatened by this change, but this is nothing compared to her reaction when Cousin Charles, clearly more interested in the contents of the Blackwood family safe than the sisters themselves, comes to visit. Merricat’s murderous fantasies become even more vivid :

I wanted to stamp on him after he was dead, and see him lying dead on the grass.”

“I could wish him dead until he died. I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth. I could bury him in the hole where my box of silver dollars had been so safe until he came; if he was under the ground I could walk over him stamping my feet.”

Charles’s arrival disturbs the delicate equilibrium of the house and Merricat’s mental health, and things quickly deteriorate. As Merricat desperately tries to drive him away she starts a fire which goes on to destroy much of the house, transforming it into the castle of the novel’s title, with an upper floor open to the elements like battlements. Uncle Julian dies in the fire and Charles flees. Merricat and Constance make a home in the ruins of their house, and this is where the story eventually leaves them, hidden from the rest of the world but finally accepted by the villagers.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a troubling tale which leaves the reader with many questions. Why did Constance not find her psychopathic sister the help that she so obviously needs? Why did no-one in the village work out the fairly simple puzzle about the identity of the family’s killer? How are the sisters going to survive in their ruins?

Merricat is an absorbing portrait of mental illness – but is We Have Always more than that? Does it have anything to say about American society, and about the way it treats outsiders? Merricat’s narrative voice is powerful, and can easily distract the reader into thinking that her account of the novel’s events, flawed though it is, is authentic, rather than seen through the distorting lens of her mental illness. We never get to know what precipitated her murderous attack on her family, but it is safe to say it was probably something trivial that lead to her being sent to her room that day. She certainly doesn’t see herself as a mass murderer; in many ways she is still a child, without any understanding of the consequences of her actions. She starts the fire that destroys their home, and although the volunteer firemen of the village put it out, saving the ground floor, they then go on to trash the house.

While the novel ends on a happy-ever-after note for Merricat and Constance, we can tell that their isolated way of life will not last long. Is this a parable for American society, that has survived the chaos and destruction of the second world war, but is living on borrowed time?

 

Book review: Patronising Bastards, by Quentin Letts, 2017

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Quentin Letts is a sketchwriter for the Daily Mail, a UK newspaper characterised by two predominant emotions- fear and hatred.  (AnThe Mail is frightened of, and therefore hates, difference and change. It hates foreigners, the EU, the BBC, socialists, liberals, remainers, health and safety, and political correctness. It loathes Jeremy Corbyn. So it is hardly surprising that this rambling collection of short essays is dominated by hatred of the above.

Letts had a modest amount of success with an earlier book, 50 People Who Buggered Up Britain, and this is just more of the same – a series of sketches loosely connected by the theme of people whom Letts finds patronising, although ‘people I disagree with” would be a more accurate summary. His targets range far and wide, and there is a random feel to attacks that span Nicholas Serota, Bob Shennan, an obscure radio programmer who had the temerity to move one of Letts’ favourite programmes, Richard Branson, Ian McEwan, Sandi Toksvig and Sir Ivan Rogers. No, I hadn’t hear of him either.

It is entirely understandable that Letts would use hyperbole as his go-to technique. Part of the problem with this book as he really doesn’t have any other way of approaching his subjects – the people he writes about are all mean patronising bastards, and there’s little if any light and shade in his portraits.

Personal insults abound. Obama is described as “feted mainly for being black” which is openly racist as far as I am concerned, Camila Batmanghelidjh is described as “that” (ditto, and sexist for good measure), Dame Judi Murray is a “great cow walrus“, and so on. Dame Vivienne Westwood must really have upset Letts at some point, because he is appalled when she revealed that she went commando to Buckingham Palace one time, saying “Sorry about the swarm of bluebottles, your Maj“. Yes, that’s right isn’t it Quentin, women’s genitals attract flies don’t they? Elsewhere she is “gurning termagant“. Elsewhere he describes Sandi Toksvig and “Sir Sandi” and Gary Lineker as “Dame Gary”. See what he did there – deliberately confused their gender to make fun of them. Hold my sides.

One of the persistent characteristics of Brexiteers is their tendency to portray themselves as outsiders, anti-establishment figures campaigning for the little man. Letts doesn’t really fit that bill (neither does Nigel Farage of course). He has written for The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, and The Times, amongst others. He was educated at Haileybury and Imperial Service College, Bellarmine College, Kentucky (now Bellarmine University), Trinity College, Dublin, and then studied Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1982–86) at Jesus College, Cambridge, taking a Diploma in Classical Archaeology. Quite the outsider!

Given all this it was a bit disturbing when I found myself agreeing with one of Letts’ observations on the cultural significance of Church of England hymns. It wasn’t a particularly political point, but he writes well on the importance of hymns in our cultural history and collective experience. The essay itself is spoiled by the tantrum that someone had the temerity to move his favourite programme – an arguable decision perhaps, but a long leap from patronising bastardy.

It’s always good to read books and writers you disagree with, I would be the first to accept that. As a left-leaning, remain-voting, blog-writing southerner I need to better understand why people voted remain, (although I still struggle to improve on Stewart Lee’s take on the situation. I can’t link it here because it is nsfw but google it). Did I come through the ordeal of reading Patronising Bastards with a better understanding of that perspective? Sadly no, because the level of personal abuse clouded almost any effort at constructing a coherent argument. Which was a pity, because 17.2m people can’t all be racists?

Book review: Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne, 1873

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Around the World in Eighty Days charts the adventures of Phileas Fogg and his valet Passepartout as they travel, well, you know what they get up to, and even if you didn’t the novel’s title would probably help you out! Set in 1870’s, the time of its serial publication, the story takes its inspiration from the recent verneopening of the American transcontinental rail route, which theoretically allowed a journey around the world by land and sea in a time span that in earlier years would have been thought impossible. This is the central concept of the novel, which was obviously original and engaging in its day, although it hasn’t aged well.

Fogg is a caricature of the typical bloodless Englishman (there is a debate about the extent to which Verne established the various features of the Englishman abroad caricature, but that feels like a more academic exercise than I have the appetite for), only interested in his wager and his whist. He largely ignores all the countries he passes through. Passepartout on the other hand is fascinated by all he sees, and gives the reader some interesting insights into the countries they fleetingly visit. The pressures of keeping up to Fogg’s strict timetable give the novel a great pace, but means the countries fly by relentlessly.

I found Fogg’s lack of interest in his journey strangely off-putting – even when he meets an exotic Indian princess and rescues her from a grisly fate he treats her like someone he shares a commute with. Verne defines him largely by negatives:

Certainly an Englishman, it was more doubtful whether Phileas Fogg was a Londoner. He was never seen on ‘Change, nor at the Bank, nor in the counting-rooms of the “City”; no ships ever came into London docks of which he was the owner; he had no public employment; he had never been entered at any of the Inns of Court, either at the Temple, or Lincoln’s Inn, or Gray’s Inn; nor had his voice ever resounded in the Court of Chancery, or in the Exchequer, or the Queen’s Bench, or the Ecclesiastical Courts. He certainly was not a manufacturer; nor was he a merchant or a gentleman farmer. His name was strange to the scientific and learned societies, and he never was known to take part in the sage deliberations of the Royal Institution or the London Institution, the Artisan’s Association, or the Institution of Arts and Sciences.

Fogg is well-named, unremarkable in his appearance and his character. He possesses a self control that is alien to his European assistant and most of the people he meets on his journey. He is described as being:

“about forty years of age, with fine, handsome features, and a tall, well-shaped figure; his hair and whiskers were light, his forehead compact and unwrinkled, his face rather pale, his teeth magnificent. His countenance possessed in the highest degree what physiognomists call “repose in action,” a quality of those who act rather than talk. Calm and phlegmatic, with a clear eye … exactitude personified. … He was so exact that he was never in a hurry, was always ready, and was economical alike of his steps and his motions. He never took one step too many, and always went to his destination by the shortest cut; he made no superfluous gestures, and was never seen to be moved or agitated. He was the most deliberate person in the world, yet always reached his destination at the exact moment.

I am not sure if the reader is supposed to admire or warm to Fogg – we hope he wins his bet, but that’s never in much doubt, even at the close, but his romance with the Indian princess is a matter of supreme indifference.

Passepartout on the other hand is a larger-than-life comic character, constantly getting into schoolboyish ‘scrapes’, although the ease and regularity with which he is extricated from these situations gives the story a lack of authenticity. He introduces himself thus:

“Jean Passepartout, a surname which has clung to me because I have a natural aptness for going out of one business into another. I believe I’m honest, monsieur, but, to be outspoken, I’ve had several trades. I’ve been an itinerant singer, a circus-rider, when I used to vault like Leotard, and dance on a rope like Blondin. Then I got to be a professor of gymnastics, so as to make better use of my talents; and then I was a sergeant fireman at Paris, and assisted at many a big fire. But I quitted France five years ago, and, wishing to taste the sweets of domestic life, took service as a valet here in England.”

Fix, the bumbling policeman pursuing Fogg in the mistaken belief that he is a bank robber, is intended to provide further comedy as well as undermining Fogg’s attempts to keep to time, but we are never under any illusion that the outcome of the wager has been decided long ago. No matter what obstacles Verne throws in the way of the travellers, we always know they are going to waltz right round them and make it to to doorstep of the Reform Club with a minute to spare.

Around the World in Eighty Days is a confident expression of the wonders of the technological innovations of the 19th century and the way they were opening up the world to travellers. Instead of being scared by the inventions and machines (pace Wells) Verne revels in their powers. The novel is a celebration of the European spirit of conquest, exploration and innovation. Obviously we can now see the darker side to that spirit, but Verne sees things only from the perspective of his European characters and is blithely unaware that they are exploiting the people and places they visit. The novel also marks the beginning of long distance travel as something accessible to people other than explorers.  

Although Verne is usually seen as a science-fiction writer, this is a good example of an author writing outside his usual genre. There is a strong emphasis on the events and places in the novel being rooted in the actual, an attempt to make everything feel real and believable – hence for example the obsession with train timetables throughout the book. Now we can circle the globe in hours it all feels a bit quaint and ridiculous, and a wasted opportunity to see the world rather than just rush around it.