Do you remember John Banville’s playful book, The Infinities? Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights features rampant spiritDo you remember John Banville’s playful book, The Infinities? Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights features rampant spirits as well, but the ways in which they interfere with the lives of men are quite different to the capricious Greek gods that saunter through Banville’s novel…
Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights (an allusion to the 1001 nights of Scheherazade’s storytelling) begins with a love story. A medieval Muslim philosopher called Ibn Rashd (known to us in the 21st century by his Latinised name Averroës) is exiled from his home town of Cordoba because he taught that natural phenomena obeyed natural laws that God had created. Although today Ibn Rashd is acknowledged as the ‘founding father of secular thought’, in his own time he was less influential than his rival Al-Ghazali of Tus who argued that the only law that exists is what God wills, and that anyone who disagrees with faith is incoherent. (And alas, this idea still has its adherents who use it to justify atrocities).
Sent to a place where he does not belong (migration is a frequent theme in Rushdie’s books) Ibn Rushd falls in love with Dunia, a jinnia, (i.e. a female jinn or genie), because these events take place at a time when the slits in the world are open and jinns who are normally quiescent, are out and about. Dunia thus becomes a mythical matriarch, producing innumerable offspring who combine the human qualities of their father and the quixotic characteristics of a supernatural creature from the unknown world.
These offspring spread to the four corners of the world, and closer to our time, end up doing battle with more malevolent jinns when in the period of The Strangeness lasting two years, eights months and twenty-eight nights, the world is under siege from amoral and hostile beings who make Banville’s mischief-makers look like innocents
Human Traces is a strange book: I was torn between admiring it very much and wishing it would hurry up and end so that I could read something else.
It’Human Traces is a strange book: I was torn between admiring it very much and wishing it would hurry up and end so that I could read something else.
It’s a long book at 608 pages in the edition I read, but long books are usually no problem, especially not if they are written in the style of the traditional 19th century novel. I grew up on the 19th century novel, and I like its certainties and its style, especially for comfort reading. Faulks has recreated this style almost as if he had travelled in time, and the world he creates is compelling and believable.
The problem derives from the 19th century quest to understand the mind and madness, which drives the novel. Two young men, Jacques Rebière and Thomas Midwinter, share the ambition to find a cure for the madness that made them doubt the existence of God. To make this real for the reader, Faulks takes us through the history of managing mental illness, starting with Jacques’ brother Olivier, chained in a barn on the family farm, and moving on to Thomas’s first job in a vast English asylum where the descriptions of how the inmates were treated will haunt you. But the author also devotes long pages to explaining the 19th century theories about mental illness, dressed up in the form of didactic digressions, as when Sonia, Thomas’s sister and eventually Jacques’ wife, is given a crash course in understanding medical terms so that she can understand their work. There are speeches and papers at public events, and internal monologues which reveal the thoughts and anxieties of the two young doctors too. And, as you might expect, there are also sequences of dreams and interpretations, although Freud is present only for his Oedipal theory to be mocked by Thomas, who believes in biological causation of mental illness. (Which brings him into conflict with Jacques, who supports the coexistence of these competing schools of thought).
My father loves Antonia Fraser’s books – I think he’s read all her histories and some of her detective fiction too. I’ve only read Mary, Queen of ScotMy father loves Antonia Fraser’s books – I think he’s read all her histories and some of her detective fiction too. I’ve only read Mary, Queen of Scots (1969) and that was so long ago it predates keeping a reading journal and I can’t remember what I thought of it. Presumably not enough to have wanted to read the rest of my father’s collection.
But still, I was interested to read this memoir. I like literary biographies because it’s fascinating to see how writers develop…
Lady Antonia Fraser DBE was born in 1932 into a family privileged by class and education, where she led a charmed life as the eldest of eight children. However, hers was not a life of ostentatious or shallow privilege. Her father, Frank Pakenham, (a.k.a. Frank Longford) was an Oxford don who came from an old aristocratic Anglo-Irish family but was a ‘second son’, and he became Lord of Longford only because his older brother and heir to the title, had no children. The circumstances, however, were unusual, to say the least…
Well, I never thought I’d be saying this about a novel by Pat Barker, but I found Noonday banal. It’s basically a not particularly interesting versionWell, I never thought I’d be saying this about a novel by Pat Barker, but I found Noonday banal. It’s basically a not particularly interesting version of the eternal triangle with the London Blitz as a backdrop, and the ending is trite.
Noonday completes the story of Paul Tarrant, Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville whose story began in Life Class and continued in Toby’s Room, novels which tread the well-worn paths of Ypres and the Somme and the concomitant loss of hope, faith and sometimes a moral compass. These characters are all artists who first met at the Slade School in 1914, but in this novel all three are risking their lives as the Blitz rages – Elinor and Kit as ambulance drivers and Paul as an air-raid warden rescuing people from bombed houses. As you might expect, none of them have time to do much art but Kit (who also has a desk job in the Ministry of Information) spends his time bitching about how he’s been overlooked by (the real-life) Kenneth Clark for commission as a war artist.
It’s not until late in the book that one realises the significance of the sub-title to this amusing piece of 18th century literature. Readers of the pIt’s not until late in the book that one realises the significance of the sub-title to this amusing piece of 18th century literature. Readers of the period would have been alert to the word ‘adventure’ in The Female Quixote, or The Adventures of Arabella because, as the Countess gravely explains to Arabella in Book 8, ideas change, and what was proper in a bygone age, may be scandalous in the present. (And vice versa, in the 21st century). For poor foolish Arabella, whose head has been turned by the imprudent reading of French romances, the idea of adventure is captivating, and she longs to be rescued from imminent peril by any number of heroic gentlemen. Alas, for Arabella, the greatest peril she faces is the loss of her reputation because the adventures that she orchestrates can only bring scandal…
Custom, said the Countess smiling, changes the very Nature of Things, and what was honourable a thousand Years ago, may probably be look’d upon as infamous now — A Lady in the heroic Age you speak of, would not be thought to possess any great Share of Merit, if she had not been many times carried away by one or other of her insolent Lovers: Whereas a Beauty in this could not pass thro’ the Hands of several different Ravishers, without bringing an Imputation on her Chastity. (Bk 8).
The Female Quixote, GirleBooksThe book is, of course, a spoof, a reworking of Cervantes’ famous Don Quixote, which pokes fun at the chivalric tradition through Quixote’s obsession with Rescuing Fair Maidens and Performing Other Heroic Deeds. Lennox’s heroine, being only a girl, cannot ride off on any Rocinante to tilt at windmills – the adventures must come to her, and so indeed they do. Hapless servants and passers-by are interpreted as Noble Suitors in Disguise, scandalously using the role of underlings to get close enough to pay their addresses. These must be banished from her sight, because no True Man Who Loves Her could possibly do so without Pining in Desolation in a cave, Slaughtering Rivals with the Sword, Dying by Their Own Forlorn Hand or Wasting Away until She Whom They Love with Unreserved Passion Commands Otherwise. Then there are Others of more Nefarious Intent who lurk in her gardens purporting to be haymakers and from these would-be Ravishers, she must be rescued. After she has Swooned, of course