As a maiden youth, good, quiet Anne was persuaded by her betters to break off her engagement with the dashing Captain Wentworth because of his uncertaAs a maiden youth, good, quiet Anne was persuaded by her betters to break off her engagement with the dashing Captain Wentworth because of his uncertain prospects and lowly status. Eight years later their paths cross again. Will their awkwardness give way to renewed romance? Obviously.
This is my third Austen (after S&S and Emma) and favourite so far. There is never the slightest doubt about the outcome, but the journey remains endlessly interesting. The writing is muscular and purposeful, leaner than it looks, in that everything is of use. In amongst the comedy of manners and the deft character portraits there is serious chewing over of how much one should be guided by one’s own impulses, and how much submit to the judgements of others, who may be equally fallible. There is also, by the by, a quiet appreciation of the rigours of naval life at the time. Indeed, this is a novel big on duty. But withal, the core experience for the reader is of sustained emotional tension, which, given that almost nothing actually happens, is a pretty neat trick.
Of course, it’s lucky Austen wrote when she did, as the modern version of the tale would have Wentworth asking Anne out for a drink and in for a coffee, and that would be that! Her testaments of life and thought when relationships had to be negotiated to their conclusion without a word spoken are like treasure chests buried two centuries ago: you dig them up, fling back the lid, and a brimming hoard of insights and sensations spills out at your feet....more
While I'm a big fan of Joyce's novels, these short stories didn't do much for me. His trademark is edgy, creepy entities subtly protruding into everydWhile I'm a big fan of Joyce's novels, these short stories didn't do much for me. His trademark is edgy, creepy entities subtly protruding into everyday life - like a shark's fin glimpsed too close to the beach. In these tales, it's as if the shark is floundering in a puddle: the short form means that the fantastic elements are foregrounded, and at the same time there isn't the space to slowly and meticulously develop them.
For instance, the story The Pylon concerns a group of children who play beneath an electricity pylon that seems to have some spooky power of its own. But in so brief a tale this is barely more than flatly stated, with neither its cause nor its consequences clear. One unresolved mystery like that might serve to spice a collection; but several of these tales follow a similar formula.
I am perhaps over-harsh, having expected stories more pointed from the author of books like The Tooth Fairy. But if I wasn't entirely satisfied with the resolutions, Joyce's other trademark, razor-sharp characterisation with dialogue that bleeds off the page, is much in evidence; so the collection is never less than enjoyable....more
The first of the three 'books' in this volume, Swan Lake, follows a similar story to the ballet. A young prince is first enamoured of a woman (herselfThe first of the three 'books' in this volume, Swan Lake, follows a similar story to the ballet. A young prince is first enamoured of a woman (herself of noble blood and murdered parents) who lives by a remote lake; but he is for a time seduced away from this pure love by the woman's worldly counterpart at court. A usurper rises and overthrows the prince's father, the emperor, while the prince, reunited with his love - well, enough said. All this is told by an old tutor to a young girl in the mountains, and it is she, a lost princess, who goes on to retake the kingdom as narrator of the second book, A City In Winter. The cycle completes with the next generation in The Veil Of Snows.
Helprin's vivid prose is well suited to his operatic themes. He is winningly careless of anachronism in this unnamed land in an unknown time, and confident in his brushstrokes of humour:
...Beanslaw Tookisheim, the electricity magnate, who made his fortune by harnessing dynamos to house-size wheels in which ten thousand chipmunks fed on meal laced with anxiety drugs would desperately try to flee overhead horns blasting out The 1812 Overture.
Young readers may be delighted by these cheerful indulgences, as well as by the bold imagination that offers us: a palace so huge that even to cross its bakery takes six hours on something like a ski lift; a whale in a bathtub; a clock built by God. That said, I'm not entirely sure that I would have grasped this sprawling story of rebellion and nobility at the age of, say, ten. I felt somewhat that Helprin was writing in the genre of children's fiction, rather than writing a book for children. He is concerned, as also in his gut-twistingly funny novel Freddy And Fredericka, to promote a vision of honourable leadership and self-sacrificing duty, forged in a refiner's fire (qv), that is as laudable as it is improbable. I'm not clear if he believes in this, or chooses or aspires to believe it, or merely means to confront me with it; but it's a vision that is, at any rate, unignorable.
The prose and the tale, then, are fairly described as beautiful. What a pleasure therefore that they are presented in such a physically beautiful form. The paper is luxurious, the large Weiss print crisp as a shard of ice. Each page of this expansive hardback is topped with a decorative frieze. To hold it is to covet it! And then there are the illustrations, full-page colour plates by Chris Van Allsburg that in their muted yet rich tones contain just enough detail and no more: I would be delighted to hang any one of these on my wall.
In sum: a glorious book for 'children of all ages' (except, perhaps, actual children!)....more
This sequel to Three Men in a Boat only sporadically achieves the joy of its progenitor. The narrator and his pals George and Harris (he says nothingThis sequel to Three Men in a Boat only sporadically achieves the joy of its progenitor. The narrator and his pals George and Harris (he says nothing of the dog) polish up their bicycles and go a-roaming through the Black Forest in Germany. Naturally they get into scrapes and adventures, and these are sometimes very funny. Here, gentle fun is poked at the Germans' horror of stepping on the grass:
In a German park I have seen a gardener step gingerly with felt boots on to grass-plot, and removing therefrom a beetle, place it gravely but firmly on the gravel; which done, he stood sternly watching the beetle, to see that it did not try to get back on the grass; and the beetle, looking utterly ashamed of itself, walked hurriedly down the gutter, and turned up the path marked "Ausgang."
But a lot of the time the characters seem mere decorations on a straightforward piece of travel writing, sometimes disappearing for most of a chapter - as for instance when the author describes the German Mensur tradition, in which students evidently competed to scar each other with manly wounds. Well worth discussing, perhaps, but out of place in a comic novel. And sometimes when the humour is present, it doesn't quite come off: for example, a lot of effort is expended in contriving a situation in which three drunkards end up sleeping in each other's houses; but the farcical opportunities are wasted as the episode simply winds up.
It remains a perfectly pleasant book, but it hasn't the modest perfection and warm-hearted charm of the earlier book. It's perhaps most memorable for its weirdly prescient remarks on 'the German character'; in particular:
In Germany today [pre-WWI] one hears a good deal concerning Socialism, but it is a Socialism that would only be despotism under another name.
This is a collection of tales, each told by Carnacki to the narrator and friends after dinner. All of the adventures have an air of real spookiness, oThis is a collection of tales, each told by Carnacki to the narrator and friends after dinner. All of the adventures have an air of real spookiness, often tending to the disturbing, although not all turn out to be genuine hauntings. Carnacki is called in to investigate old houses wherein are strange happenings, and he pursues the putative spirits with courage and meticulous methods (such as the carefully constructed Electric Pentacle!).
The stories make for a good read, although the frame tale is irritatingly formulaic: the narrator and his companions get no more characterisation than a surname each, and little is added by the manner of recounting. I wondered if Hodgson was being paid by the word... Nonetheless, Hodgson's dark, monumental imagination is unique, and some of these spirits haunt not only their ancient manors but the reader's mind....more
This is a raucous, bawdy play about the 18th-century political radical and merry scoundrel John Wilkes. Essentially it covers one day in his life in wThis is a raucous, bawdy play about the 18th-century political radical and merry scoundrel John Wilkes. Essentially it covers one day in his life in which he is assailed by three no doubt typical problems: his womanising friend the Reverend Charles Churchill is imperilled by the family of his latest floozy; another friend, the boor Lord Cobham, is imperilled by a duel with a lord he has insulted; and Wilkes himself is imperilled by a Scotsman who wants to murder him for japes against the Scots. Wilkes deftly evades and resolves all these difficulties even while incarcerated in the Tower of London!
The play is not long - around an hour in performance, I would guess - and is as rude as it is funny. It pines for a time when politics was more scurrilous and vituperative, more fun and more honest - or at least more honestly dishonest.
The play is followed by a short article by Whitbourn, rejected by the New Statesman, in which Wilkes is lauded in contrast to modern politicians, and particularly as an English nationalist. It is indeed interesting that such a fiery and influential figure is so little remembered.
As this edition was presumably entirely prepared by the author, there are a surprising number of typos; but nothing significant. That Devil Wilkes! is enlightening and very amusing....more
It begins in Isfahan, Persia, at the end of the 16th century. Nat Bramble is a downtrodden youth in the sTake-home message: this is a wonderful novel.
It begins in Isfahan, Persia, at the end of the 16th century. Nat Bramble is a downtrodden youth in the service of the ruthless opportunist Sir Anthony Sherley. Bungling a dangerous speculation with his master's money, Nat throws caution to the wind and embarks on an expedition to find oil, dreamed up by his new friend, the lovestruck poet Darius Nouredini. Their bold adventure sets in train a sprawling journey across Europe and through the birth-pangs of a British Empire built on far-flung commerce of dubious morality.
The tale is rich in the authentic details of its setting, yet wears its research lightly: I was particularly charmed to learn of the custom by which wedding musicians were paid - you'll have to read it to find out! The writing is fine indeed, but style does not overpower the story. In Newman's previous (also excellent) novel The Fountain At The Centre Of The World, the prose was startlingly sharp but denser: I found this a much smoother, more accessible read, and couldn't stop turning the pages. An example of this expressive, intelligent, yet fluid writing: Darius flounders in arguing with his mother:
Home was the place where Darius hardly knew himself. When he wasn't in this airless cavern he could clearly describe the full horror of this violation, but here he lost all his powers of persuasion. Even when he did place a solid gold argument in the family's crooked scales it somehow carried less weight than his mother's brassy rebuttal.
Note the working in of mercantile metaphors: although it is fascination with the characters that draws us along, this book is actually a serious (though often funny) meditation on trade. The 'secret' of the title is spelled out at one point; but there is another unspoken one that we infuse from the tale just as Nat inhales qaveh fumes, to do with trade as the manifestation of mutual trust between individuals, and not as an end in itself. Again and again, worlds turn on the carrying of messages to engender such trust, via pigeons and poetry; for it is fragile and not easily achieved.
The endlessly colourful adventures at length separate the lifelines of Nat and Darius, and I wondered if this might weaken the ending; yet the closing page reconnects the two strands with immaculate delicacy. Here and elsewhere I was reminded of the respectful elegance of Guy Gavriel Kay's books. The Trade Secret is a history lesson, a radical course in economics, a travelogue, a comedy, a romance and an adventure. If that's not a bargain well made, I don't know what is!...more
The schtick here is that Charles Dickens, helping victims at a train crash, encounters a cadaverous and mysterious 'gentleman' called Drood, who seemsThe schtick here is that Charles Dickens, helping victims at a train crash, encounters a cadaverous and mysterious 'gentleman' called Drood, who seems to have a hand in hastening death among the injured. Fascinated and repelled by this creature, Dickens confides in his friend and fellow writer Wilkie Collins, and the two of them set out to search for Drood in the labyrinth of crypts and sewers beneath London.
The gothic yarn, itself a dark labyrinth, is narrated by Collins, who does not emerge well in this portrait: the reader sees an envious, vain, misogynistic and drug-addled little man, seething in Dickens' shadow. (If you've seen Amadeus, Collins plays Salieri to Dickens' Mozart.) Dickens too is presented warts and all, but since everything is seen through the laudanum-drenched and gout-ridden eyes of Collins, the reader must be careful in judgement. Indeed, atop the unreliability of the self-serving narrator are layers of hallucination and hearsay, opium and mesmerism: the reader is aware that the narrative can't be trusted, but it is fiendishly difficult to tease apart the fiction and the phantasms, both deftly woven in amongst the facts of these two writers' latter years.
Simmons' fulsome research here suffuses the book without hobbling it, as has sometimes happened in some of his earlier novels. The narrative voice of Wilkie Collins, self-revealing yet blind to his own faults, is an excellent piece of mischief, and Simmons ingeniously provides for the reader a denouement that neither of his protagonists can fully understand. For all its colourful horrors, intricate thrills and wild delirium, this is finally a book about writers - artists - enslaved by their work: the burden of genius, and the tragedy of knowing you aren't one. It's a treat for fans of either writer, and among Simmons' best....more
This short book is a sequence of made-up myths (as I suppose all myths are!) about gods and their prophets. Written in Dunsany's elegant prose, the taThis short book is a sequence of made-up myths (as I suppose all myths are!) about gods and their prophets. Written in Dunsany's elegant prose, the tales are intriguing little thought-provokers. (Calvino's Invisible Cities came to mind as a comparison.) They avoid saying anything very definite or polemical - Dunsany's stuff often has a feel of a gentleman's parlour game, a poetic affectation - but the yarns are lyrical and melancholy, even fatalistic. Here a prophet craves death:
And every day and all night long did Yun-Ilara cry aloud: "Ah, now for the hour of the mourning of many, and the pleasant garlands of flowers and the tears, and the moist, dark earth. Ah, for repose down underneath the grass, where the firm feet of the trees grip hold upon the world, where never shall come the wind that now blows through my bones, and the rain shall come warm and trickling, not driven by storm, where is the easeful falling asunder of bone from bone in the dark."
Prose cup-cakes that won't change your life, but if you're like me they might sometimes direct your brain down paths less trodden......more
A classic picaresque comic yarn. I started it when I was 17 and ploughed to a stop in a few pages, up to my neck in the treacle of eighteenth-centuryA classic picaresque comic yarn. I started it when I was 17 and ploughed to a stop in a few pages, up to my neck in the treacle of eighteenth-century prose. Or perhaps sawdust rather than treacle: this is dry stuff, after all. But this time, with many more years and books under my belt, I was able to enjoy and even relish the orotund sentences, the disingenuous authorial posturing and the windy dialogue.
Briefly: Tom, a bastard, is taken under the wing of the benevolent Squire Allworthy, and later falls for Sophia, pure-hearted daughter of a neighbour, the blustering Squire Western. Allworthy's nephew Blifil schemes to get Tom out of the way of any inheritance, and after numerous bawdy and domestic episodes, Tom is turned out and hits the road. Rambling across the land he has many more adventures, before fetching up in London. There the other characters gather for various reasons, and after much confusion things come to a satisfying end.
There's a lot to laugh at in this book: the passage in mock-Homeric prose about a slattern beating up a disapproving congregation in the churchyard had me choking on the bus. But then there's a lot of this book in general, and I could have done with the chuckles being closer together. Fielding paints his world in conversation and psychology: the senses are little catered for, so that, for instance, the long grey middle of the novel is a bewildering succession of inns and roads and bedrooms, with no physical descriptions to anchor the reader in the world. Reading this over months on my commute, I soon lost track of people, places and incidents. That said, it's good fun all the way along, and the close satirical observation of manners and character retains its good-natured bite across the centuries.
Much of this may be illustrated by a paragraph in which Blifil refers to the wisdom of the hypocrite priest Thwackum and the dissolute philosopher Square:
For these reasons Mr Blifil was so desirous of the match that he intended to deceive Sophia, by pretending love to her; and to deceive her father and his own uncle, by pretending he was beloved by her. In doing this he availed himself of the piety of Thwackum, who held, that if the end proposed was religious (as surely matrimony is), it mattered not how wicked were the means. As to other occasions, he used to apply the philosophy of Square, which taught, that the end was immaterial, so that the means were fair and consistent with moral rectitude. To say truth, there were few occurrences in life on which he could not draw advantage from the precepts of one or other of those great masters.
If that doesn't draw up the corners of your lips, this novel is probably not for you!...more
An odd confection. Two wizardly chums are subjected to magical attacks and journey off together to confront their mysterious enemy. Prospero (not thatAn odd confection. Two wizardly chums are subjected to magical attacks and journey off together to confront their mysterious enemy. Prospero (not that one) and Roger Bacon (yes, that one?) are wizards who hang around in the North and South Kingdoms, but also have access to the lands and history of Earth we are familiar with. Thus the book is peppered with indulgent anachronisms - Prospero tells his talking mirror to shut up and watch some late-night movies, for instance. This whimsical tone is light-hearted without ever quite making it to funny, and was a tad distracting to this reader. I also lost track of the plot a little - not that it's that complicated, but it is a little buried under the wonders, and I spent too long over this short book! My final complaint is that, not knowing the rules and constraints of magic in the depicted world, events appeared to me arbitrary and sometimes unsatisfying.
However, above all that is the nature of the enchantment preying on our heroes. Here the author's imagination shines, depicting endless subtle transformations and spooky distortions in the world, such as the face that seems to appear in thawing frost on villagers' window-panes, or the shifting cloak hung in Prospero's cellar. The sense of the entire land becoming ever more bewitched and uncertain is palpable and chilling, reminding me of Algernon Blackwood's stories. For this admirable tapestry of growing supernatural menace, the tale is well worth reading....more
Jurgis, a strong, simple man, brings his extended family from Lithuania to Chicago, in hope of a better life. Thrown into the giant system of the ChicJurgis, a strong, simple man, brings his extended family from Lithuania to Chicago, in hope of a better life. Thrown into the giant system of the Chicago stockyards, our heroes are gradually ground down by its ruthless practices. Their expectation that honest hard work will sustain a modest, decent lifestyle is revealed as hopelessly naive, and the family eventually crumbles under the strain to just survive.
The novel opens with the wedding of Jurgis and Ona, a scene in which the passion, humour and humanity of the characters are at their height:
As [Marija] roars her song, in a voice of which it is enough to say that it leaves no portion of the room vacant, the three musicians follow her, laboriously and note by note, but averaging one note behind.
The opening is bursting with life and goodness. But from there it is downhill all the way, as the gears of the packing machine bite into their lives and every day is a desperate struggle to claw a few cents out of it:
Once she cried aloud, and woke Jurgis, who was tired and cross. After that she learned to weep silently - their moods so seldom came together now! It was as if their hopes were buried in separate graves.
The relentless parade of barbarous practices ought logically to pale in its impact, but in fact each new monstrosity is more appalling than the last:
It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were a nuisance, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread and meat would go into the hoppers together.
The comparison between the packers' merciless exploitation of livestock and of workers is explicit and unavoidable:
He was of no consequence - he was flung aside, like a bit of trash, the carcass of some animal.
In its portrayal of savage exploitation, The Jungle stands alongside classics like London Labour and the London Poor and The Grapes of Wrath. Sinclair's exposé of industry's systematic devouring of immigrant labour shouts its own case, but he helps it along too with bursts of impassioned rhetoric - such as when Jurgis is arrested:
Now and then he cried aloud for a drink of water, but there was no one to hear him. There were others in that same station house with split heads and a fever; there were hundreds of them in the great city, and tens of thousands of them in the great land, and there was no one to hear any of them.
And when he is starving on the streets:
...everywhere was the sight of plenty and the merciless hand of authority waving them away. There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside.
All this is powerful, furious and bleak writing; but the trajectory of the tale is unfortunate. Jurgis' long travails bring him at length into the arms of socialism, clearly Sinclair's cure for these ills. The author's utopian presentation of a socialist future is understandable, laudable even, for a writer in 1906 who had not the dubious benefit of seeing the advent of communism and finding it quite as susceptible to corruption and brutalisation as capitalism. Indeed, the first of the speeches that Jurgis witnesses is an absolutely enthralling piece of oration. However, the closing passages of the book are entirely concerned with these hopeful politics, and Jurgis becomes no more than a cypher, a sort of roving webcam giving the reader access to the discussion. It's sad that in his enthusiasm to convert, Sinclair does to Jurgis what he has been at such pains to condemn: he crushes out the man's humanity in pursuit of an ideology. Plainly the author's motives are infinitely preferable to the greed of untrammelled industry, but this failing means that the novel lacks any human, felt resolution - a great shame after the pathos and tragedy that has captivated us throughout.
Nonetheless, it's a moving, eye-opening and unforgettable novel.
(PS. My (kindley) edition was not the 36-chapter 'unexpurgated' version.)...more
Commander Vimes of the City Watch takes a holiday at his wife's country estate. There he slowly uncovers misdeeds against the local goblins, who are rCommander Vimes of the City Watch takes a holiday at his wife's country estate. There he slowly uncovers misdeeds against the local goblins, who are regarded as vermin and collected up to use as slaves. Vimes' righteous outrage powers him on to bring the guilty to justice, even though he's not sure there's even been a crime.
Pratchett paints the goblins here as downtrodden, resigned and meek: abused outcasts reduced to petty crime and extremity. Their pitiable role calls to mind that of gypsies, jews and black people at various times and places, but it is less any particular historical case that he is targeting than the phenomenon of prejudice itself, and the ease with which we accede to and collude in it. Worthy as this project is, Pratchett is leaning on an open door, as the whole battle over slavery was of course settled, in argument if not in fact, over a century ago. Further, since acceptance of 'goblin rights' here is predicated on recognition of their talents and emotional expression, we are left to imagine that a minority whose members didn't happen to shine in those ways would not have escaped oppression; so the author has solved the 'soft' case, not the 'hard' one.
Though the book is enlivened by an action-packed river chase, it's light on comedy, eschewing the zany (no appearance of Death, for instance). It's satisfying enough, but not one to stand out among the Discworld novels....more
Emma is an accomplished young woman, busily engaged, at least in her own mind, with settling the lives of the people around her. Considering herself aEmma is an accomplished young woman, busily engaged, at least in her own mind, with settling the lives of the people around her. Considering herself a consummate judge of character, she takes on Harriet, a well-schooled girl of poor pedigree, as a pet project, and seeks to marry her off to an eligible gentleman. This leads to disastrous misunderstandings and Emma's first humbling, in which she is chided by her clear-sighted, plain-speaking friend Mr Knightley. The arrival on the local scene of a neighbour's prodigal son, Mr Churchill, gives Emma further opportunities to misread events and cause damage. At 200 years' distance, I don't think I'll be giving too much away if I say that Emma learns her lesson and it all comes out alright...
Austen's writing is slyly witty and of course beautifully observed. Still, although I wouldn't dare suggest what could be discarded here, I did feel that she insisted on including every fly-on-the-wall detail, whereas a later writer might tell a tale like this in a more concentrated form with deft selection of telling incident. However, I suppose this unrelenting attention to social foibles is what distinguishes her novels in the first place. And if the story does not directly challenge the class and sex conventions of the time, it certainly forces the reader to think about them with a wry smile - perhaps the gentlest, and thus wickedest, of subversions......more