I bought this as a pressie for my sister, but I'm shamelessly sneaking a read on the way through ... :-)
And now I've bought my own copy as well, cos I...moreI bought this as a pressie for my sister, but I'm shamelessly sneaking a read on the way through ... :-)
And now I've bought my own copy as well, cos I liked it so much.
OK. Wow. This is the story of Ker Maxim, who later becomes known as Lancelot. It begins with his childhood in a Roman villa in the south of England, in which the historical way of life (some thirty years after Rome's withdrawal from Britain) is evoked in vivid detail. Peace and prosperity cannot last much longer, however, with further encroachments from the Angles and Saxons.
Following the crisis back home, Ker Maxim becomes one of the Companions of Ambrosius Aurelianus, leader of 'independent Britain' - and we meet Artorius, the Count of Britain, second in power and inevitably Ambrosius's heir. And from there we follow the familiar story through to the battle at Badon and then on into the future.
The whole is told in a gritty and realistic way that makes Sword At Sunset seem like the Highest Romance. I wouldn't quite call the overarching feeling grim, though the scene is definitely set by the epigraph from Field-Marshall Lord Wavell: "Arthur was probably a grim figure in a grim unromantic struggle in a dark period of history."
There is no magic or mysticism, though there are things that Ker Maxim (telling the story in the first person) can't explain any other way. The Merlin character, referred to only as 'He', just seems a bit mad and pointless.
Various familiar aspects of the myths and legends are here played out in low-key ways. Stories are told, re-told and elaborated about Artorius and the other characters even as we move on with them to the next chapter.
The characterisations were interesting though at times puzzling. Ker Maxim - Lancelot - is in no way a Knight in Shining Armour, and doesn't even think of himself as much of a warrior. However, I suspect the Duke of Wellington would applaud his command of logistics, so no doubt this Lancelot was far more useful and effective than he thinks he was.
I don't know what to make of Artorius. I have always been particularly interested in Arthur, so I was keen to read this one. But he doesn't come across as a leader at all - certainly not the noble and inspirational man we tend to envision these days. I am reminded that Arthur hasn't always featured as a hero in the legends, and he's certainly no hero in this. It doesn't help that we only meet him once he's already established as a leader and Ambrosius's heir. It's all a fait accompli, and while we see why Ker Maxim is a loyal follower of Ambrosius, there never seems reason to appreciate let alone like Artorius.
So, perhaps that's the point...? It's certainly a deliberate choice by Vansittart, as we also meet Medraut and Gawayne, who are characters so sparsely yet fully written that they leap off the page, and certainly possess all the charisma that we would generally look for in Arthur. So why isn't Arthur given some of that as well?
Gwenhever is even more inexplicable, and in fact a downright disappointment. I didn't mind her very lowly origins, which could have made for an intriguing storyline - but she is not only written as 'witless', and described so by her husband, but silent. I don't think she had a single scrap of dialogue in the whole book. Even that might have been interesting, if only she wasn't pretty much the only female character we deal with once Ker has left his childhood home.
On the other hand, Ker Maxim desires men as well as women, so I appreciated that aspect of it all. But couldn't we have had an intelligent woman somewhere to help balance poor Gwenhever...?
Well. Obviously none of us are ever going to find the One Perfect Re-telling of the Arthurian legends that suits us in every detail. Perhaps that's not even possible, as no doubt we enjoy rather contradictory aspects of it all. But perhaps that's the reason why the stories are still being told and re-told and elaborated... We each want to really get it right this time. Just this once. Please?(less)
As we discover right from the start, this is a tragedy; not only because of the sheer number of dramatic deaths, but also because the heartbreak is ca...moreAs we discover right from the start, this is a tragedy; not only because of the sheer number of dramatic deaths, but also because the heartbreak is caused by qualities intrinsic to the main characters. In this case, those qualities aren't flaws, and that makes the outcome all the more difficult to bear.
Two lonely and damaged men have found real love and acceptance with each other. One of them feels a great love and responsibility for his brother. The other has a great love of words and writing. We like to think we live in a world where such a scenario wouldn't end in tragedy, but it does.
To be honest, I had a couple of small niggles with this novel, such as a few slips in POV - but I feel churlish even mentioning them. This is a short novel in which an epic tragedy is neatly and even lightly unfurled before us. I'll happily give it the full five stars for its aims and vision.(less)
Excellent. A short novel of finely observed characters, who are caught in a time of such great change that the different generations might be measured...moreExcellent. A short novel of finely observed characters, who are caught in a time of such great change that the different generations might be measured in a decade rather than the usual quarter-century. The setting and ways of life are also nicely observed, so that the reader gets a real feel for Russian life at the time and how it contrasts with European life.
The two main characters - Liza and Lavretsky - are terrific, and provide interesting arguments on behalf of Russia, even if not everything goes their way. The two main antagonists - Panshin and Lavretsky's wife - are also exquisitely drawn. The latter two are Russians who've been ruined by Europe, but the German musician Lemm provides a terrific counterweight to that.
Turgenev's underlying worldview seems pessimistic, which usually alienates me from the writer and his/her works - but in this case there is sadness rather than doom, and there is beauty in the sadness as well as, ultimately, hope. I'll certainly be reading more.(less)
I recently saw a production of this at the Old Vic Theatre, London, and very much enjoyed it, so wanted to read the script. The following 'review' bor...moreI recently saw a production of this at the Old Vic Theatre, London, and very much enjoyed it, so wanted to read the script. The following 'review' borrows somewhat from my initial response to the production.
The story here is touching and dramatic, but also at times very funny. It is all presented with a light, deft touch - and because I haven't (yet) read any other Turgenev, I'm not sure how much of that to attribute to him, and how much to Mike Poulton for his adaptation. There are certainly times when I felt that not only was the language translated, but the idioms were updated for the modern ear. Which is a perfectly acceptable approach, IMO, but leaves me wanting to develop more of a feel, if I can, for what might have been Turgenev's originally.
I digress! (I blame the champagne. And the loathsome Ilya.)
Yes, the light, deft touch. I am pleasantly surprised by how light the play feels - on the stage and on the page - given the depths of emotion it addresses. In the theatre, it all just flew by.
One of the fascinating aspects of the play - which I will credit to Turgenev - was how our sympathies rose and fell for each of the two main characters, Kuzovkin and Tropatchov. There are complexities in here, which I really appreciated.
Olga was also impressive. In this male-dominated society, she is strong and honest enough to find her own way to what she feels is right. Meanwhile, her young husband Yeletsky starts off as perhaps a little overly self-assured, and yet ultimately he is able to change his mind. The play didn’t end with everything neatly resolved - even between the newly-weds - but I was left with faith that this couple will grow into a good, happy and responsible future together.
Karpatchov, Tropatchov’s oleaginous sidekick, is an interesting role with a twist to it. But I was surprised to find that Ivanov, Kuzovkin's friend, is very underwritten on the page. This makes me all the more impressed by John McAndrew's performance, as he breathed life into the character's quiet sense of honour and dignity.
All up, I'm impressed, and I'm very much looking forward to reading more from Turgenev. (less)