There is a lot here about Irenaeus, a major second-century figure in the establishment of the early Church and its gospels, which were later confirmedThere is a lot here about Irenaeus, a major second-century figure in the establishment of the early Church and its gospels, which were later confirmed at the Council of Nicea (325). There is also very interesting material on Emperor Constantine. I had not known, for example, that his support of the early Church had so pervaded the everyday workings of his empire. In addition to sponsoring the Council of Nicea, Constantine ruled the empire from the perspective of a Christian, issuing numerous edicts favorable to the Church and Christians. Not long before that, of course, Romans were throwing Christians to the lions. The book is worthwhile reading. It's filled with interesting bits. But it's not a cohesive work. I found it lacking the overarching unity such as I found in The Gnostic Gospels and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. It seems clear that the data before Ms. Pagels, who is really a wonderful writer, did not permit the sort of unity that I as a reader sought. So she can't really be blamed. Beyond Belief touches on a private tragedy in Ms. Pagels own life. Though the book is popular religious scholarship, the inclusion of such a heartbreaking tale gave it a human dimension this reader warmed to. I felt the narrator to be someone I knew something about, and that made progress through the text far more pleasurable than it would have been had she employed the usual scholarly anonymity....more
The so-called apocryphal gospels, discovered by a farmer in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, are here explained in the context of late second-centuThe so-called apocryphal gospels, discovered by a farmer in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, are here explained in the context of late second-century RC church history. Gnostic (gnosis, Gk: knowledge) Christians did not believe that human intermediaries (priests, etc.) were necessary for an individual to find God. For the gnostics, enlightenment was an entirely inward and self-determined process. Gnostic Christians believed that Jesus was not divine but an ordinary man with an extraordinary message. They did not believe in the resurrection of the flesh. They did not believe in the eucharist, nor did they have any eschatalogical beliefs. They believed in a higher supreme god and a lower creator god, Yahweh, the Jewish god, who maliciously made man in his image and demanded to be worshipped by him. They believed that "secret wisdom" was handed down to the Apostles by Jesus, esoteric knowledge which was not vouchsafed to ordinary believers but only to mature ones. The gnostics believed that through their inner way of knowing God that they were then able to exceed the knowledge of the Apostles. There is language in the New Testament to support this idea of Jesus's secret wisdom. For the masses Jesus had only parables, exoteric knowledge appropriate to the less spiritually advanced. Late in the book some of the techniques for achieving gnosis are reviewed and they are surprisingly close to those used by Buddhists. Though Buddhists are nontheistic what they and the gnostics do has uncanny similarities. Elaine Pagels shows us that there was no early Christian golden age. That is to say, an age that had uniform teachings accepted by all. Instead the teachings were far more diverse than they are today, and highly contentious. Moreover, the RC church could have developed radically differently if some of these writings had been accepted, instead of being purged, as they were, so that someone, perhaps a monk belonging to a monastery near Nag Hammadi, buried them in a jar under the sand 1,600 years ago. I found the book fascinating and fun to read. I recommend it highly, as I do Pagels's Adam, Eve and the Serpent, The Origin of Satan, and Beyond Belief....more
I didn't get this one. Stopped at p. 400. Hated the sex, but I usually dislike sex in books. I thought the characters 3rd world losers and druggies. II didn't get this one. Stopped at p. 400. Hated the sex, but I usually dislike sex in books. I thought the characters 3rd world losers and druggies. I couldn't understanding the point of the pretense of the poetry. I mean, is one critical word about writing ever said? There's nothing. It's just invocation or name dropping. Like Swann's Way, another much beloved book that left me cold. I should add that I liked Bolaño's 2666 immensely, as well as Amulet and The Skating Rink and I loved By Night in Chile and Distant Star....more
Another plotless enigma from Bolaño. It's set in Paris in 1938 when Pierre Pain, the eponymous narrator, a devotee of Mesmerism, is called in by his fAnother plotless enigma from Bolaño. It's set in Paris in 1938 when Pierre Pain, the eponymous narrator, a devotee of Mesmerism, is called in by his friend Madame Reynaud to see what he can do to halt the rapid decline of Cesar Vallejo. The Peruvian poet is apparently dying of hiccups. Reynaud recently lost her husband in a case in which Pain's intervention was ineffective, but now says she has "faith" in his ability to help Vallejo. Pain moves about a Paris beset by surrealist distortions: the hospital corridors twist in upon themselves à la the New York Guggenheim. ' "It's like a modern art gallery," I heard Madame Reynaud murmur. "The corridors are circular, in fact," I said. "If they were longer we could reach the top story without ever having noticed the climb." ' So off they go to see Vallejo with the poet's wife leading the way. But they are impeded, first by a nasty physician by the name of Lejard who, alluding to Pain, announces he has not time for charlatans; then by a more formidable delegation led by the previously unavailable Dr. Lemiere, who now deigns to take the Vallejo case. At the same time Pain is being followed for unknown reasons by two Spaniards. They give him cash, which he takes, upbraiding himself for cowardliness. His mentor Paul Rivette mentions the presence in the city of an old mutual acquaintance, Pleumeur-Bodou, now an intelligence operative for Franco's fascists. Both eventually end up in a cinema discussing a bizarre film which was grafted together from part of an aborted documentary and part of an aborted drama. There is massive intercutting between the voiceover of the film, Pain's thoughts, and the dialogue of Pain and Pleumeur-Bodou. You get the idea. None of this, needless to say, makes a bit of sense, nor was it meant to. Though one enjoys the deployment of the surrealist atmosphere there is no linear sense to be had, only subtext, to be pieced together from multiple readings. . . (This is my first.) The novel's a mindteaser but a pleasurable one and therefore recommended....more
This is a beautifully modulated narrative. I admired it as much on the second reading as the first. What impresses is Calvino's ability to make us feeThis is a beautifully modulated narrative. I admired it as much on the second reading as the first. What impresses is Calvino's ability to make us feel so deeply for these characters. They are so wonderfully eccentric and idiosyncratic, so human. Set during the Age of Reason, specifically during the lifetime of Voltaire, the tale seems straightforward enough.
On 15 June 1767, Cosimo, 12-year-old son of an Italian aristocrat living in stately semi-reclusion in Ombrosa, near Genoa, takes to the trees of the vast family park as a protest against paternal discipline. He lives there, without touching ground, for the rest of his days. This being that sylvan age when Europe was so covered with trees that "a monkey could have left Rome and skipped from tree to tree till it reach Spain, without ever touching earth." The story teeters on the purlieus of farce.
Early on Cosimo falls in with an urchin army of fruit bandits who raid the plentiful orchards under the capricious charge of a little girl Cosimo's age, Viola, of a local noble family, the Ondaviras. Viola sounds a bugle from her pony whenever the irate famers get wind of the poaching. Soon Viola is whisked off to boarding school.
Cosimo then befriends a notorious brigand whom he turns into an avid reader, which become his downfall. The brigand's old cronies, dismayed by his new passion, are able to get him to steal again only by threatening to tear out pages of his copy of Clarissa or the History of a Young Lady. Needless to say, his mind is no longer on his work.
Then Cosimo discovers treachery in this own home in the form of a favorite uncle, the Cavalier, who turns out to be a snitch for Moorish Mediterranean pirates. This resolves itself in a set piece that combines rich description of the landscape, a swashbuckling interlude at sea, discovery and plundering of the pirates' booty by the local poor, and the Cavalier's summary decapitation.
Cosimo courts a young Spanish noble woman in nearby Olivabassa, after whose departure he becomes something of an infatution among the nubile women in the area, with whom he carries on innumerable affairs. Once his younger brother, Biagio, the narrator, reports seeing Cosimo moving from tree to tree with a mattress slung over his shoulder. His father dies and he becomes the Baron di Rondò himself and as such must now oversee the administration of his vast estate. Concurrently he becomes the local raconteur, mesmerizing the populace with stories in the town square, where he speaks from a sturdy oak.
He goes hunting with his dog Otimo Massimo, who happens to be the dachshund discarded by Viola's callous servants when she left to school. The years pass. Then one day Otimo Massimo, old and gray now, is roused from his repose by a certain scent and bolts on his feeble pins for parts unknown. It turns out that Viola, now the Marchesa, widow of a wealthy landowner with considerable landholdings throughout Europe, has returned. Calvino captures the mad sexual passion and murderous jealousy between her and Cosimo perfectly.
For the Marchesa is an atrocious flirt who demands absurd proofs of Cosimo's love. Thus she kills anything she might have had with him. This section reminded me of Knut Hamsun's Pan, whose protagonist experiences a similar exquisite love and torturous jealousy.
Calvino's future postmodern work is suggested in this early novel by certain mentions of the inauthenticity of narrative. The idea that the multiple versions told by Cosimo may each possess certain true elements, so the narrator Biagio's only fidelity can be to the versions told by his brother. There are moreover passages of a swashbuckling nature, classic adventure, brokenhearted love, military encounter, etc., that both pay homage to and parody their antecedents. ...more
This book is marketed as a Muslim perspective on the Frankish invasions of the 12 century (i.e. the Crusades). There is certainly much in it about speThis book is marketed as a Muslim perspective on the Frankish invasions of the 12 century (i.e. the Crusades). There is certainly much in it about specific battles against the Christian invaders, but it's very much an "on the ground" perspective. It's no survey text. If you've read Steven Runciman (or Christopher Tyerman) you can distinguish the various battles and periods of advance and retreat, and the writer's engagement with the major players of that time. But the book is much more than just a commentary on the Crusades.
Usama ibn Munqidh led this astonishing life as part of a rich Arab aristocracy. We get not only his view of the battles against the "Franks," as the invading westerners were known, but also the battles he was involved in against his Arab brothers. For this was an era of reigning municipalities reminiscent of the Greek poleis around the time of the Peloponnesian War, and there was frequent conflict.
There's an especially vivid sequence of hunting tales from his youth in and around his hometown Shayzar. I had trepidations when I noticed that the hunting stories were next, but they are in many ways the most fascinating stories in the book. He and his father hunted with hawk, peregrine falcon and cheetah. The tales are deeply moving. Munqidh's father would sleep with the cheetah in his room. That's how close he was to this animal. There are also episodes of lion hunting, or rather extermination, for such an animal close to populated areas was always a threat. There are also these incredibly moving reflections on old age.
Munqidh lived to be over 90. And there are 2 or 3 pages of thoughtful commentary on the loss of vitality and stamina at that age. The book has a non-linear timeline. In one vignette Usama is a lad on his pony following his father on the hunt. In another, in middle-age, he's marching in service to Nur al-Din, one of the great Arab military minds and long-time lord of Damascus. I highly recommend this astonishing book for all readers with an interest in the medieval Middle East (or Near East as it was once called). Like all good stories it holds one to the end....more
If you're new to Pagels I would suggest that you start not here but with The Gnostic Gospels. That is the foundation, it seems to me, on which all ofIf you're new to Pagels I would suggest that you start not here but with The Gnostic Gospels. That is the foundation, it seems to me, on which all of her other works build. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent focuses on why early Christians came to believe sex was inherently sinful. An excellent question. It begins with more of the fascinating story of the Valentinian gnostics, who were so troublesome to the early church. Apparently, like earlier Talmudic scholars, the gnostics saw little usefulness in Scriptural readings that were not fresh and innovative. (Karen Armstrong goes into this subject at length in her The Case for God.) Such a spur to inventiveness naturally gave rise to widely variant readings. This was at a time when early church fathers Irenaeus, Tertullian and others were trying to standardize Scriptural interpretation. The gnostics also believed that clerics were not needed for what was essentially an inward journey of spiritual discovery. Rituals such as baptism and the eucharist they viewed as preliminaries. The gnostics were thus considerably anti-establishment and as such they drove Irenaeus and his fellows a little crazy. So consumed was Irenaeus with the gnostics that he composed a multi-volume refutation of their divergent beliefs. Most useful to this reader was the story in the chapter "The Politics of Paradise" of how Augustine "transformed much of the teaching of the Christian faith" from one that emphasized "freedom of the will and humanity's original royal dignity" . . . "to one of enslavement to sin." Pagels explains how Augustine's own out of control sexually promiscuous youth made it all but impossible for him to understand then prevailing Christian concepts of free will. "Astonishingly," she says, "Augustine's radical views prevailed, eclipsing for future generations of western Christians the consensus of more than three centuries of Christian tradition." There is so much interesting content here. I've just touched on just a few spots. The book is a little denser in terms of its scholarship than other Pagels books. (I've read all but the first two.) I could not get straight through it in one go, but needed a fiction interlude before returning to finish. Nevertheless, highly recommended....more
Another through-the-roof masterpiece from Martin Amis. It's distressing how consistently he turns them out. I have only read The Pregnant Widow once,Another through-the-roof masterpiece from Martin Amis. It's distressing how consistently he turns them out. I have only read The Pregnant Widow once, and have settled on the following thoughts to share for now.
1. Those of us used to the usual Amis verbal fireworks will have to wait. He wants a slower build here. He doesn't want to eject readers along the way with too many polysyllabics. He focuses on character and action for the first third. In time we get to all of the stuff that we enjoy so much in an Amis novel: the snippy italicizations, word play, narrative obliquity, nonce words, archaisms, etc. However, the book doesn't really take off until the Gloria Beautyman character arrives on the scene around page 115 or so.
2. There is in the early going a merciless objectification of the female body. This is perhaps inevitable since the hero is male, twenty years old and living in 1970 at the height of the sexual revolution. This objectification of the female is something feminists have always pointed to as a purely male phenonmenon, but lately it has become a common view among young women as well. Which is not to say the feminists were wrong, but only to emphasize how all encompassing the phenomenon has become. In order for Amis to turn the concept on its head he must first acknowledge it. Then he turns it on its head by way of Gloria Beautyman.
3. You’ve probably read all the plot points by now but here they are again. Keith Nearing, a British subject, is staying at an Italian villa for the summer with his girlfriend, Lily, and another young woman, Scherezade, also British citizens. Most of the early going is about Keith's schemes to sleep with Scherezade and it's funny enough, but compared with certain other Amis novels it's a slow start. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times has called the novel "tedious." That might be true if one only read the first 1/3 and nothing more, but the novel goes on and the action speeds up. The final emotional payoff is nothing short of shattering and something to which Kakutani seems sadly oblivious.
4. Amis' thesis is that the sexual revolution was never really about a change in male attitudes. Men had been copulating their brains out since time immemorial. Rather, it was the change in the attitude of women toward sex that made the revolution real. Suddenly women wanted theirs, too, and they got it. Thus the concept in the last 2/3 of the book of the female "cock." This offsets the earlier part about the objectification of the female body . "Cock" is British slang term for a man who takes lovers and casts them aside at will. A female cock is a woman who does the same thing, who "acts like a man." (See Linda Fiorentino's character in The Last Seduction as an extreme example.) Gloria Beautyman is a complete original. ...more
An oneiric epic. Phantasmagoria in the bush. One is reminded of Achebe's Things Fall Apart in which the Yoruba myth of the abiku, or spirit child, isAn oneiric epic. Phantasmagoria in the bush. One is reminded of Achebe's Things Fall Apart in which the Yoruba myth of the abiku, or spirit child, is so much more darkly rendered. The Famished Road is not so dark a book. It is scary in its way, surely, loaded as it is with its cast of frighteners, but it can also be oddly reassuring in its vivid depiction of the afterlife. Heaven may indeed be a place where nothing ever happens, yes, but as intimated by Okri it is also beautiful, in a Daliesque way, without strife and full of high joy.
Azaro, short for Lazarus, another abiku, and his mum and dad, live in an unnamed city in a modern African state. The community is ensnared in grinding poverty. There has been virtually no education among those in the community. The residents are without the richness of language that might allow them to talk through their problems. Instead there is much acting out, violence, aggression, theft.
Azaro travels back and forth between the spirit world and reality. There is never any doubt in the reader’s mind as to which is which. There might be moments of periodic ambiguity, but Okri always cures these before too long. Is our narrator reliable? Do we believe him? No matter the flights of fancy, his dalliance with the spirit world, we believe that he believes what he experiences is real. Is he self deluded? Maybe. Or perhaps just subject to a too vivid imagination? That is suggested in the last line.
The story is set on the cusp of independence for an African nation like Nigeria, which historically occurred in 1960. The machinations of the newly formed parties are nothing short of criminal. Many, including Mum, a peripatetic seller of common household items, are intimidated to vote the “right way” by the Party of the Rich. Dad, who must work carrying loads on his head (apparently cheaper than forklifts?) grows simultaneously more compassionate and more insane. In desperation he goes from role to role as a means of finding sustenance for his family. First he is a menial worker, then a boxer, a fine one, fighting opponents whose imperviousness depends upon bad magic. Then he is a politician embracing a clan of beggars he cannot support.
There is the local ambitious barkeep, Madame Koto, whose political involvement gradually improves both her fortunes and the decadent offerings she is able to provide her increasingly well-heeled clientele. Her bar becomes an intersection between the living an the dead. She becomes massive, corrupt, physically grotesque. The narrative is sustained almost entirely by way of action. Every sentence describes. We see vividly. The novel has a marvelous cohesion. Is it too long? I think it is. One wishes Okri could have done the task in 400, or even 375 pages, but that was not to be.
Please don't take the bait and read The Famished Road solely as an allegory on the newly independent state of Nigeria. To do so will be to diminish a wildly imaginative and astonishing book to the level of mere parable. The narrative works on many levels. I enjoyed especially as a creative take on the enabling spiritual myths of a people. It provides insight into another world, the primary objective of all great fiction. Highly recommended....more
The first 16 pages or so I found rough sledding because they contain almost no concrete detail. These pages are all about not trusting others, keepingThe first 16 pages or so I found rough sledding because they contain almost no concrete detail. These pages are all about not trusting others, keeping your mouth shut, how readily others will betray you and so forth. Though this opening passage sets the tone for the novel well — it is a cerebral, highly digressive, novel of ideas, obsessed with history, its retention and denial, its wholesale manufacture and dissemination — it is not what you would call a boffo opening. It’s rather dead, actually. However, once Marías starts writing about his characters the story begins to open up, though it never rises to the level of a novel of action. Simenon or Sciascia this guy is not.
The first person narrator, Jacobo Deza, is just divorced. He’s about forty and until recently lived in Madrid with his wife Luisa, but they have separated for reasons unknown and he has now come to London working for BBC on programmes about Spain and its culture. He has academic connections at Oxford where he once taught. There the history professor/spy Peter Wheeler introduces him to the suave Mr. Bertram Tupra who in turn hires him for his business of clandestine intelligence assessment. He become a kind of consulting spy, paid to read and interpret people. He's also known for his formidable memory and intelligence.
Ultimately, the job of interpretation of others that Dezas is hired to do is very close to the fictional process. Two things occur to me here. First, Dezas job is really to provide narratives for the British State about all the foreign strangers with whom it must deal. Without such narratives the intelligence community could not really survive. So we can see that need, a ravenous one, as a measure of the insecurity of the state, since it knowingly accepts wholesale fictions in lieu of facts it does not have access to. Second, Marías means Dezas's trade to be a comment on the fictional process itself. I'm fuzzy on this (the book demands multiple readings and this is my first) but there is some parallel Marías wants to draw between the foolhardiness of accepting fiction for facts in intelligence work and the need for fiction by the average real-world reader.
Once narrator Dezas starts his person-interpreting intelligence work in earnest the reader is confronted by a number of seemingly random descriptions of various persons unconnected to the larger narrative. The story is more about the little intelligence unit's ability to manufacture those profiles. It’s more about what the profiles say about the profilers. I believe the psychological term here is called “projection,” Freudian lingo that Marías never mentions. What are we led to think about the profilers by what they see in others? Remember, their work is all intuitive. They base their assumptions on nothing factual except the roughest biographical data. It’s a fascinating idea and it works though it makes for dense narrative. A beach read this is not.
Then there's the fact that these readers of people see themselves as an elite. With the exception of Dezas, who knows he is creating fictions, they believe themselves to be seers of a kind, possessed of a very rare human gift. Though there's nothing supernatural about it, it is rather a deeply intuitive gift.
One of Marías's chief devices for conveying suspense, which we first come across in the long dinner party scene at Oxford, is omission and delay. He will pose a question or proposition of seemingly overwhelming interest, and then digress — in a fascinating fashion it must be admitted — on related or not-so-related matters until the reader's curiosity grows to truly heart-gnawing proportions. The writing is of a very high order. If Marías had succeeded in sustaining it throughout it would have been a masterpiece. He does not quite manage that though. I have mentioned my problem with the opening. The last section with Professor Wheeler in his garden also seems problematic, overlong and in need of cutting. So I will have to call this novel merely Excellent and award it four rock-solid stars.
The line by line narrative pleasure here runs very high. It's that rare sort of book that lifts one's spirit and bears it joyfully along (almost) for the duration. There is no pretense here that we are reading a written document. Rather, we are meant to believe that we are in narrator Jacobo — also Jaime, also Diego, also Jack, also Iago (!)— Dezas's head. We are meant to be reading one person’s running thoughts. Of course we’re reading no such thing, but like Virginia Woolf Javier Marías knows how to suggest a simulacrum of cognition with all its attendant digressions, anxieties, enthusiasms, insights and so on.
The narrator readily admits that he does not know much of what is going on. His is a process of continual discovery and analysis. Marías thereby embraces here that singular strength of the first-person narrator, unreliability. Though in Jacobo’s case it does not seem willful. In fact, there seems to be a forthright attempt to piece together what little he knows into a coherent whole. I found it enormous fun to follow his ideas as he stumbles on some dissonant fact or other and tries to reconsider how it might fit into the overarching puzzle before him. But the novel always remains just that: a fragment. This partial knowledge of course sets him up very neatly to be blindsided at some point further on.
There are two further volumes in the Your Face Tomorrow series. Total novel length actually runs to around 1250 pages. Most of the first half of this first volume (entitled "Fever"; the second half is entitled “Spear”) is given over to a single party in Oxford with a the friendly professor/spy Peter Wheeler and lots of internal digressions by Dezas. Yet it functions as a novel of suspense. That seems to me almost paradoxical in a novel so leeched of action. That Marías is able to pull it off is quite a trick.
The book is almost entirely without sex, too. Is there anything more annoying than to be reading along contentedly one minute only to find oneself fully aroused the next? This wouldn’t be so bad if the narrative thrust wasn’t entirely interrupted during fictional sex. But it’s the rare writer who can make coition a functional part of the narrative. Marías, bless him, doesn’t even try. Someone said here that there wasn't enough character development, and I would agree. In the traditional sense there isn't much. But Marías is trying to imply character in a kind of refracted way, especially through the intelligence profiles mentioned above, and also in the long speeches by Wheeler and others. So it's there, though kind of inverted.
The book will have deeper pleasures for you if you know something about the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Cambridge spies (Philby, Blunt, etc.), but this is not required background by any means. The novel is sufficiently explanatory. It occurred to me that the book is in fact a fascinating recapitulation of most mid-20th century hatred and aggression as it affects the principals of the novel, but we'll see. I still have 850 pages to go. Highly recommended....more
The work of most great novelists runs hot and cold. Anita Brookner is no exception to that rule. Strangers is a bit of a slog. There is an acuity to BThe work of most great novelists runs hot and cold. Anita Brookner is no exception to that rule. Strangers is a bit of a slog. There is an acuity to Brookner's best work--including Latecomers, Hotel du Lac, Brief Lives, and Incidents in the Rue L'Augier--a charged mastery of subject matter in which nothing escapes her narrator. That mastery is lacking in Strangers. Never does the novel seem to gather itself and sing. There are a few moments where brevity and acuity come together to achieve something we might call the signature Brookner moment. Thematically Strangers is in keeping with Brookner's past work. Though here she deals with an elderly man instead of a woman, Paul Sturgis, who, anticipating death, understands that because he is utterly alone he will soon have to give himself up to those courteous persons he runs into in daily life (waiters, bakers, optometrists, and so on). It is these strangers who he is counting on to put him in the ground. For that reason he pays special attention to weather forecasts, since the weather often constitutes a central topic in chat with such persons. Yes, very sad, but real, and typically Brooknerian. It is this mindset that preoccupies Paul when he bumps into Sarah again, a lover who had long ago discarded him. She has since gone on to marry, become widowed, and to meet up with Paul again decades later. Formerly fiercely independent and critical, Sarah is now a hypochondriac and a whiner, fearing death. Her separation from Paul came when she accused him of being "too nice" and fled, not to be seen again until all those years later. She is still critical, and Paul is still nice. And the basic conflict is still there between them. Yet now there is somewhat more solidarity on her side because of the infirmities of age. Sarah in her frailty needs Paul somewhat more than she did in her free and independent days, but he still drives her up the wall with his kindness. Late in the novel, Paul lets fly a criticism of her house in France, an Art Deco monstrosity which he loathes, and in that moment the reader immediately sees what Sarah finds missing in Paul. Someone who could be far more entertaining, if more caustic. Someone we might feel more on guard around, but someone perhaps worth taking the risk to be around. The other person in Paul's life we might call his opposite. This is Mrs. Gardner. Though not very smart or--better word--very informed, she has an absolutely enviable ability to embrace impermanence. She is essentially homeless, but it doesn't bother her. She simply finds some other friend to impose upon. And yet--somehow--this doesn't seem to immobilize her on the lower level of Maslow's hierarchy. In fact, she may actually achieve self-actualization, though we never see this happen and can only suspect it occurs offstage. Paul finds her annoying and fascinating. He has spent his life making all the safe choices. He worked in a bank for thirty years, advising investors, and is now retired. During his career he made choice investments for himself so that today he has no money worries. Mrs. Gardner fascinates him because she lives hand to mouth, picks up a job when she needs money, and in no way seems hindered or concerned about the highly provisional nature of her existence. She is free, whereas Paul "...was to all intents and purposes a free man, but a man for whom freedom was not entirely comfortable." But then he grasps the essence of his problem and, on a chance trip to France to check on Sarah's house, breaks free of a life of tedium. He finds himself in Paris where he catches "...a bus, not knowing or caring where it takes him" before long realizing that "that life of making do, of making the best of a comfortable but uncomforting existence, could no longer be sustained." In the final pages he finds his freedom and embraces it. The novel recounts his quest to that end....more
A novel of palace intrigue set in 12th century Palermo. We are at the court of King Roger II, a Norman, who rules an ethnically diverse realm in whichA novel of palace intrigue set in 12th century Palermo. We are at the court of King Roger II, a Norman, who rules an ethnically diverse realm in which he tries to balance the rights of Christian and Muslim and Jew. Only the Muslims, however, seem content with this arrangement, perhaps because they comprise King Roger's most trusted counselors. He mistrusts his own people, the Normans, and for good reason as events reveal. The Catholics have just lost the Second Crusade—ignominiously and with terrible loss of life—so they are hardly in a mood for pluralism. They seek closer alignment with the crown, greater control of its offices and pursestrings, and expulsion of all Muslims from Sicily. Thurstan Beauchamp, the narrator, works in the palace in the Diwan of Control. He is of Norman ancestry and a Christian. His supervisor, Yusuf Ibm Mansur, seeks to train him in the arts of intrigue, for the factions are constantly conspiring against each other and Thurston's face is an open book.
Some time before the present action, Thurston's dreams of knighthood were quashed when his father inexplicably turned ascetic and gave all of his worldly goods to the monastery he then entered. Thurston was thus promptly disinherited, and is understandably unhappy that his birthright should have been traded away solely for the comfort of his father's eternal soul. Now he must work for a living. His post, under Yusuf's guidance, involves travel. On his first trip of the novel he runs into his first love, Lady Alicia, who was torn from him when he was 15 or so and sent off to marry a corpulent crusader in the Holy Land. Now, 20 years later, here she is, newly widowed, on horseback, riding with groom and lady-in-waiting through some provincial backwater to which Thurston had been dispatched on an errand. His love for her and his dreams of knighthood are subsequently rekindled. In time, she expresses her belief that is was Providence that brought them together again and she announces her intention to make him her husband.
There is the larger political context which undergirds the intrigues at the palace. Most threateningly, King Conrad III of Germany and Emperor Manuel I Comnenus of Byzantium are allying as a means of dethroning Roger, whom they view as a usurper, and expelling all Muslims from Sicily. It is King Roger's hope to strike up a correpondence with Conrad in an effort to break his alliance with Byzantium. The writing is emotionally affecting and the deployment of suspense masterful. Unsworth's handling of the complex plot seems effortless. There are numerous plot twists and betrayals and other surprises that I am deliberately not discussing that will set your heart pounding and curl your hair. The title story of the ruby is just one of these. This is narrative of a very high order, and the tone is beautifully modulated throughout. I liked Unsworth's Booker-winning Sacred Hunger immensely, but The Ruby In Her Navel is the finer work. Comparisons are specious, but solely in terms of artistic achievement I put the book on a par with William Styron's Sophie's Choice. It is among the limited number of great novels that one will be privileged to read in this too brief life. ...more