While Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins novels never were exactly light-hearted, they seem to become increasingly darker as the series. In a strange reve...moreWhile Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins novels never were exactly light-hearted, they seem to become increasingly darker as the series. In a strange reversal, the happier the main characters become in their private lives (Merrily and Lol now pretty much officially a couple and even contemplating living together, Lol about to re-start his career, Jane still happily together with Eirion) the bleaker and more violent the world outside of their immediate circle seems to grow.
The Prayer of the Night Shepherd offers the mixture of mystery and the occult readers have come to expect from the series, this time involving the original of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles - one of the possible originals, that is, and will have turned to be a bit of red herring (on several levels) by the end of the novel. We get points of view from several regulars – Merrily of course, but Jane gets a lot of space to herself this time, and Lol is around again, too – as well as new character Danny who, as he is Gomer’s new partner, I assume we will likely be encountering again in future volumes. There are several narrative strands runing besides each other, some of which turn out to be connected, while others are only thematically linked, but unlike some earlier novels in the series (the fourth one in particular) it holds together quite nicely without things coming apart (maybe with a bit of fraying on the edges, but nothing substantial).
And like all installments in the series, the true appeal of The Prayer of the Night Shepherd comes neither from the mystery nor the horror elements but from its depicion of English and Welsh village life. As before, Rickman does a great job both with the atmosphere (including, among other things, a run-down hotel, a lonely farm and the Welsh-English border in general) and the characters, natives as well as city people that have drifted into the area for one reason or another. The novel isn’t something for people looking for a quick, action-packed read (it’s over 600 pages long, according to what my Kindle says) but for anyone who enjoys slowly sinking into the atmosphere of a place and getting immersed in a believable description of British country life this is strongly recommended.(less)
This novel has some of the most unlikable protagonists this side of Flaubert – and Flaubert (the Flaubert of Madame Bovary and L’éducation sentimental...moreThis novel has some of the most unlikable protagonists this side of Flaubert – and Flaubert (the Flaubert of Madame Bovary and L’éducation sentimentale, that is) is obviously Yates’ paradigm as a writer. Yates assumes the same pitiless attitude towards his characters as Flaubert did, watching them like insects under a microscope, observing even their faintest twitchings while he slowly and thoroughly dissects them. But while Flaubert’s subjects was the 19th century French bourgeoisie, Yates analyses 20th century US suburbanites – a well-researched species these days but, I believe, still largely unexplored by the time Revolutionary Road was first published in 1961.
Unexplored, that is, in literature, but otherwise apparently already a well-established phenomenon – the novel’s main protagonist Frank Wheeler is throughout the novel very conscious of what a typical resident of Suburbia looks like and how he behaves, and takes great care to be as different as possible. The novel starts with an amateur theatre performance and although it is Frank’s wife April who is playing the leading part in it, it soon becomes obvious that it is actually Frank who is always on stage – always casting himself in a role, always conscious of how he appears to others. And it does not take for the reader to notice (although Frank himself remains completely ignorant of this throughout the whole novel) that Frank’s attempts to distance himself from the suburbanite, his self-image of being better and more intelligent and talented than everyone around him stamps him as being part of precisely the crowd he so desperately does not want to be a part of. Revolutionary Road is at its funniest (and for all its dark and bleak tone, there are some very funny moments in the novel) when it shows the Wheelers meet with friends to deride and laugh at the narrow-minded suburbanites to which they are oh so superior while being blissfully unaware that precisely by this ridiculing they show themselves to be members of the class they are pointing fingers at.
And this is where (depending on your own perspective) Revolutionary Road becomes either brilliant or problematic, depending on your reading experience. It is easy to see that the novel repeats exactly the same gesture it is damning its characters for, by building an identical complicity between narrator and readers that makes them feel superior to despicable and ludicrous Frank Wheeler and his circle. All of which would not be a bad thing at all, if the novel then managed to turn that around and make readers aware that they have lapsed into the same self-satisfied smugness that is seen to be characteristic of Suburbia; and assessment of the novel’s merit will largely depend on whether one thinks that the novels succeeds in instilling that self-awareness in the reader.
Now, I won’t claim to have read Revolutionary Road very closely, and because of that I might very easily have missed out on decisive clues – but as far as I could see, the novel not only does not succeed at reaching any kind of self-reflexiveness but is not even trying. This is largely due to its form (or, if you prefer, its genre), namely that it is a realistic novel, told in a very traditional, 19th century way which has as its underlying assumption that a novel mirrors reality as it is – an assumption that requires the mirror to be pure reflection and completely aloof from what it pictures. Such a model just has no place for a novel (or any medium) that is no longer pure but participates in what it describes and is aware of itself as describing. Revolutionary Road, then, is precisely this kind of pure realism – and unlike Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, which is very conscious of how precarious the claim to mirror reality in fiction has become, Yates’ novel is not tinged by any form of modernism, it even has – although he masquerades as close third person perspective most of the time – an omniscient narrator. I’m quite open to the possibility that a more careful reading of the novel than I have undertaken might come up with things that I have overlooked, but for now I’m left with some disappointment at a novel that I think missed out on the chance to become truly engaging in every sense of the word by remaining blind to its own complicity in what it dissects.
Still, even though I think that Revolutionary Road is a highly problematic book, it is by no means a bad one – and a large part of the reason for that is another trait Yates shares with Flaubert, namely the extreme care he is taking with language. The writing here is gorgeous, making sure that every barbed arrow finds his aim, but also time and again blossoming into unexpected beauty when he describes a sunset or a piece of scenery or even some urban landscape. Those moments might be comparatively rare and mostly on the short side, but they are not less impressive for that and likely to linger in the reader’s mind.(less)
The fourth and final volume of The History of the Runestaff. This is mostly a parallel narrative, chronicling the further adventures of Dorian Hawkmoo...moreThe fourth and final volume of The History of the Runestaff. This is mostly a parallel narrative, chronicling the further adventures of Dorian Hawkmoon (the hero) in America in one thread and showing how Baron Meliadus (the villain) makes a bid for power in the centre of the Granbretan Empire, until both threads converge in an epic battle where the final confrontation takes place. There is little doubt of course that the hero will prevail in the end, but even so, the ending is not entirely happy – the final image of the novel is that of a woman weeping…
The Runestaff pretty much continues in the same vein as the previous three instalments of the series, and everything I said about those applies to this novel as well. One thing that is not so much fundamentally different but more in the foreground than in previous volumes is Moorcock satirizing British society of the 1960s, like in this passage where he lists
“… the terrifying ancient gods of Granbretan – Jhone, Jhorg, Phowl, Rhunga, who were said to have ruled the land before the Tragic Millennium – Chirshil, the Howling God; Bjrin Adass, the Singing God; Jeajee Blad, the Groaning God; Jh’Im Slas, the Weeping God and Aral Vilsn, the Roaring God, Supreme God, father of Skvese and Blansacredid the Gods of Doom and Chaos.”
I admit that I didn’t get most of the references here on my own (only Churchill and Harold Wilson, to my embarrassment) but he is poking fun at various politicians and other public figures of the period the novel was originally written in – Wikipedia has the details, if you’re curious. I would not be at all surprised if there were more, less obvious satiric references to all kinds of British customs – the wearing of masks, for example, and the pathological fright of all Granbretans to take them off and show their faces is almost certainly a comment on the famous “stiff upper lip.”
Moorcock deftly mixes satire, grotesque and tragedy here, and all by using a pulp adventure plot as his vessel. Like the other novels in The History of the Runestaff tetralogy, this concluding volume never aims to be anything but fun and entertainment, but like the rest of the series succeeds in that without insulting the reader’s intelligence, because it never relies simply on repeating familiar clichés but uses them to do all kinds of interesting things and thus ensuring that the novels are still fun even if read with a somewhat more sophisticated attitudes decades after one first devoured them as a teenager.(less)
Third volume in The History of the Runestaff, and the one I liked best so far. There are some scenes that take place in Londra, giving us a closer loo...moreThird volume in The History of the Runestaff, and the one I liked best so far. There are some scenes that take place in Londra, giving us a closer look at the inner workings of the Granbretan court that allow Moorcock to go really over the top with the decadence and present readers with the kind of concise but colourful imagery that they have become accustomed to for this series. Here, everyone is at everybody else's throat, the society only held together by the centuries-old monarch, a wizened figure in a glass globe with the mellifluous voice of a youth. Bizarre inventions abound, and almost before we notice, Moorcock takes us and his protagonists off to America - a place which on the far future / alternative world (it is still not clear which, but I'm increasingly leaning towards it being both) of The History of the Runestaff seems almost like a different planet. The series comes closest to an Edgar-Rice-Borroughs-style planetary romance here, but it is like a story outline by Burroughs as penned by Clark Ashton Smith. Moorcock lets his imagination go totally over the top here, and it's really astonishing just how much weirdness you can pack in about 150 pages of pulp plot.
Like in the first two volumes, this third one describes the first half of a journey that will be concluded in the fourth novel which is also the series finale - I rather like the symmetry at work here, and suspect that if one took the trouble one might find a lot of correspondences between various characters and places in these novels. And other novels by Moorcock, too, as his whole vast Eternal Champion series is based on correspondences, on repetition and variation. It has been said of that series that it is basically the same novel, written over and over again, and there certainly is something to that - but I do not think that this shows a failing of Moorcock's inventiveness, quite to the contrary: Given that endless repetition, the echoing of the same fate through times and worlds is precisely what the series is about, it's a monument to Moorcock's virtuosity how he has managed to keep this central subject fresh and interesting (at least for the most part) over so many novels. The History of the Runestaff, while still light on Eternal Champion mythology shows a kind of foreshadowing of this in the way it tells very familiar adventure stories but in the telling twists and turns them into something very bizarre and uniquely Moorcockian.(less)
The second volume in Michael Moorcock’s History of the Runestaff tetralogy. After we followed our hero Dorian Hawkmoon of Köln from the Camargue to Pe...moreThe second volume in Michael Moorcock’s History of the Runestaff tetralogy. After we followed our hero Dorian Hawkmoon of Köln from the Camargue to Persia (or rather, this series’ twisted versions of those places) in The Jewel in the Skull, The Mad God’s Amulet, in a neat bit of symmetry, takes us from Persia back to the Camargue, thus making the first half of the tetralogy a closed circle.
In fact, The Mad God’s Amulet does read more like the second half of The Jewel in the Skull than a novel by itself (something that will be repeated for volume 3 and 4 of the series), so generally we get more of the same of what Moorcock served up in the earlier volume, and just as tasty a dish: Again a conventional quest adventure (this time even including a damsel in distress) is embellished and garlanded by the products of Moorcock’s fertile bizarre imagination until it is barely recognisable. I doubt there was any Fantasy author writing at the time who would have been Moorcock’s rival for the sheer audacity of his vision- what other writer would have dared to send his protagonists into battle riding scarlet flamingoes and gotten away with it? There are not many who could pull that off today, and those that might have likely all been influenced by Moorcock in one way or another. (I can’t help the impression that there is a strong influence of the History of the Runestaff in particular on Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadow of the Apt series with it’s mixture of science and magic, its ruthless evil Empire and the distortion of its personnel through masks / insect kinship.)
And like in the previous novel, it are those imaginative flourishes, those over-the-top inventions that range from the sleekly elegant to the outlandisly garish, but that always shimmer darkly with a sensuous decadence that make The Mad God’s Amulet into something special. Supposedly Moorcock churned the Eternal Champion books out at an insane rate at the time (up to one novel per day (!)) in order to finance New Worlds, the avantgarde SF magazine he was editing – and if that is true then it really is a marvel how he managed to transform his pulpy narrative into something so rich and strange. Either way, this is both fascinating and highly entertaining stuff, and I’m starting to understand again why I used to be such a huge fan of Moorcock’s work as a teenager.(less)
This one, even more so than last year’s re-reading of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series, was a real trip down Memory Lane for me. I think I...moreThis one, even more so than last year’s re-reading of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series, was a real trip down Memory Lane for me. I think I must have been about 13-14 years old when I read my first work by Michael Moorcock (an Elric novella in an anthology edited by Lin Carter). I suppose I must have been very susceptible for tragic anti-heroes as a teenager because I was very enthusiastic about the story and immediately began to get and read (it’s hard to imagine for me today, but back in those days I didn’t have a TBR shelf) everything by Michael Moorcock I could get my hands on. As I didn’t read English at the time, and the selection of available SFF books was rather slim at the time, rather than starting with the Elric books, my first Moorcock novels were his History of the Runestaff tetralogy, of which this is the first volume.
Returning to a book one has loved as a kid or a teenager always bears the risk of ending up shattering some fond memories when it turns that the characters once dear to one’s hear are insufferably clichéd, the plot one used to follow with bated breath ludicrously unlikely and the writing once admired unbearingly wooden. So I started this re-read with some trepidation, but soon could lay my fears to rest and let myself be carried along by a novel which turned out to be pretty good even beyond the rose-coloured haze of nostalgic recollection.
Although I have to say that I enjoyed different things this time round – when I read this and the suceeding novels as a teenager, it was mainly the mystery of the Runestaff and the tragic fate of the melancholy hero that held my interest. These days, I am finding the plot rather predictable and not quite as keen on emo characters (not that we had that term back then) as I used to be. But what I enjoy and even admire is the sheer fertility of Moorcock’s imagination, the bizarre world he imagines and the even bizarrer creatures he populates it with.
The History of the Runestaff for the most part takes place in what is either a far future or a very weird alternate version of Europe (it’s never really clear which) where in a nice inversion Great Britain (called Granbretan here) is a Nazi-like aggressor that is set to conquer the world while the resistance against them is led by the German Duke Hawkmoon of Köln. The Jewel in the Skull, like all novels in the series, is quite slim by today’s standards (it was first published in 1967), probably as long as the prologue in Brandon Sanderson’s most recent Stormlight Archive novel. This means that the novel is moving at a very brisk pace, there is no dallying for lengthy descriptions of scenery, architecture or clothing here – and it is not at all necessary either, as Moorcock does an excellent job of evoking atmosphere with just a few strokes of his literary brush. There is no lack in action either, the plot moves fast but never breathlessly so, sending our hero from London to France to Persia on a quest to get rid of the title-giving jewel implanted in his skull by the evil forces of Granbretan. The only thing that seems to get somewhat short shrift is character – it has to be said that everyone here is pretty flat and there’s not really any development either. But that might very well have been Moorcock’s intention – The History of the Runestaff is part of the larger Eternal Champion series, and that concerns itself by definition with archetypes rather than characters. But the novel really does very well without them – there is not much depth to it (unlike some of Moorcock’s other works), but The Jewel in the Skull is a highly entertaining adventure novel that I do not regret re-reading and whose sequels I’m undoubtedly going to tackle very soon.(less)
Apparently, many people read John Le Carré’s spy novels for a glimpse at what the world of international espionage is really like; in other words, the...moreApparently, many people read John Le Carré’s spy novels for a glimpse at what the world of international espionage is really like; in other words, they read them like a kind of journalism about the shady world of Intelligence Services. And there certainly is something to it – we’ve grown used to a more realistic perspective on secret services, but we can still imagine what it must have been like to read a novel like The Spy Who Came In from the Cold for someone whose idea of spy thrillers were Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Le Carré profoundly debunked the myths about the spy trade, showing it to be a world not of elegant womanizers lounging in luxurious surroundings, but of middle-aged men holding bureaucratic meetings in dull offices, not of noble deeds and lofty aims but of petty infighting and political maneuvering. The novels of Le Carré were filled with detailed descriptions and precise observations, and had authenticity written all over them and thoroughly destroyed any conception of glamour clinging to the spy profession – today, nobody would consider a James Bond novel anything but fantasy.
The Honourable Schoolboy lends itself with particular ease to such a journalistic reading due to the place and time it is set in: a very large part of the novel takes place in Hong Kong and South-East Asia during the retreat of the United States from Vietnam and a lot of room is given to highly atmospheric descriptions of the situation, of the feelings of uncertainty, unrest and frustration pervading the area during that period – making this by far the longest book of Le Carré’s so far. Even though Le Carré’s account is fictional, he appears to have done an impressive amount of research for it, and I doubt any journalistic, presumably non-fictional report could do a better job at painting a picture that is both authentic and immersive.
Therefore, one might consider The Honourable Schoolboy worth reading on those merits alone. But Le Carré’s ambition for this and his other novels does not extend to merely being reportage, this novel, like his previous ones, aims for something more, and I think that it is this which makes them stand out. And this is not just true for the novels’ content but for their form, too – quite often, the apparently realistic exterior of Le Carré’s spy novels conceals inner mechanisms that do not run by the same rules governing realistic narratives but are structurally quite experimental. The Honourable Schoolboy is another example of this – its main thematic concern is with truth and its uses, and the novel’s forms reflects this, even if it is by adding its own distortions in the process.
Towards the end of the novel, one of the characters quotes from a poem by John Donne:
On a huge hill, Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will Reach her, about must and about must go, And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
This, even if it comes late in the novel, after its plot and its protagonists have taken many turns about and about, constitutes something like the motto for The Honourable Schoolboy. Indeed the whole novel could be taken as a variation on the poem those lines comes from, Donne’s Satire III, to the point where it feels that one might place both works next to each other and draw in the correspondences. Correspondence is part of the novel’s theme, too, as it is set not just in Asia but has London as a major setting too, and the events in both spheres, while never shown to result from each other immediately, do influence each other in oblique ways that had me think more than once of the Renaissance alchemy concept of correspondence, where things not directly connected still work upon each other by way of mystic similarities. Except, of course, that there is nothing mystical at place here, but the driving forces are mostly political in nature – but not really any less obscure for that.
There is a recurring image in the novel of truth as a small circle or kernel, surrounded by layers upon layers of untruth that grow steadily larger, up to the outer ring which is a vast area of rumour and obfuscation. The novel in fact starts with out rumours, and continues to refer to them, in the plot and by way of its anonymous narrator who tries to pierce through the mist of lies and half-truths surrounding “Operation Dolphin” to arrive at its kernel of truth. And both Jerry Westerby and George Smiley, the novel’s main protagonists, are surrounded by rumours, putting the reader in a very similar position of having to cross through obfuscation to arrive at the truth. A truth that becomes ever more elusive the further the novel proceeds, and it eventually becomes clear that for all its descriptive vividness and journalistic authenticity, the novel lets us see its kernel of truth only through a thick haze of distraction and misinformation. In fact, its undoubtedly brilliant journalistic element might constitute precisely that haze – one can hardly consider it accidental that so much of the novel takes place among journalist and that one of its main protagonists is a journalist who has no scruples to manipulate the truth when it serves his purposes and who in turn is manipulated by his employers in London. By the end of The Honourable Schoolboy it is by no means that there every was any kernel of truth at all, and if there was, it might be impossible to find – but not for epistemological reasons but because it has been so distorted and hidden under layers and layers of obfuscation by political power plays that it is simply gone, and the wanderer, when he takes that last turn that last turn that will take him up to the summit of that hill, finds himself on top of a sheer cliff, stepping off into the air.(less)
Njal's Saga is by far the longest of the sagas of the Icelanders, and it appears to be the general agreement that it is also the best among them, an a...moreNjal's Saga is by far the longest of the sagas of the Icelanders, and it appears to be the general agreement that it is also the best among them, an assessment that I am not going to deviate from. In principle, Njal's Saga is just like the other sagas (The Sagas of Icelanders) - it has their freshness and immediacy that are striking for texts that are hundreds of years old, it has their sparse, laconic style, their reliance on action and dialogue, their absence of psychology and their emphasis on geographical and genealogical placement of their characters. In short, it has everything the other sagas have - only more so.
This is not just a matter of length - what I found most striking about Njal's Saga is how very vivid it is. It's language is not any more florid than of the other sagas, but just as reduced and simple, and yet it somehow manages to paint a much more colourful picture of the events it relates - it rather feels like the widescreen Technicolor version of a saga. It probably does have something to do with its length, and that it dwells just that tiny but decisive bit longer on what a character is dressed in or what exactly he does in a fight, but I don't think that quite suffices to explains why people and events in this sage possess such an immense plasticity that makes their down-to-earth-ness almost tangible for the reader as if the book's pages were just a thin, icy mist behind which we catch glimpses of the untamed, violent Norsemen feasting, sailing and fighting each other.
Njal's Saga is also somewhat clearer structured than most other sagas - it consists of two quite distinct parts, the first being about Gunnar, the various strifes he got involved in and his final downfall, and the second the story of his friend Njal, his death and the vengeance for it. The first part takes place before the arrival of Christianity in Iceland, the second after its Christianization, in the first part most conflicts are solved peacefully, in the second most end in violence - one can't help but wonder whether there might not be be some implied reflection on Christianity on part of the anonymous author implied in that. Another thing that places Njal's Saga apart is the uncommon emphasis it puts on the law - not only is it stated several times that it is the law that keeps a society together and that it will come apart if the law fails (as is demonstrated by events in the saga), not only are there an uncommon lot of trials in this saga, but they are also described in unusual (and, it has to be said, occasionally tiresome) detail, to the point where Njal's Saga reads almost like the Medieval Icelandic version of courtroom drama.
There are some issues with this saga for the modern reader, chiefly its repetitiveness - basically, events here consist of a seemingly endless succession of slayings, trials, and vengeance which causes more slayings, more trials and more vengeance. There is not much difference in the way those events unfold either, so things can get somewhat tedious if one tries to read too much of the saga in one go, and therefore judicious rationing is strongly recommended. And with the length of the saga, it becomes even more difficult to keep track of all the persons and there relations to each - thankfully, the Penguin Classics edition I was reading is not only excellently translated (as far as I can judge that, of course) but also very well-edited, with a helpful introduction and footnotes.
This is definitely the saga one should read if one wants to read only one of them, although it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to stop after this one, they're as addictive as crisps (at least unless they tried to read the whole thing at once - just like crisps one can easily overstuff oneself), but significantly more nutritious. And while I don't usually don't do quote, I just have to put in this one, showing how just names mentioned in passing already are stories in a nutshell:
"A man name Hoskuld lived there, the son of Dala-Koll. His mother was Thogerd, te daughter of Thorstein the Red, who was the son of Olaf the White, the son of Ingiald, the son of Helgi. Ingiald's mother was Thorn, the daughter of Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye who was the son of Ragnar Shaggy-breeches. Thorstein the Red's mother was Unn the Deep-minded; she was the daughter of Ketil Flat-nose, the son of Bjorn Buna."
I doubt that ever before or after genealogy has been more fun. And maybe that is the reason why Njal's Saga impresses itself so vividly on the reader's mind: with all the fighting, the deaths and the maimings (there is an astonishing amount of limbs getting cut off in the course of the saga), with all the underlying fatalism, there also is an air of joyousness blowing through these tales, a boundless glorying in life and its pleasures; and no matter how rough those might appear to the modern reader some of that exuberance jumps over like an electric spark across the centuries and makes this saga so much fun to read.(less)
With this third volume of Robert Silverberg’s Collected Stories, spanning the years from 1969 to 1972, we finally get to the really good stuff. While...moreWith this third volume of Robert Silverberg’s Collected Stories, spanning the years from 1969 to 1972, we finally get to the really good stuff. While there were some excellent stories among his earlier output, the period from ca. the late sixties to mid seventies marks the high point of Silverberg’s Science Fiction witing and sees most of his major works published, among them acknowledged classics like Dying Inside and The Book of Skulls. In fact, I’d argue that this period is much more deserving of the epitheton “Golden Age of Science Fiction” than the fifties to which it is usually applied, because from about the middle of the sixties onwards Science Fiction stopped (for the most part, at least) to naively and unknowingly project the present into the future: instead, the genre became self-aware when authors found out that they had something meaningful to say beyond pulp adventures and and began to use the future to consciously examine the present.
Robert Silverberg is a prime example of this, as can be seen in this collection – where the first two volumes were a rather mixed bag, there is not a single weak story in Something Wild Is Loose, his writing did not just flourish, it soared during this period. The reader can watch him here exploring new territories in form as well as content, treating subjects that would have been off limits for Science Fiction a decade ago, and quite often treating them in ways that seem breathtakingly original even today (because, of course. there was the unavoidable backlash… but that will likely be a subject for posts on later volumes). A rather surprising (to me, at least) amount of the stories here concern themselves with explicitely religious themes, and in a manner that is largely, if not sympathetic, then understanding – even a satirical story like “Good News from the Vatican” (about the first ever robot Pope) never ridicules the urge to believe as such, even while it pokes fun at organised religion. I think this might point towards something characteristic of Silverberg as a writer – in all of his work, even when writing satire, he is rarely judgmental but appears above all as an inquisitive mind whose main drive a restless curiosity and who is chiefly interested in exploration, in trying to understand.
And it is this which drives the best stories in this volume, too. There is some difference in quality, but the range extends from “merely” good to utterly brilliant. My favourites are:
“In Entropy’s Jaws” – the twist at the end is pretty much obvious from the start, but I liked the way the story is told on several different time levels simultaneously. “Going” – a long novella, almost a short novel, in which nothing much happens but that a very old man faces the end of his life. Mostly a character study as well as an exploration of what it means to (literally) have all the time in the world, and it might well be among the best things Silverberg wrote. “Thomas the Proclaimer” – takes a not exactly SFnal premise (a miracle actually happening for everyone to see) and then uses it for an extended exploration of religion and its significance to the human psyche. “When We Went to See the End of the World” – a short satirical story about how the end of the world ends up as party entertainment. “Some Notes on the Pre-Dynastic Epoch” – another short one, this one an elegiac look back on human civilization. “The Feast of St. Dionysus” – an astronaut returns from Mars and stumbles across a strange cult in the Mojave… or does he? Reads a bit like Malzberg without the nihlism and is very good in creating a weird, hallucinatory atmosphere. “Many Mansions” – a time travelling story inspired by, of all things, by Robert Coover’s seminal story “The Babysitter.” Probably the story in this volumeI found most entertaining (although it’s also the one that suffers most from Silverberg’s usual issues with the depiction of female characters – it’s strange how he is so progressive in pretty much everything else but appears to be stuck in the 50s in that particular regard).
As in the previous volumes, each story comes with an introduction by the author – in a curious reversal those seem to get less interesting the better the stories themselves become, maybe because they stand better on their own. There are also fewer of them, as many stories in this collection (and often the best ones) are novella-length – it seems Silverberg is best in longer forms when he has some space to spread out in.(less)
I am very late to this particular party – one reason for this is that I have a habit – as persistent as it is unjustified – to shy away from books tha...moreI am very late to this particular party – one reason for this is that I have a habit – as persistent as it is unjustified – to shy away from books that have become unexpectedly popular (which also led to me reading – and enjoying – The Name of the Wind years after everyone else), another that I had read that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was kind of like Jane Austen – as I’m not very fond of that author’s works, I was not exactly in a hurry to check this novel out.
Just a brief glance at the table of contents, however, would already have sufficed to show me that the Jane Austen comparison is very far off the mark – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, it turns out, is a novel in three volumes and is thus modelled after the Victorian three-deckers rather than the (comparatively) slim volumes of Jane Austen – I assume people were judging by the period the novel takes place in rather than the writing, because while the former might be Regency, the novel’s language, style and form are much more reminiscent of the likes of Thackeray and Trollope. And this is the first area (but will by no means be the last) in which Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is jaw-droppingly amazing: I have read a lot of Victorian novels in my time and therefore think I am a decent judge of those matters and can state with some confidence that Susanna Clarke really hits the nail on the head here – her style and tone, the way her plot develops, the way her characters are introduced, the narrative voice… simply everything is pitch-perfect. So, this is one level at which Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell can be enjoyed – as an utterly delightful pastiche of the Victorian three-decker novel, that comes as close as possible to the real thing as is possible for something written more than a hundred years later.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, then, is almost exactly like a genuine novel from the Victorian Age that somehow found its way to us only belatedly - with the small proviso, however, that it has arrived in the reader’s hands not from our, but from some alternative universe version of the nineteenth century. There are quite a few historical fantasy novels that work from the principle of taking a historical period and then adding magic to it – a popular example from the same period Susanna Clarke’s novel covers would be Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series or (for some actual Jane Austen feel) Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories. But while Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell belongs into that category, it is very different from anything else in that sub-genre (anything I have ever read, at least). For one thing, Susanna Clarke only adds magic to her Regency period to then immediately subtract it and present us with an England where magic used to be strong but has almost entirely vanished. In fact, the entire concept of setting her novel during the Regency but telling it from a Victorian perspective already indicates a fundamental difference, a difference that is deepened by the lengths Susanna Clarke goes to not just get her facts straight, but also her characters, her writing, her very voice (and I cannot emphasize enough just how talented a ventriloquist she is – almost on every single of its many, many pages there at least one instance where a small tingle went down my spine at some particularly delightful turn of phrase in the Victorian manner). Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is vastly more ambitious than any Fantasy novel I have read in the last two or three decades, and really only comparable to the equally fantastic (but otherwise completely different) Little, Big by John Crowley (which I really need to read again soonish).
There are so many wonderful things to love about this wonderful that I could probably go on listing them for several posts, add examples and more examples of just how great this is, and end up quoting the whole thing in its entirely, but of course entirely out of order so that nobody would be able to put it together again. I won’t do that then, but confine myself to one thing which is probably what struck me the most about the novel and which (I suspect) is at the root of the enthusiasm Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell inspires in its readers (at least those that are susceptible to it), and that is Susanna Clarke’s incredible generosity as a writer.
Now, this might need some explaining. First, there is the world-building: during the whole of this massive novel, the reader cannot but admire just how extremely detailed the alternative England presented here is, from the grand historical sweep of the Napoleonic Wars down to the tiniest minutiae like her invented books having a publisher and a publishing date. This is part of the novel’s intended effect: the world here needs to appear very solid and substantial for its gradual subversion by magic to have the desired effect, and Susanna Clarke has done an amazing job at making her Regency England just as credible as the real one (and after all, none of us have actually experienced the period in question). But as utterly convincing as both the breadth and depth of her world-building are, as awe-inspiring as the effort that went into creatin all of this must have been – we still get the impression that the author is lifting the veil only on a tiny part of what she as created, that there is much, much more than would have been necessary, a whole world in fact that Susanna Clark has created for us just so that we could enjoy the single tale of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
But of course, there is not just that single tale in the novel – there are also the tales of Stephen Black, of Mrs Pole, of Arabella Strange. And the tales of Mr Drawlight and Mr. Lascelle, of Childermass. And not to forget the tales of the man with the thistle-down hair and of John Uskglass. And that is not even to mention all the countless short tales told in the numerous footnotes throughout the novel, scatterings from Susanna Clarke’s apparently inexhausible cornucopia of stories.
But most of all, there is the sheer exuberance of the writing that dizzies and exhilarates. I do not think I have ever read a novel that made its readers feel so very welcome, throwing the doors open wide for them, receiving them with open arms, then seating them at a sumptuously laden table, feeding them with one delicacy after the other until they’re positively bursting, then offering them some more until they’re almost suffocating from the opulence… In fact, the unrestrained hospitality does beging to appear somewhat unsettling after a while, and the reader guests may start to shift uneasily on their seats as they feel themselves more and more reminded of the unbounded generosity the man with the thistle-down hair is showing towards Stephen Black… And isn’t there another writerly influence peeking in among the stately Victorians, one slightly disreputable at that, namely the German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann? Unobtrusively at first and barely noticeable, but increasingly more prominent as the novel moves along, and, what is worse, moving from his light-hearted, quirky tales to the dark and uncanny ones like “The Sandman”…
It really is nothing short of admirable how Susanna Clarke handles the transition towards a slow darkening of the novel, mirroring the shift from Enlightenment to Romanticism, or – maybe more fitting – from first generation to second generation Romanticism (with Mr Norrell as Wordsworth or Coleridge and Jonathan Strange as Shelley or Byron). It is very subtle, barely noticeable at first, but gradually magic begins to take over the novel and its protagonists and it turns out that they have been dabbling with forces far beyond their talents or knowledge. The tale becomes increasingly uncanny, the atmosphere increasingly creepy and there is a growing awareness that the most important protagonist might be someone who we never get to see directly. In the end, everything comes together wonderfully, with enough threads wrapped up to give a sense of closure but enough mysteries left unresolved to not let the magic fade into the light of common day. And, probably not at all surprisingly, the greatest English magician of them all turns out to be Susanna Clarke.(less)
Along with Meg Maguire and Ruthie Knox (and doubtlessly many other authors I have yet to discover), Sandra Antonelli is another excellent example of C...moreAlong with Meg Maguire and Ruthie Knox (and doubtlessly many other authors I have yet to discover), Sandra Antonelli is another excellent example of Contemporary Romance that is contemporary not only in its setting but also in its sensibilities. What all three of them share (and what more traditional Romances are often lacking in) are protagonists that are flawed but likeable, heroines that have agency, and plots that avoid clichés but still push enough of the right buttons to trigger that fuzzy happy Romance feeling in their readers.
A Basic Renovation is Sandra Antonelli’s first novel (first published one, anyway), and it does show in parts – sometimes the plot machinery has to do some really heavy-duty lifting to keep events moving forward, and then it’s creaking rather loudly. Not loud enough, however, to seriously impede the enjoyment of what is a highly entertaining novel and one of the funnier ones I have read in recent memories.
The witty banter and the quirky characters with which Sandra Antonelli has filled her novel have garnered her many comparisons with Jennifer Crusie; but while there are some similarities, A Basic Renovation covers territory that is all its own. Most strikingly, this is noticeable in the age of its protagonists – the main couple are both in their mid-forties and the secondary couple even several decades older than that. And this is not just window dressing to make the novel seem different, but affects it at its heart and is what drives the plot forward: The characters behave (for the most part) like responsible adults and thus avoid all of the often rather silly behavioural patterns infecting younger Romance protagonists but are suffering from their own, age-appropriate set of insecurities instead that Sandra Antonelli describes with wit, verve and sympathy. Overall, another author who proves that it is possible to write Romance that is both intelligent and fun to read; also, bonus points for the non-embarrassing cover.(less)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was my next stop in my (mostly) chronological tour of the works of John Le Carré; and it is interesting to note that he foll...moreTinker Tailor Soldier Spy was my next stop in my (mostly) chronological tour of the works of John Le Carré; and it is interesting to note that he followed what very many consider his worst novel with what most consider one of his best (although that distinction usually goes not so much to this novel in and of itself as to the “Karla Triloy” of which it is the first volume).
This novel is structured like a jigsaw puzzle. While it is a well-worn simile to compare a mystery novel to a puzzle, it rarely was so literally true as in the case of Le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - the narrative here does not so much develop as a linear plot, but rather consists of bits and pieces of similar size but various shapes that at first sight seem to have no connection to each other and not to make much sense on their own, but when placed together in the right pattern by an expert hand suddenly cohere and form a bigger picture. That expert hand (and it is very expert hand) is not that of the reader, however – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does not just shake out the unsorted pieces in front of the reader and leaves it for them to sort them out (which would have resulted in a formally much more radical novel – one like George Perec’s La Vie – Mode d’Emploi, for example) but has them all put in place by the narrator – reading Le Carré’s novel, then, is not so much like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, but like watching someone else do it.
Which does sound rather boring, and probably would have been in the hands of a lesser writer than Le Carré, but he pulls it off masterfully. There is not really any forward momentum to this novel, there is nothing really happening except people sitting around, drinking tea, or taking the occasional walk, while reminiscing or having talks over the current state of the Secret Service, but it still manages to grab the reader and to not let go until the end. The story is told in isolated pieces that at first do not seem to connect at all – another fitting image beside a jigsaw puzzle might be those complicated patterns from domino stones that are set up in a long and painstaking process, to be then set in motion by the tipping over of a single stone. Maybe this simile explains better while in spite of everything Tinker Tailor Sailor Spy is a compulsive page-turner, even if one has (like me) watched the BBC TV serial a long time back and still remembers who the mole is. The real tension and excitement in this novel comes not so much from the Whodunnit-like mystery, but from watching Le Carré build his extremely complex and incredibly fragile-seeming structure, from holding one’s breath for fear of disturbing it and half expecting it to come tumbling down any paragraph. It’s not unlike watching a juggler, watching his hands, watching oranges circle through the air, involuntarily sucking in one’s breath when one seems to slip his grasp, then exhaling with a relieved sigh when it doesn’t and he catches it at the last possible moment.
As impressive as Le Carré’s techinal accomplishment here is, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not artistry for its own sake – as always with Le Carré’s novels, this one, too, is driven by a strong moral and political impetus. The world that Le Carré describes here, the world of Circus and Centre, of espionage and counter-intelligence, of scalphunters, lamplighters and moles, might border on the one we inhabit, but it also is detached from it, and the two exist parallel to each other without really touching. But while the shady world of international espionage might at first appear like some exotic fantasy world, the farther the novel progresses, the more pieces Le Carré adds to the jigsaw puzzle, the clearer it becomes that the resulting picture bears an uncanny resemblance to our own world – here is class structure, and here is the exclusion of outsiders, here is the ruthlessness of the poeple in power and the powerlessness of the people at the bottom of the pecking order, here is the pretense to be in the moral right while employing decidedly unethical means to reach one’s ends. In the end, it adds up to an only slightly distorted replica of our familiar world of economy and politics, and when the final piece is in place, the reader is left looking at a picture that is all too familiar.(less)
According to a well-known essay by William Gass, it is not a good thing for any ambitious writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, because th...moreAccording to a well-known essay by William Gass, it is not a good thing for any ambitious writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, because the prize has consistently been awarded to mediocre writers, and thus brands each of its recipients with the stamp of mediocrity. There are, however, (as even Gass admits) the occasional execptions where the Pulitzer jury slipped up and gave the prize to an outstanding work. Angle of Repose is, in my opinion one of those exceptions, in fact it is a very big slip-up as it is a truly exceptional work of fiction.
The novel has a lot of reviews both on Librarything and on Goodreads, so I assume that it is somewhat popular. I suspect, however, that this popularity extends mostly to readers from the US only - I at least had never heard of Stegner before, and I consider myself decently informed about US fiction in the 20th century. Part of this at least might be due to the fact that Angle of Repose is essentially a Western – a Western, however, in the sense that Heaven’s Gate is a Western, i.e. more concerned about what the American West during the days of the pioneers actually looked and felt like, as opposed to contributing to (or even concerning itself with) its myths and legends. Angle of Repose, then, is for the most part a historical novel, describing the fate of Susan Ward and her husband Oliver Ward in the American West at the end of the 19th century. But it is a contemporary novel as well, because it also tells of how Lyman Ward, a retired history professor tries in the late sixties of the 20th century to piece together the history of his grandmother Susan from letters and other documents. The latter, although taking up somewhat less of the novel’s pages, is not just a framing device for the former, but both strands mingle and interweave intimately and form a single narrative from which one cannot lift one part without undoing the other.
While Angle of Repose is not a depressing book, it is a sad one – the beginning might be exuberant, in places even giddily so, but its palette grows gradually more sombre, and by the end has shaded into a deep melancholy. This novel, in other words, is an elegy, and on at least three distinct levels. On the first and most obvious one, it is an elegy for a place and a time, namely the Old West. Stegner never attempts to make them seem romantic or glamorous, but pretty much every line of the book is infused with an ache for the loss of the pioneer spirit and bemoaning the complancency and self-centredness of present day America. Of course, this might all very well be just the point of view of the narrator whose perspective is likely tinged by his own, not inconsiderable problems - chiefly, a crippling bone disease and the unfaithfulness of his wife. And the latter leads us to the novel’s second level of elegy: It also is an elegy for a way of life, namely traditional monogamous marriage. Stegner presents us with three generations of partnership in The Angle of Repose: First, the marriage of Susan and Oliver Ward which passes through many hardships, struggles and separations but lasts for sixty years until both partners die within months of each other. Second, the marriage of narrator Lyman Ward and his wife Ellen which founders at the first major crisis (the diagnosis of Lyman’s incurable disease and his wife subsequently leaving him for his surgeon). And third, the marriage between Lyman’s temporary secretary Shelly and someone called Larry Rasmussen (who we never get to see first hand) which seems not really a marriage at all and to be over before it really started. Again, there is the narrator’s not exactly impartial perspective to be considered, but there is a clear line drawn here and it is one of decline.
It is becoming clear that perspective and point of view play a large role in this novel, and this leads us to its third level of elegy: Angle of Repose is an elegy for a literary form, namely the realist novel. I don’t think there is any doubt that the book’s undertaking is basically realist – it is giving the reader a portrait of the American West, and one of unparalleled vividness: The tired clichés of people coming alive, of descriptions jumping off the pages of a book – they seem to have been invented after a reading of Angle of Repose, the writing is just so incredibly colourful and evocative. But at the same time, the novel is highly reflective about this evocation; while conjuring up the sights of the Old West, its sounds and smells, its sensations and tastes, it never lets us forget that this is merely a reconstruction, and one based on a very slim foundation of facts. Lyman Ward, the narrator who pieces Susan’s life together, makes no secret that a huge part of what he is writing are things that he extrapolated or simply made up from his grandmother’s letters and the occasional news clipping. Overall, it is a constant theme of the novel that even writing as vivid as this never can catch up to reality, and it comes to a head in the way the novel handles the climactic catastrophic event in Susan’s and Oliver’s life, namely by mostly burying it in ellipsis and leaving it to the reader to imagine what precisely might have happened. And what resolve there is for the present-day narrative thread happens in a dream, and one that explicitely references Kafka, to boot. The novel realizes its own impossibility and fittingly collapses into itself rather than that it ends.
And that is not even all, there is an additional level to it - as if not quite trusting fiction to do the job on its own, Wallace Stegner based the story of Susan Ward very closely on the real life of writer and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote, and even went so far as to incorporate excerpts from her letters into his own novel (sparking off a controversy which apparently has not quite simmered down even today). Thus, it requires historical documents to give the novel its authenticity, and its claim to realism rests on some ten percent of quoted letters, with the rest being so much smoke and mirrors. This of course raises the question of why one would write a novel at all, and not a work of non-fiction (of which Stegner himself wrote several) or, in this particular case, edit a selection of Mary Hallock Foote’s letters (as someone else did after the interest in her work that Angle of Repose created) – a question that the novel does not really answer, and a question that maybe is without an answer, at least for as long as one sticks to the premises of realism.
All of this might give the impression that Angle of Repose was a difficult novel, but that impression would be quite wrong – while it is a highly reflective novel, it is also an immense joy to read (or at least it was to me – skimming through some of the reviews, quite a few of which call it boring, your mileage may vary), mainly because of Stegner’s writing which raises vividness to a new level and really pushes the boundaries of how evocative prose can be. Angle of Repose is full of descriptions – they are not long, but very numerous, and you can open the book on any page at random and will invariably come across something – a piece of scenery, a perspective on a building, a glimpse of a face, the reflexion of light on water – something observed with startling precision and caught in a beautiful phrase. There is much to admire in this novel – its evocation of the American West, it’s thoughtful composition, it’s fully rounded characters which are deeply flawed as humans are but still likeable – but what really makes it stand out and had me add it to my list of favourite novels was the precision and power of its writing, that had me stumble from one wonderful description to the next until I was dizzy from delight, literally drunk on Stegner’s language.(less)
This used to be Michael Bishop’s first novel, before (as he explains in an Afterword) he completely re-worked it and it became his seventh. I actually...moreThis used to be Michael Bishop’s first novel, before (as he explains in an Afterword) he completely re-worked it and it became his seventh. I actually did read the first version way back when (and even might still have my copy lying around somewhere), but have to confess that I don’t remember much about it except that it was all rather weird but that I liked it. Which, as it happens, would also sum up my impression of this rewritten version. (A word on the title: the novel was called A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire at first released, then shortened to Eyes of Fire for the new version, but the original title was restored for the re-release of the re-written version. The SF Gateway edition I have been reading manages to use both of those titles. As I like the long title better (like young Michael Bishop, I’m a sucker for poetic titles), I’m going to stick with that one.)
A Funeral For the Eyes of Fire is classic “anthropological” Science Fiction (set in quotation marks because the anthropos here is, of course, alien), strongly and unabashedly influenced by Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Which means that there is not much in the way of “hard” science in the novel, but that instead it explores different ways of being in all the many kinds of ways this might imply - using the imaginative license the SF genre grants to devise societies, cultures, religions, genders and whatnot unknown to present-day man, but of course all ultimately reflecting back on what it is to be human. To ensure that (and to make certain the novels do not get too strange for a reader to follow) the central character in this kind of Science Fiction tends to be a human, an explorer or ambassador who for some plot reason or other is forced to cope with an alien world and its inhabitants.
Bishop follows that pattern and weaves some Shakesperian tragedy into it, with rather fascinating results. It takes a bit of time to get into the flow of events, not just because the reader gets thrown into things with almost no introdution, but also because of the novel’s central consciousness and supposed identification figure, Seth Latimer. In some he is like the standard protagonist of this kind of SF – mostly average, somewhat naive and very passive, a foil against which the strangness of the world he find himself placed in, can be offset (which interestingly, and in a totally off-topic aside also describes the hero of the classical historical novel from Walter Scott onwards). But although Seth is human, to us contemporaries he seems very strange, almost alien himself – he is a clone, for starters, an interstellar merchant travelling with his “original” and an older clone twin, and the glimpses we get of their relationship hint at something quite different from the burgeois core family we have grown used to. Which makes sense, of course – it’s not really to expected that humans several centuries in the future would be the same as they are today. But it soon turns out that Seth and his “family” are still the characters most familiar to the reader and that Bishop is taking us on a very strange journey indeed. Seth’s travels take him to two planets and three different cultures, each suceeding one more bizarre than the one that came before. Even for this particular subgenre of Science Fiction which by its very premise abounds in bizarre inventions, A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire is something exceptionally rich and strange.
With the emotional distancing due to the protagonist’s weirdness, the effect of reading the novel is not so much that of experiencing a tragedy by Shakespeare than of watching a Noh play as a Westerner – there is undoubtedly something very fascinating about the slowly unfolding, almost ritualistic dance on the stage, but also a considerable detachment – we never quite figure out what it means, and while we are captured by its bizarre beauty we also always are at some remove from it, never get quite involved. Which I’m fairly certain is the effect Bishop was aiming for. The distancing is not total, however – A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire does not attempt to explore what actual aliens might be like (as for example Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris does), but in the moral dilemmas that its characters have to face remains firmly centered around human, even humanistic concerns. And in that sense, it also is anthropological Science Fiction, literally and without quotation marks.(less)