Wednesday, August 31, 2011

2,549: The Water Room by Christopher Fowler

Well I didn’t see that coming!  I’d seen others in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series in bookshops and on Amazon and had filed it away at the back of my mind for future investigation.  So, when I saw The Water Room, the second in the series in the Transworld Book Challenge selection, I knew I had to pick it.

And, it turns out I’ve been labouring under a complete misapprehension about it.  You’ve probably not heard of Charters and Caldicott.  They were jolly old buffers, obsessed with cricket, who appeared as minor characters in the film, The Lady Vanishes, proved surprisingly popular with audiences and made recurring cameo appearances in a number of films, the most notable of which is Night Train to Munich.  They were resurrected as bumbling amateur detectives in the 1980s by the BBC in a series and a couple of spin off novelisations.

I’ve always had something of a soft spot for them and so, seeing that Fowler’s detectives were named after an iconic brand of matches and that the cover art images of them are of old men of a certain era, I jumped to the conclusion that Bryant and May would be similar to Charters and Caldicott and that I was in for an amiable detective diversion with maybe some cricketing trivia thrown in.  Oh, how wrong I was and how glad I was to be wrong as, for all their period charm, Charters and Caldicott were pretty flimsy and lightweight whereas The Water Room has a satisfying depth to it.

Bryant and May are the senior members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a specialist police unit set up to handle those crimes that are too odd, too difficult or too, well, peculiar for the mainstream Met to bother with.  Our two heroes are both senior citizens who have somehow avoided being pensioned off.  Bryant is curmudgeonly, expert in the arcane and prone to destroying technology through some in-built talent.  May, on the other hand, is fascinated by gadgetry, a bit of a ladies’ man and far more personable.  Despite being polar opposites, they have managed to maintain a partnership for over forty years and run a team of junior detectives and forensic experts including their key assistant, Janice Longstreet, a retired sergeant with a penchant for dressing as a ‘50s Hollywood screen goddess. 

In The Water Room, Bryant gets interested in the mysterious death of an old Indian lady at number 5 Balaklava Street, the sister of one of his contacts.  The lady in question is found seated in her basement bathroom with a mouth full of river water, apparently drowned yet completely dry.  At the same time, an old girlfriend of May has roped him in to investigating the strange activities of her academic husband, who has been furtively exploring the hidden rivers of London in cahoots with a dubious collector of Ancient Egyptian artefacts.  There follows a complex storyline interweaving the two mysteries in which it becomes apparent that the hidden rivers are the linking factor until our detectives solve the cases with a classic last chapter explanation.

Although the relationship between Bryant and May and them and their subordinates is at the heart of The Water Room and, I suspect, the other books in the series, I can’t help but feel that the real star of the book is London itself.  Like some authors, notably China Miéville, Christopher Fowler has captured something of the soul of the city.  The book almost reeks of it.  The London of The Water Room is a damp, grey city, dark and oppressive, drawing out the petty crimes and misdemeanours that lie behind the net curtains of its residential streets.  This level of atmosphere gives rise to an almost melancholic feel in much of the book and Fowler’s insights into human nature lift The Water Room above the usual run of the mill detective novel.  I’m glad I finished it before I went on holiday as I’m not sure it would have worked as well on the beach.

Although a detective story, this is not the kind of book where the reader can follow a set of carefully planted clues, avoiding authorial sleight of hand, in order to unmask the murderer.  Instead, it is very much the kind of detective story where one simply has to relax into the plot and enjoy the journey of Bryant and May.  It is a novel and not a puzzle.  Part of this, of course, is down to Fowler’s writing style but much of it is a reflection of the way Bryant’s mind works.  In the same way that their personalities differ, so too do the thought processes of Bryant and May.  May is the classical detective, relying on logic and deduction to make progress.  Bryant is a more intuitive thinker, making leaps of thought and being open to all kinds of esoterica in his investigations.  Although The Water Room is emphatically not a novel of the supernatural or paranormal, there is a whiff of the arcane about Bryant’s methods and sources.
The Water Room is most definitely not the book I thought it was going to be when I opened it but it has brought a whole new series into my reading life.  I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys crime writing or novels set in London, although you should probably start with Full Dark House, the first in the series, as I think some of the back story given in The Water Room relates back to it and could act as a spoiler.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I'm Part of the Transworld Book Group

This post has been rather too long in the writing, courtesy of work and our family holiday to Le Moulleau on the South West coast of France.  Indeed, I am typing away on my laptop here under an almost cloudless blue sky, with a gentle breeze blowing, a full tummy after an al fresco lunch on our terrace and only birdsong to disturb the peace, as mini-Falaise’s long-suffering grandfather has taken her out for a promenade (and, probably, yet another ice cream, for which she appears to have an unquenchable appetite).

Anyway, back to business.  Whilst perusing Gaskella’s blog a few weeks ago, I read her post about the Transworld Book Group, organised by Lynsey at Transworld.  Participants get to pick four titles from a selection of their autumn list.  Transworld then send them out one at a time and everyone taking part reviews the titles they have been sent.

Now, having only been blogging for 12 months (my bloggiversary was on the 27th but I was on the beach so didn’t bother marking it with a post), I am still getting used to the idea that publishers will allow bloggers access to ARCs and send out recent titles for review.  So anything like this really gets me excited and I signed up with alacrity.  From their selection, I chose the following:

The Water Room by Christopher Fowler

The Water Room

Twelve by Jasper Kent


Caligula by Douglas Jackson


The Odin Mission by James Holland

The Odin Mission

None of them are authors I have read before and three of them are from genres I don’t normally pick up so it should be an interesting set of reads.  The first title, The Water Room, has arrived and, I have to confess, I have already finished it – review to follow shortly.

Friday, August 19, 2011

2,550: Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks by John Curran

I haven’t read any Agatha Christie for some years now.  As a child, I used to love them, especially Poirot (I was never a Marple fan) and must have read most of her non-Marple books.  As an adult, however, without quite succumbing to the snide criticism that a lot of people seem to have for Christie, I haven’t until recently felt the urge to reacquaint myself with her.

John Curran, on the other hand, is a massive fan of Dame Agatha.  Indeed, he is described as an Agatha Christie scholar (yes, apparently they do exist).  And so, according to Curran himself, he came to make the acquaintance of Matthew Pritchard, Christie’s grandson and, on a visit to Greenway, Christie’s country home in Devon, he discovers, tucked away in a locked room, Christie’s notebooks, 73 of them to be precise, filled with her jottings and ideas.  Hence the title of his books, Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.  Only, there’s a snag.  You see, they weren’t really secret at all.  In fact, both of Christie’s biographers, Laura Thompson and Janet Morgan, had already had full access to them and had analysed them in their own books on the Queen of Crime.

I suppose it’s a minor quibble really and, to be fair to Mr Curran, it doesn’t really detract from what he has set out to do, which is no less than an exhaustive, scholarly analysis of the notebooks and an attempt to link them to Christie’s final, prodigious output.

Before discussing the book proper, I should give you a couple of warnings.  This is not a book for non-Christie fans.  Indeed, it may not even be a book for casual Christie readers.  Curran brings the full panoply of scholarly technique to bear and digs down to a level of minutiae that is likely only to appeal to the Christie hardcore.  Secondly, the book assumes a fairly in-depth knowledge of her oeuvre from the reader.  If you have only a passing acquaintance or a vague memory of them like me, much of Curran’s work will pass over your head.  Finally, the corollary of this is that the book is crammed with spoilers including the identity of virtually every Christie murderer.  In defence of Curran, he does highlight at the beginning of each chapter the books he discusses in that chapter.

Assuming that I haven’t put you off already, there is much of interest to the dedicated Christie fan.  Curran quickly makes it clear that Dame Agatha could not be accused of being a methodical worker.  The chronology of the notebooks bears little resemblance to the chronology of her bibliography and notes on different books are jumbled up together.  One gets the distinct impression that she had an incredibly fertile mind that threw off ideas left, right and centre in an almost random fashion.  One of Curran’s strengths is the way in which he has managed to draw some order out of the apparent chaos of the notebooks.

He does this by organising his chapters by theme (nursery rhymes, modes of travel, murders overseas).  This allows him to explore relevant parts of the notebooks in a systematic manner, although it does lead to a certain amount of repetition and means that it is difficult to get an organic sense of Christie’s workings.

Curran also manages to tease out some themes that run through Christie’s novels and short stories.  If one were playing “Christie Cluedo”, it would be a fairly safe bet to plump for the doctor having committed the murder with poison.  Christie’s favourite settings were also of the English village or country house mould, notwithstanding books like Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express.  Family dynamics were also issues in which Christie had a great interest and Curran writes informatively on how this is reflected in her books.

Another fascinating insight that Curran gives us is the lack of certainty that Christie had when starting a manuscript.  She was perfectly capable of changing murderer, victim and even detective halfway through the writing process as can be seen from her notes.  One bit of trivia that might be of interest is that Miss Marple was originally meant to have been the detective in Death on the Nile before a change of heart gave the assignment to Poirot.

If Curran has hyped up the alleged “secret” nature of the notebooks, he partially redeems himself by including two previously unpublished Poirot short stories in the book.  The first, entitled The Capture of Cerberus was originally intended to form part of Poirot’s Labours of Hercules, originally published in Strand magazine in 1939 and 1940.  It’s an odd story, featuring a thinly disguised Adolf Hitler and an unusually virile Poirot (he drinks vodka with a Russian countess and scales a high wall).  Deemed unsuitable by Strand, an alternative version was eventually published by Collins in the book edition.  As I say, it is an odd story and, although an interesting curiosity, not a classic by any stretch.

The Incident of the Dog’s Ball, on the other hand, remained unpublished due to its similarity to the novel, Dumb Witness.  Frankly, it’s not very good and I can see why it hadn’t seen the light of day until Curran got hold of it.  It does, however, highlight one of Christie’s habits, that of recycling plot devices throughout her output.

In conclusion, if you are a Christie fan, there is enough of interest here to make it a worthwhile, if slightly heavy read.  It’s probably best taken in small doses and maybe alongside a reading of the books he is discussing.  Although I am not sure I will bother with the second volume, which is due out in the near future, it has piqued my interest in Christie sufficiently that I have set myself the target of reading (or re-reading) all of her crime stories in chronological order both to see whether I still enjoy them and to put context to Curran’s commentary.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

2,551: Talking About Detective Fiction by P.D. James

As potential authors of a book about the detective novel genre go, there can be few more-qualified candidates than P.D. James, creator of Adam Dalgliesh and recipient of more literary honours than you could shake a stick at.  Accordingly, Talking about Detectives is much more than a short potted history of the genre.  It is also an analysis of the continuing popularity of detective fiction, a critique of some of its most iconic practitioners and an insight into the author’s own writing habits and techniques.

Lady James defines the detective novel quite loosely in a way that allows her to pull Jane Austen (of whom she writes, “with Jane Austen what we have is Mills and Boon written by a genius”), Trollope and Dickens into her narrative of the inception of the genre.  Following convention, she too identifies Wilkie Collins The Moonstone as the first true detective novel before considering the first great British detective, Sherlock Holmes.

No worshipper of shibboleths, the author is very comfortable poking gentle fun at, for example, at the implausibility of Holmes and Watson’s living arrangements and even half-accusing Homes of murdering Dr Watson’s puppy.  Her critical eye and refusal to follow received wisdom is also apparent in her dissection of Agatha Christie and the other Queens of the Golden Age of British crime fiction, Marjorie Allingham, Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngaio Marsh.  Nevertheless, she is happy to accord them a chapter of their own in the narrative and a central position in the development of the detective novel.

James is happy to identify writers whom she rates including (and despite the beliefs of some other reviewers) the above four grandes dames, Josephine Tey and Sara Paretsky.  She also admits that if she were to be starting over again, she would probably write a female detective like Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski but that this option was far less plausible when she first created Adam Dalgliesh.  As well as the above female writers, James gives a large amount of credit to Edgar Allan Poe for having come up with four of the great innovations in detective fiction* and makes a persuasive (at least to this partial reader!) argument for a revival in popularity of G.K. Chesterton.  There is also an amusing dissection of Ronald Knox’s ten commandments for detective fiction writers, including the baffling prohibition on the presence of “Chinamen” in detective novels (presumably a poke at Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books).  One of Lady James’ contentions, however, is that detective fiction actually benefits from rules and conventions which can actually liberate the writer rather than confining him or her, as some critics have alleged.

In trying to assess the continuing popularity of detective fiction, James makes a point about Agatha Christie that has, in my view, a more universal resonance:

“But one thing is certain: Agatha Christie has provided entertainment, suspense and temporary relief from the anxieties and traumas of life both in peace and war for millions throughout the world and this is an achievement which merits our gratitude and respect.”

This, I think, goes to the very nub of it.  At the heart of the detective novel is the comforting thought that order and justice can be restored to the world from the chaos and evil occasioned by murder.  Lady James makes the telling point that the Golden Age took place during the years between the two world wars, a time of political upheaval and economic turbulence throughout the world, in which detective stories were a retreat to a more ordered and comfortable place.  She goes on to comment:

“Whether we live in a more violent age than did, for example, the Victorians is a question for statisticians and sociologists, but we certainly feel more threatened by crime and disorder than at any other time I can remember in my long life.”

 Given that Lady James was born in 1920, this is a strong statement and, looking back at the recent riots in London and other major English cities, it is difficult to dispute.  Indeed, on her own views, it may be that we are about to enter a new Golden Age of British detective fiction.  I don’t know whether the same is true in the US, continental Europe or the rest of the world but I suspect it may be.

As for the future of the detective novel?  Lady James identifies a few pointers.  She comments on the waning of the influence of the old conventions of the novel, the ever-increasing focus on the darker realities of modern life, the impact of forensic science on the detective novel, the international spread of the genre and the general eclipse of the gifted (or lucky) amateur in favour of the professional policeman.

It should be acknowledged that Talking with Detectives is heavily weighted towards British detective fiction and, although devoting a chapter to the masters of the American “hard-boiled” story, Chandler and Marlowe, it is relatively light on American writing and the growth of the Eurocop in the genre.  It probably also requires the reader to have a passing knowledge of the great names of the genre, both modern and historical.  Nevertheless, this long essay will be a fascinating and entertaining read for all aficionados of the genre, whether casual or devoted.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Travel Packing

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday from the Broke and the Bookish is a free-for-all - The Top Ten anything you like.  So, I spent all of about 10 seconds thinking of what I was going to write about before realising I was totally bereft of inspiration.  Either that or I’m just too bone idle to put any effort into creating an entertaining them for your delectation.  I’m off on holiday next week so I have a suspicion my brain may already have packed its bucket and spade and be mentally asking, “Are we there yet?”

The Falaise family jaunt to France is actually only the start of a little burst of travel for me as September will also bring business trips to Canada and Russia, with a trip to Dubai looming in October.  So, in pleasurable anticipation of foreign fields, I thought I would present you with a list of the books I am hoping to get through on beach, plane and in hotel and airport on my travels - work and mini-Falaise (who unaccountably believes that holidays are for having fun with her) permitting.

1.         Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian.  This is the second in the Aubrey and Maturin series and, surprisingly, for a naval series, much of the action takes place on land.  O’Brian’s admiration for Jane Austen is often commented on and this particular volume is sometimes said to be his particular tribute to her.  I loved Master and Commander, the first in the series, and I have this one slated for my holiday reading in France.  Mama Falaise and Old Man Falaise are coming with us (as we are fashionably “gramping”) and OMF will no doubt smirk infuriatingly at me as he recommended O’Brian to me more than 15 years ago, only for me to demur.

2.         Ten Days that Shook the World by John Reed.  Listed at number 7 on New York University’s list of the top 100 works of journalism, John Reed’s first hand account of the early days of the October Revolution in Russia has been controversial almost since its first publication.  Reed was a self-confessed admirer of the Bolsheviks and is, in fact, buried in the Kremlin.  Nevertheless, it has been praised for its literary quality by commentators from both ends of the political spectrum.  It’s not particularly long so I hope to get through it on my flight to Moscow.

3.         Snowdrops by A.D. Miller As one of the reasons for being allowed to buy my Kindle was that it would stop me from taking piles of books away with me, it behoves me to include at least a couple of e-books on this list. Snowdrops has been included in the Booker prize longlist, despite receiving mixed reviews.  The novel centres around the life of an English lawyer, approaching his forties and working in Moscow.  As an English lawyer in his early forties who has worked with Russian clients and has friends in law firms in Moscow, I don’t know whether reading this book is a good idea or not but it will be on my Kindle and going with me to Russia.

4.         Cain by Jose Saramago.  Cain was the last book written by Nobel laureate Saramago before his death last year.  I have been given an electronic ARC of the English translation by the kind people at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  The book is a reworking of some of the best known episodes from the Old Testament through the eyes of Cain, who is hurled around in time and space after being condemned by God to wander forever, having killed his brother, Abel.  I’ve already started this and it is quite amazing, although I doubt the Church will be very happy with it.

5.         The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser.  Although I studied the 17th Century for A-level history back at the tail end of the ‘80s, I’ve not really been that interested in the period until recently when I’ve suddenly developed a curiosity.  It may be linked to my re-engagement with Shakespeare and his milieu but anyway, I’ve downloaded this narrative history of eth Gunpowder Plot onto my Kindle and suspect that I will try and find a few hours in Alberta to transport myself back in time.

6.         The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fiske.  Typical, isn’t it.  I buy a Kindle, which has the great quality of being able to store absolute monster books and then the first monster I decide to buy isn’t available on it.  Weighing in at almost 1300 pages, this is a collection of many of Fiske’s articles on the key themes running through the history of the modern Middle East.  I’ve read The Age of the Warrior, a more recent collection of his writings and found it thought-provoking and well written so I am looking forward to this one, although I don’t always agree with his prejudices.  This one will be coming with me to Dubai.

7.         A Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin.  I’ve finally succumbed to the weight of public opinion.  Following the HBO TV series, it’s been talked about so much in newspapers and in blogs that I downloaded it to my Kindle and will give it a go.  I do like fantasy in general but I am just not sure that this one is going to appeal to me.  I will, however, approach it with an open mind and will be prepared to be convinced.

8.         Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky.  Everyone’s allowed a bit of nice, light reading on a trip and I’ve decided to have a reread of Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski series.  VI is a wise-cracking, feminist Italian-Polish private investigator from Chicago.  I’ve read the first few in the series but, for some reason, stopped some years ago.  I’m going to start at the beginning again with Indemnity Only.  Definitely one for the long flight home from Canada or Dubai, I think.

9.         The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.  Those of you who read these pages regularly (for which I thank you and, if you’re not one of them, hello and welcome!), will know that I have a long term plan to read the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  I am well behind schedule on this and should have read The English Patient months ago.  I’ve started this a couple of times since then but have become distracted each time.  So, hopefully, some quiet time on my travels will allow me to have a good, solid run at it.

10.       The Big Red Train Ride by Eric Newby.  Mrs F and I have a longstanding intention to travel across Russia on the Trans Siberian Express when the British Government finally allows me to retire.  In the meantime, however, I will slake my thirst for this trip by rereading Eric Newby’s classic account of the trip he and his wife took in 1977.  Times have changed significantly since then, of course, and when we finally manage to make the trip, it will be fascinating to see whether our trip bears any relationship to Newby’s.

I should also mention that there will hopefully be a number eleven to this list. I have been granted access to an ARC of the new Terry Pratchett, Snuff, by the wonderful, wonderful people at Harper Collins.  I am, unfortunately, struggling to download it properly.  If I can get it to work, this will definitely be an early holiday read.  If not, I will be a touch sulky.

Monday, August 15, 2011

2,552: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch.  When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age.  In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job.  Nothing has worked.”

Travel writing and I have a bittersweet relationship.  In a world in which I didn’t have to work for a living, didn’t have responsibilities and didn’t have a penchant for luxury hotels with cool, Egyptian cotton bed linen and cocktail bars, I would be a traveller, dragging Mrs F and mini-Falaise to all parts of the compass, just to see what’s there.  Deep down though, that kind of lifestyle wouldn’t really work for me.  I’m always glad to get home from a trip, I don’t deal well with the discomforts of travel and I don’t have the social skills that seemingly enable travel writers to get into story-worthy situations.

All that means that I love reading about travel but always suffer the contradictory pangs of wanderlust and inner knowledge that I’m just not cut out for that kind of life.  Nevertheless, travel writing remains one of my favourite genres and Travels with Charley has been a part of my collection since I first read it in the mid-1990s.  So, when the Classics Circuit announced its Steinbeck tour, I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with it.

In 1960, a depressed and ill Steinbeck, having long moved away from his roots and feeling a need to reconnect with America, bought a pick-up truck and had a small cabin built on its flat bed.  He then set off on a long loop around America with only his French poodle, Charley, as a companion.  Never revealing his own identity, he sought to meet and engage with people throughout the country.

What emerges is part travel journal, part memoir and part opinion piece.  Steinbeck notes a decline in local cultures as cities expand, with a homogenous culture spreading its wings.  He sees the beginnings of the destruction of the environment, the iniquities of racism and the growth of consumerism.

His emotional journey is a little like a drive through gentle, rolling hills.  He has moments of joy, such as his love of Montana, his pleasure at the variable weather of New England, his new impressions of San Francisco and the kindness of many of the strangers he met, like the garage owner in a nameless town in Oregon who searched and searched to find him new tires on which to continue his journey.

Of course, like the hills, his journey had valleys as well as peaks and there are episodes of palpable sadness like the visit he makes to an old hangout, Johnny Garcia’s bar in Monterey, which descends from joy to bitter recrimination as both he and Johnny realise that people change as time passes and nothing stays the same forever. He also experiences the nostalgic ache of looking into the valley where his parents’ ranch was in Northern California and remembering old times.

There is also anger, most explicitly in his description of the demonstrations against the integration of a school in New Orleans, where a gaggle of middle-aged matrons, known as the Cheerleaders, orchestrate the taunting of a tiny black child and of the white father and child who dared to defy the mob by going to school.

“But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate.  In a long and unprotected life, I have seen and  heard the vomitings of demoniac humans before. Why then did these screams fill me with a shocked and sickened sorrow?”
The contrast between the powdered, supposedly God-fearing matrons of Louisiana and the tiny, frightened children, both black and white, is almost visceral.

There’s an overarching sense in Travels with Charley of the impermanence of things, of the ever-changing nature of people and places.  Maybe this is so obvious because of the changes that Steinbeck had sensed in himself with his depression, his illness and his alienation from that part of America that had driven his writings.  Steinbeck had always been a physical man and, maybe, his physical decline affected his view of the changes in America since he had last been rooted in the land:

"I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I've lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment."

Indeed, according to Steinbeck’s son, he made his trip because he sensed he was dying and wanted to see his country one last time.  Fortunately, he was to live for another eight years and would see himself awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Earlier this year, a writer in the USA retraced Steinbeck’s journey and wrote a piece, claiming that much of Travels with Charley was made up, including the amount of time he spent apart from his wife, the amount of time he spent in his truck, Rocinante and most of the dialogue.  Indeed, there is something very stagy and artificial about many of his encounters.

But, does this matter?  I’ve always suspect that much of the best travel writing has something of the fictional about it.  I don’t really believe that all of the reported conversations can be word for word accurate or that every single encounter happened.  It doesn’t matter.  Unless a book sets out to be a factual description of a place or a piece of journalism, I’d rather read a better book that has been “enhanced” than a more mundane book that remains strictly accurate.

In the end, regardless of the facts, Travels with Charley is a beautiful, melancholic, piece of writing with flashes of humour and some serious opinions that still ring true today.

If you’d like to read more posts on Steinbeck’s works, the other tour participants today are:

Bibliographing on The Acts of King Arthur

Becky's Book Reviews on either The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden

Friday, August 12, 2011

2,553: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

In the interests of full disclosure and my own limited sense of ethics, I should start by saying thank you to the folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who sent me an electronic ARC of Umberto Eco’s latest novel, The Prague Cemetery.  I should also tell you that The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, two of Eco’s previous works, are two of my favourite books, so I was already pre-disposed to like this one.

The Prague Cemetery is set in the second half of the19th Century, a period of intense political upheaval in Europe, a time when new nationalisms and class-based ideologies were clashing with old, established systems of rule.  It was an epoch rife with secret societies, political and esoteric clubs and conspiracies involving Jesuits, Freemasons, Satanists, monarchists, republicans, spies and revolutionaries.

Eco’s premise is that, contrary to received wisdom, one man was behind all of these conspiracies (including the Dreyfus affair).  That man was one Captain Simonini, the book’s protagonist and, according to Eco, the only fictional character in the novel.  I use the term “protagonist” advisedly as Simonini is, as Eco acknowledges, a hateful man with no redeeming features.

This is not to say that Captain Simonini is some criminal mastermind.  In fact, he is a crooked notary, master forger and occasional spy.  Entangled at various times with the secret services of Piedmont, France and Russia, Simonini produces a series of forged documents to be used as evidence of conspiracy in many of the key events of the second half of the century, including the Risorgimento, the Franco-Prussian War and the Dreyfus Affair.  As time goes by, his concoctions become ever more elaborate until, fuelled by his own increasing anti-semitism, he produces an account of a meeting of the elders of Zion in the Jewish cemetery in Prague, a document that will become known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, probably the most notorious forgery ever made.

If anyone is thinking Dan Brown at this point, then Eco is way ahead of you.  In an astute piece of flattery, Eco writes in his introductory letter:

“I am expecting two kinds of readers.  The first has no idea that all these things really happened, knows nothing about nineteenth century literature, and might even have taken Dan Brown seriously……………………….The second, however, knows or senses that I am recounting things that really happened.”

You and I, of course, the implication goes, will fall into the second class of reader, more informed, more sensible.  But wait.  Is Eco playing a clever game with us?  Through his blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction in the book, is he luring us into a more subtle self-delusion, where we start to accept that he is recounting fact, thereby becoming as gullible as those silly Dan Brown believers?

The Prague Cemetery contains many of the hallmarks of Eco’s works.  We are given three narrators: an unknown narrator who reads and comments on Simonini’s written memoir, Simonini himself through the memoir and a Jesuit priest, the Abbe della Piccola, who also communicates through the memoir as an interpolator in Simonini’s page.  The identity of della Piccola is a running sub-plot.  Is he a real person, a figment of Simonini’s imagination or conscience or evidence of a second identity of Simonini?  In the layering of narrators, Eco plays with our need to be able to trust our narrator to deliver the true narrative.

At a higher level, this blurring of truth and fiction is also at the core of Simonini’s work.  Forgeries are used either to prove the existence of a conspiracy or to encourage individuals to take action in support of such a conspiracy.  Eventually, Simonini’s lies become accepted as truth – in the case of his work in the Dreyfus Case and the Protocols themselves, even after they are demonstrated to be false.  Lies become truth and take on a life of their own.

Another of Eco’s trademarks is the breadth of his knowledge and the depth of his research.  History, politics, architecture, geography, cuisine, art, are all grist to his literary mill.  At times, the level of detail and reference can almost be overwhelming but, overall, it adds even more depth to his narrative.

An interesting theme is that Simonini’s fictional conspiracy remains largely the same throughout the book.  Derived from a mixture of anti-semitic writings by writers such as Barruel and Sue and 19th Century novels (Dumas makes an appearance), the same issues are used by him in purported conspiracies by totally different groups including Jesuits, Freemasons and, of course, Jews.  This demonstrates the essential poverty behind group conspiracies – the actual conspiracy is really just a series of hackneyed complaints or fears of the hated group.  As Eco himself has commented, the framework remains the same, only the target changes.  Indeed, as Simonini and his contact in the Russian Okhrana discuss, the theory is usual contradictory, involving mutually exclusive allegations.

Already published in Spanish and Italian, The Prague Cemetery has the distinction of having been criticised by both the Vatican and the Chief Rabbi of Rome.  With differing levels of sophistication, they claim that the virulent anti-semitism displayed by Simonini may actually cause some readers to become “tainted” by it or even to come to believe that Simonini’s rants are true.

This begs the question of how far can authors go in using an unpleasant character as their voice.  It seems to me that an exploration of the mindset of an evil character is as valid as it would be for a virtuous character.  I would also posit that a reader that is suddenly going to become anti-semitic as a result of reading The Prague Cemetery is probably already quite a way down that road or is actually unlikely to be reading the book in the first place.  It also occurs to me that the logical consequence of the article is that bad authors could write from such a standpoint but good authors couldn’t as they are likely to be more convincing in their characterisation.  In any event, although it must be conceded that Eco’s language in voicing Simonini’s anti-semitism, misogyny and xenophobia is strong, he is such a distasteful character that noone sensible could possibly find his views attractive.

The Prague Cemetery is due to be published in English in November.  As with his other novels, it is both highly readable and erudite.  Deeply researched, complex in structure and rich in detail and character, it is poles apart from Dan Brown despite its focus on conspiracy theories.  This book is well up to Eco’s standards and, if not replacing The Name of the Rose in my affections, is certainly worth spending time with.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

2,554: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

I’ve been silent in the blogosphere for a couple of weeks now, as work has slightly overtaken all my other activities.  In particular, I’ve spent much of the last week in Texas on business, which is how I came to be sitting in a hotel room in Houston on Monday, when an email came through from Mrs F, telling me that London was burning.  Being unable to find out what was going on from TV or the Internet, I only discovered that mass rioting had broken out in London once I had managed to call her.  I am sure everyone will have seen the images of looting and general rampaging.  Most frighteningly, one of the riots had been taking place as we spoke only a fifteen minute walk away from our home.

I was thoroughly unsettled by this, all the more so because I was several thousand miles and six time zones away from home and was clearly unable to protect my family should anything have happened.  Fortunately, nothing actually did happen and I am pleased to report that both Mrs F and mini-Falaise are completely intact, as is Falaise Towers.  Even more troubling, however, has been the fact that within the space of a few hours, I descended from my day-to-day relative liberalism (some may even say laissez-faire-ism) to the worst kind of authoritarian.  I wanted the perpetrators locked up and the keys to be thrown away.  I would have been happy to see the Household Division patrolling the streets of South West London with live ammunition and I suddenly decided that hooded tops were the Devil’s work.  My mind wasn’t a pretty sight.

A flight back to the UK and a good night’s sleep has restored some of my better nature and, whilst I still see a case for more proactive policing and tougher sentencing policy and have nothing but contempt for the petty criminals who went out looting and burning, I am no longer foaming at the mouth about law and order.

But my reaction to the events of the past few days has brought me back to a graphic novel I read earlier this year and which has formed part of my ever-lengthening review back log.  V for Vendetta is a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, published in the 1980s.  Its backdrop is a post-apocalyptic England in which a fascist government has exploited the people’s desire for security to seize power and to create a one party state.  The eponymous “V” has begun a concerted attempt to destroy the organs of power in an attempt to have the people overthrow the ruling party and assert their own liberty.

I’ve not really read many graphic novels, a few superhero comics here and there and that’s about it so I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity and richness of V for Vendetta.  Moore and Lloyd have created a truly dystopian England, drawn in shades of grey and muted colours and, in V, an enjoyably ambiguous protagonist, flamboyantly drawn in a Guy Fawkes mask and 17th Century garb.

The central theme of the novel is the struggle between fascism, represented by the ruling party and its functionaries and anarchy, as personified by V.  Yet, although there is nothing positive about the party’s almost gangster fascism, the brand of anarchy expounded by V is not exactly depicted approvingly either.

V is capable of extreme cruelty and violence, which he rationalises as being necessary to destroy the party and to bring about freedom.  At times, he even looks a little like a reflection of the party, which is prepared to carry out similar acts in the name of ensuring stability.  The episode in which he incarcerates and mentally tortures Evey, his protégé, is an explicit parallel to the torture he has suffered at the hands of the ruling party.  One of the things I found most striking about the novel was this conflict at the heart of V, the debate as to whether he was anarchist as pursuer of liberty or anarchist as terrorist.  It is even unclear as to whether he is sane or not.  There is also an ambiguity about his motives.  Is he a true revolutionary, seeking to overthrow an evil system or is he merely out to seek revenge from the government that sent him to a concentration camp?  Ultimately, I found this depth of ambiguity one of the most fascinating elements of the novel and it is probably the factor that lifts it above the level of mere comic book.

Above and beyond the issues that emanate from the person of V, Moore also questions whether the ideal of liberty as espoused in V’s apparent anarchic philosophy is actually a good thing.  V refers often in the book to the “Land of Do-As-You-Please” and “The Land of Take-What-You-Want”, names taken from Enid Blyton’s “The Magic Faraway Tree”, a children’s book he reads Evey to sleep with whilst she is living with him.  These titles evoke selfishness as much as freedom to me and, when combined with the orgy of violence and self-indulgence that breaks out amongst the populace when V disables the government’s surveillance systems and the images of chaos at the end of the book when a general insurrection leads to the defeat of the government, paint a darker picture of V’s philosophy.

Underlying the main plot is a series of sub-plots, highlighting the opportunism that appears to be characteristic of many people and the tension between doing what we should and doing what is advantageous to us.  In brief, there are few wholly positive characters in the book and mankind is not painted in a kind light.  Jolly, this is not.  What it is, however, is a graphic novel that has opened my eyes to the potential of this genre.  I shall be looking for more of these to read and would heartily recommend it to you.  It is also in a different league to the film adaptation.

Finally, one of the clearest statements in the book is about the evils of authoritarianism and fascism. Regardless of V’s motives or the validity of his views, the reader, through Evey, is left in no doubt as to the need to take responsibility for our political and cultural system, to assert our freedom and to reject the apparent comforts of an over-weening state.  It’s a common message in dystopian literature and one that hit home again earlier this week when, for a moment, I wanted to set the armed forces on my fellow citizens.