Saturday, May 31, 2008

book review - The Ballad of Peckham Rye

On the face of it this is a story of what happens when a bit of devilry enters the lives of ordinary people. But Muriel Spark is also using this often humorous book to tackle other issues.

One of them is the sense of place with this being a Peckham that is almost totally unrecognisable from today. Not because of the reasons you might think but because in this book it is an area in London that supports two factories and their respective communities. It is because this is such a close-knit community that the arrival of someone out of the ordinary can have such an impact.

Then there is the sense of traditional. The main character Dougal Douglas is quirky because he refuses to adhere to social convention, which means being silent about indiscretions. He manages to do very little work but spend his time unravelling the paranoia’s and jealousies of those around him with in some cases devastating effect. He is also prepared to cry publicly, be far too informal and discuss sexual matters in a very carefree manner. It is almost like a herald of the free thinking sixties to the population of the 1950s. That is one major cause of a feeling of unease.

But the other comes from the key theme is the idea of someone being sent from the devil to cause havoc. In the same way that Mr Pye shakes-up the community of Sark in Mervyn Peake’s book Douglas here claims at one point to have horns. He confesses to being the devil and certainly in some cases he causes grief. One of his associates has a breakdown, the other in a jealous rage murders his mistress and in the case of the local hard man Trevor he drives him to distraction by taunting him with threats of fights on the Rye.

There are funny moments, because the way Douglas impacts people is through humour and oddness, and these make an otherwise uncomfortable read much more pleasurable. At the end as Douglas flees Peckham leaving his landlady suffering a stroke and Trevor the hard man swinging for him the sense of damage to the community is palpable. But as Spark makes clear in the closing pages things revert back to normal and the madness that was Douglas becomes part of Peckham folklore.

In that sense it could be an allegory for the madness of the war and the resilience of Londoners able to carry on after the destruction of the blitz. But it is more of a personal story a modern day Jekyll and Hyde inviting the reader to ponder the reactions of the characters Douglas churns up and to wonder what they might be capable of if provoked by a devilish acquaintance like Douglas.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Friday, May 30, 2008

Tree of Smoke - post I

Each chapter is an advanced year so it does have a disjointed feel with an assassination attempt then being followed by Skip the CIA intelligence officer sitting in Del Monte executive retreat going through card files.

It looks like he is about to be sent to Saigon, with the year now being 1965, but there is some background about local customs that implies that there a temptation from the Westerners to take the locals as fools.

The 1964 chapter details the mind of a Viet Ming fighter who views the Americans as the latest in a long line following on the heels of the French and the Chinese as people who would invade and dominate their country. But as he tries to recruit some local bandits you also get a glimpse of the apathy about the potential fight and the different cultures that pervade the country.

Part of the problem with Vietnam was a lack of understanding from those that arrived there to fight and those that lived there hoping to win independence. In just a matter of pages this has already come through.

More soon…

Lunchtime read: Shakespeare

Bryson is happy to accept that there was a person called William Shakespeare and he was a genius responsible for creating some of the most well known works of English literature.

The problem is that there are plenty of others who seem to be hell bent on dedicating their lives and careers to proving that he wasn’t. Some of them went mad trying to talk up Bacon and Lord Oxford but Bryson very gently but firmly picks apart the other claims and leaves the reader holding the opinion that Shakespeare was and is the only real option.

For those who have an Indiana Jones side to their character there is a glimpse of a literary treasure trail with lost plays and manuscripts possibly out there somewhere to be had by a collector for a price that you can only guess at.

In the meantime the arguments will continue to roll on and Bryson’s book will be added to the pile of thousands.

A review will follow soon…

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Kindly Ones - post V

The end of the book echoes the previous volume with Moreland popping into Jenkins path at Lady Molly's. the musician's marriage has fallen apart continuing on the theme of marriage that Moreland so dominated Casanova's Chinese Restaurant with.

But this is not a time to be concerned because as Ted Jeavons obsesses with putting up the blackout this is a time for war. There are echoes of the start of the book when his youth is ended by the announcement of the start of the First World War.

You sense with the last paragraphs that there is a gear shift now and the volumes that will cover the war are now going to begin.

A review will follow soon...

Lunchtime read: Shakespeare

The more you read about Shakespeare the more it strikes you that it is amazing anything of his life is left. If his plays hadn‘t been pulled together in the First Folio what would be left of him?

Most of what he left behind were questions providing academics with various life times work to argue over his sexuality, sequence of plays and his relationship with his family.

For almost every aspect of his life and work there is an academic that has made to their contribution to summarise and collect and interpret information. As a result you know how many new words Shakespeare introduced to the English language, how many references he made to various countries and how many different words he used across all of his plays.

What these things tell you is not just how hard working the great man was but just how important he has become and continues to be for anyone working in the world of English literature.

Final bit of this enjoyable book tomorrow…

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Kindly Ones - post IV

There is a real sense of a generation standing aside letting the Second World War usher in the chance for another group of people to have a go and make legends for themselves. Uncle Giles dies, the old cook from Jenkins youthful home is domesticated and showing his age and the old doctor who had strolled past Jenkins boyhood home with his followers in tow is also nearing the end.

But Jenkins, ever the watcher not the participant, discovers that he is slightly too old to get into the army and take part in the forthcoming conflict. He finds, along with his own father, that he is slightly caught in the no-man’s land of being in the wrong generation.

The sense of that panic that also pervades the early sections of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy is here with the phoney war a time of no bombs but constant clamouring for a chance to get into uniform. Without firing a shot Hitler had already managed to endanger honour and question the worthiness of many people represented by Nicholas Jenkins.

Final chunk tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Shakespeare

Bryson paints a concise picture of the world Shakespeare would have encountered when he came to London. A City within walls with gates closed at certain hours and theatres that had to pack them in and do so on a regular basis just to make a paltry profit.

Eluding nearly all of the engravers, diary keepers and official signature catchers is Shakespeare who seems to disappear for years before cropping up only in second-hand references.

The fact he is not around does not seem to matter because this is an enjoyable Elizabethan travelogue with plenty of easily digestible history. Bryson exposes various historical debates, for instance was Shakespeare a Catholic? Did he travel to Italy? Without forcing himself or the reader to commit to any of them.

More tomorrow…

In the queue for Devil May Care

Succumbed to the hype/temptation and popped out and picked up Devil May Care. Although it is being described as the literary event of the year it was all very low key in Waterstones Sutton. Walking in the book was there staring you in the face with a large half price sticker on the front but there was none of the excitement and imaginative shop decorations and point of sale stuff that had accompanied the Harry Potter launch.

Just because this is aimed at adults it seems a shame to reduce any fun to the bare minimum.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Kindly Ones - post III

Turning back to The Dance... is like picking up an old family photographic album, the ones full of black and white photos held in with gummed triangular edges, reading about how Freddy and Charlotte enjoyed the beach at Brighton in 1921. The only place I ever remember coming across that is the cloakroom at Claridges where the old family photographs made you feel even more alienated from a five star world, but even keener to rub your nose up against the window and peer inside. The difference with Powell is that he lets you come in and sit quietly and watch.

As the threat of war moves closer the party at Sir Donners is spoilt by the arrival of Widmerpool in uniform and unlike the anticipation of 1914 there is distaste at the reminder of death and destruction.

Although Templer and Widmerpool are echoes from the Jenkins past the friendship that appears to be one of the strongest is with the musician Moreland. Although they seem to go years without seeing each other there is something very similar between them - married at toughly the same time and one a man of music with the other a man of letters. When it comes to that other original old friend Stringham there is complete silence.

But before the story can move into full-blown pre-war preparations there is a family bereavement in the form of Uncle Giles finally dying. As he picks through his belongings Nick Jenkins finds his original commission from the Queen, hence his title of Captain Jenkins. For the first time seriously he ponders on his own possible fate as a solider. Something more poignant against the background of his wife expecting a child.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: Shakespeare

Having missed most of the Bill Bryson travel books the attraction of this one was not just the recommended mentions here there and everywhere but the attraction of seeing how he would tackle well trodden ground.

The first chapter reveals that barely nothing is really known about Shakespeare other than just a few scant facts and most interpretations of his life were written after his death.

That opening surprises you because it would almost be possible to close the book right now there but Bryson manages to then move on to paint a picture of the world Shakespeare was born into, using the facts he has about the Bard’s family to explain his circumstances.

Bryson then starts to paint a picture of the world in the 16th century and it is done without any of the heaviness that usually dogs history books. The fact you don’t know a great deal about Shakespeare starts to become almost irrelevant because what takes his place is the world of Elizabeth’s England.

More tomorrow…

Monday, May 26, 2008

A Void - post VII

Finally coming to the end you have to sit back and wonder at the feat and also applaud the plot. With its twists and turns it only becomes clear at the end what has happened although justice is not forthcoming.

Anton Vowl never reappears nor does any chance that the curse that has followed him and his siblings will be avoided. A twisted case of sibling rivalry means that all those that are the children of two sons that were meant to have died are destined to be murdered. Not only were Haig and Vowl brothers but also Olga was their sister and Ottivani the policeman turns out to be a brother as well.

He dies revealing that the text contained not a single

But there follows a postscript with Perec admitting that he set out on the project partly as a bet to prove he could to a friend and then because he enjoyed the discipline that having to stick to a formula gave him. He expresses a feeling that is palpable in the text that unlike other stories he had written this one really did force him to be inventive in a different way.

“Initially I found such a constraint faintly amusing, if that; but I stuck to my guns. At which point, finding that it took my imagination down so many intriguing linguistic highways and byways, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, plunging into it again and again, at last giving up all my ongoing work, much of which I was actually about to finish.”

It is a strange book that doesn’t come together until the end and the void is the missing e but it is a work of real concentration. The best description of what it is all about comes from ones of the quotes Perec chooses to print over the last two pages:

“...should we retrieve the letter which has been lost or the sign which has been effaced, should we reconstruct the dissonant scale, we shall regain our authority in the world of the mind.”
Gerard De Nerval

first chapter, first impression

This is an idea that is designed to share that first impression of what it feels like to open a new book – that coffee jar lid splitting moment. Opening a book and reading the first words is one of the most enjoyable things in life and makes reading the special activity it is. All of your attention is on those first few pages. What is this about, where is this going and who is showing me this world? All those questions get tackled to some extent in the first chapter.

Tree of Smoke - Denis Johnson

Kennedy has just been shot and you are introduced to two brothers, a colonel and a Vietnamese pilot milling around a US army base in the Phillipines. You are also introduced to the idea that Vietnam is already a country at war not just against the Viet Cong but also against itself with whores and US dollars already starting to corrupt the country.

But as the solider, William Houston and Lucky the Vietnamese pilot mooch around the Philippines military base the events elsewhere in South East Asia seem reasonably far away. The death of Kennedy threatens to change that.

More to come…

Sunday, May 25, 2008

bookmark of the week

This was one of several bookmarks available at the For Your Eyes Only exhibition about Ian Fleming and James Bond at the Imperial War Museum. The quote on the front is from Goldfinger: "You underestimate the English. They may be slow, but they get there in the end." This is a magnetic bookmark, seems like the leather ones are going out of fashion.

Devil may care

Went to the Imperial War Museum briefly this afternoon and popped into the For Your Eyes Only exhibition about the world of Ian Fleming. The kids were playing up so it was impossible to be in there for more than five minutes. But even in that space of time it was possible to come to the conclusion that it was disappointing.

It was quite expensive to wander through and discover that Fleming came from a background of wealth and privilege. Then there was a short bit about the cold war and then the success of the films. I thought they might take it beyond Fleming a bit and do more about the real world of espionage but there just didn’t seem to be much there.

But there is going to be plenty of opportunities to see what it was all about with the large amount of activity on the Bond front. The Times used up a fairly large chunk of its magazine yesterday to give an extract to Sebastian Faulks new take on the world of Bond, Devil May Care. It had the Fleming style, cool clipped sentences that show Bond is in control.

As the Imperial War Museum exhibition showed, graphically with a wall of translated Bond paperbacks, the market for Fleming's world was wide and presumably Penguin will be hoping for the same again as it publishes Devil May Care.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Void - post VI

Wikipedia can be great but it can also plant ideas and thoughts in your mind that might not have been there and as a result it clouds your thinking. For example the reference to A Void quotes from an article by an academic that argues that the void is the absence of the letter e, which in turn means that key words like mother and father in French cannot be uttered.

But there is a point at which two of Vowl’s friends realise they have the same father and refer to him as papa making you wonder. It also gets you thinking about how the absence of the letter in itself would become the void. There seem to be other issues here about hereditary curses and the coincidence of blood ties.

It has now entered the territory of an Agatha Christie novel in terms of there just being a few characters left standing, with one dropping dead with almost every other chapter. The police have arrived but they don’t seem to be getting anywhere and if anything face being sucked into the void along with everyone else. The only one who seems to be above the fray is Squaw the housekeeper and my money is on the key to the mystery being with her.

Tomorrow should tell…

Friday, May 23, 2008

book review - Vile Bodies

There is a distinct moment in this book where the mood changes quite dramatically. After reading the introduction you realise that was the point at which Evelyn Waugh had to cope with his wife walking out on him.

Up to that point in the book it has been a story following Adam as he returns from France with the dream of having his book published to finance his marriage. But the book is burnt by customs and then for a while it is a question of will he manage to get the money he needs to make his bride financially secure. Against a background of 'The Bright Young Things' a world where money is casually given away, but never to Adam, a generation seems intent on upsetting the establishment.

At the heart of the story there is a hollowness that comes to the fore once the mood of the book changes. Everything seems to have been cheapened by the bright young things with life and death something lost without comment, fame and fortune lost overnight and loyalty not worth anything if it could be turned to financial advantage.

Adam doesn't get his girl and the group he has been part of keeps chasing its own tale gossiping in newspapers about each other while the rest of the real world passes them by. These people are shown to be sad and often desperate people that end up challenging the status quo but never having the real stature to carry out any change.

You wonder though how it might have turned out had Waugh’\s wife not run off because there are some amusing moments when he tries to convince his possible future father-in-law that he should give him money to fund the wedding with his daughter. But that humour changes and disappears towards the end.

It is replaced with a sense of futility – easy come and easy go – and of betrayal. Adam is left out of the world of the gossips and his girl runs off with someone with money. The laughter, that never really was, finally stops for good with the outbreak of war.

Where this book tries to provoke reactions it does so almost effortlessly. So the moment when the Prime Minister wakes to find his home has been used for a party and as a result is embroiled in scandal shows the rigid inflexibility of the generation the bright young things were reacting against.

But likewise the moments when a failed gossip columnist decides to gas himself in an oven or when a girl who has suffered a motor crash goes downhill and dies their lives are just footnotes in a gossip column.

In some respects it makes you think of the likes of Amy Winehouse and company who might be so shocking to certain sections of the establishment but would be just another celebrity page entry if they died of their drug abuse.

In Waugh’s day the drugs were alcohol and freedom from the strict expectations of a society that had featured debutantes and a strict society calendar. But the shallow and instantly forgettable nature of the bright young things was there in the 1920s and 30s and is there again now. There are still vile bodies being caught on camera and filling columns of newspapers.

“…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting parties in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…Those vile bodies…”

Version read – Penguin paperback

Thursday, May 22, 2008

book review - The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other stories

Just as with Frankenstein the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is well know, mainly through film adaptations. The first thing that strikes you is the length of the story, which is firmly a novella. Robert Louis Stevenson was someone interested in the line between life and death and the possibilities of pushing the boundaries.

This collection of stories reminds you of Poe in terms of its darkness and tendency to the horrific but it also shows a writer using his craft to raise questions. The title tale is of course about the battle in us all between good and evil. The worrying conclusions seem to be that given the chance evil will win and Hyde finally consumes the respectable Jekyll. The horror of the transformation is the extent to which the evil personality will go to split away from goodness. In the case of Hyde it starts as rudeness but becomes murder.

The reader knows long before the friends of Jekyll what is happening but the twist at the end of the story is not clear until you get to it and the conclusions like Frankenstein are not just about good versus bad but also about the consequences of man playing God. Both stories have in common that feeling that those men who find they can master nature will ultimately become victims of their arrogance.

Other stories that stand out from this collection that is really well put together in Barnes & Noble edition that has am introduction and plenty of other material to extend the reading experience are also touching on the consequences of playing with nature.

The young doctors who murder to gather dissection specimens are confronted after digging a grave with one of their victims. Thrawn Janet has a vicar facing the devil possessing his housekeeper and the suicide club is again about murder.

Bear in mind the period when these stories were written and the strides that were being taken in science and the way that man’s knowledge of nature was rapidly advancing and you can imagine these stories not only being received by a grateful audience but one that shared Stevenson’s fears about the future. It is also hard to mentally split the Jekyll and Hyde story away from the Jack the Ripper events in Whitechapel. It is almost as if the fictional character stepped off the pages and into the streets of East London. It would have been even uncannier had Hyde been based in the East End rather than Soho but the similarities are startling.

Just as was the case with Frankenstein this is a book that is worth reading because it is the original and not altered by modern interpretation.

Version read – Barnes & Noble Classics paperback

A Void - post V

Although I am not going to pretend I know exactly what is going on this is starting to grip you because the mystery deepens and more people start dying.

As each character tells their stories the links between them start to unravel and family feuds and curses appear to be the driving force behind the deaths and disappearances. There are some mystical references that to be honest would require a little bit more reading around the subject to get to grips with.

But you can safely say that 200 pages in to the 285 page novel and you want to find out what happened to the mysterious Anton Vowl and just where he is and what became of him. Did he escape the curse following him, which had already claimed his brother Douglas Haig or did he fail? His friends are starting to think he failed but it is not yet clear.

More tomorrow…

A Void - post IV

A couple of things to declare before we get into this:

I am drunk

I am tired

Tonight has been the awards night for my magazine and playing the role of the host has been taxing.

Before the awards started read a bit of A Void and another character died after discovering that the past si interlinked with the present. Nothing more can be said because it is too mysterious and I haven't got the energy to write more.

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Void - post III

As you read A Void you can’t help but think of Perec scratching his head doing the research. A great example is the pieces of evidence that are presented by Anton Vowl’s friends to try and establish where he has gone.

Among the diaries and thoughts are six excerpts from famous writers ranging from Milton to Shakespeare – without the e’s – but nowhere is there an e to be seen.

Mind you nowhere is the character of Vowl to be seen. But the other characters around him are now getting some flesh on the bones with Olga an opera singer who can be found at her father-in-laws. She was widowed after just a few days when her husband was killed in a freak accident and died without any apparent cause of death.

They are also joined by a British friend who adds to the anglophile feeling with Olga’s husband being named Douglas Haig after the famous British figures of that name.

It is still hard to know what is going on and still a challenge to stay with Perec but in the sense that it keeps you awake on the train then this book does that and makes you work a bit with the old grey cells.

More tomorrow…

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Kindly Ones - post II

Having talked about his parents and the moment when Uncle Giles turned up to announce that the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand the theme of the book becomes clear.

Just as in 1914 the threat of war is looming. There are major differences. Back then the idea of fighting was not only seen as inevitable but in some quarters was looked forward to like a sporting event. Now as the dark clouds start to loom over Czechoslovakia and the Munich agreement divides political opinion the thoughts are with money and how to make the most out of the situation.

Epitomising that awkward position is Magnus Donners who is trying to work out how war would impact his business interests. But Hitler affects other characters in different ways with Moreland unable to write his ballet because he feels so depressed. The reintroduction of Donners is as a result of an invitation to see the Moreland’s staying at a cottage he owns.

It is also a chance for Nick to meet his old friend Peter Templer who hasn’t changed much but has remarried to a poor woman, Betty, who has been driven literally mad by her husband’s adultery.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Lunchtime read: The Girls of Slender Means

For a while you try to work out where this book is going but it all comes together in the last couple of chapters. Spark seems focus on those moments of conversion or cataclysm where a character has the ability to change the thoughts and actions of others.

In this case the explosion of a bomb in the garden, something that has been a running point of commentary throughout the book, causes not only the destruction of the club building but as the fire escape collapses and the women upstairs wait it also claims the life of one of the residents.

The life is claims so the elocution teacher Joanna who takes comfort in calmly reading a psalm from memory as the smoke and the flames get ever closer. Her attitude to death impacts Nicholas, who is watching through the window profoundly. He starts to understand that away from the topical anarchism and posturing there are people who really believe in something.

That incident in the house, which collapses like the other bombed out buildings nearby, along with the casual murder on VJ night seems to have an impact on Nicholas who then heads off to become such a zealous missionary that the natives resort to killing him.

Just like the Ballad of Peckham Rye this is about the way people can be changed. In this case though it is not Nicholas, who you suspect of potentially playing a Douglas Dougal type role, but someone who has been heard throughout the book as she recites poetry but rarely seen. That is an idea in itself – the concept of influence through mystery – and you put this slim novella down with a few of the really big questions left going through your mind.

A review will follow soon…

Too upbeat?

There is a really good little book that comes with today’s Observer covering the publishing industry full of facts and figures and interesting stuff about how a book is created and then published. The only thing I have to disagree with is the upbeat introduction. It states that there are more books published than ever before. But then states that with literacy increasing and second hand bookshops flourishing then now is a great time for literature.

Hold on. According to various sources literacy is declining in some quarters. Bookshops are finding it harder to compete with online rivals and the large supermarkets and the whole debate about ebooks has clouded the actual problem with getting people to engage with reading.

Mind you put all of that in the introduction and I guess people wouldn’t read on…

Saturday, May 17, 2008

book review - Frankenstein

This is a classic by the definition of it having entered the global language associated with a man made monster but you wonder how many people have actually read the book by Mary Shelley.

In a way you almost don’t need to because of the numerous films and the handing down over campfires and bedtime stories of the basics of the story. The problem with steering clear of the actual book is that as a result you are not getting the original interpretation.

There are major differences. In the book Frankenstein’s creation hangs like a shadow over the story but it is rarely seen. Neither is it inherently evil from the start that happens because of the rejection it receives not just from man but also from its maker.

That sense of rejection and revenge drives a story that is not just about man’s desire to tinker with nature. This is clearly about the ambition for science to make mortals as powerful as Gods and the consequences are a warning. But it is also pointing a warning finger about vanity and the consequences that come from failing to face up to responsibilities. It sticks in the kind that when the monster has warned Frankenstein that he will be with him on his wedding night the scientist assumes he is the target and only when it is too late does he realise that he was not the victim.

The device for telling the story is at first misleading because it is told through the diaries and letters of a Polar explorer who is writing to his sister. His crew sight Frankenstein’s creation and then rescue the doctor and it is over the course of a few days, as it turns out counting down to the breakdown of his health and his death, that Frankenstein tells the story of his misery.

He accepts the blame for going too far and taking his arrogance to the extremes of creating life. He accepts that as the creature looks for revenge and kills his family that he is responsible for their murders and deaths. He also accepts that he has to spend the rest of his life tracking the monster until he has killed it.

The story then unfolds and the pace comes from the presence of the monster in the shadows to pop out occasionally with warnings and acts of death and violence.

Frankenstein would rather lose everyone than make a pact with the devil and deepen his crimes by creating another mate for his monster. That decision seals his fate.

One thing that you wonder is who actually wrote the book. You know from her preface that Mary Shelley had the idea in the famous moment when Byron and her husband dreamt up a way to kill the boredom of a rainy summer. But Mary implies that her husband is responsible for most of the text and there are several nods to other poets that often are unnecessary but feels like signposting of authorship.

In the end Mary Shelley had an idea that was timeless in its concept. Man will always try to bend the laws of nature for their own aims and if they do then the consequences could be as devastating as Frankenstein’s example. As you would expect the book is much better than the film.

Version read – Penguin popular classic paperback

The Kindly Ones - post I

It seems an odd time to go right back but Powell starts the sixth book in the Dance to the Music of Time series by returning to his family home in the year 1914. A domestic scene that is populated by a reasonably isolated parents and a handful of odd servants is used to describe domestic life on the eve of the First World War.

Jenkins is an only child and when not being looked after by his tutor discovers from his mother that the cook is leaving to get married and as a result the maid, who was holding a torch for the chef, decided to hand in her notice. The understated humour comes from the way that the woman decides to resign, by bursting in completely naked on Jenkins’s parents and their guests.

All of the talk is of war with people trying to guess when things will happen. The reference to the title and the mentioned at the start is the furies and the hope that it will be the kindly ones that have an influence. Something that sadly was never going to happen after the shooting in Sarajevo that kick starts the war.

More soon…

A Void - post II

Before he disappeared Anton Vowl sent messages to several friends to tip them off that something has happened or is going to happen. The clues lead them to the zoo, to a lawyer who is holding Anton’s diaries and then to yet another friend who has more information.

The diaries seem to obsess about Moby Dick and the way the whale pulled them all into the void. But at the same time another well-known solicitor dies and at the funeral the friends meet up and are witnesses to the coffin dropping, opening and being revealed as empty.

That concludes the section on Anton and the narrative moves onto focus on the next stage of the investigation. One oddity, although how can you single out one in a book full of them, is the way that most of the male characters have lost their children in unusual circumstances.

It is hard to keep up with it sometimes as the narrative goes off at tangents and the plot moves backwards and forwards through literary and mathematical references. Numbers and characters seem to be important although not always clear. Even as a reader you sense the book dropping through a void in the middle of Anton Vowl’s rug taking you and everything else along with it.

More tomorrow…

Friday, May 16, 2008

Lunchtime read: The Girls of Slender Means

The characters start to emerge with Jane acting as the go between link from the past to the future when Nicholas has died. She is the one phoning round trying to find everyone to tell them the news.

Back in 1945 Jane is resigned to the fact that Nicholas is more interested in her attractive friend Selina and she allows him to use her as a way back into the club. The girls are largely harmless struggling to find their way through post-war Britain without any money and without too much idea of what they want to do with their lives.

Now and again Spark fast forwards and gives you a life summary taking a character right through the next forty years as lightning speed. It works well and I almost wish someone could sit down next to me and summarise my next twenty years in a sentence – only of course if it turned out well!

Spark really manages to create a watertight description of a little community and you feel at the point when Nicholas is waiting in the hall for Selina that you are almost there with him taking in the sights and the mood of the period and that is a result of her writing.

Is there going to be a moment when Nicholas acts a catalyst to change the lives of the girls on the top floor or is Spark writing a straight memoir type story of the year 1945 and live for girls with slender means? Not yet clear but still enjoyable either way.

More tomorrow…

A Void - post I

Sometimes you get reminded just how adventurous literature can be. Okay it sounds contrived to produce a novel without using a single letter ‘e’ but what ambition trying to do it. As you start reading you spend a few pages just trying to find an escaped ‘e’ and there are moments when he inserts a dash or apostrophe where a e should have been. But most of the time he simply chooses to express the story without using words containing ‘e’s.

The result is odd, not in an unpleasant way, but there is a different rhythm. The story is also written in a way that is no necessarily easy to get to grips with. There are hidden jokes, with famous French literary characters popping up, and references to mathematical and philosophical debates that are far out of my realm.

But at the heart of the story there is a character named Anton Vowl who becomes obsessed with the idea that he is slipping into a void. He suffers from insomnia and becomes more unable to distinguish between reality and dreams. He commits his increasingly random thoughts to paper and then disappears.

More tomorrow...

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lunchtime read: The Girls of Slender Means

Often when you like an author it is the world and the characters they are describing that makes the impression. As a consequence it can sometimes be possible to reach out and head for other books written about the same period to find other writers trying to paint similar pictures.

Although the war years haven’t been reached in Dance to the Music of Time the fact they arte coming inspired the choices of the Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh and now The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark.

This story is set in Kensington in 1945 just as the war has ended and focuses on a club come women’s hostel and Spark builds up a picture of the girls who live at the top of the old Victorian building. Some have fiancés, others focus on their jobs but they all have in common a lack of money and the challenges of living in a country that has rationing and not a great deal of anything in the shops.

Something is going to happen and it looks as if it will be connected to the poet Nicholas Farringdon, who appears at the start of the story to have died. But then he is introduced into the text in such a way that it is not clear if he is dead and then the past role he played with the girls starts to be introduced.

More tomorrow…

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Ballad of Peckham Rye - post IV

In the end it was perhaps inevitable that the kettle would boil over and Dougal would have to leave Peckham. The first sign that things are coming to a head start with a reference in passing to the head of personnel having a breakdown.

Those trying to bring Dougal down, led by Trevor, steal his cryptic notepads and then are given the impression the arts man works for the police. Far from endearing him to the local community this seems to confirm a reason to have a prejudice against him.

Spark then delivers a rapid series of blows that end with Dougal running from Peckham. In an incredibly understated scene Mr Druce kills his mistress after Trevor has told him that she is seeing Dougal a couple of nights a week. Back in his digs Dougal discovers his landlady has suffered a stroke and he packs his bags and heads for the station. He manages to have a fight with Trevor on the way and then head off into the distance.

His role seems to be transformational but ultimately he provokes a reaction and brings out feelings that are already there of jealousy, despair and anger. He might be a devil, with his apparent horns, but the ultimate evil resides in the people of Peckham. Dougal is only the blue torch paper.

A review will follow soon…

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Ballad of Peckham Rye - post III

In the sense that Dougal Douglas is a catalyst for change he manages to have an impact on an increasing number of people. The head of personnel is driven to the brink of a breakdown, Trevor is driven to trying to push a broken pint glass into his face and the good people of Peckham are driven to hold a view over the strange man – whether they like him or not.

As the book moves into the territory of devils and demons it reminds you strongly of Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye. The same results to the tight knit community of Sark were felt with the arrival of a super confident, socially risky and a people manipulator and motivator. Although Douglas is also working at the personal level he takes a job in a rival factory and as a result is in an even stronger position to cause havoc.

He starts to advise people to break off engagements, walk away from long-standing love affairs and take time off work. Soon the circle will come round to join the opening chapter and the full chaos of Douglas’s last days will be described.

More tomorrow…

Monday, May 12, 2008

book review - Casanova's Chinese Restaurant

Anthony Powell uses the fifth volume in Dance to the Music of Time to cover the topic of marriage. There are discussions about the merits of getting married and the way that you seem to inevitably move towards that state as well as some graphic illustrations of what happens when marriages go wrong.

At the heart of the book are the three examples of Jenkins, the narrator, Hugh Moreland the musician that Jenkins meets in the opening scene and the critics Maclintick who is also in the pub in the opening few pages. The group move from the pub, where Deacon the artist and antique seller had also been propping up the bar, to Casanova’s Chinese restaurant to discuss women and marriage.

Jenkins has married Isobel Tolland and they suffer a miscarriage and then have to watch on in different degrees of embarrassment as Isobel’s sister has an affair with Moreland and threatens to break up his marriage.

If Jenkins is largely wedded bliss then Moreland is the middle way with plenty of ups and downs. He also suffers the pain of losing a child but seems to throw his energies into himself – his symphony - and his love affairs. In the end he goes back to his wife Matilda but only after he has carried out an affair over several months.

In that middle path there is also Stringham’s mother Mrs Foxe who has fallen in love with an actor Norman Chandler and relies on him to keep her life going. Buster, her husband seems to realise that the young man is essential to their happiness and allows him to play a prominent role.

The other extreme in marriage is the critic Maclintick who has open warfare with his wife with them verbally abusing each other and doing so in front of anyone who is present. In the end the marriage breaks down and she leaves him to run off with another musician and even after a visit from Moreland and Jenkins to try and cheer him up the critics decides to take his own life.

Death is a sub theme with Deacon’s death, already played out in an earlier volume, getting retold from a slightly different angle. Maclintick kills himself and is reasonably few people feel demise. Sir John Clarke the novelist dies and his death sends out ripples, which are there at the close of the book. The other hint of death, if not literal then at least in terms of talent and youth, is Stringham who makes an appearance that is both painful and hilarious. Fuelled by drink he manages to play the role of the outgoing confident Stringham of old. But when he is forced to head for home his true vulnerability and tragic situation is clear to all.

Of all of the five books so far this one not only feels more recognisably rhythmic but it is also a point at which because of his marriage Jenkins is finally more than just an observer. He is now in the orbit of a large and grand family and as a result he gets access to more interesting meetings – Sir John Clarke for example – but for the reader is adds a dimension to the narrative character that has been lacking up to now.

Version read – Flamingo paperback

Sunday, May 11, 2008

bookmark of the week

As a result of having family in the US I get sent bookmarks from the library local to my parents in Warrenville Illinois. They always seem to have a good selection of bookmarks that are seasonal or tied into some sort of campaign that the libraries are running. But one thing is always the same - that the bookmarks aim to encourage reading - and this one is no different. One day I intend visiting Warrenville library for myself and taking a few more bookmarks to add to the collection...

Saturday, May 10, 2008

book review - Officers and Gentlemen

You spend most of your time reading this second book in the Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh wondering just who are the title words about. The story lurches from disaster to disaster as the lead character Guy Crouchback gets closer to the theatre of war.
The story starts with Guy returning with a black mark against his name for something that was largely not his fault. But the ramifications of it are that he struggles to find a place again to settle sown and start attacking the business of developing a military career. He resorts in the end to the tried and tested way of using friends to get him back in. But even then there is only so much they can do and there are various moments when although pushing it some considerable distance Guy comes up against the line that keeps the army in check.

In the end he manages to get to Egypt with the commandos because not so much of his friendship with Tommy Blackhouse the unit commander but because they are short of men. Once there he spends more time waiting before being put on a boat and shipped into the chaos of Crete. The island is on the brink of falling to the Germans and those sent into keep up the defences find themselves falling apart under the strain of fending off the inevitable.

Guy manages to make it back to Egypt, only just, but is then sent back for the good of his health and again finds himself out on the drill square back where he started.

Waugh manages to convey the waiting and the anxiety and in a scene where the officer Fido Hound manages to mentally and physically collapse in various stages, he also provides a good idea of what can happen in the stress of battle.

But there is a lot that is left unsaid in this book, which you hope the final volume will answer for. Where is the anger at the complete shambles that is the British war effort? What is Guy really fighting for now he keeps getting knocked back by bureaucracy? But more importantly what direction is the conclusion going to come from? Obviously the war ended in a victory for the British but where is Guy's life going - that is the fundamental question.

Any hope that it might be heading in a direction where his former wife takes more of a part seems to be unlikely after she has an affair with Trimmer, an ex hairdresser who is used by the propaganda department to become a hero to boost morale.

The persecution and changed circumstances surrounding Guy's father, with the old man under attack for taking up two rooms in the boarding house, also illustrates that the life that might be worth defending has already been largely defeated with the impact of the war.

You also sense that as a modern reader you are being kept in the dark because of your ignorance of the times that this book was written. Names are clearly used as clues to readers to indicate the nature of a character with politicians names mixed up with the clearly methaphorical, Fido Hound might be one that causes a smile but there are others that probably should but you miss them. That is a shame because it is a device that Waugh also uses in Vile Bodies and again without reading the introduction the consequences of feeling excluded from the joke are the same.

Officers and Gentlemen
is a test for the reader because it offers few of the characters that the first book had with Colonel Ritchie-Hook and Apthorpe and it fails to indicate if the quest for some sort of self fulfiment that Guy is on is anywhere nearing a successful conclusion. Only the final book in thr trilogy can do that and the test is whether or not after that one you feel that Waugh has delivered a complete story.

Version read - Penguin paperback.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye - post II

Spark has created not just a comical character in Dougal Douglas but also a device that can break with normal conventions. Because the Scotsman is so unusual he can not only do unpredictable things but can open up other characters and take them in different directions.

Dougal's ability to read people is not only used with girls in the typing pool but is deployed against his boss and is even used to try and gain the wily Scotsman a job at a rival where he can keep two jobs going and be carrying out 'research' so neither ever discover he is drawing a double salary.

However his impact on the wider community is being felt and you can feel that a tipping point is not a million miles away when charmed entertainer becomes a source of dislike and a magnet for aggression.

Half way through and Dougal is still getting away with it but there must be more than just Trevor the electrician who dreams of knocking his block off.

More tomorrow...

The Ballad of Peckham Rye - post I

There is a great deal of comedy in the character of Dougal Douglas that is both accessible but some of its is disconcerting. You sense that this man, so able to perceive the secrets of others, is going to influence the unravelling of quite a few lives in Peckham.

Things start with a man returning to South London after jilting his fiancé at the altar. In the discussion in the pub the explanation for Humphrey’s behaviour is levelled at Douglas, who has since quit Peckham.

With the interest in Douglas already primed he is then introduced joining the company of Meadows, Meads and Grindley, with responsibility for introducing an artistic touch that would inspire the staff at the firm to greater productivity and happiness.

Most of the time Douglas spends researching the workers at the company is spent walking Peckham Rye and staying well away from his office. This intrigues people but the more he discovers the closer to home truths he gets and his wealth of knowledge could be potentially explosive.

More tomorrow…

Friday, May 09, 2008

Lunchtime read: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other stories

This collection finishes with two stories that both concern murder and the idea of the moral consequences of those acts.

The Body-Snatcher
A chance meeting in the pub between a practicing doctor and one locally known only as such as a nickname meet and the odd scene between them leads to the village trying to find out the history. The words uttered by the local man to the doctor from London, “Do you still see him?” get minds wandering.

The story turns out to be a tale of murder and ghoulishness with a man killed and then dissected by students turning up in one piece in a grave miles from Edinburgh. Just as with the evil that starts to creep up on Dr. Jekyll the sense of boundaries blur and it is only with the intervention of higher powers – the devil presumably – that the end comes to the crimes. At least both of the doctors get the chance to live another day.


The thief driven to murder because of bad luck on the stock exchange meets with the devil that tells him that he can only escape by killing the maid and then making his escape. But as the devil boasts of knowing and watching Markheim make the descent from thief to murderer the focus of the story takes a change and as he opens the door to the maid he announced his guilt and asks for the police.

It is a positive way to end a collection of stories that question the evil in all of us and just have far it needs to go before that consumes us and makes us not just perpetrators of foul deeds but beyond saving.

A review will follow soon…

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Vile Bodies - post III

There is a shift in the book that is after you read the introduction influenced by real events, that turns it from gaiety to bitterness. Adam finds that his fiancé has fallen in love with another man who has more riches than himself and from that point on the book moves towards its ending on a battlefield with the guns booming.

Several times in the text Adam remarks to Nina that he feels it all has to stop at some point and as he chases the drunk major who tells him that he has £35,000 waiting for him if he could only manage to get round to collecting it the fun drains out of life. Another of the characters is involved in a car crash and as she slowly loses her reason all her friends can do it party in her hospital room and hurry on her demise. There is something intended by the title and at the end the shallow and ultimately hurtful world of those vile but beautiful; young things has been well and truly punctured by Waugh.

A review will follow shortly…

Lunchtime read: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other stories

The Suicide Club part II
The prince of Bohemia tries to control the activities of the president of the suicide club but those he chooses to chaparone him end up being killed and in the end the only way to bring the matter to a head is to face the murderer in a duel.

Before it gets to that part though there are a couple of chapters that both have fantastic twists and show off how inventive a plot maker Stevenson is. He manages to use the same devices of disguise and innocent embroilment in something very dark without it ever feeling repetitive.

The Suicide Club is really an excuse for a murderer to enjoy lying his trade and introducing others into the web of guilt that spreads out from being involved and complicit in the act of killing. At the end there is a sense of relief that the prince has killed his great rival but a sense that here was potentially a great literary feud like Holmes and Moriarty that could have been kept going longer.

Thrawn Janet
This is very Edgar Allan Poe with a vicar on a remote part of Scotland intervening to save a woman the other villagers describe as a witch only to come home from seeing and chasing the devil in a graveyard to find him possessing the woman. He wakes to find her corpse on the door and it is only as he calls on God and lightening strikes her down that she finally stops coming after the vicar. As a result he remains God fearing and frightens the villagers with his warnings against the devil. Nearly the entire story is told in a Scottish dialect, which reminds you of some of the techniques used by Kipling.

More tomorrow...

The introduction dilemma

I have had this dilemma before but in both cases of the books I am reading this week they both come with long introductions. There is a real temptation to get some background that will put the book in some sort of context but introductions always spill the plot and spoil the experience you get reading something never knowing what is coming on the next page.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a Barnes and Noble Classic version with a very good introduction as well as a timeline of Stevenson’s life. It feels somehow wrong to skip the first 80 pages or so and dive straight into the story.

The alternative is after reading the book to then go back and read the introduction. But somehow having finished the book you are half looking forward to your next read. Some of the most enjoyable books have a brief author biography but no introduction – takes the risk of prior knowledge out of the equation…

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Vile Bodies - post II

“…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting parties in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…Those vile bodies…”

Although the feelings are still largely superficial between the characters with an easy come and easy go attitude there is a sense that Adam does care about the prospect of marrying Nina. He wants to marry her and needs money to be able to afford her.

He manages to get a job as Chatterbox on the Excess newspaper as the former gossip society columnist gives up and admits failure putting his head into the oven. Adam is very good at the job inventing characters that then start to set their own trends. But he allows Nina and his friend Ginger to write the column in his absence and they cock it up and he loses his job.

He admits he cannot marry Nina but no sooner has that happened than he is off again on a jaunt with some more of the bright Young Things.

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other stories

A Lodging for the Night
A poet down on his luck is sitting with friend’s playing cards when suddenly the evening takes a turn with one of the players deciding to murder another. The subject of the story Francis Villon (makes you think of villain) follows him worrying about the gallows as he leaves his friends running away from the fear of being linked to the crime. He discovers he was pick pocketed by his ‘friends’ and starts to worry that he might freeze to death like an old woman he discovers in a door way. After wandering round he manages to gain entry to an old man’s house. The old solider talks of honour and valour and tries to turn the criminally minded Villon away from a life of living in the gutter but he fails. The fear of the gallows is nowhere near as strong as the desire to steal and support a life of irresponsibility.

The Suicide Club part one
A prince and his friend enjoy dressing up in disguise and trawling through the streets of London. They come across a young man who reveals he is planning suicide and that he has paid his membership dues to the suicide club where they pick not just the victim but also the murderer. The prince and friend are appalled at the way depressed men are compromised into becoming murderers. But there is something also addictive about the thrill of the potential of losing your life on the turn of a card. The prince returns for the second night and picks the wrong card and is prepared for his death. His friend however rounds up the members of the club and liquidates the society saving the life of the prince. That ends the first part but the adventures continue.

By now, with a few stories into this collection, there is a sense of style. It reminds you in terms of the landscape of Poe and Conan Doyle but at the same time there is a lighter touch here with a more moral message. There are several biblical references throughout the text that give the impression that not everyone is necessarily evil from start to finish.

More tomorrow…

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Vile Bodies - post I

This immerses you immediately in the social world of pre-war London with a group of passengers crossing over on the cross-channel ferry from France to Dover. Among the passengers are several Bright Young People and Adam Symes who is heading home to get married and make it as a famous novelist.

He manages to lose his manuscript to the furnace at customs as they decide its falls foul of decency laws but then gets invited by a young socialite to a party and he never looks back.

The parties are frequented by gossip columnists, who are them selves part of the landed gentry, writing about the antics of the friends. Money comes and goes and love is something to be enjoyed but not an issue to get ‘too intense’ about. Symes is the focus of the book so far with his on-off engagement being dictated by his fluctuating fortunes with money. He is given £1,000 pounds in a bet but promptly loses it being drunk.

The humour comes thick and fast and there is a great scene where the Prime Minister’s daughter ends up on the front pages after inviting people back to number 10. One of the gossip columnists gets the splash despite the potential to lose friends. But in a hedonistic society where no one seems to care about money or anything serious who really cares?

More tomorrow…

Lunchtime read: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other stories

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
This short story is a great companion to Frankenstein. Part of the reason is because of the details it does share rather than those it decides to keep secret. So for instance you do get a rough explanation of how Jekyll turns into Hyde and an explanation of the thought behind the process.

But there is something else that also hangs over this story and you start to understand why it was such a source of intrigue and speculation around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. This story appeared in 1886 and Jack started his murders just two years later. The private rooms that Hyde uses as a springboard to run out and disturb Londoners and in one case murder one reminds you of the sort of rooms where the Ripper’s victims were found.

But getting back to the story the book is about not only the dangers of man trying to conqueror nature but also about the attempt to banish evil. The irony is that evil is stronger and in the end Hyde overwhelms Jekyll and the doctor is left pondering on the fact that he did succeed in dividing himself but did so at the expense of the good.

Hyde is smaller than Jekyll, uglier and much more aggressive. But he illustrates the central point that there is a monster in all of us. Frankenstein may have created a monster but Jekyll manages to pull one out of himself.

Again a figures standing to one side of the action is used as a narration device and it is letters to the narrator that the feelings of the deceased are expressed.

More from this collection tomorrow…

Monday, May 05, 2008

Officers and Gentlemen - post IV

The latest stage of the war ends for Guy with him again being sent home slightly against his will. After the collapse of Crete he drifts in the sea for days and is picked up and saved but as a result is confined to hospital for weeks. When he is released he is sent home and back to his original regiment.

He is not in disgrace, unlike a fellow officer Ivor who fled and let colleagues be taken prisoner by the Germans, but it feels odd. Insistent doctors inform his superiors that he has to leave the warm climate of Egypt and so a blitz ravaged London awaits.

Just as the ending of the first book you are left wondering if that is the end of the war for Guy. In the scramble to get off Crete he failed to shoot a weapon in anger and make much of an impact. Perhaps that is the true distinction of an officer and a gentleman that they stood alongside the men prepared to face whatever came at them.

A review will follow soon…

Lunchtime read: Frankenstein

The narrative told by Victor Frankenstein to an increasingly horrified Walton on board the polar exploration boat nears its conclusion.

After having been told by the monster that he had better watch out on his wedding night Victor gets it wrong and thinks that the intended victim is going to be himself. He tells Elisabeth to go to bed and waits with a pistol in the next room. But he hears a scream and runs through to find her corpse and catches slight of the monster leaving through the window.

Guessing that his father and brother might be next he hurries home to Geneva but just the news of Elisabeth’s murder is enough to break his father’s heart and the old man dies three days after being given the news.

Then the hunt starts and Victor vows to catch the monster and end his reign of terror and chases him across Europe until they get close to catching each other. Amidst the ice and the cold Victor finally gives put and it is in letters to his sister that the explorer Walton chronicles the final act with the monster climbing through the window to howl at the discovery that his master is dead. He then announces his intention to kill himself and disappears into the night.

Despite its nineteenth century style, which is not always flowing, this does grip you because you can half predict what is coming but the ending is not something you can foresee clearly. This is so different from the films – let’s face it this would not have been more than an occasional walk on part for De Niro, and the Elisabeth love interest is kept to the margins in the text. The most notably absent detail is how he created the monster, something he keeps secret.

Worth reading and yet again proves that the book can be so different an experience from the film. A review will follow soon…

Sunday, May 04, 2008

bookmark of the week

This is from the Museum Shop at the Art Institute of Chicago. It shows Paul Gauguin's Where Do We Come From? What are We? Where are we Going? A title that could be asked at any given hour on any given day...

Saturday, May 03, 2008

book review - What's Become of Waring?

One of the benefits of having a writers major work come towards the middle or the end of their career’s is that you get the chance to read their earlier works and see how they got to the point where they had the confidence and vision to tackle something more ambitious.

Anthony Powell will forever be connected to the 12 volume Dance to the Music of Time but with What’s Become of Waring? he gets the chance to have a dry run at developing a story that shares many of the same stylistic features.

In this story you never are told the narrator’s name and it reminds you that you only discover Jenkins is called Nicholas fairly well after the rest of the characters have been established at the start of the Dance sequence.

But what really stands out is the way this narrative is weaved together around a reasonably small number of people. The characters are all introduced individually and placed in context and then shaken up and mixed with some amusing and interesting results. The same technique is used in Dance when people mix in different worlds. For instance the straight-laced Widmerpool meets and then has an affair with the independent and flirtatious Gypsy Jones.

One of the main characters in the book is a mystery with T.T Waring, a travel writer that writes books that prop up his publishing company, being pronounced dead at a séance. The narrator has been taken to the séance by his boss, and co-owner of the publishing company, Hugh. The sense that the hidden world of the medium and the dead pervades the book and provokes unease and humour.

This is also a story about secrets with Waring turning out not only to be a plagiarist but also a school friend of the man given the responsibility of doing his biography. As the story reaches its climax, with Waring being unmasked and then dying for real the narrator seems to drift out of publishing into advertising.

What holds it together is the family and social networks that are key to Powell’s world. Everyone either knows each other or finds some mutual connection that brings them together. As a result there is a farce like quality to the way as one character walks into a room it sets off reactions in others. It would be much more difficult to write in quite the same way now because the pre-war social world that is described here has almost vanished forever.

The book ends with a question about what it was that drove everyone on. The answer Powell decides is the lust for power. But the narrator, just as with Jenkins in Dance to the Music… does not seem to be motivated by power. He seems to be content to observe and remain involved but detached at the same time.

This book is enjoyable and gentle. It suffers from being slightly predictable but is no less enjoyable for that. The only slight miscalculation that Powell might have made is instilling in the narrator an increasing disinterest in the publishing industry that dominates the setting for the book. As he leaves the firm and ponders what it was all about the tone turns slightly more serious.

Powell was clearly interested in what drove people on and of course Dance to the Music… provided him with the opportunity to follow those stories through from start to finish.

Version read – Penguin paperback

Friday, May 02, 2008

Lunchtime read: Frankenstein

Having outlined his history and accepting he committed the murders of Frankenstein’s brother the monster then waits for a reply to his demand for a female companion.

He promises Frankenstein that he will take his companion and live in the deserts and never trouble people again but Victor does not believe him. But he does feel some responsibility and so consents to creating a mate. The monster (can’t think of a better way of describing him) explains that unless Victor creates a mate he will inflict misery on him and mankind.

Victor promises to go ahead with a female version and heads off to England to get the latest bits of research and start to create the mate. But when he gets away to the Orkney islands and starts he is disturbed by the monster and doubts creep in and he wonders if he should create what potentially could be a deadly duo. He breaks his promise and after a warning from the monster waits to see what the consequences will be.

He doesn’t have to wait long before the revenge bites and he is confronted in a police cell with the corpse of his best friend Clerval, who had been travelling with him across England. Victor is effectively framed but slumps into a fever that keeps him bed bound for two months.

More tomorrow…

Officers and Gentlemen - post III

Waugh is expert at describing the confusion, fear and fatigue that settles on soldiers as they actually enter a war zone. After weeks of mucking about in Egypt Guy and co. are put on boats and shipped out to Crete.

The idea is to hold the island but when they get there, after an eventful journey where the officer in charge Tommy Blackhouse breaks his leg, they pull into harbour and into chaos.

The island is falling and in rapid retreat and Hookforce gets deployed in confusion and in some cases with disastrous consequences. Guy and the officer who takes over, Hound, struggle to get to grips with the situation and are parted in the confusion.

Waugh then interestingly takes up the story of Hound leaving you wondering what has happened to Guy. In a brilliant couple of pages he describes Hound crawling into a culvert and falling a sleep after days without sleep and food. Despite the real prospect of being overrun by Germans and left behind on the island the solider cannot keep going.

It makes you think about those people that drop by the wayside on marches through the desert and the snows of Siberia.

The madness of war is the waiting, confusion and the randomness of death – all elements that Waugh manages to mix up expertly.

More later…

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Lunchtime read: Frankenstein

After living alongside the family in the cottage and learning the language and gaining knowledge through reading Frankenstein’s creation starts to yearn for friendship. He decides to appeal to the family he has grown to love and visits the blind father when the rest of the household are out walking in the woods.

But he is discovered in the cottage and the horror he is hit and screamed at and leaves the house heart broken. He decides that he will seek revenge on mankind and starts to turn to violence. But what stays his hand is the idea that the responsibility for solving his problems with companionship reside with his creator.

He sets out to find Frankenstein and comes across his youngest brother and cannot resist the revengeful urge to kill him then use his cunning to frame the servant girl. That ends his story and his demands from Frankenstein are that he creates a female mate for him.

Having heard the sad story presumably Frankenstein feels some responsibility but the fact remains that the monster he created has killed his brother and the grief and anger in the young doctor is still raw enough to cloud his judgement.

More tomorrow…