56. John Banville, The Book of Evidence. 5/6. Frederick Montgomery is in gaol, on remand, awaiting trial for murder. The Book of Evidence is his first-person account of events, ostensibly his preparation for his trial. Montgomery is the dissolute heir of an Irish family of moderate and declining wealth. He lives with his wife and young son on a Mediterranean island, where he runs afoul of a local crook and has to return to Ireland to find money to repay the crook. He first visits his mother at his ancestral home, only to discover that she has little money and has sold all of the family's paintings to a rich art collector and rival of his father both in collecting and in his mother's attentions, whose daughter is also a friend of his wife's. He visits the family, hoping to get either loan or the return of the paintings. While there, he becomes captivated by a painting. After the rich collector dismisses Montgomery, he conceives of the idea of stealing the painting. His theft is interrupted by a maid, whom he kidnaps and later murders. Montgomery hides out in the home of a friend for ten days but is arrested and held in prison awaiting trial, where he writes his account.
Early in writing this account, Montgomery complains that English has few words to describe evil; it has many judgemental terms for evil but few descriptive ones. The book can be seen as an attempt to describe evil. Montgomery is almost totally disengaged from human relations. He is intensely egoistic. He uses other people instrumentally and feels almost no connection to them. He doesn't think enough of other people to try to understand them and is continually surprised by others' behaviour, even of people he should know such as his mother or his wife. He feels no remorse over his crime. Much of his account is an attempt to rationalise away his culpability (guilt doesn't enter his calculus). In his hands, the murder becomes inconsequential, more an inconsiderate act on the part of the maid than a wrong he has committed. There are hints throughout, however, that the account is unreliable and more melodramatic than truthful. At one point, Montgomery congratulates himself on his acting abilities and praises the mask he has created. But there seems to be little beneath the mask. His account may be nothing more than a script for him to enact.
Banville once said in an interview that he writes about 250 words a day on his serious books (he writes many more for his mysteries). Sometimes I think he should be read at about the same speed. He has an enviable ability to pack much into a small space.
57. John McGahern, The Pornographer. 5/7. This is a first-person narrative. The unnamed narrator earns a living by writing pornography. He is unmarried, about thirty, and lives in Dublin. An aunt dying of cancer is undergoing treatment at a hospital in Dublin, and he visits her frequently, taking bottles of brandy, which she prefers as a sedative to the pills prescribed by the doctors. After one of these visits, he goes to a dance hall, where he meets a woman and has sex with her. The woman is 37 and has had sex only once before. She falls in love with the narrator, despite his open disavowals of any interest in her other than sex. She becomes pregnant. For a time, he thinks he will have to marry her, if only to desert her shortly after the baby is born. She goes to London and has the baby. The narrator abandons the child and rejects the woman. A few days later, the aunt dies. The other major character in the book is an uncle, the brother of the dying woman.
This is another of McGahern's books about life and death. As usual, the main male protagonist has little connection with people. He is indifferent to the woman and to the child that eventually results. He likes the aunt, but is unable to express his feelings towards her except by the ritualised provision of brandy. His fondest relationship is with the uncle, but even there they have the rather gruff, arms-length relationship of Irish males. After the woman leaves for London, the narrator takes up with a nurse at the hospital. At the end, he is contemplating marriage to the nurse and a return to his rural property so that he can be near his uncle. He is maturing into an ability to have closer relationships and deserting the pornography that stands in for real relationships.
An interesting point is that none of the major characters has a name, at least none given in the book. All the minor characters are named, but not the narrator, the aunt and uncle, the woman, or the nurse.
58. Charles Stross, Rule 34. 5/9. This takes place in 2023 and projects current trends in computing and AI into police work and criminal activities--rather convincingly. It has an odd, but successful, narrator. It's in the second person and a lot of the action is described in the 'You do X. You think Y.' style. One of the better science fiction stories I've read in a long time.
59. Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear. 5/12. Greene classified this as one of his 'entertainments'. This is ostensibly a spy novel and its plot does veer towards melodrama; so the label is not unwarranted. Parts of it reminded me of Hitchcock's 39 Steps, which was released eight years before this was published. Greene wrote occasional film reviews and criticisms. He surely was familiar with movies like The 39 Steps, and as a boy he must have read the sorts of boys' adventure stories that featured good Englishmen defeating the wily, nefarious opponents of British imperialism.
During the blitz, Arthur Rowe becomes unwittingly embroiled in German spy ring when he wins a cake at a church fete. The efforts of the spy ring to get the cake back arouse his suspicions. His efforts to get at the truth lead him to the female lead. She and her brother direct him to a house in which a seance is being held. During the seance, he is led to believe that a man is murdered and he is the prime suspect. On the brother's advice he flees and goes into hiding. He contacts the sister, and the spy ring direct him to a meeting in a hotel, where the sister is waiting. There is a bombing raid, and he loses his memory because of a bomb blast. Under another name, he is held in a private hospital where he is watched by members of the spy ring. He escapes and becomes part of police scheme to arrest the members of the ring and recover some stolen documents. The plot fails but he follows a lead that he has uncovered. His actions lead to the suicide and murders of members of the spy ring, and ultimately the suicide of the brother, who all along has been the leader of the spy ring. In the end Rowe recovers the documents and gets the girl.
The Ministry of Fear is an explanation offered by a porter at the hospital in answer to the hero's question of why people cooperate with the spies and betray their country. The Germans (really anyone in power) use the love a person feels for someone to subvert them.
This being Greene, however, he complicates the plot. Rowe is not an innocent. Several years earlier, he killed his dying wife, to keep her from suffering further. At least that is the explanation he gives himself. He suspects he may have acted to safe himself further suffering. The court saw mitigating circumstances in the act and Rowe served only a brief time in prison. But he still feels guilty, and that guilt directs his actions when he mistakenly believes he is involved in another murder.
Rowe is guided throughout by his memories of his boyhood reading of adventure stories. Part of what he learns in the novel is that the virtues espoused in these books and that the world they describe are not real. Life is more complicated than the good and evil morality portrayed in these books. Nor is England the Agatha Christie land of church fetes, teas, and gentle gossip. The mental hospital is just such a setting but it is run by evil men. The police and government counter-espionage men Rowe deals with are not unequivocably good. Morality isn't a simple matter of good and bad guys as pictured in these books and in film.
One of the counter-espionage men refers to the 'terrible passion of pity'. Greene expanded on this theme in The Heart of the Matter, which was based on his own experiences as a secret agent in Africa during the war. The Ministry of Fear is less overtly about religion, although these concerns surface repeatedly throughout the novel. After the brother commits suicide, Rowe returns to the sister and the two avow their love for each other. Rowe then realises that love exposes one to the Ministry of Fear. Love--which may have led Rowe to kill his first wife--has again put him in danger of acting contrary to public morality.
60. Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. A popular history of the discovery of the treasure trove of documents in the geniza, a repository for discarded writings, in a synagogue of the Jewish community in Cairo. The documents date from the late twelfth century and provide evidence of the religious, literary, judicial, and business activities of this community, as well as abundant data on their daily life. The documents have been mined by several generations of scholars with diverse research interests.
The story is told here mainly through the lives and researches of the major students of the documents. Quite often, the authors opt to portray these scholars as loveable eccentrics and search out interesting quirks. Scholars who resist this treatment are quickly dismissed as overly concerned with privacy (the apparent supposition is that the authors' inability to find an interesting quirk is evidence of a secretive nature). Explanations of their scholarship and contributions takes a second place. It's a well written and highly readable story, but it sometimes wanders far from the documents to present biographical details. At one point they quote Carlyle's quip about history being the biographies of great men. This is a great-man approach to the subject.
61. Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. 5/24. It's understandable that many in the Curia of the time wanted to censor this book and place it on the Index. This deals with the uncomfortable region where the Church has to confront its contradictions, here presented in the person of a priest in Mexico during the era when the Church was proscribed and priests who refused to abjure and marry were shot as traitors to the revolution. Again, in the simplest of language, Greene confronts the problems of faith. The unnamed priest at the centre of the story is weak and cowardly, a drunkard, the father of a child following a one-night stand, a halfhearted seeker of martyrdom, given to comfort and the perks of the priesthood and yet a witness to faith and belief in the essentials rather than the trappings of belief. His earthly nemesis is the Lieutenant, a man so intent on promoting the welfare of the masses that he is willing to shoot as many of them as it will take to accomplish his goals. Like the priest, he has a tortuous relationship with his beliefs. The priest's spiritual nemesis lies within himself--he is conflicted, unsure, disappointed. Between the two of them is the Judas of the novel, a mestizo who wants the priest to minister to him and yet betrays the priest for the reward offered by the Lieutenant. The priest uses the mestizo's greed to propel him into the role.
When the priest escapes to safety, he totals up his anticipated earnings from baptising the hundred or so children born since the last visit of a priest to the village in which he has found refuge and contemplates how they will restore his material life. Apparently safe, his thoughts turn immediately to the comfortable trappings of his profession. But then, the mestizo arrives for the final betrayal. The priest turns away from safety and returns to what he knows to be a trap laid by the Lieutenant, a trap baited with the lure of a dying man in need of absolution. Again, the contradictions of the Church and faith are in play, even to the last moment of the priest's life.
62. Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills. 5/25. Etsuko, a Japanese woman, lives in England. She had two daughters. Keiko, her older child, was born to her first marriage, to Jiro, a Japanese salaryman, in the early 1950s. They lived in Nagasaki. The circumstances are never explained, but Etsuko subsequently married an Englishman and moved to rural England, evidently in comfortable circumstances. With her second husband (dead at the time of the storytelling), she had another daughter, Niki. Following Keiko's suicide, Niki visits. During a walk with her daughter, Etsuko sees a young girl on a swing and this prompts her memories of the year she was pregnant with Keiko. Etsuko and her husband lived in an apartment complex. Near them was a wasteland with an old house. Into this moved Sachiko and her daughter, Mariko. Sachiko is a widow, who has taken up with an American. Mariko is a strange child, sullen and detached and uncommunicative.
The story shifts, sometimes abruptly, between the time in Nagasaki and the present in England. The 'pale view' is memory, and its unreliability. Towards the end, Sachiko and Etsuko merge, as do Keiko and Mariko. It appears that Sachiko and Mariko are the ways that Etsuko copes with the traumas of her personal history. Much is left unexplained--Jiro's fate, for example. The book also deals with changes in family and personal relationships in Japan since the war.
This was Ishiguro's first published novel. Even here his trademark delicacy and irony and elegaic regret are well in place. As much is left unsaid as is said. It's a lesson in how to write a convincing narrative in a restrained manner.
63. Colin Dexter, Death Is Now My Neighbour. 5/26. I recently saw an episode of Inspector Lewis. Lewis came across as a more interesting character than I remembered from reading the Inspector Morse series, and I decided to give Dexter another try. I still don't like the series. It's in the tradition of Christie and Sayers, with Morse as Lord Peter and Lewis as Bunter, but without Bunter's noblesse oblige. The books have the intricate and complicated plots, with lots of red herrings, of the classic British mystery, updated to feature more 'adult' themes.
64. A. S. Byatt, A Whistling Woman. 5/28. In the mid-1960s, Byatt published one of the first studies of the novels of Iris Murdoch; she updated the work in the 1990s to include the later works. There are many parallels between Murdoch's works and this one, some trivial, some not. Like many of Murdoch's novels, A Whistling Woman has a large cast of intelligent, educated, articulate characters divided into groups linked by overlapping members and confronting a moral dilemma. Somehow in the end everyone knows all the other characters. There is also the precocious child, the homosexual couple, and a serious disturber of the peace. Like Murdoch, Byatt writes novels of domestic drama built around the exploration of large ideas--in this case, the structure of the mind, learning, memory, thought, nature vs. nurture.
Like Murdoch, Byatt here also tries, very successfully, to capture a period--in this case, the late 1960s. She manages to reproduce all of that era's earnest ideological seriousness and muddled thought and both the tragedy and the silliness this led to. She also explores the early days of the woman's movement and its impact and the growing involvement of computers in our lives and the impact of that on the sciences.
Unlike Murdoch, Byatt makes the exploration of narrative part of her novels. She is interested in how the telling of a story becomes an integral part of the story being told. 'We shan't,' one character thinks to herself, 'ever be able to sort out all of what happens when two people talk to each other.' Here Byatt uses various narrative means such as the traditional third-person narrative presented by an anonymous observer, a fable/children's story of a quest, and letters from one character to another to attempt to show what happens when we talk to one another. 'All human beings tell their life-stories to themselves, selecting and reinforcing certain memories, casting others into oblivion.' Byatt is also interested in what happens when we talk to ourselves (the statement also illustrates her occasional resort to underlining the moral of her tales and making universal observations about us). 'They don't forgive, even if they choose to forget.'
The novel builds towards two acts of destruction. One, the destruction of a religious community, parallels the end of the counter-culture. The survivors wander off into other lives. The other, the trashing of a university by a counter-culture riot, is healed by a performance of Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. 'The thing about the [Shakespeare's] late comedies--the thing is--that what they do, the effect they have, isn't anything to do with fobbing you off with a happy ending when you know you witnessed a tragedy. It's about art, it's about the necessity of art. The human need to be mocked with art--you can have a happy ending, precisely because you know in life they don't happen, when you are old, you have a right to the irony of a happy ending--because you don't believe it. Are you listening?'
Our need, and our ability and inability, to explain the world in narratives--art, literature, science, religion, politics--and the biological/mental apparatuses that allow us to do this are the subjects of this work.
65. Iris Murdoch, Under the Net. 6/2. This was Murdoch's first published work. Jake Donaghue is a failed writer who survives by translating French pot-boilers and sponging on his friends. When he is tossed out of his current lodgings by his sometime lover Madge, he has to find another place to live. This leads him to backtrack through his life to an earlier love, Anna. This in turns brings him into contact with Hugo Belfounder, with whom years earlier he had had long philosophical discussions. Belfounder argued that all language is a lie since it necessarily resorts to generalizations that by their very nature cannot capture the truth of the particular. Jake uses these conversations as the basis for a book, which is published but fails to sell. But Jake feels guilty because he has 'betrayed' Hugo and he lets the relationship lapse. Meanwhile Belfounder has grown rich developing his family fireworks business and then using the money to found a successful film studio. In searching for a place to stay, Jake also runs into Dave Gellman, who is an academic philosopher. Gellman likes only those ideas he can discuss and he is surrounded by a coterie of eager young acolytes seeking answers, which he refuses to give them. There is also Lefty, the firebrand leader of a small socialist party, who combines thought with action and tries to encourage Jake to do the same.
All this is surrounded by a picaresque plot. Unusually for Murdoch, Jake is a comic hero, prone to acting on misuderstandings and paying the consequences of his misperceptions. Along the way, Jake discovers that Madge's fiance is conniving with Anna's sister Sadie to turn one of Jake's translations into a film. To protect his rights in the translation, Jake steals Mr Mars, a dog belonging to Madge's fiance and a well-known film star dog in his own right. Madge meanwhile has discovered that her fiance is not that enamoured of her, goes to Paris, and invites Jake to join her. The plot continues along these lines, with Jake pursuing and being pursued, and getting in and out of scrapes made more complicated than necessary by Jake's fumbling. In the end, he meets up with Hugo, who helps him see what a muddle he had made. Jake reviews his earlier attempts at fiction, sees that they can be made better, and resolves to do so.
What is interesting is that Murdoch had opted, at the beginning of her career as a published writer, to write an entertaining novel, with larger-than-life characters who get into trouble with comic consequences. She was successful--this could easily supply the story for a successful TV series--but this was not an option she pursued in her later novels. Her philosophical concerns are also apparent here--Jake, Hugo, Dave, and Lefty represent different approaches--but they are more muted than in later novels.
66. H. G. Wells, The Shape of Things to Come. This purports to be a history of the world written in 2106 looking back over events in the previous two centuries that led to the development of the Modern State. Wells wrote this in the early 1930s during the Great Depression. He was a socialist and an internationalist and saw World War I and the Depression as signs of the disintegration of capitalism and the state system current at the time. In his vision, a decade-long war begins in 1940. It features gas attacks and germ warfare. National governments largely disappear, an epidemic wipes out half the world's population, people survive by subsistence agriculture, education, medicine, and social security almost disappear. Into this void, a group of rational planners intent on forming a world state emerge around what survives of the aviation and transport industries. They impose an Air Dictatorship on the world and coerce it into rationality. The Air Dictatorship withers away around 2050, to be replaced by the Modern State, which is based on rational planning and such a ready supply of goods that capitalism and acquisitiveness wither away. Proper education creates model citizens dedicated to the common weal.
This is written in textbook form. Like many textbooks, it is not always interesting reading. Wells's author of 2106 is tendentious and argumentative and prone to lecture. Up to the 1930s, the 'history' features Wells's interpretations of the modern age; thereafter he outlines his socialist and internationalist visions of the subsequent course of history. His faith in human rationality was immense. He believed that greed, competitiveness, nationalism, racism, etc., are caused by shortages of goods or capitalist interventions in the distribution chain. Current proponents of the Singularity have a similar belief in the power of unlimited supplies of goods for everyone to cure social ills. This is interesting more for the window it gives into the views of early twentieth century socialists like Wells. What he didn't foresee (or didn't want to envision) was the power of capitalism and human greed, competitiveness, nationalism, racism, etc., to forestall attempts to bring about the utopia he imagined.
67. Iris Murdoch, The Flight from the Enchanter. 6/9. Murdoch's second novel. Towards the end, one character remarks, 'You will never know the truth and you will read the signs in accordance with your deepest wishes. That is what we humans always have to do. Reality is a cypher with many solutions, all of them right ones.' He is echoed a few pages later by another character: 'One reads the signs as best one can, and one may be totally misled.'
Both are speaking to Rosa Keepe. The first speaker, Calvin Blick, works for Mischa Fox and does his dirty work. The second speaker, Peter Saward, is a scholar of ancient Mesopotamia who has been trying unsuccessfully to decipher an ancient language. Fox marks the first appearance in Murdoch's fiction of a figure who appears in many later novels, a powerful man bent on mischief who bewitches the other characters and directs their actions. Like many of these characters, Fox is mostly off-stage; his apparent ability to influence the action exists as much in the other characters' minds as it does in the fictional reality. Fox has one blue eye and one brown eye; according to one observer, he is two different people, depending on which eye one sees. This is mirrored in his behaviour: sometimes he seems as befuddled and helpless as the other characters; other times he stage-manages the action, at least in the opinion of the others. He is the sign read in different ways, a sign whose mutability enchants us and from which we attempt to flee.
Fox is doubled in himself. There are other pairs in the novel: a daughter, Annette, and her mother who resemble one another; two Polish brothers; Rosa Keepe and another woman enchanted by Fox. Rosa's and Annette's brothers--the same reality in different forms.
68. A. S. Byatt, The Shadow of the Sun. 6/10. Byatt's first novel. Byatt wrote the draft of this while she was at Cambridge in the mid-1950s and revised and published it in 1964. Anna Severell is the daughter of a famous novelist. She is seventeen and is unhappy for reasons she cannot understand. She has been expelled from her school and has no idea what to do. She would like to avoid the 'kitchen sink' (married life in the 1950s) but fears that is her destiny. She is at home with her family. Her father is distant; her mother disapproving; her younger brother annoying. Oliver and Margaret Canning arrive for a lengthy visit; Oliver is an academic who specialises in interpreting the elder Severell's novels. His wife is unhappy in her marriage. Oliver volunteers to tutor Anna to help her enter university. Anna arrives at Cambridge and muddles along. Oliver shows up. They have sex. Anna gets pregnant. Much family discussion of what to do. Showdowns. Ultimatums. In the end, Anna and Oliver are united.
This addresses the dilemmas of the intelligent woman in the days before feminism. Anna wants more than is on offer but at the same time wants it as well.
She and Oliver define themselves in relation to her father: 'How can you judge him [Oliver],' Anna asks her father. 'How can you say anything about him reading your books? You publish them, don't you? It isn't his fault if if he has to get things at second hand--or mine--if all the glory we get is reflected glory? Some people have to be readers and followers.'
69. T. C. Boyle, Talk Talk. 6/13. This was a surprise. It's a thriller, which is not something I expected from Boyle. It's a well-written thriller, however, and given added depth by Boyle's writing abilities and his understanding of behaviour and psychology. The only oddity is the deaf heroine's ability to second-guess the whereabouts of the villain, but the suspension of disbelief required is minimal.
70. A. S. Byatt, Still Life. 6/18. Byatt mentions The Mill on the Floss in this book and cites Eliot's depiction of Maggie's aunts and their terrible narrow-minded Christianity and Eliot's ability to temper that depiction with compassion and understanding. There are points here when Byatt does the same. She dissects the characters--especially the main character, Frederica Potter--with clinical severity but with understanding and compassion for the limits of their lives and the constraints that inhibit them. Frederica is not a likeable person but she is made fully known (although sometimes Byatt's discussions of her seem a bit defensive, as if she wanted the reader to like Frederica in spite of herself).
The story is set in the mid-1950s during Frederica's sixth-form year and her three years at Cambridge. Byatt wrote this in the mid-1980s and intrudes herself into the narrative as an author writing in the 1980s and looking back three decades. At first these intrusions are limited to off-hand generalisations on human behaviour as they apply to one or other of the characters, but they grow into more overt statements of her purposes in writing the book and her choices of how to write it.
One of the themes the book addresses is the nature of depiction--both written and painted. The subject of the painted depictions is Van Gogh's work and his comments in his letters describing these painting, especially his listings of the colours of paints he used. Byatt's descriptions of objects in the books are similarly rich in names of colours. The book is awash in colours, particularly of flowers. It seems as if every surface is 'sprigged'. In one of the passages in which Byatt speaks to the reader directly as the author, she reveals that the book originated in a flat of nasturtium seedlings that became etiolated because of a lack of light. This she says is the metaphor for the book. The book itself is etiolated in comparison to the reality it attempts to depict.
Another theme is the choices confronting intelligent women in the 1950s (and still). Frederica wants a career, either as an academic or as a novelist, perhaps as both. (The novel ends without revealing what becomes of her.) Yet she also contemplates marriage. Her older sister, Stephanie, also intelligent and also Cambridge educated, has opted for marriage and motherhood. Her life is taken up by domestic duties, by caring for her mother-in-law (a person on par with Maggie Tulliver's aunts) and her husband Daniel and children, and by helping her husband, who is a curate, with his pastoral duties. She complains to her husband at one point that her vocabulary has become reduced and thinks to herself how much her daily life is determined by her husband's life. In the end Stephanie dies in a domestic accident--she is electrocuted by her refrigerator while trying to rescue a bird that has become trapped in the house. She is literally murdered by domesticity.
There is much more to the novel than this. There is a fine passage on the pregnant Stephanie's treatment by the medical bureaucracy, as well as good descriptions of Cambridge life and Daniel's and his and Stephanie's son's grief after her death.
Byatt renews my interest in the possibilities of fiction every time I read one of her works.
71. Robertson Davies, The Cunning Man. 6/20. Davies writes well and this is an entertaining novel. For me the problem with his novels is the nature of his characters--they are characters in the sense of being larger than life, eccentric, picturesque. He tackles big themes and his characters discuss them, but they don't in any sense try to live them in ordinary lives. That is where his novels fall short of Byatt's and Murdoch's, which also tackle big themes but through ordinary lives and ordinary people. Reading Davies is like being stuck in a room with Brian Blessed--entertaining but in the end tiresome in its loud insistence on being present. Plus Davies is uncharitable towards anyone he regards as inferior, and there are a lot of those people. He has no interest in presenting them as understandable characters and is content with mocking them.
72. Seamus Deane, Reading in the Dark. 6/24. Deane's first and only novel. The boy-narrator of this novel confronts a mystery in his family and tries both to decipher it and then to come to terms with it and decide what to do with the knowledge he acquires. His father's brother Eddie was a member of the IRA who in family and local legend died a hero while engaged in an attack in Derry in the early 1920s. Yet the boy detects some ambivalence towards Eddie in his own family and in the local community. His maternal grandfather on his deathbed reveals to the boy that as the local IRA leader he had sentenced Eddie to death as an informer only to discover later that Eddie was innocent and that Tony McIlhenny, his younger daughter's husband and thus the boy's uncle, was the real informer. McIlhenny absconds to Chicago when this is discovered and disappears, leaving his wife pregnant with their daughter. The boy's mother knows this but keeps knowledge of her family's involvement in Eddie's death from her husband and periodically goes into a deep depression because of that. The father eventually reveals to the boy that Eddie had been executed, but the father thinks that Eddie was a traitor and does not know of McIlhenny's involvement. The boy learns from his aunt that his own mother and McIlhenny had dated but that McIlhenny had thrown the mother over for the sister. This causes tension between the sisters. The boy also discovers that his mother had been the one who learned of McIlhenny's treachery and brought it to her father's attention, which caused McIlhenny to abscond. The boy's mother realises that the boy knows the truth. Even though the boy assures her that he will not reveal the secret, she turns against him. The boy decides not to tell his father or others what he has learned. It is a very complex tale of betrayals and family and marital tensions and the guilt and behaviours these cause combined with a coming-of-age story as the boy grapples with his growing knowledge of these secrets and what to do with them. Much of the basis for his decisions about what to do are based on the (very Catholic) education he is receiving, which is described in detail, and its emphasis on moral decision-making.
The book is told as a series of chronologically ordered vignettes dated from February 1945 to May 1959 covering the boy's secondary and university years, with a postscript dated 1971 covering the father's death. It mixes straight reminiscences with legends and stories told by family members about other people and their problems. The boy plays in historic sites near Derry and in his early years mixes the legends concerning these sites with what he knows of his own family history. On a family trip to the Buncrana area, which is where his father grew up, the father shows the boy and an older brother the Field of the Disappeared. According to legend this is haunted by the ghosts of those who were never buried because their bodies were not available, such as people who died at sea and, although the father does not state this explicitly, Eddie. The boy rejects the legend as fanciful just as he later rejects the received tale of Eddie's death. Part of the boy's maturation is his rejection of the comfortable myths.
The technique used to tell this story is quite effective. The series of short vignettes illustrates how the boy pieces the story together and emphasises the piece-meal way in which he accumulates knowledge of his family's history and how he deals with it and combines it with what he is learning in school and on the street. Deane, who was a professor of Irish literature at Notre Dame University in the United States, was born in Derry in 1940 and his descriptions of the Catholic ghettos in Derry in the 1940s and 1950s are chilling. His depictions of life there and in the Donegal hinterlands feel right. At one point, he has the mother recall hearing McIlhenny sing an emigrant's song about Creeslough, which is the next village on the road south from my own home area of Dunfanaghy. My own mother was related through her mother to the McIlhenny clan of Creeslough--so this is another accurate detail.
73. Frederick Busch, North. 6/25. This was a random pick. I had never heard of Busch, who is evidently a prolific American writer of detective fiction. Jack, a washed-up cop working as head of security at a Southern resort, meets a lawyer who hires him to find her missing nephew. The nephew went missing in the region of upstate New York where Jack lived with his now dead wife and child many years earlier. The real missing person in the story is Jack, who does eventually find himself. Busch favours a taut disciplined, almost invisible prose for this story. It matches Jack's character. Much more to Jack that is usually true of the leading men in this type of story.
74. Martin Davies, The Conjurer's Bird. 6/28. Another random pick, this one an historical novel/mystery. It weaves together a story about the eighteenth-century naturalist Joseph Banks, a bird discovered during one of Cook's voyages, and a few references to Banks's mistress with a story about modern researchers trying to make sense of what little is known about the mistress to attempt to trace the whereabouts of the bird. The historical information is worked into the story quite well, without any of the usual information dumps common in historical novels.
75. Iris Murdoch, The Sandcastle. 6/30. Murdoch's third novel. Mor, a history master in a public school in Surrey, is unhappily married to Nan, an unhappy woman who a couple of decades back could have been used to illustrate the label 'control freak'. They have two teenage children, Dan and Felicity, neither of whom is happy either. Mor wants to stand as the Labour candidate for his local constituency, a safe Labour seat. Nan is opposed to this. The school hires Rain Carter, a young woman, to paint the portrait of a recently retired headmaster. Mor and Rain fall in love, a fact that is first discovered by his children and then by his wife. Mor and Rain plan to run off together. Murdoch suggests that Rain finds Mor a substitute for her recently deceased father, who raised her alone. Mor, for his part, loves Rain because 'he wanted to be the new person she made of him'.
Following her usual habit of dismissing her husband's interests as silly, Nan fights to keep her husband. In the end she announces at a dinner at the school that Mor is standing for election as an MP, thus forcing his hand. This is the first Rain has heard of this, and she concludes that her love for Mor is keeping him from being what he wants to be. So she departs, thus leaving Mor with Nan and his family, but with an escape route through his election to Parliament.
Nan belittles Rain as a gypsy for her haphazard upbringing and education and her bohemian life-style. A male gypsy pops up in the narrative just before disasters strike; his last appearance coincides with Mor's loss of Rain. The gypsyness represents Mor's attraction to living outside the 'rules', just as Nan represents order and duty. Another master at the school, a very Christian man, tries to persuade Mor to return to his family: 'You imagine that to live in a state of extremity [i.e., living with Rain] is necessarily to discover the truth about yourself. What you discover then is violence and emptiness. And of this you make a virtue. But rather look upon the others [Mor's family]--and make yourself nothing in your awareness of them.' The book is a clash between two possible ways of living: one free and carefree unrooted; one of duty and sacrifice.
In the event, Mor is forced back into a life of duty and sacrifice. Rain, when reminiscing about her youth in the south of France, mentions that she had seen pictures of English children building sandcastles and tried to do the same on a beach near her father's house. But the sand was wrong, and her attempts fell apart, much like Mor's attempts to build the life he wants.
The two children are forerunners of the teenagers who feature in many of Murdoch's later novels. Like them, Dan and Felicity are put in an uncomfortable situation but manage to emerge the better for it. One suspects that they will be far more successful adults than their parents.
76. T. C. Boyle, Water Music. 7/3. An historical novel centered on the late-eighteenth, early-nineteenth-century explorer Mungo Park. Park was the first known European to encounter the upper reaches of the Niger River. His success, at least in Boyle's novel, goes to his head and he returns to Africa to try to chart the course of the Niger and find its outlet to the ocean. He dies in the attempt. His story is parallelled by that of Ned Rise, a Londoner with a chequered background. This is a picaresque tale that mimics the grand excesses of novels of the period. Nothing serious, but a fun read. Oddly Joseph Banks also figures in this novel (see no. 74 above). Without being aware of it, I managed to bring home two books on the same period during my last visit to the library.
The novel begins with this apologia:
As the impetus behind Water Music is principally aesthetic rather than scholarly, I've made use of the historical background because of the joy and fascination I find in it, and not out of a desires to scrupulously dramatize or reconstruct events that are a matter of record. I have been deliberately anachronistic, I have invented language and terminology, I have strayed from and expanded upon my original sources. Where historical fact proved a barrier to the exigencies of invention, I have, with full knowledge and clear conscience, reshaped it to fit my purposes.As novel demonstrates with great exuberance, this method is the right one for fiction.
77. Isaac Adamson, Complication. 7/5. A random pick. This is a mystery story that weaves together various forms of narrative and several historical mysteries. It ends with another mystery that throws everything revealed in the previous pages in doubt. Well written, rather ingenious. More of an intellectual game than a who-done-it.
78. Iris Murdoch, The Bell. 7/7. Murdoch's fourth novel. Imber Abbey is an Anglican nunnery that follows the strict Benedictine rules. The original foundation was destroyed during the Dissolution; the structure was repaired and partially inhabited again in the nineteenth century. Across a lake from it is Imber Court. The Court belongs to Michael Meade and is now home to a small quasi-religiou group of lay people who have gathered around the Abbey. Also among the Court group are James Pace, an organiser of youth groups and clubs in the East End; Catherine, who is scheduled to enter the Abbey in a few weeks as a postulant; the Staffords, a married couple with some problems; Toby, who begins Oxford in the fall; and two other men, supernumeraries who are there chiefly to fill out the ranks. Also at the Court are two visitors. Paul Greenfield is an art historian who is studying documents preserved at the Abbey. He is joined at the beginning of the novel by his estranged wife, Dora. Living in the Lodge of the estate is Nick, Catherine's troubled brother and the student who many years earlier had betrayed Michael.
Each of the main characters has a different approach to the good. James sees it in absolute terms as obedience to god's commands. Each Sunday, one member of the community delivers a talk. James urges the virtue of innocence: 'And what are the marks of innocence? Candour--a beautiful word--truthfulness, simplicity, a quite involuntary bearing of witness. The image that occurs to me . . . is . . . a bell. A bell is made to speak out. What would be the value of a bell which was never rung? It rings our clearly, it bears witness, it cannot speak without seeming like a call, a summons. A great bell is not to be silenced. Consider too its simplicity. There is no hidden mechanism. All that it is is plain and open; and if it is moved, it must ring.' James aims at perfect obedience to god's will; the goal is to become the bell that rings true with virtue. He is guilty of what I was taught to see as the vanity of believing oneself capable of perfection despite the weaknesses of the human body and mind.
Michael is a onetime schoolteacher who hoped to become a priest. His hopes were derailed when he fell in love with a student. The student betrayed him by revealing the affair to the headmaster. Michael was dismissed and his hopes for the priesthood were shattered. Even though he remains a homosexual in his leanings, he does not follow through on those inclinations. Through his work at the Court, he feels that it may again be possible for him to join the priesthood. That is, until he encounters Toby. He reveals his feelings to Toby, who shies away. They have several subsequent encounters that leave Michael even more enamoured. During his Sunday sermon, Michael cautions that 'the chief requirement of the good life . . . is that one should have some conception of one's capacities.' His conception of the good includes the idea that it is better to excel in one's imperfections than to fail at attempting to achieve perfection. My teachers would have said that he errs in not trusting the infinite grace of god.
Toby is an innocent. Until his encounter with Michael, he knows nothing of sex. In examining his reactions and feelings, he tries to imagine how he would react to a woman's attentions. In his imagination, he focuses on Dora.
Dora is much younger than Paul and has left him because of his violence and bullying. Paul isn't so much in love with Dora as contemptuous of her. He wants her around because he can be contemptuous of her and can bully her. She wants to escape but lacks self-esteem. Paul is a person who uses notions of good to bully others. Dora is largely innocent of any notion of the good. The other inhabitants of the Court take their cues from Paul about how to treat Dora, treatment that she resents.
Mrs Stafford is pious and fond of the rules and forms of religious observance. She is the one who enforces the rules of the community. Catherine is rather of a cipher in the tale. She is there, she is beautiful, the other characters think her devout and holy. But she says and does little. Her brother is evil.
The Abbey has ordered a bell, and the Court has planned a celebration around its arrival, blessing, and instalation. Paul tells Dora two stories about the Abbey's original bell: (1) at the time of the Dissolution, the nuns threw the bell into the lake that separates the Abbey from the Court in order to prevent the bell from being melted down and the metal used for profane purposes; (2) an errant nun, in response to prodding from a bishop, swears that if she is guilty, the bell in the tower will fly into the lake, which it promptly does. The second story appeals more strongly to Dora.
Toby, when exploring the lake and swimming in it, discovers the original bell. He tells Dora, who hatches a plot to remove the bell from the lake and secretly substitute it for the new bell. She sees this as a bit of fun and mischief that may be mistaken by the pious for a miracle. Toby goes along with Dora because he is enamoured of her.
Nick sees all of this and forces Toby to confess all to James. He also sabotages the ceremony for the installation of the new bell. Catherine takes this as a sign of her own failure to be pure, tries to drown herself, and, when rescued, displays a passion for Michael. While James is upbraiding Michael for his sins, Nick kills himself, having once again destroyed Michael's life. Catherine is sent to a mental home; Paul returns to London; Dora joins a friend in Bath; Toby goes off to Oxford; and the Staffords join another lay community. Michael becomes a teacher in a secondary school. The Abbey continues and absorbs the buildings of the Court.
Murdoch frequently returned to the theme of the good in later works. Here her approach is more religious. Goodness is an 'overflow', remarks the abbess. It is what comes of our attempts to do good. The results may not be perfect, but god will make them perfect eventually. The other characters do their best to challenge that belief. Murdoch doesn't answer the questions she poses--she lets them exist in all their ambiguity.
79. Tom McCarthy, Remainder. 7/10. A carefully constructed work, whose careful constructedness is re-enacted in the actions of the first-person narrator. The nameless narrator is hospitalised for several months following an accident he doesn't remember--apparently he was struck by something falling from the sky. He loses his memory, both of his past life and of how to perform basic everyday actions such as walking and eating. He gradually recovers some memories of personal history. He relearns everyday behaviours through a technique of visualising each aspect of a behaviour over and over before attempting to perform them. When he finally attempts to move past visualisation into real action, he fails and has to start again. Reality defeats him at first.
He is troubled by the question of the authenticity of his behaviour post-recovery. He labels it secondhand. An actor in a movie he sees becomes for him the perfect embodiment of the real and the authentic. In contrast the passers-by he watches while drinking coffee in a "Seattle" coffee bar are role-players.
Those responsible for the accident pay him a large sum in recompense. A friend suggests that he embark on a life of pleasure-seeking. An old girlfriend advises him to use the money to do good. Neither self-indulgence nor altruism appeal to him. The three are in a bar at the time. A man comes over to them and asks 'Where does it all go?', a question that mystifies the narrator.
At a party, he sees a crack in the plaster of the bathroom wall. This triggers a memory of a similar crack on the bathroom wall of a flat in an old building. He has very specific memories of the place--a professional pianist practicing the same passage over and over until he gets it right, an old woman frying liver in the flat below him and the smell wafting up to him, the concierge's broom closet, a man repairing a motorcycle in the yard behind the building, black cats sunning themselves on the red tile roof of an adjacent building.
He decides to use the money to re-create this vision. He hires a 'facilitator' named Naz who works for a company called Time Control, which manages the lives of busy people. With Naz's help, he buys a suitable building and fanatically reconstructs his vision in detail, hiring actors to play the roles of the other tenants and the staff. He conducts many enactments of his vision. The old woman cooking liver emerges from her flat as he descends the stairs to go out and leaves a bin bag of refuse in the hallway for the porter to remove. She speaks to him and he says something in return. They practice the action over and over until it satisfies him. Despite his painstaking care in reproducing his vision, matters escape his control. The liver smells to him like cordite, which distresses him. The pianist has to go out and plays a tape of himself playing the piano, an act that angers him. The black cats fall off the roof; this bothers him not at all--he simply lays in a supply of replacements. As the seasons change, the nature and duration of daylight in the building change.
His car has a flat tyre and he takes it to a shop to be repaired. Three brothers, all teenagers or children, tend to him. He is fascinated by the process of repairing the tyre. While he is there, he has them fill up the reservoir for the windscreen-cleaning fluid. Before he leaves, he tries to clean the windscreen and discovers that the mechanism doesn't work. He investigates and finds that the reservoir is empty. The brothers refill it. The same thing happens. The discovery that the fluid has disappeared elates him--matter has been annihilated. When he turns on the engine to drive off, the cleaning fluid squirts out of every opening in the dash, covering him in fluid. He has Raz rent a warehouse and then re-creates the tyre shop and its surroundings, hires several groups of actors to play the brothers and himself non-stop around the clock, and re-enacts the scene over and over. Finally he asks that the liquid be made to really disappear instead of bursting out from behind the dash each time. The solution is to vaporise the liquid and vent it out the ceiling.
On the way home one day, he finds the road closed by the police because of a drug shooting. He decides to re-enact the shooting, with himself playing the role of the man who is shot. After a few re-enactments of the event as it happen, he instructs all the actors to slow everything down. This allows him to experience the act in greater detail. The experience also sends him into comas that last for a day or two. He discovers that the shooting he witnessed was the first in a series, and he re-enacts the others. As with the re-enactment of the tyre shop scene, he is willing to incorporate changes into the re-enactments of the murders.
When he emerges from one of his comas, he finds a man in his room. The man is a town councillor in the section of London in which the shootings occurred. The man asks him why he is re-enacting these events. Do they get him closer to reality? The narrator has no answer.
Finally, he decides to stage a bank robbery. At first, he has Naz re-create an actual bank lobby in the warehouse and hire actors to stage an elaborate robbery. He rehearses the robbery over and over. Naz meanwhile has been caught up in planning and facilitating these enactments. His entire life now revolves around facilitating the narrator's visions. When the narrator decides to forgo the re-enactment and stage a real bank robbery, Naz goes along with idea. But, he protests, they won't get away with it because too many people have been involved in the re-enactment. His solution is for the narrator and himself to fly away on a small plane and to put everyone else involved in all the re-enactments on another plane and blow that up in mid-air, thus eliminating everyone with any knowledge of the narrator's activities.
Only Naz and the narrator know that the robbery is real. All the other actors suppose it is simply another re-enactment. In the event, things go wrong. One of the actor-robbers is killed at the bank. The others escape. The narrator celebrates this intrusion of real life into the re-enactment. He and the now-dazed Naz fly off, only to have the plane ordered back to the airfield. The narrator hijacks the plane and has it fly back and forth, retracing the same route over and over. The narrator at last achieves satisfaction.
This work challenges the usual notions of authenticity. The remainder is the reality that narratives and philosophy cannot accommodate. Matter stubbornly refuses to disappear.
. . . While I was away, I read about fifteen books. Or, rather, I started to read about fifteen books. I finished only half of them. They were the type of books one might expect to find abandoned in a hospital 'library'. It didn't help that my brains were addled from painkillers and medicines. There may have been some good books among the ones I tried to read, but I couldn't concentrate long enough to make sense of them. I don't remember much even about the ones I managed to read. Luckily, the Olympics were being televised. It was easier to watch of horde of bicyclists circle Box Hill a dozen times than try to sustain interest in a pedestrian novel.
80. Orson Scott Card, Earth Unaware. 8/10. A random pick at the library. This is the 'prequel' to a series of novels by Card dealing with earth's response to an alien invasion. In this work, the aliens arrive in the solar system, and a ship of miners in a distant asteroid belt work to warn earth. The novel ends with the aliens approaching earth, and several lines of the narrative are left hanging. This is a decent bit of writing. As is usual with science fiction, there is more fiction than science, but the author finds ways of making the narrative work.
81. David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. 8/12. A historical novel dealing with the Dutch factory at Deshima off Nagasaki, the interactions of the Dutch merchants there and the local Japanese establishment, and the impact of the Anglo-Dutch and Napoleonic wars. Along the way there is an evil order of Japanese monks, a love story, and the adventures of the title character. There are hints of the supernatural, a mystery or two, and a lot of history. This isn't as adventuresome in writing terms as earlier novels by Mitchell, but it is just as well written and absorbing. It's a convincing and entertaining reconstruction of life in Deshima during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
82. A. S. Byatt, Babel Tower. 8/16. This is the third in the series of four novels about Frederica Potter and her circles of family, friends, lovers, and other associates. There are comments on the fourth and second books in the series above (nos. 64 and 70). This one covers roughly the years 1963-66. Frederica is unhappily married to Nigel Revier, a member of the rural gentry, and lives in his ancestral home in the north of England, along with Nigel's two unmarried sisters and a housekeeper. She and Nigel have a son, Leo, who is five at the start of the work. Nigel is neglectful and abusive. Frederica is unsatisfied. She wants work that will engage her mind, but Nigel insists that she conform to his class's expectations of a wife. She accidentally runs into a friend from her Cambridge days. He sees that she is unhappy and encourages other of her former friends to write her. This causes more dissension in the Revier household and increases Frederica's misery. When a group of friends comes to see her, she decides to leave and runs away to London. Leo hears her leaving and insists on accompanying her.
In London, Frederica finds work as a teacher of literature to the students in an art school and to a night-school class of adults. She also serves as an occasional manuscript reviewer for a publisher of serious books. She finds much satisfaction in these jobs and discovers that she is good at them and, to her surprise, enjoys teaching. Nigel is furious that she has left and attacks both her father and the husband of her late sister in an attempt to find her and Leo's whereabouts. Frederica decides to divorce Nigel. Through her work in the art school, she comes across a novel entitled Babbletower, written by a strange and unpleasant man called Jude Mason. She recommends it to the publisher she reads for. The book is published and then becomes the subject of an obscenity trial. The divorce and obscenity trials are the focus of the last third of the book.
This is a long work--600 pages and 300,000 words. In it, Frederica begins the Laminations project that will be published in A Whistling Woman. This book is much like that work. It is layers of narratives and themes, held together by Frederica's sensibilities and interests, but juxtaposed rather than linked into a coherent narrative. 'Laminations. Keeping things seperate. Not linked by metaphor or sex or desire, but separate objects of knowledge, systems of work, or discovery.' There are extensive passages from Babbletower, which is about the attempt by a French aristocrat and his circle to establish a utopian society. Many of the novels discussed in Frederica's classes, such as Forster's Howards End and D. H. Lawrence's novels, deal with prescriptions for impossible perfections. The Babel Tower stands for the division between the ideal world of perfect communication when words were identical to the objects they denote that existed before God's intervention and the chaos of languages and the demotion of words that followed it.
Words and narratives are treacherous things here. As Frederica contemplates her marriage to Nigel, she thinks, 'Language in this world is for keeping things safe in their places.' Perfect languages such as computer code, one character remarks, promise the 'Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity.' But language and narratives don't work this way in the real world, Frederica discovers. During her divorce trial, she is forced into the narrative of the errant, deserting wife and adulterer. The jurors in the obscenity trial fail to understand the narrative conventions and traditions behind Babbletower and find the author and publisher guilty. Utopias, both social and linguistic, don't work. The failure to understand opens the door to evil. Nor are traditional orders immune from evil. The traditional family order doesn't accommodate people like Frederica. The law courts work by dispensing straitjackets rather than justice.
Much of this is about order vs. chaos. Order can be something as simple the traditional ordering of the letters in the alphabet. Is forcing children to master that order a way to mould them along certain lines of discipline or is it a tool that opens up possibilities or both? Is freedom and the encouragement of exploration a way to develop individual psyches or an invitation to debauchery and violence? Neither extreme works for Byatt and her characters. And yet no one wants the cautious middle ground.
This is a sprawling work. Frederica and her students explore a great many novels and discuss them at length. (Byatt herself taught adult classes--Frederica discovers that her students relate the characters in novels to themselves and take the narratives personally. This contrasts with the perspective of distance she has been taught. This is one of many convincing details.) The testimonies in the trials are reported at great length. Here I think the presentation becomes a bit tedious and undisciplined. The 'experts' in the obscenity case especially are loquacious and fond of hearing themselves talk--although this is true of many academic experts, it becomes trying in the end. Too much realism.
83. Iris Murdoch, The Severed Head. 8/18. Murdoch's fifth novel. Martin is married to Antonia. As the book opens, he is talking with his mistress, Georgie, a lecturer in economics at LSE, in her bedsit. He must leave, he says, because Antonia will soon return from her appointment with her psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson. The two discuss Anderson and his half-sister, Honor Klein, a lecturer in anthropology at Cambridge. On the way home, Martin congratulates himself on his control of his wife and his mistress. He couldn't be more wrong about who is in control.
The story quickly degenerates into farce. That evening Antonia announces to Martin that she and Palmer are in love and she is divorcing Martin. This has the effect of making Martin love his wife even more, but he is curiously lethargic and quickly acquiesces in the their plans. Martin gives Honor Klein a ride from the train station to Palmer's house. She is a strange, withdrawn woman who makes her disdain of Martin known to him. Honor discovers the relationship between Martin and Georgie and reveals it to Antonia and Palmer. Martin confronts Honor about this and slaps her around.
Honor's behaviour and reaction to Martin makes him fall in love with her. He travels to Cambridge, breaks into her house, and there discovers Honor and Palmer in bed together. The incest doesn't dismay him as much as the revelation that Palmer is cheating on Antonia. More complications ensue. In the end, Antonia reveals to Martin that she and Martin's brother Alexander have been having an affair since before their marriage and that she is now leaving Martin, and Palmer, for Alexander. Palmer and Georgie run off to the United States. In the end, Honor and Martin are headed for bed together.
Martin is a passive person. Both Antonia and Palmer manipulate Martin and run his life. He remarks that Antonia and Palmer have become like parents to him. His sister Rosemary arranges bits and pieces of his daily life for him. Martin's two female assistants also cosset and pamper him. Honor symbolically castrates him by wielding a Japanese sword and refusing to let Martin handle it. When he is provoked to action, it usually involves striking out at others. He punches Palmer in the eye; he slaps Honor. Several of the other characters remark that he is a violent man, and many of them treat him as a child--a fact that he and others recognise. In some ways this is a book about a man who comes to know and acknowledge the lies in his life and to become an adult.
Towards the end, there are more and more suggestions that this is retelling of myths. Martin notes that incestuous brother-sister pairings are common in mythology and usually involve gods and the ruling classes. He is reading the 'latest volume of The Golden Bough'. Honor explains that she is the severed head, the object of devotion among primitive tribes. Honor draws a parallel between the relationship of Antonia and Palmer to Martin and the story of Gyges and Candaules.
It's a short book (200 pages, perhaps 75,000 words) and the farcical elements occur as rapidly as they do in French bedroom plays. The focus is on Martin and his feelings (it's a first-person narrative), which are explored at length, but Martin sees enough without understanding what is happening that it is clear what the other character are doing. Martin's penchant for irony is remarked at several points, but Murdoch is even more capable than he in that respect.
In the end, it struck me as an unsuccessful book. Martin's character is so weak and off-putting that it becomes hard to understand why the other, stronger characters bother with him.
84. Iris Murdoch, An Unofficial Rose. 8/24. Murdoch's sixth novel, and like the previous one, a marriage-go-round. Hugh Peronett's wife has died. At the end of the funeral service, he sees his son, Randall, talking with two women, one of whom is Emma Sands, a woman with whom he had a serious affair many years earlier. In the end, Hugh decided to stay with his wife and has not spoken with Emma since the break-up. Randall is unhappily married to Ann. They have a daughter, Miranda, who is fourteen at the start of the story. Randall and Ann run a rose nursery in Kent. The other woman with Emma Sands is Lindsay, who is Emma's companion and general dogsbody and Randall's lover. Emma and Lindsay live in London. Living near Ann and Randall in Kent are Mildred and Humphrey Finch, and occasionally Mildred's brother, Felix. Humphrey has been cashiered from the Foreign Service, apparently for a homosexual scandal. Felix is in the military and thinking of taking a position in India. Staying with Ann and Randall is Penn, the seventeen-year-old son of Hugo's daughter, who is visiting from Australia.
Briefly, Randall deserts Ann and goes to London to be with Lindsay. The sight of Emma renews Hugh's feelings for her. Mildred is scheming to snare Hugh. Felix has long been in love with Ann, and with the departure of Randall Mildred encourages him to act. Penn falls in love with Miranda. Humphrey is attracted by Penn.
Randall needs money in order to live with Lindsay. Hugh owns a Tintoretto, and Randall asks him to sell it and turn the money over to him. Hugh does so because he thinks that, with the money, Randall will decamp with Lindsay, thus paving the way for him to be with Emma. Felix declares his love to Ann and she admits that she feels the same way but is, perversely, more in love with Randall than she had been in years. Penn's overtures to Miranda are met with scorn, and he goes off to London with Humphrey. (Murdoch doesn't say what if anything happens between them, but Hugh does note after having a drink at Humphrey's flat that Penn seems 'gayer' than he had been when living with Ann and Randall). Miranda convinces her mother not to give up hope that Randall will return and bursts into tears at the thought of a stepfather. The guilt-ridden Ann sends Felix away to India and resumes her life at the rose nursery without much change other than the absence of Randall. Miranda turns out to have been infatuated with Felix since her childhood and has engineered the break-up. Emma reveals that she is dying of cancer and taunts Hugh with his unrequited passion for her. Hugh sails off to India with Felix and Mildred. As the novel ends he is about to commence an affair with her.
The major characters are divided between manipulators (Mildred, Emma, Lindsay, Miranda) and the manipulated (Hugh, Randall, Penn, Ann, Felix). Ann and Felix are rather passive people. When Ann finally breaks up with Felix, she half-hopes that he will reject her rejection of him and force her hand. But he's too much of a gentleman to do that. Emma claims to have manipulated Randall into running off with Lindsay. She uses Hugh's feelings for her to get what she wants. Miranda urges her father to run off with Lindsay, in the expectation that their affair will not last long and that she will join her father. She manipulates her mother into rejecting Felix. She shamelessly exploits Penn's attraction to her. Miranda is a younger version of Emma. For most of the novel she is content to manipulate her dolls, but eventually she slaughters them and moves on to manipulating people. Mildred is less successful in her schemes, but she does get Hugh in the end, which is what she wants. Lindsay acts with an eye for the main chance.
There are references to The Tempest. Penn draws an analogy between his relationship with Miranda and Caliban's relationship with Miranda. Miranda is always pinching him, which is the punishment Caliban often receives from Prospero. Emma, whose powers are described as 'witchlike', compares her relationship with Lindsay to that between Prospero and Ariel. She sets her Ariel free in recognition of her services just as Prospero sets Ariel free.
After leaving with Lindsay, Randall imagines they are free but worries that Emma has manipulated them. His freedom may be an illusion. Ann recognizes that she is not free, but in the end achieves freedom by not caring whether she is free or not. The others are mired in their desires and the complications that ensue.
Miranda is the most interesting character here. She is embarking on a lifetime of evil.
85. Hakan Nesser, The Inspector and Silence. 8/28. Translated from Swedish. A murder mystery involving a sect, a girls' camp, and some very philosophical detectives. The chief inspector asks one sect member how the sect deals with the problem of theodicy, and one of the detectives refers a colleague to Schopenhauer. On the general principle that the fairness required of crime writers dictates that the murderer has to be introduced within the first 50 pages, I spotted the murderer soon after he was introduced. Not a bad novel but for some reason it took me four days to read the 300 pages. I think I may have read enough murder mysteries in my life. They are ceasing to entertain.
86. Carlos Fuentes, Vlad. 8/29. Translated from the Spanish. In this novella (ca. 35,000 words), Yves Navarro, a lawyer, and his wife, Asuncion, a real-estate agent, are assigned the task of finding a home in Mexico City for a 'old' friend of the head of the law firm for which Navarro works. The friend's name is Vlad, and he wants a house located next to a ravine. All the windows have to be bricked up, and a tunnel is to be constructed that runs to the ravine from the house. The Navarros have a young daughter; a son drowned a year or so before the story starts. Vlad is Vlad the Impaler, Count Dracula, who has settled in Mexico City because of its huge population and lax police force. Vlad seduces Asuncion with the promise of eternal life for the daughter. Asuncion becomes a vampire; Vlad tempts Yves with an offer to do the same for him.
Vlad remarks to Yves that whereas Yves belongs to the group of people who live life (and hence will die), he himself is one of those who craves life. God, Vlad remarks, is unfinished and he lives on children. This is an allegory (I think) about human beings and our cravings. There seems also to be some commentary on modern Mexican life, but I'm not familiar enough with that to judge.
87. John Boyne, The Absolutist. 8/30. A first-person narrative by one of Ireland's more successful younger authors.
In 1919 Tristan Sadler journeys from London to Norwich to return to Marian Bancroft a packet of letters she had written to her brother, Will. Will and Tristan had been members of the same squad of British soldiers fighting in France during WWI. After being in France for a few months, Will is executed for refusing to continue to fight. This is seen as 'cowardice'. He sees himself as a principled conscientious objector. He is an 'absolutist' because, unlike other COs who serve as medical corpsmen or stretcher bearers, he refuses to take part in any activity related to the war. Tristan's purpose in meeting Marian is not only to return her letters but to assure her and her family that Will was not a coward.
Marian is rather rude and defensive towards Tristan at first, but she gradually warms up and reveals that she and her family have been punished by their fellow townsmen because of the charges against Will. She had to break off her engagement because her fiance's family was adjudged guilty by association.
Tristan and Will become friends during their training period at Aldershot. Tristan, it becomes clear, is a homosexual. His own family threw him out when this was discovered. He becomes enamoured of Will at Aldershot. The night before they ship out for France, he discovers Will in a secluded place. Will, on his own initiative, makes love to Tristan. When they are finished, he runs away and subsequently avoids Tristan. There are hints, however--small kindnesses and the like--that Will has feelings towards Tristan. One night the two meet by chance, and Will drags Tristan into a secluded spot and again makes love to him. Then he resumes ignoring Tristan.
Will and Tristan are part of a group that takes a German trench. After the slaughter is over, Will finds a young German soldier and takes him prisoner. To Will's dismay and disgust, the corporal in charge of their small unit shoots the prisoner. Will reports the incident but is not believed. He asks Tristan to back him up, but Tristan refuses. Will then refuses to fight and is imprisoned and sentenced to death for cowardice.
The night before Will's execution, Tristan gets in a fight and is imprisoned with Will. He tries to comfort Will but his efforts are rejected. Will says that the sex they had was simply a matter of dealing with their short life expectancies. It has nothing to do with love. He finds homosexuality repugnant and Tristan disgusts him. His rejection turns violent. In the morning, the firing squad is one man short of the statutory requirement, and Tristan volunteers to join the squad. Will removes the blindfold and sees Tristan among his executioners. His last word is 'Tristan'.
Gradually, over the course of several hours, Tristan reveals his role in Will's execution to Marian, who accuses him of cowardice and of taking revenge on Will for his rejection.
Fast forward to 1979. Tristan is a 'grand old man' of English letters and is receiving an important literary award. When he returns to his hotel, he finds Marian waiting for him. This is the first time they have met since 1919. She has never forgiven Tristan. Tristan reveals that he has never had another relationship with anyone and has written an account, a confession, of the events between himself and Will but has left it to be published after his death. When Marian leaves, Tristan returns to his room, writes out the final chapter in the book, and then commits suicide expecting that the contents of the book will make his cowardice and culpability clear and hence destroy his reputation. The Absolutist is that book.
The story is told with little self-analysis on Tristan's part and little speculation about the internal thoughts of others. It's mostly a statement of events. It's clear, however, that Will is attracted to Tristan and that his violent rejection of Tristan's offer of love is his way of dealing with what he regards as immoral and repugnant feelings. Will tells Tristan early on that he has a fiancee, but Tristan discovers in this talks with Marian that this is not so. Will is not what he pretends to be. Will is what we would now see as a deeply closeted homosexual who abjects his desires for men by ostentatious protest.
Tristan feels equally guilty about being a homosexual and spends his life avoiding being one. It is the sort of story one hopes would not happen today, but of course it still does.
The descriptions of life in the army and in the trenches and of the stupidity of war are what we have been taught to expect from accounts of WWI. Perhaps because there have been so many descriptions it is impossible to add anything new without making it obvious that one is striving for novelty. In any case, these are simply backdrops for Will and Tristan's tale.
Tristan is a butcher's son and is expelled from school for homosexuality and yet somehow in the days after the Armistice he finds work as a manuscript reader in a publishing house in London--that detail isn't quite right.
This is a sad story and well told. I read it straight though without stopping, which is unusual for me these days. In the end, however, I found it unsatisfying. This is supposed to be the work of a major twentieth-century British novelist, but it doesn't read like one--chiefly I think because of Tristan's reticence and his unwillingness to confront his actions. He can describe them and he can punish himself for them, but he doesn't want to think about them or his response to them. Perhaps that is the point--that despite his talents Tristan cannot face up honestly to what he did. All he can do is relate them baldly.
88. Timothy Zahn, Manta's Gift. 8/31. Science fiction, although as usual more fiction than science. Earthlings meet the Qnaska, the inhabitants of Jupiter. Both sides need each other's help. Communication is aided by implanting a human mind inside the body of a Qanska. A nefarious oligarchy lurks back on Earth. Well told but standard fare. Some similarities with Ian Banks's tales of gas worlds.