Archive for July, 2013

Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose

July 30, 2013

614zY60Y4oL._AA160_Having recently re-watched the film – effectively atmospheric and a pretty faithful rendering of the book, though inevitably cutting and oversimplifying the plot and changing some details for visual effectiveness – I decided to return to the novel. This was, I think, the fifth time I’ve read it, and it retains its place in my top three novels of the twentieth century.

One always notices different things with re-reads, and this time I tried hard to make my way through all the heresies and religious conflicts, with some success. I was aided by a wonderful little book called The Key to The Name of the Rose, which translates all the non-English parts of the text for the reader, as well as explaining various issues and personalities in more depth: it enabled me to read more carefully and closely, and I was surprised by what I’d missed in earlier readings (or perhaps forgotten…)

Eco is at his best in the mediaeval world he knows and loves (Baudolino is his next-best novel, I think) and he brings it vividly to life as he creates sympathy and understanding for most of his characters: we do come to see just how differently people saw and interpreted the world in the fourteenth century.

He successfully weaves at least three plots together: the political and religious issues involving the papacy and the empire, the quest for Aristotle‘s missing book On Comedy, and a series of murders in the monastery which involved either this missing book or some secret documents relating to a heretic and his followers. He clearly lovesĀ Sherlock Holmes, and his main character and his companion are obvious tributes to Conan Doyle‘s heroes.

The novel is also marvellously structured: old documents seen, transcribed and then lost; the tale told by the ageing Adso who was the teenage companion and assistant of William of Baskerville in the events of the story; his reflections on his past, his solitary life as a monk, his idea of love; how the story which fascinates us for five hundred pages was almost never written…

There’s an originality here – the mediaeval setting has, of course, been frequently copied since this novel was first published – the unashamed intellectualism interwoven with the plot, and the desire to have the reader reflect on things eternal even if s/he is an unbeliever, which make this a truly outstanding novel. And I still get a lump in my throat as I come to the end.

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Isabel Allende: The House of the Spirits

July 23, 2013

9781400043187This novel had sat around for a long time waiting for me to get to it; what a revelation, as it was well worth waiting for. Isabel Allende’s uncle was Salvador Allende, the Marxist elected President of Chile in 1970, and murdered in a US-backed coup in 1973. This event was one of the most shocking of my younger days, and made me realise just how difficult any meaningful political change anywhere in the world was going to be.

Allende writes in the familiar Latin American ‘magic realism’ genre, reminding one easily of Marquez’s great novels. She traces the history of her country – never named, but clearly Chile – through the story of the successes and failures of several generations of one family, against the backdrop of more general social and political change; this family becomes more closely involved with the movements that led up to the events of the 1970s as the story nears that time.

The lyrical portrayal of a loved country and people develops very effectively; one comes to know and love the range of – sometimes bizarre – members of the family, their houses and country estates. It is magical realism at its captivating best, but obviously there is always in the back of the reader’s mind the traumatic events of forty years ago, and one of the things that drew this reader along was wondering how Allende would integrate them.

The chapters that deal with the coup and murder of the president are a kick in the crotch to the reader; the brutality leaps out, and characters we have grown to know and like are sucked into the nightmare; the magic vanishes and the reality is devastatingly effective.

I was drawn to compare this novel with an old favourite of mine, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, which is also set in Latin America, although the fictional land of Costaguana is less readily identifiable than Allende’s Chile. Again, the backdrop is the economic development of the country against the backdrop of scheming and coups and revolutions, and how revolutions – at least to Conrad – inevitably seem to corrupt those who make them or are involved in them. Both writers seem to me to raise the question of whether, and how, it is possible to make a better world, that encompasses all people, rather than benefiting only those ruthless and fortunate ones at the top of the heap. They don’t offer an answer, though…

Saul Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March

July 22, 2013

41n4v7CMz9L._AA160_I failed to tackle Bellow at university, while reading for my master’s degree. Finally, I caught up with him, and I don’t really think it was worth it…

In the introduction to my edition, Martin Amis decides that this is ‘the great American novel’. Sorry, but in my mind that title goes to Heller‘s Catch 22. So, what, didn’t I like about this novel? I persevered because I wanted to see how it ended up, but it just petered out, maybe resolved because the eponymous character had finally got married. But I wasn’t convinced by that. It’s a bildungsroman, but I couldn’t really work up any interest in any of the characters for large parts of the story. There were a lot of dreadful, rich people in Gatsby mode who went for each other like rats in a sack, leading existences totally divorced from reality on Planet Earth, and which rather furthered my picture of the United States being a strange place inhabited by stranger people. I think the idea of the American Dream is an interesting one to explore, rather hackneyed now, though perhaps less so in the 1950s, so I can’t blame Bellow for that. But the idea that anyone can, through their own efforts, rise to the top of the pile, is responsible for some of the worst excesses in our world; it hardly furthers human happiness, except fleetingly for a few, perhaps.

Bellow’s use of English (American?) was interesting at times; some of his description, especially when accretive, verged on the poetic, and I liked it a lot. But I was overpowered by the pancake erudition, dozens of references to all sorts of classical and historical and political figures and ideas spread out before the reader in a very show-off fashion, and, to my mind, totally unconvincing in the mouth of the first-person narrator.

I’m glad I read the novel, but I won’t be spending any more eyeball-time on him.

Annoying books…

July 8, 2013

I enjoy reading travel writing. And, if someone has gone somewhere out-of-the-way and interesting, a decent map in the book is essential. Surely, not too much to expect? But yes, it seems. In their quest to save money, too many publishers either omit maps entirely, or else provide one so small or rudimentary as to render it useless. Yes, I do have an atlas, a very good one, too, but an atlas will supplement the writer’s account of their journey, and the map they should provide of it.

This post is provoked by Christina Dodwell‘s book Beyond Siberia which I’ve just read. It’s as annoying as the previous one of hers I wrote about earlier, in terms of poor writing and proof-reading, but it was about Kamchatka, where very few people have been, and no doubt, about where even fewer people have written. And we got a scratty page-size, blotchy map with some of the places she mentions on it, apparently at random. Why bother?

The worst novel I’ve ever read…

July 8, 2013

Hadrian the VII by Fr Rolfe, alias Frederick Baron Corvo, is truly bizarre. To begin with, the Wordsworth Classics edition I acquired is full of typographical errors, which it’s charitable to think are the result of an un-proof-read OCR scan. Next, it’s written in bizarre English, with lots of nonce-words made up from Latin and Greek roots. And then there’s the plot…

Basically, and unknown and unordained Englishman is accidentally (!) elected pope, and then goes on to set the world (Edwardian, early 1900s) to rights, before being blackmailed and murdered by a deranged Scottish socialist in league with a woman with a mysterious past…

The plot rambles and wanders all over the place – the concept itself is vaguely interesting, which is why I decided to read it in the first place – but, as my research revealed, it’s thinly disguised autobiographical wish-fulfilment on the part of the writer. Things one might expect to have explained, such as how an unordained Englishman happens to be in the conclave in the first place, never mind being chosen as pope, or how he then manages to convince the entire world and its leaders to follow his plan for peace and happiness ever after, are glossed over unconvincingly. Vatican infighting is a little more convincing, though under-developed, and the mad socialist is a totally unconvincing plot device to allow the writer one of his many diatribes against the world and everything… the one event in the book that surprised me was the shooting of the pope, which reminded me of the attempted assassination of John Paul II.

I’m pleased I read it, but it really is a bad novel in so many ways – just like McGonagall’s poetry…weird!

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