Archive for the 'fiction' Category

Can a novel be too long?

May 10, 2020

A brief exchange with a friend a propos of my previous post about the length of Neal Stephenson’s novels has had me thinking about the length of novels in general. Of course, there is the thing about their having to be a certain number of pages nowadays to fit in easily with the printing process, but that’s not what I mean. And let’s set Dickens to one side, as we know he wrote by the yard for serialisation and cash…

I suppose the real question is, does the novel really need all those words? And so one has to consider the writer’s purpose and intentions, and to recognise that those may be very different from our own expectations or demands. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the longest novel I’ve read; I think I’ve read it three times, and enjoyed it each time. Some readers have questioned the need for the lengthy philosophical section with which Tolstoy concludes the novel; for me it is an intrinsic part and thought-provoking reflection on the story he has finished telling. And the novel itself is both a panorama of Russian society and a fictionalised history of one of the major episodes of Russian history. Shortened, it would not be the same thing at all, and I think the same might be said about Middlemarch, which may perhaps be seen as an English novel with a similar scope. In other words, these two novels need to be as long as they are for the reader to be fully immersed in the worlds fictionally created, and to be able to appreciate that the author is doing more than just story-telling.

I had to study the first volume of Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu when I was at university. I read it a couple of times; it was decent enough, and the narrative technique interesting enough to engage me at the time. I remember being astonished at the lengthy and perfectly-formed sentences and the effect they had on one’s consciousness as I worked my way through a page or so to the end of one of them. I was full of intention to read the rest of the sequence, bought and read the first half of volume two, and gave up, never to return to it (this was over 40 years ago now). Why? What went wrong? What was different? In the end I couldn’t make myself interested enough in Proust’s characters and their fates. He was presenting a much narrower section of society, of the world, and not one that I cared that much about. His scope was completely different from Tolstoy’s, for instance. But that doesn’t mean that the books were too long, and that I might have succeeded with a Reader’s Digest-style adaptation, a “condensed book”.

I’ve made myself read a fair amount of Thomas Pynchon. V was interesting enough, as was Gravity’s Rainbow; Mason & Dixon I liked and it’s been on my re-read pile for at least ten years; Against the Day was a useful gap-filler during a bout of pneumonia, but I don’t have the urge to revisit it. These are long novels, but also rather rambling and shapeless, and it is hard to avoid a feeling that the writer is indulging something, and I found it hard to be bothered to find out what. Is there somewhere an urge in American writers to have the size of their novels match the size of the country? Moby Dick was a passable read, once; Don De Lillo’s Underworld irritated the hell out of me for being so long and I was angry with myself for giving in to the blandishments of reviewers and wasting my money on it. It’s almost as if there’s a conscious effort to write the ‘Great American Novel’ rather than to write a good novel and for it to turn out to be judged great much later on. But once again, I’m not sure that editing would have improved any of these…

Fantasy and SF is a different kettle of fish, perhaps. Readers are looking to immerse themselves in a completely different world; pure escapism? And there is the marvel of a good writer’s imagination in play as well, here, for they are creating a world, a setting from scratch that must make us want to stay there and leave our humdrum ordinary world behind. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saw me through a bad, three-day bout of the ‘flu some forty years and more ago. I really enjoyed it, but it’s never called me back. The doorstopper in the field that I have returned to several times is Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, a utopian novel of some 1000 pages which I have always found gripping, although I will admit to occasionally wishing the romance sections had been edited a little. Why does it grip me so much? Because here is a writer thinking at great length about how the world might be a much better place. A utopian novel doesn’t need to come in at a thousand pages, but this one works at that length for me.

I’m realising that I don’t know anywhere near enough about the process of editing and what an editor actually does when they work with an author on a novel. A novel has always appeared to me to be a writer’s personal creation, although obviously mediated by the country and society and times they lived in and numerous other factors too, and so I have maybe naively thought that there wasn’t a lot for an editor to do. Perhaps one of my readers can enlighten me? Once upon a time in a previous existence I did know an editor for one of the major UK publishers, but did not have this conversation with her…

In the end I feel OK about respecting an author’s creation as s/he allows it to emerge in final published form; I’ll read it and either like it or not, and on the basis of that will either feel called to read it again one day, or not. I’m back with what I used to say to my students: there’s no law that says you have to like a novel or a poem (or indeed any work of art). What you need to be able to do is articulate what it is you like or don’t like about it, and ideally support your view with evidence…

Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon

May 9, 2020

51XM13WNJGL._AC_UY218_     I’ve been meaning to come back to this for a while, because I remember really enjoying it first time around, but also to see if Neal Stephenson stands up to a second reading, which I had my doubts about: Seveneves was a good yarn but I can’t see I’ll ever want to read it again, and I think I feel the same about Anathem. But, I really enjoyed his Baroque cycle and hope I will enjoy getting back to that eventually…

This one’s about code-breaking and the science of cryptography in general, with strands woven around the real-life Alan Turing and Bletchley Park, and the code-breaking efforts in the Second World War and a plot that involves finding an enormous gold cache supposedly hidden by the Nazis and the Japanese somewhere in the Philippines as they were losing the war. That strand takes place in the 1990s and involves the descendants of the participants in the wartime strand of the story; it’s also the plot-line which has dated rather, given the enormous progresses in computing and related technology since then.

The disquisitions on computing and cryptography are interesting and well-written, as those aspects of a Stephenson novel invariably are: he’s not afraid to attempt to educate his readers in passing, and those not in want of such education can skim-read for a few pages. He becomes even more interesting when he explores the notion that if you have broken an enemy’s codes and can therefore take evasive actions, that enemy will eventually be able to deduce that you have broken his codes and so do something about that… unless you can lay false trails so that he cannot be sure. Then it all gets a great deal more complicated.

It’s a pretty gripping yarn, and the key characters are very well created, fleshed out and developed; we grow to like them and become attached to them in a way that doesn’t always happen in this kind of (almost) science-fiction. There’s also a really good sense of place developed, particularly in the sections set during the war. And yet, in the end, I couldn’t get away from a feeling that it was just a little bit too wordy and long-winded this time around: a good story and entertaining characters, but that was it… a bit self-indulgent at times. I’m being churlish, I know: there’s nothing wrong with a novel being a good one-time read. That’s what it was first time around, and perhaps I should have left it at that.

Josef Skvorecky: An Inexplicable Story

April 21, 2020

51ECHZPYPGL._AC_UY218_ML3_     This was a really strange one to come back to; apart from the Roman setting I’d completely forgotten the plot, which is presented in the standard ‘mysterious manuscript found’ trope, with all sorts of spurious annotations and authentications.

A mysterious set of decayed scrolls in Latin, from the years of Tiberius, has been found in Mexico, in a settlement where the Maya civilisation once existed. Translated, it provides a very scrappy and disconnected tale of a Roman who was perhaps in some way related to the poet Ovid and who is interested in the poet’s exile and final disappearance, and who also seems to have been an inventor of some kind who may have invented a steam engine which assisted a ship across the ocean…

It’s obviously an exercise in constructing a plausibly fake manuscript and story, and meshing it in an already known reality, in the way such writers and Defoe, Eco and Conan Doyle have successfully done, along with many others. I should have recalled Skvorecky’s interest in, and writing of, detective stories among his other novels, and his particular liking for Edgar Allen Poe (he weaves in the latter’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym very cleverly).

The story is nested in many layers to give it a semblance of authenticity: a corrupt manuscript, introduction and detailed commentaries and annotations from academics, which weave in many well-known details and figures from Roman history, and supporting documents provided by others… and yet, in the end the author’s dedication to his wife of forty years makes clear it’s basically a very elaborate hoax he’s devised to refer back to their mutual admiration of Poe. It also links nicely into my favourite Skvorecky novel, The Engineer of Human Souls, in which the hero is a teacher of American literature to college students, and one of the chapters focuses on Poe.

It’s a short read, a diverting one, and a clever one, and a reminder of how much I have long admired this under-rated Czech dissident writer.

True escape from lockdown…

April 17, 2020

Finally some suggestions for the science fiction readers among you, when true escapism is what you crave…the top five science fiction novels in my list.

71FUig5zsTL._AC_UY218_ML3_     Austin Tappan Wright: Islandia. I came across this years ago, when I was researching my master’s thesis at the Science Fiction Foundation, in its previous existence in Barking. It’s a door-stopper (1000+ pages) of a utopia from the earlier decades of the twentieth century, set in a land on Earth but not the Earth as we know it, and at risk because of the machinations of the world we know. Someone from our world explores and grows to love the place… pure escapism, and surprisingly addictive, I have found.

Arthur C Clarke: The City & The Stars. I’ve always felt this to be his best, streets ahead of Childhood’s End, which others have seemed to prefer. It’s stunningly ambitious, for in a sense the humans on Earth in a thousand million years time have what is basically eternal life, as they are captured and encoded in a huge computer, and are regularly brought back to life, re-created, for another existence (an idea which quite appeals to me – at least I’d get all my reading done, then). There are only two settlements left on the planet in the remote future, this one with built-in eternity, and another, which is much closer to our lives at the moment: contact between the two must take place, and contact with an intelligence from another world, too.

916Pcqj+xLL._AC_UY218_ML3_     Walter M Miller: A Canticle for Leibowitz. In almost apocalyptic times, the ‘best’ of apocalyptic novels, though completely without any hope at the end. A few survivors eke out a basic existence on the scraps of our world after a nuclear war; civilisation is preserved by an order of monks, and over centuries rebuilds itself until, inevitably, history repeats itself. A creation of the doom-laden Cold War years, it remains a masterpiece among many novels with a similar premise, for its unusual take on survival after armageddon.

Mary Shelley: The Last Man. Miles better than Frankenstein, less hectic in its pace, this is a very relevant tale for the moment, set in a republican England of the late twenty-first century (though not one which we would anticipate today) where a deadly disease gradually wipes out humanity until, as the title suggests, there is finally only one person left. It’s romantic in its notions and in its sweep, as well as playing to everyone’s megalomania: what would you do, and where would you go, when you are the last person left?

51KJD1RCF1L._AC_UY218_ML3_     Ronald Wright: A Scientific Romance. This is an excellent late twentieth-century take on HG WellsThe Time Machine, which takes the traveller north from London to Scotland, where in the far future a world closely resembling that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth seems to have evolved. There have been a number of novels which have played with Wells’ original idea, and this one is an extremely good and cleverly devised tale; I hesitated between it and Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, which manages to blend The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds very skilfully.

If you have been moved or inspired to read any of the novels on any of my lists while you have been in lockdown, which not take a few minutes to say what you thought, in a comment at the end?

American novels for a lockdown

April 16, 2020

Mark Twain: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve always like this novel. It’s far more dark and serious than The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which is basically a kid’s adventure story (a very good one, at that!). The hero has to wrestle seriously with his conscience about the rights and wrongs of helping an escaped slave, and works out his moral dilemma for himself and lives with his decision and the consequences. It’s a novel about freedom, in the romantic sense of the early days of the US and people moving westwards to do their own thing. Sadly, it’s frowned upon a lot nowadays because Twain used a certain word, common parlance at the time, if derogatory, but which is now probably the most unusable and unacceptable word in our language. This is a silly reason to reject a novel: contextual understanding is all. I taught the book several times and we found a way to deal with that issue. If you have the time, there is a brilliant recording of the novel available on the Librivox website (look for the one by Mark Smith).

Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird. I lost count of the number of times I taught this marvellous novel for GCSE. Thanks to the idiocy of a one-time ‘education’ secretary it’s now not allowed to be used, because it’s not by a British author; colleagues miss it deeply, for it allows so many issues crucial in the lives of teenagers and young people to be explored as you turn its pages. Yes, it romanticises issues and avoids others, but it plants the question of racism firmly on the agenda, along with relationships between parents and children, and growing up. It’s a deeply humane novel, in spite of its flaws.

Jack Kerouac: On The Road. One from my hippy days – gosh, how long ago! The open road, the yearning for freedom, time to do what you like, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Romantic tosh, perhaps, but it opens up the possibility to dream at that age. I don’t think I could read it now, I have to say, but that doesn’t take away the magical influence it exerted on me in my misspent youth, and I don’t regret it.

Joseph Heller: Catch-22. The war novel to underline the utter absurdity of warfare, the pointlessness, the profiteering, the incompetence of commanders, the fear. It’s a tour-de-force, with its craziness providing very dark humour – but real humour – and its seriousness in places is truly spine-chilling, for instance, as Snowden’s secret is finally uncovered. Although it wasn’t written during the Second World War, that’s the setting, and it’s surely the best novel in that setting. The greta American war novel, probably the great twentieth century American novel.

John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces. This is just so funny. I’ve read it several times, and there are still places where it has me in hopeless fits of laughter. As it’s not long since I last read it, I’ll just point you here.

More books to get you through a lockdown…

April 14, 2020

Women get a look-in on this particular list of novels originally written in English; only three out of ten, but it’s a start.

Jane Austen: Mansfield Park. People discuss, argue even, over which is the best of Jane Austen’s novels. For me it comes down to one of the two on this list: ask me tomorrow, and the other of the two will be the best. Mansfield Park is the most complex of her novels, and one that for me is full of politics and ideas, and shows a depth to Austen that’s harder to find in her other works, as she subtly reflects on some of the enormous changes taking place in English society at the time she was writing, with the country in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, early industrialisation and enclosures of the common land to name but a few. Her heroine is not someone to easily warm to, the hero’s choice to follow the vocation of the church is hardly thrilling, and the Crawfords, though attractive, are Satanic tempters… Or, if you want something simpler, there’s Persuasion, which is about the survival of love in adversity and how the hero and heroine finally do get what they deserve. The final section is as tense, powerful and nerve-wracking as it’s possible for Austen to be.

Charlotte Bronte: Villette. I like Jane Eyre, but have always found Villette more gripping and compelling, partly because of the complex relationship between hero and heroine, and partly because of the exotic setting. Writing that last sentence I’m struck with how it is just as true of Jane Eyre. Evidently I prefer how Bronte works it all out in Villette! And the ending of Villette is just marvellous, perhaps the first ‘open’ ending in the English novel, certainly very daring, and for me incredibly moving…

Joseph Conrad: Nostromo. Conrad has always called to me because of his Polish ancestry; he has always astonished me by his literary production in what was actually his third language. I like the complexity of the narrative structure of Nostromo, and the way the author manipulates his reader; the setting of this novel also reminds me of Marquez’ masterpiece I wrote about a couple of days ago, One Hundred Years of Solitude. There’s also a subtle psychological depth to Conrad’s characters which fascinates me, and we are thinking about a writer who was active at the time that psychology and psychoanalysis were coming into the mainstream of people’s lives.

Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited. I realise I’m back with the ‘vanished past’ novels that I was listing in my earlier posts, and an English take on the idea this time. It’s quite easy to forget Waugh’s framing of the main story while one wallows in the luxury and decadence of the earlier years, and perhaps you need the experience of being or having once been a Catholic for the utter sadness of the central relationship to have its full effect on you. For me, not necessarily a great novel, but a small and perfectly formed gem, and one wonderfully brought to television many years ago now.

Lawrence Sterne: Tristram Shandy. I’ve read a goodly number of experimental and just plain weird novels in my time – search for posts on Ben Marcus in this blog if you like – but this takes the biscuit, written by an English country clergyman two and a half centuries ago. You can still visit his church and home if you are in my part of the world. It’s the world’s longest shaggy dog story, wandering all over the place and getting nowhere, as well as exposing, in one of the earliest of novels, the limitations of any pretence to realism in that form.

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones. It’s rambling, it’s fun, it’s vulgar, and the boy and the girl get each other in the end. That sounds really trite, and you really have to look at it from the perspective of it’s being one of the very first novels in English. And Fielding’s dialogue with his readers is superb.

James Joyce: Ulysses. This one has to be in here. Sorry if you’ve tried and failed, but it really is worth it finally to get through the whole novel. The stream of consciousness is a fascinating idea: you can do it with yourself if you concentrate hard enough, but to have a writer take you inside the mind and subconscious of another person is a different experience. And then there’s the cleverness, the mapping of Bloomsday onto Dublin, onto 24 hours, onto Homer’s epic poem. I know it’s not for everyone. I’ll confess: having read Ulysses, I thought I’d be brave and attempt Finnegans Wake. Fail.

Sebastian Faulks: Birdsong. I taught this a few times, and it took a good while for its cleverness fully to sink in: so many of the poems of the Great War, and so many events and places, and also writers who took part, are so carefully and subtly woven in to this amazing novel, and when I do finally go back to it, I’m sure I will spot some more. And then there’s the clever framing of the story, and the subplot as the grand-daughter rediscovers the past. It’s not flawless, but as a way of linking current generations into a traumatic past, I think it surpasses anything else I know of.

Philip Pullman: Northern Lights Trilogy. Highly-rated and very popular, but still underrated, in my opinion. I think it is an absolute masterpiece on many counts. Pullman’s imagining of the alternate and parallel universes, the wealth of detail – which was lost in the recent TV series – creating Lyra’s Oxford, the huge cast of characters and more fantastical creatures, many brought to life in great detail, unlike the wooden or cardboard characters that people a lot of fantasy. And then, the philosophical ideas that Pullman draws in, as well as the many parallels with Milton’s epic Paradise Lost… I’m blown away each time I come back to it. I’ve listened to Pullman himself narrating the entire work a couple of times, read the novels several times, seen the poor film The Golden Compass, and watched the amazing recent TV series – I can’t get enough.

There’s a couple of lockdowns’ worth of suggestions there; to be continued…

Do you really need another reading list? (part two)

April 13, 2020

Some thoughts on the rest of this particular list of novels by world writers:

Jaroslav Hasek: The Good Soldier Svejk. Heaven knows how many times I’ve read this and parts of it still reduce me to utterly helpless laughter. The Great War as experienced by a congenital idiot who can get himself into more scrapes than anyone can imagine, with superb original illustrations as an added bonus.

Vassily Grossman: Life & Fate. A serious story of the Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia, and rated a twentieth century equivalent to Tolstoy’s War and Peace by many, including me. Last year the equally powerful prequel, Stalingrad, was finally published in its entirety, some sixty years after it was first written. It’s very strong stuff, and a salutary reminder of just how much the Soviet Union suffered in that war, and its massive contribution to the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

Josef Roth: The Radetzky March. So moving that it hurts, in places, this is another portrait of a completely vanished world, the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it drifts inevitably and disastrously towards the First World War. I recently re-read it so will just point you here if you’re interested.

Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life. Some days, this understated and little known German novel is the best I’ve ever read. A naval captain, appalled by his experience of the Great War, gives up on society and the world and retires to the forests of East Prussia with a loyal follower, to lead a simple life. He discovers a new existence, with meaning and significance, finds happiness and/or contentment, and of course, sadly, this cannot last. Escapist? Possibly. Hippy-ish? Again, perhaps. But the lessons the captain learns are real and there for all of us to contemplate.

Amin Maalouf: Samarkand. This one feels like it’s on the list as a token gesture to literature from the Arab world, which I have explored much more since I originally put my list together. There’s the exoticism of the setting, the romance of a completely different culture, and the background is the famous poet Omar Khayyam and his poem, the Rubaiyat. But I think if you are only going to read one of Maalouf’s many novels, you should probably go for Leo the African, or Baldassare’s Travels. They are all magical, and at times remind me of Umberto Eco at his best. I’ve come relatively late to novels from this part of the world and there’s lots to explore.

Question: what is it about vanished worlds, and powerful evocations of them, that grips me so? For as I write this and reflect on what I’ve told you about a good number of the novels above, it’s clear to me that this is a common strand, and something that draws me and affects me greatly…

Another question: why are all my novels in this category – writers in languages other than English – all by male writers? I currently have no answer to this one, but it requires some thought on my part…

To be continued…

Do you really need another reading list?

April 12, 2020

One or two bloggers whom I follow have posted lists of books they recommend during the current lockdown. I haven’t done this, but felt moved to revisit one of my ‘pages’ (as opposed to ‘posts’) where I listed my favourites way back in 2013, to see if I still agreed with what I said way back then. Here we have my listing of world fiction, which is of writers who hadn’t originally written in English:

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read this, and it still blows me away every time. The magical rise and fall and eventual disappearance of the city of Macondo and the Buendia family sweeps you along, and the final section is, for me, a tour-de-force almost on the level of the ending of Joyce’s Ulysses. However, Marquez’ other great novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, has grown on me and crept up to become an equal, as I’ve found myself in my later years reflecting on what exactly I understand by love, and what it means/has meant to me.

Günter Grass: The Tin Drum. I was fifteen when I first visited Gdansk, then behind the Iron Curtain, and as we went on a boat trip out to Westerplatte, where the Polish forces heroically held out for days against the Nazis in September 1939, I noticed graffiti, which my father translated for me: “We have not forgotten, and we will not forgive.” I was pretty shocked. Gradually I learned about what the Second World War had done to Eastern Europe, and I understood a little more; a couple of years later I came across this novel, which is another I have regularly re-read. It recreates a loved and totally vanished world. Some ten years ago a relative took me around some of the sights and places Grass writes about: it’s now a much-followed tourist-trail. Grass opened my eyes to what many Germans have tried to do by way of understanding and trying to come to terms with what they or their forbears did in those awful years.

Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose. This one is often top of my list, Eco’s absolute best, filmed well and also a reasonable TV series. I think it’s what Eco does with time that moves me most, with the aged Adso looking back after so many years to his days with William of Baskerville, unravelling the mysteries and murders at the abbey, a forerunner of our beloved Sherlock Holmes. We are connected both to eternity and to our own mortality through Adso’s reflectiveness, and the beautifully created mediaeval setting.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime & Punishment. Russian novels can be a slog, more of a duty than a pleasure, although they are usually worth it, and this one certainly is. The murder is quickly done, and it’s the aftermath that grips you: the man who thought he was so strong he could kill and not be affected by the deed, and how his conscience and the police investigator reduce him to an ordinary human who must suffer, repay his debt to society and redeem himself. And he does.

Giovanni di Lampedusa: The Leopard. Here’s another novel that lyrically recreates and recalls a vanished past, this time of Italy before its unification in the late nineteenth century. It must be coming up to time for a re-read because I remember very little other than the powerful impression it has on me; I had a copy of Visconti’s film for years, intending to watch it and not got round to it yet.

To be continued…

The phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes

April 5, 2020

Having been under the weather recently (nothing sinister!) I returned, as I frequently do in such circumstances, to Sherlock Holmes, but this time not to the stories themselves, but to the small collection of books about Holmes that I’ve acquired over the years, and they got me thinking. Is Holmes the only invented, fictional character who has gradually, over the years, built up such a ‘real’ existence? By real existence, I’m referring to the fact that people actually write to him with their problems, asking for help, despite the fact that, even fictionally, he ‘died’ a century ago. And that tourist seek out the mythical 221b Baker Street address, which apparently never existed. Enormous amounts of ‘research’ has been done, attempting to establish when and where each of the cases took place, to iron out supposed discrepancies which are due to Conan Doyle’s carelessness, and so on… even the belief in Santa Claus doesn’t go quite this far! And I have to confess to having been marked for life when at the age of seven I first heard Carleton Hobbs as Holmes on the BBC Home Service, and bought my first collection of stories with a Christmas book token (remember those?).

There are a lot of cracking good yarns in the canon of four novels and fifty-six short stories, and Conan Doyle was careful to weave the cases into the Victorian and Edwardian England setting; novelists have been attempting to convince us of the veracity of their fictions ever since Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I wrote about quite recently.

E J Wagner’s The Science of Sherlock Holmes is a very interesting and quite detailed account of the history and development of forensic science and medicine in the nineteenth century, closely linked to the stories; there are fascinating chapters on insects, decay of corpses, poisons, fingerprints and disguise, among other topics, and it’s certainly a useful book to have along side the complete works.

71YSYrG8pbL._AC_UY218_ML3_    Probably the most useful of books is Christopher Redmond’s Sherlock Holmes Handbook: its very name implies utility. There are brief summaries of all the novels and stories, with links and connections between them, and some analysis, all very helpful reference if, like me, no matter how often you’ve read the stories, small details elude you. There’s an extremely helpful collation of all the ‘biographical’ details about Holmes and Watson which are dotted throughout the canon. There’s also a biography of Conan Doyle if you need one, and a useful chapter on the publishing history.

Most useful are the excellent sections on Victorian context and background, again collating all sorts of useful stuff from throughout the canon, as well as material on crime and punishment and the legal system in England in the nineteenth century. Likewise, the analysis of the history of the detective story genre, its conventions and structure are very good. It’s an American production, so there is the occasional solecism about a detail of life in England, but I’ll excuse those. One thing I took away from re-reading this book was the possibly even greater popularity of the stories in the USA, given the nature of the links and connections between the two nations when the stories were first published.

Somewhere I acquired a copy of Michael Hardwick’s The Complete Guide to Sherlock Holmes. It’s a curious book: he provides a ‘summary’ of all the stories, with often very lengthy extracts, interspersed with commentary and biographical details about Conan Doyle. He is deliberately careful not to give away story endings… this struck me as weird, given that presumably only an enthusiast would want this book, and they would have read the stories anyway… The biographical information about Conn Doyle was interesting, but it’s not an essential book by any means.

A Sherlock Holmes Compendium, edited by Peter Haining, is another curiosity, definitely not essential to my library. The most interesting thing in it is an often referred-to essay by Ronald Knox on the stories, where he light-heartedly analyses and mocks all sorts of discrepancies between the stories and theories about them.

The Sherlock Holmes Handbook, by Ransom Riggs, is a lightweight and superficial book that looks nice. It purports to offer explanations of various of Holmes’ detective skills but is vague and random (!) with material not always linked to Holmes or particular tales. It’s also stylistically annoying, full of American contractions and solecisms. Can be avoided.

81om2J72RtL._AC_UY218_ML3_    The final book on my list was compiled by Alex Werner for the Museum of London: Sherlock Holmes – The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die. It’s really good and detailed and sumptuously illustrated, too. The complexities of Conan Doyle and his creation are both explored: London is portrayed in detail, both the place and how people lived, with many links to real people from the Holmes era. There’s a wonderful selection of photos from those times, too, as well as illustrations from artists who painted the city. I learned that Conan Doyle was never a Londoner, and that a third of the stories are not set there but in the outer suburbs, so that the picture of London is actually quite an idiosyncratic one.

It’s an excellent contextual companion to the stories, a very full, detailed and atmospheric portrait of a place and an era supported by an impressive amount of research. It’s an early 21st-century vision of Holmes, Conan Doyle and Victorian/Edwardian London, which demonstrates that each generation re-views, re-writes and re-creates the past in a slightly different guise, for its own particular purposes.

81nn3WfQ72L._AC_UY218_ML3_    I have two editions of the canon, both of which I would recommend to any serious enthusiast: now only available second hand are the two volumes published by John Murray many years ago, the Complete Long Stories and Complete Short Stories. They are nice hardbacks, and manageable. The other is the sumptuous and weighty Norton edition on some fifteen years ago in three volumes, edited by Leslie S Klinger, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which, as the title suggests, supports the canon with all the extra information and detail a person might want while they are reading, and like all good quality American books, they are beautifully produced. I cannot end this lengthy post without also recommending very highly indeed the audio recordings on the Naxos label of the entire canon by David Timpson: they are superb for listening to in the car.

Joseph Roth: The Radetzky March

March 29, 2020

81GdGXjSUiL._AC_UY218_ML3_    A man’s life is changed irrevocably by a single action of a split second: he saves the Emperor’s life in battle and is ennobled as a reward; forever he is separated from his humble peasant past and takes on a new existence. He is raised far above where he naturally belongs, and his strong sense of honour and of what is right and wrong leads him to object to the adulation of his deed in a children’s story-book and to quit the army. He half-reverts to his lower origins, but what probably shocks most is the harsh and loveless upbringing of his son…

There is a delicious, sensuous sense of timelessness to Roth’s novel, set in the mid-nineteenth century in the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which co-exists with a painful sense of the inevitable passage of time, ageing and the feeling of loss as the generations pass by. And always lurking in the background is the inevitability of the approaching storm.

The vacuousness, the tedium of military life in the closing years of the century shocks: the men are nonentities – drinkers, gamblers, whoremongers – living in the past, fortunate to be enjoying that century of peace between the Congress of Vienna and Sarajevo, yet Roth manages to create in the reader a sense of nostalgia, affection even, for this empire which was to destroy itself so utterly in a few years’ time.

There is an outline of a story, through the three generations of the von Trotta family, military hero, civil administrator son and wastrel military grandson, living off their name and past glory of one deed. There are a number of powerful tableaux dotted through the novel, where the focus narrows and slows: a riveting chapter narrates an idiotic and utterly pointless duel in powerful slow-motion, with the Great War hovering in the background, and another recounts the lingering death of a faithful family servant. Then there is the introduction of the Polish count, Chojnicki, his estate on the very boundary of the empire with that of the Tsar, and his shockingly clear understanding that everything is about to fall apart… and finally a touching and pathetic portrait of the dotard, senile emperor himself, utterly unable to grasp what is happening and surrounded by men who cannot do anything about it.

Roth’s astonishingly powerful and moving picture of a world on the edge, losing control and going mad, reminded me very strongly of our world now, in a way it hadn’t on previous readings (there have been several). We get the sense that times were much more fixed and secure in the past when everyone knew their place, and at the same time the feeling that change, revolution – of several kinds – is inevitable: huge upheaval is coming, disconcerting the older generations and strangely welcomed by the younger.

The third generation of the family ends up returning full circle: is Roth suggesting a man cannot be taken away from where he really belongs? And the novel inevitably ends with the outbreak of war in 1914. Roth doesn’t need to go any further.

Whenever I’ve read this novel, it’s moved me greatly, and obviously this is why I’ve come back to it again. And I’ve re-evaluated; it is a much greater book than I remember it and much more powerful, certainly Roth’s greatest, and one to follow with The Emperor’s Tomb if you have the time or the inclination. But you really should read it.

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