Wednesday, 22 July 2009

"A Hero Of Our Time" by Mikhail Lermontov

I made the mistake of taking this book with me to read over lunch at my local cafe in Belsize Park. "Mistake", since my Russian waitress hissed, pointed at the book cover, and flew into a screaming fit, asking me why I was "reading books by bad people". Trying to carry the situation off as best I could, I asked if she had read any of Lermontov's poetry. Shuddering silently, she crossed herself and retired into the back room.

After such an unsolicited testimonial, the book itself proved rather disappointing in terms of its capacity for evil. It is certainly no more "amoral" (the allegation commonly levelled at it) than Boccacio, Rabelais, or (more to the point) most of Lermontov's nineteenth century contemporaries. It seems strange to believe that he was literally hounded to death, on the orders of Tsar Nicholas I, for having written it.

It has long been described as one of the great Russian novels, earning Lermontov comparison with Pushkin, whose The Captain's Daughter he greatly admired and tried to copy, but without success, his Vadim remaining unfinished at his death. Like Pushkin, he uses informal language, particularly in his dialogue, and creates rich, memorable characters in this novel, which is essentially a set of tales told by various protagonists, including not just the author/narrator but also at least two others. Apart from Pushkin, however, I was also struck by similarities with Tolstoy, but also with two French writers, Dumas and Proust.

Another feature of the book is that the various tales are not told in chronological order, something which is naturally confusing at first, but which does lead to a feeling of successive layers of meaning being made available to us. I wonder if Lawrence Durrell had read this book, or at least heard of it, before he wrote The Alexandria Quartet?

A Hero Of Our Time had long been on my list of books that I felt I really should read before I die, and One World Classics are to be heartily congratulated on bringing it back into print. If only there were a few more publishers around who put a book's literary merits ahead of its perceived commercial potential. I have another of their recent offerings to review as well, so watch this space.

Talking of death and matters metaphysical, the Russian waitress took me to one side as I paid my bill. Earnestly, she told me that she spoke to Jesus every day, that he was coming soon, and that I should be ready for him when he did. Somewhat shaken by this news, I stopped on the way home to buy an extra pint of milk. I hope he likes Earl Grey.

My School Bookclub

I promised that I would mention My School Bookclub, which can be found here. This is a commercial venture, but seems a very worthwhile one.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

"Randall and the River of Time" by C.S. Forester

C.S. Forester was the pen name of an English writer, whose real name was the more prosaic Smith. Born in Cairo in 1899, he was educated in England, including an unfinished training as a doctor at Guy's Hospital. He spent the latter part of his life in America, dieing there in 1966.

Forester is of course best known for his series of Hornblower novels, which are rivalled only by the Aubrey / Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brien. Like O'Brien, and perhaps Derek Robinson, he has been consistently under-estimated as a novelist because he chose to set his novels in war-time - though two of his Hornblower books won the James Tait Black prize, and Robinson was short-listed for the Booker.

In Forester's case this is particularly unfortunate since the Hornblower books were only part of his output. He wrote at least 18 other novels, as well as 13 history books (one of which was filmed as Hunt the Bismarck), plays, short stories and children's books. Of the remaining novels the best known are perhaps The African Queen and The Gun, which were both made into films, the latter under the title The Power and the Glory. The former, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, deservedly won Bogart an Oscar, though undeservedly his only one. The latter, starring Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren, and featuring a story-line butchered by Hollywood script writers, deservedly won nothing at all. In fact, it was chiefly notable for an offscreen romance between Loren and Grant, which led to a proposal of marriage from Grant and a rejection from Loren, who married Carlo Ponti a few months later.

Randall and the River of Time is from quite late in Forester's life (1950). The story is simply told. A young officer is the object of an attempted seduction by a brother officer's wife while on leave in England. Later, after the death in battle of her husband, she traps him into marriage and proceeds in due course to cuckold him and steal all his money. The climax is a set-piece courtroom drama, the outcome of which I am certainly not going to divulge. Like all of his books it is notable for his degree of characterisation, an art of which he was perhaps one of the greatest masters amongst modern novelists. Though the story is told through the eyes of the eponymous hero, Forester also makes plentiful use of dramatic irony by showing us things which Randall does not understand but we do. We know, for example, though it is never stated, that his mother disapproves of his wife and sees straight through her. We know too that the wife herself understands this. Yet Randall remains cheerfully oblivious until the facts become shockingly obvious. As for Randall himself, Forester makes us feel that we are truly inside him, sharing all the shyness, bravado and innocence that even several spells in the trenches have not been able to dispel.

Shamefully, Randall and the River of Time seems last to have been published over twenty years ago and is now available only in second hand book shops (I found mine in one such in Tenby), but second hand copies are available on the internet and could presumably also be ordered from your local library. Many others of his books have suffered a similar fate. Given the quality of his writing, which in my view places him the front line of twentieth century novelists, this seems ridiculous. However, he is in good company, a company which includes various Booker prize winners. Once upon a time publishers issued what they believed to be quality literature, rather than recipe and diet books ghosted by so-called celebrities.

Please read not just this book but anything else you can lay your hands on by Forester. I promise that you will not be disappointed.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

"The Harrowing" by Robert Dinsdale

Apologies to Faber & Faber for taking a few weeks to get around to this post. I did actually read The Harrowing when it arrived, but got distracted by other things before I could write a review (like re-reading Aspects of the Novel, which I seem to have to do at least once a year - I cheated last year and re-read Two Cheers for Democracy again).

The Harrowing is a well written novel set during the First World War. It is difficult to say too much about the story without giving away the ending, but it concerns two brothers, both of whom end up in the trenches. The main part of the book deals very well with the battlefield background, and there are deliberately different passages at the beginning and the end. The final pages are particularly clever as they work on more than one level and for a moment one is not sure whether what is being read is intended literally, or as some sort of allegory or spiritual passage.

Dinsdale is a fine writer, there is no doubt about that. His work is much better than a lot of what I have been forced to read in the past while judging novel competitions, and is well worthy of receiving an award itself. The characters are strongly drawn, with echoes of Billy Prior in Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy. The prose is rugged, with good, vivid descriptive powers.

I recommend this book. It is a great read, but something more besides.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Shameless self-promotion

A new review of Major Benjy may be found here.