21 October 2014

A Man Out of Time

Doctor Mirabilis
by James Blish

This review is prompted by my second reading of Doctor Mirabilis, which I first read when I was far too young to appreciate it or even understand it properly. Besides, I was expecting it to be science fiction (because it’s by James Blish) and was frightfully disappointed to find that it wasn’t.

This time, I could read it and appreciate it for what it is: an extremely well-written historical novel that transcends the genre in much the same way as the Thomas Cromwell books of Hilary Mantel. Blish’s work is not very like Mantel’s, but it has the same intellectual depth and gritty fidelity to the period being described. I re-read it with delight, finding it a far, far better book than I remembered it to be.

Doctor Mirabilis is easily synopsized. It is a fictionalized life of Roger Bacon, the great mediaeval scholar-monk and proto-scientist who was a contemporary of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, but whose interests and concerns were centuries ahead of theirs. Bacon’s life wasn’t very eventful: born to a landed family at Ilchester in Somerset, England, he became a student at Oxford. This was during the reign of Henry III, when England was racked by civil strife; while Roger was at Oxford, the Bacon family property was seized and his relatives driven into exile. Abruptly impoverished, he became a lecturer at Oxford and later at the University of Paris. He spent some time in Rome and later returned to Oxford. Late in life he was imprisoned for some years, but was released and died a free man. Blish has him locked up for supporting a movement for reform within the Franciscan Order, to which he belonged, but history is not actually very clear on this point.

In the novel, this plain tale is spiced with scenes of political manoeuvring involving Henry III, his advisors and his barons, in which Roger is briefly caught up through his protectors and sponsors Adam Marsh (de Marisco), Robert Grosseteste and Simon de Montfort. There is also a sideshow love story between Marsh and de Montfort’s wife, the king’s sister Eleanor. These sections are interesting in their own right but bear only peripheral relevance to the life of Roger Bacon.

It doesn’t sound like much of a story, but Blish makes it fascinating. He presents a resounding case for Bacon as a pioneer of science and pens a portrait of a difficult, combative, socially maladept but brilliant man who was sometimes his own worst enemy.

A word needs to be said about style. Blish does not commit the sin of gratuitous archaization (though he does indulge in some Middle English syntax at appropriate moments), but his style in this novel is fetchingly ornate. There are moments when it achieves real beauty, as for example in this passage:

Elsewhere the street was in its more usual state of evening irreverence. Overhead in one of the hostels, a poor thing which could have held no more than ten fellows and a master as poor as they, the dice were already rattling, for there were three baskets of waffles or rissoles hanging out the window, and some lucky socium had also thrown himself a sausage: there it dangled, with two cats hopelessly a-siege of it in the street, their spines stretched like mandolins, their fretted noses bumping speculatively against the empty burdened air. Roger’s belly twinged in sympathy, and he bought from the next p√Ętisser he saw in the street an eel pie which filled all the rest of his walk with a marvellous vapour of garlic and pepper...

However, be warned: there’s a lot of Latin in this book, even one or two whole paragraphs of the stuff. Translations are rarely provided.

22 September 2014


Dead Water
by Simon Ings

A brainy thriller with literary standards of style and characterization, action-packed and fascinating. Set in about a dozen countries, its plot spans almost a century. Though ambitious and largely successful in artistic terms, I'm not sure how it has done commercially; I think it deserves to be a bestseller. Many of the settings and a large number of characters are Indian, and they are dealt with convincingly and respectfully — no curry-house comedy cut-outs here. A heavy salting of science and technology betrays the author’s roots in science writing and science fiction. There is no need to be a technophile to enjoy this book, but it certainly adds something if you are.

The plot of Dead Water is complicated. It deals mainly with piracy and other forms of skulduggery in the world of shipping, though an important strand of the novel concerns gangsterism and slavery in modern India. The cast of characters is large, but the body count is high and not many make it to the end of the novel. The good guys don’t necessarily win.

Interestingly, the novel is plotted round several famous historical disasters: the failed Italian polar expedition of 1928, the Firozabad rail disaster of 1995 and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Another pivot-point of the plot is the deposition of the Sultan of Oman and his replacement by his son (the present Sultan, Qaboos) in a coup devised and largely carried out by the British in 1970.

One of the things I liked best about the book was how well-researched it seems to be; there’s heaps of highly convincing incidental (and not-so-incidental) detail. However, a few of the details that I could check myself were wrong. The ship aboard which the climactic action takes place is supposed to be sailing south, with Sri Lanka to port and Tamil Nadu to starboard. This is impossible, because the Palk Strait, between the two countries, is far too shallow for shipping in that area, and even if it were possible the ship would have to be sailing southwest, not south, to obtain that view. Also, the Sri Lankan town of Trincomalee is not visible from (or anywhere near) that point, but we are told the ship’s captain sees the sun set over Trincomalee — impossible. Finally, the author misuses the name Tamil Eelam, applying it to the Tamil Tigers, when in reality it is the name of the state that organization hoped — and failed — to carve out of Sri Lanka.

These are trivial details, inessential to the plot, and did not detract much from my enjoyment; however, it did make me wonder how much other detail in this information-packed novel was equally erroneous.

I have another complaint. There is an active (and entirely unnecessary) supernatural element in the book. It is not offensively superstitious, but it does add a kind of sub-David Mitchell quality to what would have been a much better novel if it had stayed put in the material world it describes and deals with so well.

These minor reservations aside, I heartily recommend this to lovers of complex, well-plotted thrillers, fans of multiculturalism, people who are fascinated by science, technology and the elaborate networks of trade and communications with which our world is webbed. Lovers of science fiction will see much in the structure and presentation of this novel to remind them of their favourite genre.

09 August 2014

Empire Bust

The Man Who Saved Britain
by Simon Winder

A fanatical, mean-spirited little book, intermittently amusing, in which the author proposes on purely circumstantial evidence that the popularity of the James Bond books and films is due to the consolation they provided to (mostly conservative) Britons traumatised by the loss of the British Empire and their country’s economic collapse after the Second World War.

In support of this absurd thesis, Simon Winder rewrites some recent British and world history, dismisses the rest of it as a catalogue of grotesque savagery and unremitting exploitation of conquered peoples, and wildly overuses the adjective ‘mad’ and its synonyms (a favourite is ‘zany’) when describing anyone or anything conservative, traditional or upper-class. He is also fond of using the word ‘cynical’ in those connexions. Yet nothing could be madder or more cynical than Mr. Winder’s own take on history and his loony-Left political judgements. I am no Tory, and neither am I British, but I can diagnose a case of envy when I see one.

This is history and social commentary written by a movie nerd who should, frankly, have stuck to film reviews. By the way, he doesn't think much of the Bond books or films either, except for From Russia with Love and the movie version of Goldfinger.

19 June 2014

A Thousand Years Ago, Today

by Tom Holland

This is an action-packed overview of an era when the Dark Ages were just becoming the Middle Ages. The author does a heroic job of helping the reader distinguish between the various mailed thugs – Frankish, Saxon, Norse (or Norman) and English – whose unedifying deeds form the basis of the action. Even so, the parade of Ottos, Henrys, Godfreys and the rest tends to blur into an undifferentiated mass as you keep reading. The same goes for the various revolting characters who passed through the turnstile of the papacy at this time, until we come at last to Gregory VII and Urban II, who were, in the terminology of 1066 and All That, genuinely ‘memorable’ (if not very likeable).

The events which form the matter of Holland’s narrative are appalling. The notables of the time nearly all came to power through murder and bloodshed. If they inherited their positions, they were obliged to defend them with their lives. Betrayal was a constant in politics, brutality was the very stuff of daily life, women and the poor were fearfully exploited, and might was indubitably right. The life of a Norman noble, Holland tells us, was one of constant, deliberately courted danger and violence – hunting, fighting, war. It was a kind of artificial selection, a culture designed to weed out all but the strongest, the most capable and the most brutal.

Meanwhile, though, Christianity with its message of peace and humility was also growing in strength, spreading into parts of Europe from which it had long been gone (Spain) or had never been before (Sweden), and commanding such implicit and universal belief that the thuggish nobles who performed these dark deeds were often hysterically guilty about them, constantly seeking absolution from the Church and subjecting themselves to absurd penances. It probably made them worse in the long run.

Aside from the case Holland makes for the sociopolitical effects of millenarianism at the time, I found the book somewhat short on thematic coherence and argument. There is a narrative here about how church and state came to be separate in Europe — the book begins with a ‘preface’ describing the famous confrontation between Henry IV and Gregory VII at Canossa — but Holland doesn’t really pursue the argument as far as he might. There is also a narrative about the effect of Christianity on politics in the Age of Faith, but this, as you might expect, is somewhat incoherent. It doesn’t spoil the blood and thunder, though.

One insight presented in the book stunned me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have. Like most people today, I've tended to look upon castles as fortified enclosures built for defensive purposes, now outmoded and rather romantic in their associations, their evocation of knightly tournaments and fair damsels and acts of chivalrous derring-do. Holland explains that in fact, the first castles were not defensive but offensive structures — the means whereby local and regional strongmen (or lords, if you prefer) could garrison the lands they seized with hired thugs (or knights, if you prefer), denying the use of the fields and forests to the common people and enabling the imposition of vampiric taxes and expropriations. The lowering wooden palisade (later stone-walled) on the hill was, for mediaeval men and woman, the locus of terror and evil.

Castles, in short, were among the earliest instruments of the process of dispossession and enclosure that, over long centuries, concentrated more and more of Europe’s resources in the hands of fewer and fewer people, until it was halted (temporarily) by the French Revolution eight hundred years later.

05 June 2014

A Cheap, Nasty Cash-In

by Christopher Sandford

I like a good rock bio — Robert Shelton on Dylan, Jimmy McDonough on Neil Young, Keith Richards on himself. I even like a good bad rock bio, like Anthony Scaduto’s poison-pen-portrait of Mick Jagger, or Albert Goldman’s minutely detailed dissection of Elvis.

But this is the pits.

Christopher Sandford appears to have researched his subject simply by reading a lot of newspaper articles and watching a lot of television. Everything he gives us is at least secondhand, more often third-hand. He evidently knows and cares nothing for music: we learn nada about McCartney's working technique in the studio, his amazing multi-intstrumental abilities or his songwriting (except that he knocks them off in minutes and sometimes dreams them, which we knew already) and barely scratches the surface of what we want to know. Barring onstage performances, which Sanderson obviously watched after the fact on video — and which anyone else could watch just as easily — there are no descriptions of McCartney or the Beatles at work whatsoever.

Music apart, Sanderson doesn’t know much about anything else, either. He seems to think Peruvian flake is a kind of cannabis. Many biographical details about McCartney and his associates, including the other three Beatles, are not given precisely as one remembers them, yet no explanation is offered for the discrepancies. The women in Paul’s life remain mysterious. Jane Asher is a cipher; the remarkable mutual affection and interdependence between Linda Eastman and her second husband are described but no attempt is ever made to explain it; Heather Mills is portrayed straightforwardly as a brassy, gold-digging slut — but even here, we are given no idea how a canny operator (and legendary womanizer) like Paul ever came to have fallen for such an essentially unattractive creature.

Early in the book, Sanderson relates a story about McCartney musing over the reams of analysis to which his friend John Lennon has been subjected, and how people all seemed to think they knew John. ‘But they don't know me, do they?’ concludes McCartney. This story is so placed in the book as to present the reader with the implication that, by the time they have finished reading, they will know McCartney. Well, they won’t.

They will, however, have been given the impression — entirely erroneous — that John Lennon was a bit of an also-ran in the Beatles, whose true creative and professional engine was Paul McCartney. This, of course, is preposterous — and pointless. It would not have detracted one iota from Paul’s own towering achievements to have acknowledged the equivalent genius (and undeniable cultural primacy) of his erstwhile creative partner. Though perhaps, considering how Sanderson trivializes the artistic genius of his hero, it is probably just as well.

Still, I must say I did learn at least one interesting fact I didn't know before: Linda’s family wasn't always named Eastman; they took that name after migrating to the United States two generations previously. The original family name was... Epstein.

11 May 2014

Laughing and Biting Your Nails

Lionel Asbo
by Martin Amis

Martin Amis’s has been my favourite auctorial voice ever since I discovered it in my late teens. That was a very long time ago, and although I have read many great writers since then, his style has, for me, a unique appeal. In fact, I’ve had the devil’s own job to keep from unconsciously aping it in my own writing.

Lionel Asbo is sui generis, a kind of Dead Babies for the Noughties, but much better. Its eponymous central character (no hero, he) is a kind of super-chav, in his early twenties at the beginning of the book, whose motto is Never Learn. He is an unsuccessful receiver of stolen goods and a debt-collector of the intimidatory kind, constantly in and out of prison, a place he likes to be because ‘in prison you know where you are.’ He prefers porn to real women, gives his pitbulls Tabasco-sauce-drenched steaks and Special Brew hangovers to make them even more ferocious, and enjoys beating the living shit out of people. He has a nephew, Desmond Pepperdine, who, unbeknownst to him, is having sex with his — Lionel's — mother Grace. Yes, that’s right: Desmond is having sex with his own grandmother (and writing to an agony aunt for advice about it).

In spite of this little peccadillo, Desmond is the actual hero of Lionel Asbo, a lad of mixed race and no prospects who is nevertheless trying to make the best of the terrible cards Fate has dealt him. He manages to get a place at university, earns his degree, falls in love with a girl of similar background and outlook, gets married and gets a job as a journalist, has a baby. None of this meets with the approval of Lionel, who has been taking care of Desmond (his method being a mixture of affectionate bullying and benign neglect) ever since his mother, Lionel’s sister Cilla, died, and who is disappointed at such genteel aspirations in a nephew.

Grace, incidentally, is thirty-nine years old, more or less wrecked and not long for this world. These people all live in a hideous tower-block town called Diston, which is a blighted vertical slum where girls get pregnant at age twelve and people rarely live to see their fiftieth year.

One day, while in jail, Lionel discovers that he has won a huge sum of money in a lottery. Over the next few years, he becomes a media celebrity, Lionel the Lotto Lout, living out the life of his proletarian, scopeless fantasies. Meanwhile, Desmond is making his way in the world with considerable struggle, terrified all the while that Lionel will find out about his fling with Grace and have his pitbulls tear him limb from limb.

Desmond survives to the end of the book, but not without all sorts of other horrifically, hysterically funny things happening: some to him, some to other people, but most to Lionel. Like certain other works in the oeuvre of Martin Amis, such as Money and Dead Babies, this is a book your read while simultaneously gasping with shock and howling with laughter. The ending is masterly — Amis generates almost unbearable tension out of the most mundane elements, an absolutely bravura performance. Literary novelists are often unreliable plotters, but the plot of Lionel Asbo is as brilliantly executed as the set-pieces. After a series of recent disappointments, this is the vintage Mart, uncorked yet again. Have a drink with me.

A Man in Full

Wolf Hall
By Hilary Mantel

At the front of Wolf Hall is a list of characters. There are fifty of them. By the time I’d finished the book, every one, even the most minor, had a distinct face and personality. Although the action is narrated exclusively from the principal character’s point of view and we are always privy to his thoughts, we are nonetheless enabled to form our own opinions of all the characters. These may not always agree with Cromwell's view of them — or even, perhaps, the author’s. 

That is literary mastery of a very high order.

Of course, the principal characters in this story are well known to us. Biographies and contemporary portraits of 
Henry VIII of England, Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Katherine of Aragorn, Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More all exist and are familiar to many people, particularly in the UK, from their history schoolbooks. But the virtue of Mantel’s writing is that she disposes of our preconceptions regarding these famous actors on history’s stage and turns them into real, complex, conflicted people.

The story rattles along at breakneck speed. Though it is all history (there are times when Mantel even tells you what letters Cromwell wrote, and to whom, on a particular night, and you can bet your life those letters really were written, and still exist somewhere), she manages to create tension, suspense and instants of surprise and revelation despite the reader’s foreknowledge of the course of events (though it is probably not advisable to look up the history of the period in too much detail while reading the book).

Period and place are brought to life in loving, often gritty detail. As for the historical and political context, I don't think any author could have managed it better. Frankly, I don't see how I can praise this book highly enough.

Flying in His Underpants

Biggles Fails to Return
By Capt. W.E. Johns

It is 1942, and Biggles has vanished on a secret mission in Monaco. Algy, Ginger and Bertie set off to look for him, but without the boss to keep them in line they soon go off the rails, strumming guitars, swilling wine and dallying, believe it or not, with women. Ginger falls in love with a girl who gives him shelter, while Algy stalks a woman in a blue shawl for miles and miles. Bertie reveals unsuspected musical abilities as well as an entirely believable familiarity with pre-war Monegasque society. All seems lost, but then Biggles appears, reminds them of what they’ve been missing by doing some ace flying in his underpants, all wet and hunky, and they return to England firm friends again. Really, really firm friends.

Oh, all right. The four stars are contextual, of course, but this really is one of the best Biggles books. There are the usual implausible coincidences, impossibly lucky escapes and a positive Olympus of deorum ex machina, but it also contains affectionate and knowledgeable descriptions of Monaco and the surrounding Alpes Maritimes (Johns was always at his best as a writer when describing scenery, particularly desolate places) and yes, there are actually women participating in the story as characters. The French setting seems to have obliged Biggles and crew to deviate from their usual Muscular Christian l code of conduct. I loved the Biggles books as a small boy and wanted to see how they held up when read as an adult. Mostly they don’t, but I actually enjoyed this one more than I did as a child.

18 January 2014

Miami Monkey Business

Back to Blood
by Tom Wolfe 

Tom Wolfe’s style seems to grow more hysterical with every book. He sprays the page with italics and exclamation marks as though wielding a pressure-hose. Coupled with his obsession about being up-to-the-minute in just about every possible way (fashion, popular culture, slang, political issues, you name it), he gives a very good impression of an overcaffeinated tabloid journalist. Under it all, though, he writes conventional novels of morals and manners in the classic nineteenth-century style – the sort of novels Dickens, Trollope, Henry James and George Eliot wrote.

Here is another of them. I found it exciting and satisfying, if at times rather exhausting, to read. Its principal obsession, as with all novels by Tom Wolfe, is status and the remarkable things people do and say in order to gain it, establish it and prevail over others in competition for it. His portrayal of human status competition is ethological rather than anthropological, giving us the Naked Ape in all his simian nudity. Yet he shows us that old-fashioned human values — even moral values — are not incompatible with the imperatives of biology.

This book is set in Miami and explores tensions among the different ethnic groups in that definitively multicultural city. It tells a great story. It has a genuine and very likeable hero, a heroine who learns life’s lessons the hard way, a storybook villain, a perfectly-executed plot and an ending that manages to leave you feeling satisfied and fulfilled even though the Big Question remains not-quite-answered. It is a masterly performance by a novelist at the height of his powers. Despite Wolfe's manic style, this is the best-crafted and most satisfying new work of fiction I have read since Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth.