Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book Review : The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape 2011)

2011 has been topped and tailed by two very similar short novels, both by experienced master-craftsmen, both looking back on events of the protagonist's youth which weren't fully understood at the time, both written with a taut, spare economy and barely a word out of place.

Philip Roth's Nemesis was a simpler piece of story-telling; Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending is an altogether more ambitious work. Within its slight frame it dissects the unstable nature of history. As Adrian Finn says, quoting Lagrange, "History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." Barnes' book is an exploration of this thesis.

Tony Webster and his friends Colin and Alex are ordinary schoolboys in the sixties, intellectually curious and hung-up on girls. They are joined at school by Adrian Finn, whose intellectual fire-power immediately marks him out as Scholarship material. Tony looks up to Adrian, as do both his friends and the Masters at his school. 

When Tony goes to Bristol University he starts to go out with Veronica, his first girlfriend, He is taken to meet her parents and their solid middle-class self-confidence immediately makes him feel inferior. It turns out that Veronica's brother is at Cambridge with Adrian, and after Tony and Veronica split up he gets a letter from Adrian requesting his permission to go out with Veronica.Tony's reply has unexpected consequences.

Fast-forward to today, and Tony is surprised to receive a bequest from Veronica's mother on her death. Veronica has some documents which have been left to him but which she is reluctant to release, so he tries to track her down in order to understand what happened when she split from him - yet his memory is unreliable and he is shocked to discover the picture of his younger self which emerges.

Barnes' characterisation has the precision of a stiletto. Tony is not naturally reflective, he is selfish, complacent, stolid and insensitive, yet cannot see it. He has caused damage that he cannot start to contemplate, but despite everything thinks he is an inoffensive nonentity. Veronica tries to penetrate his shell, but her pain is too great. The mystery is Adrian - to what extent does his theory of individual responsibility mean that he is unable to ascribe blame where it is due?

This is not a large book - only 150 pages - but its themes are massive. It does not feel slight, but rather it is as fully satisfying a read as many much larger novels - in fact, any further development would only detract from its key themes. Just as in Philip Roth's Nemesis, the sparsity engenders an emotional intensity and focus on a theme that would be lost in a bigger book. Both these master-craftsmen have the experience to know exactly when less is more. 

Book Review : The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury 2011)

I hesitate to start to write this review, as I feel a bit like Treslove, the main character of this book. Julian Treslove is a disappointed unmarried middle-aged man working as a celebrity look-alike whose two best friends are both Jewish, and both have recently lost their wives. Samuel Finkler, a friend of Treslove since school, is a successful philosopher, academic and TV pundit, writer of "The Existentialist in the Kitchen". The elderly Libor Sevcik was their teacher. Both may be Jewish, but they have conflicting attitudes to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Libor supporting the Israeli government's position, whereas Finkler takes the lead of the ASHamed Jews who are opposed to Israeli aggression in Palestine.

Julian has always had an ambiguous relationship with the confident, successful Finkler, defining his attitude to Jewishness through him (to Treslove, all Jews are "Finklers"). However, after being the victim of an possibly antisemitic attack in London, he starts to learn more about the religion before striking up a relationship with Hephzibah, Libor's niece. Nevertheless, despite trying to learn Yiddish, contemplating circumcision and recognising rising antisemitism on London's streets, Treslove never quite manages to fully reconcile himself to his nascent Judaism.

This is such an intimate, affectionate portrait of the varieties of Judaic experience, that, like Treslove, the gentile reader feels as if they are an onlooker, peering in to lives that are similar yet different to our own, trying to understand yet always conscious that there is a gap - religious, political, cultural, historical - that is impossible to transcend. In Treslove's case this is partly because he seems emotionally deficient at times, but a non-Jewish reader can only imagine the complexity of feelings and responses generated in Jews by the Palestinian conflict.

This is also a book about families and of death. Finkler and his wife Tyler coexisted up until her death in what was basically mutual enmity driven by Finkler's numerous infidelities (Treslove is surprised to learn that she  wasn't originally Jewish, but converted on her marriage). Libor, on the other hand - and despite being intimate with Hollywood's most beautiful actresses - was always loyal in his heart to his beloved Malkie. Both find it difficult to come to terms with their loss. Treslove, meanwhile, fantasizes about a beautiful woman dying in his arms.

It is not easy to summarise all the themes of such a sensitive, intelligent novel. Jacobson eschews easy solutions and trite answers. Themes are argued back and forwards but none of the characters find easy resolutions and neither does the reader - questions are simply raised and left hanging. All this is done is the most beautiful prose by a master of the well-turned sentence and ironic juxtaposition. This is not laugh-out-loud funny like previous works by Jacobson, but it demonstrates a wry humour throughout.

However, this is not meant to be a funny book - it's a deadly serious one. In Treslove's terms The Finkler Question is nothing less than the Jewish Question, a fundamental set of issues for a Jewish writer such as Jacobson. With its subsidiary reflections on life, love and death, this is as serious as it gets.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review : The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (Harvard Secker 2011)

I remember receiving The Name of the Rose as a Christmas present back in the 1980s and finishing it around 5am on Boxing Day, captivated by the cleverness of it all, so allusive, playful, dark and learned. After Foucault's Pendulum was released, a fellow Eco-afficianado and I rushed to the Musée des Arts et Métiers at lunchtime whilst on a training course in Paris in order to gaze at the Pendulum itself, and the site of the novel's dénouement.

Since then, Eco's works have frustrated as much as entertained. All have displayed his vast erudition, yet none has captured the energy and inventiveness of his earlier narratives. His last book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, even sought to recapture this lost elan through discarding medieval texts in favour of the cartoon storybooks of Eco's childhood, with only partial success.

The Prague Cemetery, however, promised to be a return to familiar territory, the conspiracy theories and secret societies so effectively spiked in Foucault's Pendulum. It is the tale of a spy and master-forger, who is responsible in part for all the most important conspiracies of the late nineteenth century from the reunification of Italy to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Being Eco, all the characters except for Simonini, the antisemitic protagonist, really existed. Being Eco, though, one needs a fair knowledge of 19th century history in order to separate fact from fiction from conjecture and invention.

The historical parts of the novel are great: they race along engagingly, and, as Dan Brown knows, there is a ready appetite for even the most bizarre conspiracies, factually based or not. Simonini plots with the Carbonari, follows Garibaldi's troops through Italy, is the mastermind behind Leo Taxil's antimasonic Satanic fantasies and writes both Dreyfuss's incriminating letter and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, whilst introducing us to several of the most unsavoury peripheral characters in France and Italy in this period. In actual fact, Eco carefully charts the links between Freemasonry and the movement for Italian reunification, and how it  subsequently become linked with anti-jewish propaganda through the works of Maurice Joly via novelists Dumas and Sue, and Taxil's wilder fantasies, culminating in the Protocols. Even allowing for some flights of fancy, notably some murders and a racy black mass, this is heady stuff.

The problem, though, is with the novel's superstructure. It is supposedly the recollections of Simonini, interspersed with the diary of a Jesuit priest by the name of Dalla Piccola with whom Simonini shares a flat but who may only be an alter-ego or a figment of Simonini's imagination. You know that there is an issue here when Eco presents us with a table in an appendix to try to tie together the diaries, recollections and actual events. It simply doesn't work, and detracts, especially in the first part of the book, from the otherwise engaging narrative. There is a sense that Eco actually has several themes he wants to write about - il Risorgimento, the Paris Commune, Freemasonry and the anti-Jewish conspiracies, and this is the only way that he can shoe-horn them together, when in fact it is unnecessary. Eco doesn't generally do character much and this is no exception, and ultimately the endless successions of names becomes overwhelming. Which is a pity as the material unearthed by Eco is fascinating, and with better organisation it could even give Dan Brown a run for his money, perish the thought...

Theatre Review : Hamlet - Young Vic (dir Ian Rickson 19/12/12)

My earliest serious theatregoing was to the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow in the 1980s when it was led by magnificent trio of Giles Havergal, Robert David MacDonald and Philip Prowse, to which I wholly attribute my love of adventurous, iconoclastic productions and a good working knowledge of Brecht. I remember back around 1983 going to see a production of Hamlet, directed by Havergal and Prowse, set in a lunatic asylum, with the play being acted as group therapy. It may even have been the first time I had seen Hamlet live, but we had studied it at school so I was familiar with the text; however, I was disappointed with the production. As everyone was acting out the play as therapy, then the key question of how and when and to what extent Hamlet was mad was blurred as he was - by definintion - mad to start off with. Having saddled itself with the concept, the play itself then struggled to break free of it

So it was with a sense of trepidation that I made my way to the Young Vic, ready to experience the new route into the supposed Psychiatric Unit in which the play had once again been set (although to be honest I thought this was more a cheap gambit to get everyone into their seats on time in the tight Young Vic auditorium). The stage is bare apart from a coffin, and backed by glass panelling leading into an office, NHS chic. The lights drop and in the dark the ghost stalks Elsinore's battlements. However, when the lights are raised again, and even after Hamlet took the stage, one couldn't help being influenced by the sterile, aseptic hospital environment. Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet and Polonius sit around as in group therapy, the King and Polonius doubling as hospital figures of authority. But the play wasn't catching fire and the audience was flat despite strong performances, especially from Michael Sheen as an angry, threatening Hamlet.

But suddenly the Players took the stage and everything changed. They were led by a bearded, bewildered Player King (Pip Donaghy), and a leaping, bawdy Lucianus, lubriciously rubbing a vacuum-cleaner head between his legs. As Hamlet provides an increasingly deranged commentary with megaphone and flashlight, the murder of Gonzago is enacted, Claudius (James Clyde) and Gertrude (Sally Dexter) fled from the stage, the audience suddenly engaged and the play came alive. It seemed to take this scene to break the production from its anchors in the mental hospital and gave it the imaginative freedom it needed.

The second half was superb. Hamlet overhears Claudius’ praying for forgiveness in the office through the intercom. Ophelia (Vinette Robinson)  sings to the music of PJ Harvey, unbearably affecting. The heart of the stage is raised to show the gravedigger in a sandpit, which effectively split the stage and prevented Claudius from reaching Gertrude as she sipped from the poisoned chalice.

Michael Sheen captivated throughout. His Hamlet was not some ineffective dreamer but hot-blooded and impulsive -  in fact, he was grounded in an angry reality, and couldn’t be further from the psychiatric case predicated by the production’s superstructure. His verse was spoken with lightness and clarity, wringing all the natural rhythms from Shakespeare’s words, and brought freshness and vitality to the great soliloquies.

But whilst Sheen dazzled, the production itself frustrated. There were lots of good ideas (the female Horatio (Hayley Carmichael) and Rozencrantz (Eileen Walsh) added some tender nuances), but the whole lacked coherence. Why, for example, in a production which had generally been trimmed intelligently and focussed on the intimate, had traces of Fortinbras been allowed to remain in order to facilitate a minor coup de théatre at the end? Was this a final confirmation that the play itself had been an outworking of the prince’s damaged phyche? If so, then Rickson might have had the courage of his convictions throughout. As it was, we had a great performance from Sheen, some interesting ideas and a production that held its audience throughout the second half. But as a coherent whole it missed its mark in the end.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review : The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador 2011)

Five celebrations, five portraits of a family, five windows on the passing of time. Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel is his most ambitious yet, a dissection of the impact of the passing of time on a family as their reputations rise and fall, but also on the nature of biography as family secrets are withheld or revealed - or could they even be fabricated? - as the past is picked over.

Cecil Valance is a poet, beautiful, carefree, charismatic, who just prior to the First World War visits the suburban house of his friend and lover George Sawle and kisses his young sister, Daphne. He celebrates the visit by writing a poem to Daphne, “Two Acres”,  which later becomes much anthologised. Like Rupert Brooke, on whom Valance is clearly based, his poetic reputation is enhanced by his heroic early death in the trenches. Churchill quotes “Two Acres” in his obituary. His body is brought back and entombed in the Valance’s private chapel in their house at Corley Court, whilst cabinet minister Sebastien Stokes reaches out for the memories of his friends and family in order to write his memoir.

Yet time is a harsh critic, and as it passes Valance’s poetic reputation is re-evalated and his Georgics, seemingly so elegant before the War, seem insipid beside the masters of his age. He is remembered as a dashing romantic figure, a breaker of hearts and for his tragic early death,  not for what he wrote. Ironically, his unattractive brother Dudley, whose insensitive alterations have ruined the interior of Corley Court, emerges initially with the stronger literary reputation on account of his acerbic memoirs. Meanwhile shy, suburban George has the sad fate of being known to a generation of schoolchildren thanks to a history textbook he wrote with his wife.

A generation later, and biographer Paul Bryant is trying to uncover the truth about the Valances. He pieces together information from his own boyhood, from a reticent Daphne, from an increasingly senile George. But what information is to be trusted, and can Paul be trusted himself? “And year by year our memory fades”...

Hollinghurst plays with the reader as with a powerful fish – successively letting out line collusively, then reeling in sharply. He writes so carefully with subtle phrases, little hints, that one feels complicit when a character reveals his weakness, shocked but not surprised at the manner in which it is made manifest. Yet, as one moves to each new period, characters from the past are revealed only reluctantly, from their hiding place behind married names and titles, as the reader has to reconstruct their backstories from sparse hints and snippets of information, though at the same time the reader is knowingly aware of information that the new characters are not privy to, such as when the schoolboys reveal Sir Dudley’s sword for their museum, one recalls what use Sir Dudley put his sword forty years before. It is a style at once both subtle and explicit, one cannot escape the sense that one is being playfully manipulated.

The truth is never quite as simple as it appears on the printed page - all the memoirs of the family are unreliable in some way, everyone has an angle. Much is hinted at but little is explicit - not even Hollinghurst's trademark gay sex. But there is an unmistakable sense of sadness and decline that pervades the whole book. It is only latterly that you learn that the mighty Vallances, with such a Norman sounding name, have only received their baronetcy as a result of the fortune created by the first baronet in grass seed. Within three generations the family heir is living in a ramshackle cottage, but apparently not without means.  

But their is also a counterpoint - the book is also a celebration of the liberation of gay men over the course of the twentieth century. The hints and occlusions in the early memoirs are an attempt to hide the illicit secret of Cecil Vallance's bisexuality. Harry's love for Hubert is never fully understood until many years later and the George's marriage of convenience to the unappealing Madeleine contrasts with the apparent satisfaction of later relationships such as Peter and his civil partner Desmond.

Hollinghurst never gives his readers the satisfaction of an easy resolution. The trajectory of the family, of their reputations, their properties and the instability of the means of their evaluation all remain elusive right to the end, and you are immediately wanting to go back and reread, to search for further clues. To reread would be a fitting reward for an exceptional book.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review : The King of Inventors by Catherine Peters (Martin Secker & Warburg 1991) / The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William Clarke (Sutton Publishing 2004)

Compared to the conventions of Victorian morality as presented in the literature of the time, many Victorian novelists had private lives which may have raised some eyebrows. Dickens separated secretly from his wife in favour of the young actress Ellen Ternan, George Eliott lived openly with G.H. Lewes who was already married to someone else, and Thackeray confined his wife to an asylum in France due to her mental illness. But none had as unconventional a private life as Wilkie Collins. From 1858, except for a brief period, he lived as man and wife with the widowed Caroline Graves, and from 1864 he set up a second household with Martha Rudd, by whom he had three children. Caroline did leave Wilkie in 1868 to marry Joseph Clow (Wilkie attended the wedding) but by 1871 she had returned to him.Caroline managed the bills and paid Martha's rent, and the Martha's children were welcome visitors to their household. Yet this remained a secret to Wilkie's reading public.

Not that Wilkie Collins was a conventional ladies' man - he was short with tiny hands and feet, an odd misshapen forehead, overweight and unfit. Yet he loved women and they loved him in return - he was kind and charming, and, in his own way, very honourable.When Wilkie, his brother Charles Collins and John Everett Millais heard a woman scream whilst walking by Regent's Park, it was Wilkie who went to investigate what was wrong. It may be that this was when he first met Caroline Graves, but it is more likely that it provided him with the genesis of the dramatic first meeting with Anne Catherick in The Woman in White.

Throughout the 1860s, Wilkie Collins was the most influential English novelist barring Dickens alone. The Woman in White defined the sensation novel which dominated this period, The Moonstone gave the genre its most lasting modern incarnation in the shape of the detective novel. From 1870 onwards, Collins' powers started to decline, partly due to the loss of his close friend's Dickens' influence; partly due to an increasing desire to write issue-based novels (Swinburne wickedly wrote
            What brought good Wilkie's genius nigh perdition
            Some demon whispered - 'Wilkie! have a mission' (Peters pg 313));
partly due to an increasing dependency on Laudenum to alleviate the pain of "rheumatic gout". Whatever the cause, he never recaptured the heights scaled in the 1860s.

Two contrasting books examine his life in detail. First published in 1988, William Clarke's The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins focusses almost entirely on the man, his life and that of his family. Clarke, who died earlier  this year, was a leading financial journalist whose wife was a great-granddaughter of Collins. This family connection enabled him to access Collins' bank accounts and to try to explain why, despite the careful construction of his will in a manner worthy of one of the plots of his novels, both sides of his family saw little benefit from the wealth that he had accumulated. Clarke shows that in all probability the family was swindled by his lawyer/son-in-law Henry Bartley.

For all its meticulous research and in some cases the first-hand testimony of elderly family members, the Secret Life largely passes over the novels themselves. The King of Inventors by Catherine Peters remedies this shortcoming. Peters sets out the thesis that Collins was haunted by a second self, a double that was often behind him, especially in his later opium-influenced years. This double manifests itself in his novels which are primarily concerned with questions of identity. Certainly, doubles feature largely in his works, from Anne Catherick and Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White, to the multiple Alan Armadales, to the twin brothers Oscar and Nugent Dubourg in Poor Miss Finch. And even when doubles are not involved, the novels usually resolve round questions of identity, literally in The Law and the Lady, or as a question of legitimacy of birth in The Dead Secret or No Name, or of marriage in Man and Wife.

Peters combines a perceptive reading of the novels with a thorough and well-researched construction of Collins' life, and, whilst she doesn't have all the access that William Clarke has obtained, her use of the texts of the novels to illuminate the biography is much superior. As an example, Peters describes three aspects of Collins' own character revealed in The Law and the Lady. Physically he is akin to husband Eustace Macallan, with his gentle eyes, beard streaked with grey and limp. As a ladies' man, he is represented by the elderly roue Major Fitz-David, and as a writer and fantasist by Miserrimus Dexter. She goes on to show how further extreme aspects of this his most bizarre creation were to be seen in his temperamental actor-friend Charles Fechter, who was also a heavy-drinking, food-loving extrovert. Clarke, however, dismisses The Law and the Lady in a paragraph.

Yet Wilkie's private life ultimately remains a mystery. The circumstances in which he first met both Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd remain matters of speculation. Why Caroline Graves should choose to get married in 1867, and then return once again to Wilkie, is also out of the reach of the biographers. And most mysteriously of all, why should someone who dedicated his life to writing about identity, illegitimacy and the problems inherent in legal ambiguity choose not to attempt to legitimise in some way the two families for which he was responsible.Both Clarke and Peters attempt explanations, but in the end, Wilkie's own life proves the one intricate plot incapable of resolution.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Theatre Review : Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfmann - Pinter Theatre (Dir Jeremy Herrin 28/11/11)

Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfmann wrote Death and the Maiden as several South American states were emerging from the shadow of the brutal military dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s. As the Arab Spring takes hold, and the headquarters of the Secret Police are swept open in Tripoli and Cairo, Dorfmann’s play is frighteningly relevant. Sadly, it will probably continue to be so.

In an unnamed South American state, Gerardo Escobar is a liberal Civil Rights Lawyer, who has just been nominated to a Truth-and-Reconciliation  commission following the re-establishment of democracy. Paulina Salas is his wife - beautiful, intelligent, yet scarred by her torture and rape at the hands of the military during the dictatorship. She is dismayed to hear that Gerardo’s commission will investigate only those who have died, denying her the opportunity of some form of catharsis.

Gerardo is visited by a stranger,  a doctor called Roberto Miranda who has stopped to help him on the road. Paulina believes she has heard his voice before, as the doctor who oversaw her torture and rape. She captures Roberto at gunpoint, ties him up and threatens to kill him in order to force him to confess his crimes, whilst her husband argues that such actions will only perpetuate the cycle of violence in the country. As Paulina’s story is told, pieces of information emerge, but what is true and what has Roberto made up in order to secure his release?

This is a complex, intense work, better suited to a small studio such as the Theatre Upstairs where it was first performed than the Edwardian Pinter Theatre, although it is appropriate that such a work should grace the stage which bears Harold Pinter’s name. Perceptions of the characters shift throughout – Gerardo’s liberal values are challenged when he doubts Roberto’s innocence, Paulina’s pain is undoubted, but is this the only way in which she can achieve release? And is Roberto as he says an innocent man? But why does he have a tape of Death and the Maiden in his car, the music played by the Doctor who tortured Paulina?

Both Tom Goodman-Hill and Anthony Calf give powerful, nuanced perfomances as Gerardo and Roberto respectively. But this play needs at its centre someone who can reveal the pain and despair that Paulina has carried for 18 years, they must be capable of opening up their soul. Thandie Newton as Paulina is very good but she doesn’t really have the depths that this part requires. She is too pretty, too well manicured. Her hair stays in place, her voice doesn’t crack from pain, you just aren’t convinced that she has suffered as she describes. And without that necessary pain at its heart, the play loses its undoubted power (though that is not helped by a half-empty house and an unnecessary tension-killing interval). Which is unfortunate, as this production is probably the most thoughtful and relevant piece of theatre currently showing in a dismal West End.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Theatre Review : The Comedy of Errors - Olivier Theatre (dir Dominic Cooke 23/11/11)

Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus, has had a falling out with Syracuse. As a result, any visitor to his city from Syracuse must pay a fine of 1000 marks or face death, which is bad news for Syracusan merchant Egeon who is visiting Ephesus looking for his son. He did have identical twin sons and identical twin servants, but one of each was lost at sea, so the others took their names, Antipholus and Dromio, in their memory.

Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse have settled in Ephesus since their shipwreck, where Antipholus has married and become a respected citizen. When an identically attired Antipholus of Syracuse arrives with his Dromio, needless to say, mayhem commences.

This play is not one of Shakespeare's great reflections on the human condition, and don't let anyone persuade you that it is a reflection on the nature of duality, of divided consciousness or anything like that. Instead, it is an unashamed comedy, usually best played with liberal doses of slapstick. Dominic Cooke's good-looking production makes full use of the the resources of the Olivier stage to develop an endlessly protean modern Ephesian cityscape, but the staging is always in danger of dwarfing the action. There are times when it works well, such as a madcap chase scene when all four twins are pursued by some mad medics round a revolving stage, but more often the scenery hogged the stage and gave no space for the humour to breathe.

Lenny Henry is a charismatic lead as Antipholus of Syracuse, and it was always going to be difficult for Chris Jarman as Antipholus of Ephesus to equal his presence, although he manages quite well. Meanwhile, I could never remember which of the Dromios was which, despite the fact that Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser, both bedecked in Arsenal shirts as Dromios of Syracuse and Ephesus respectively, didn't look particular similar. The excellent Claudie Blakely as Adriana, however, couldn't even tell her husband from his brother, and the scene where Antipholus of Syracuse is locked out his modern penthouse flat whilst Antipholus of Ephesus has been dragged to bed protesting (not too much) by Adriana is particularly well done.

There are many good points to this production. The opening scene where Egeon explains why he has two sons and two servants with the same name is usually a drag but is imaginatively dramatised as the Ephesian tenements transform into tall ships. The ambulance disgorging an army of paramedics is very funny. There is a wonderful point where you realise that music being played by some Eastern European buskers is in fact modern pop classics about madness such as Black Sabbath's Paranoid and Gnarls Barkley's Crazy sung in something like Serbo-Croat.

However, I've seen this done better. Overall it is just a bit too earnest, too over-designed to really hit the funny bone as this very modern play is more than capable of doing. The complex stage mechanics paradoxically make the action more static than it might otherwise be, and the good performances from the leads never have the space to develop into something better. The Olivier's revolving stage is a wonderful resource for any designer, but there have been times recently when it has been in danger of becoming the star of the show itself, rather than the actors and their words. The National Theatre must take care to use this resource judiciously, focus on the plays themselves and leave the staging pyrotechnics to the musicals.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Book Review : The Law and the Lady by Wilkie Collins (Oxford World's Classics 2008)

Having introduced the Victorian reading public to the professional detective in Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone, in The Law and the Lady Collins turns to what is probably the first full-length novel to feature a woman trying to unravel a mystery. Valeria Woodville has recently married, but she discovers that Eustace, her husband, is hiding a secret from her - in fact, she may not be married at all, as he has been using a false name. Naturally concerned, she starts to investigate Eustace's past, and discovers that he has been tried in Scotland for murder of his previous wife, and found not proven. Convinced however of his innocence, Valeria sets out to clear his name.

This is also the second of Collins' novels to try to address what he saw as being the iniquities of the Scottish legal system. The verdict of "not proven" is a distinctive feature of Scottish justice, indicating that the jury felt that there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction. Whilst the accused on receipt of this verdict is free to walk from the court, it was perceived that it was not without a certain stigma.Collins felt that this ambiguity was a weakness in the Scottish legal system, yet does not examine the probably fatal consequences for Eustace if the jury had found him guilty. The "not proven" verdict had in recent years been topical due to the notorious  Madelaine Smith trial in Glasgow, where the pretty upper-middle class woman had been accused and found "not proven" of poisoning her lover.

As Valeria feels her way towards the truth, she meets Miserrimus Dexter, one of Collins more extraordinary creations. Strikingly handsome with long flowing hair and beard, yet born without legs, Dexter hauls himself around in a chair that he is capable of moving with great speed. He lives in a bleak mansion cared for by his devoted, subjugated sister with learning difficulties. Dexter has come straight from a gothic novel - he is a poet, improvisational actor, cook and aesthete, yet bizarre and unstable, given to extreme behaviour and mood swings which culminate in a clumsy attempt to kiss Valeria, who must nevertheless control her revulsion if she is to uncover the secret of the death of Eustace's wife.

As ever with Collins, this is a gripping, fast-paced and intriguing adventure, the labyrinthine plot creating sufficient false leads to fool at least this reader for part of the novel. Collins gave his female characters more independence and autonomy than most of his male contemporaries (compare with Dickens' anonymous heroines) and although Valeria is not as well-defined as Marian Halcombe or Magadalen Vanstone, she is yet another strong, stubborn headstrong female lead from this great unconvetional Victorian.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Theatre Review : Juno and the Paycock by Sean O'Casey - Lyttleton Theatre (dir Howard Davies 14/11/11)

This was my introduction to the great Dublin trilogy of plays that made Sean O'Casey's name, and given that the production was coming direct from the Abbey Theatre Dublin with a superb cast, I was expecting something very special. However I was disappointed.

The action is set in the dilapidated tenament flat of the Boyle family, the ceiling showing the traces of 18th Century forgotten grandeur. Bedrooms are simply partitioned or curtained off allowing little or no privacy for Juno Boyle (Sinead Cusack) her workshy husband Captain Jack Boyle (Ciaran Hinds) and their children pretty Mary (Clare Dunne) and Johnny (Ronan Raftery), who has lost an arm in the Irish uprising against the English.

Whilst Captain Jack paycocks round the town avoiding the risk of being asked to do any work, Juno holds the family together. Mary sets eye on schoolteacher Charles Bentham, who has his eye on her in return, especially when it transpires that Captain Jack may be the beneficiary of a will due to the death of a relative. However, the will is not what it seems and the family who have spend extravagantly on credit on the back of it soon see all their goods recovered. Wrestling with the spectre of poverty are these of the Civil War and the harsh morality of the times. Johnny has betrayed a "Die Hard" neighbour and is living in fear of his life as a consequence, whilst Bentham's absence in England is explained when Mary announces that she is pregnant. In a final poignant scene, Captain Jack staggers around drunkenly, unaware that everything that he had has been lost.

The play is undeniably powerful, yet this production failed to inspire. The first problem is a simple one of intelligibility - the powerful Dublin accents take a long time to get used to, and much of the first half was barely comprehensible.Whilst I don't believe that audiences should be patronised with easy theatre, there is still a minimum threshold of intelligibility that must be met. But the second problem was much more fundamental - the central performances simply lacked the depth that their characters required. Admittedly, I was watching this at a first preview and the cast may still be adjusting from their transfer from the more intimate Abbey Theatre to the caverns of the National, but I just couldn't believe that Sinead Cusack had the strength to hold the family together, or that the normally wonderful Ciaran Hinds could do anything other than shout, whilst Ronan Raftery looked more like a love-sick teenager than a wounded soldier in fear of his life. I will however exclude Clare Dunne from this criticism, as she held the stage as a tenement girl who is capable of attracting such a catch as a solicitor must be able to do, Risteard Cooper as the disreputable rogue Joxer Daly, who is capable of stealing his best friends last bottle of stout, and a wonderful cameo from Janet Moran as Mrs Maisie Madigan, the Boyle's earthy neighbour.

The production simply lacked the power from the central characters to drive the play's dramatic trajectory first up as they come to terms with their supposed wealth and then down into the depths as the truth about the will is revealed - the first half in particular was very weak, the second half improved as this is where O'Casey's most powerful writing is concentrated.But by this time the damage has been done, you simply don't care enough for the central characters to be able to properly feel the nature of the tragedy. And this is a great shame, as you can see the palimpsest of a great play peeking through.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Book Review : Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins (Oxford World Classics 2008)

On the surface, this sounds rather unpromising.

Lucilla Finch has been blind since an early age. When shy young bachelor Oscar Dubourg moves into her neighbourhood, she quickly falls in love.Oscar has a brash identical twin brother, Nugent, who likes Lucilla but the feeling is not reciprocated.Oscar is hit on the head causing debilitating epilepsy, but this is cured by using nitrate of silver - the only problem is that it turns his skin blue, and Lucilla, despite being blind, has a dislike of dark colours. All of which would not have been a problem if it wasn't for Nugent introducing her to the oculist Herr Grosse, who believes he can cure Lucilla of her loss of sight. Nugent spots the opportunity to supplant his brother in Lucilla's affections.

Following hard on the heels of his detective story The Moonstone and the legal drama Man and Wife, Wilkie Collins confounds his admirers by once again switching styles to a domestic drama, albeit one with a mystery to resolve and replete with  Sensational elements.

It is interesting to compare this novel and its lead character to his early work Hide and Seek, which features Mary, a deaf and dumb girl. Mary is impossibly idealised, incapable of any wrong, and a passive recipient of the affections of others. Lucilla Finch is a much better realised character - whilst pretty and affectionate, she is also headstrong and the possessor of a fine temper which predispose her against listening to advice. In addition to driving the plot, this makes  her a much more believable and engaging character.

In fact, all the main characters are well-drawn. Oscar Dubourg superficially is weak and vacillating, but he is loyal and has an inner strength. Nugent's brash overconfidence alerts the reader at outset, but he also wavers between selfishness and remorse so that one is never sure whether he would carry through any action to trick his brother. Mme Pratolungo, the narrator, has an engaging, conversational tone and a fiery continental temper as well as unreliable republican sympathies.

Herr Grosse is an eccentric German who has made his reputation in the United States, and is introduced by Nugent, so one instinctively mistrusts his dirty appearance, his snufftaking and tobacco-smoke and his murdering of the English Language. However, appearances can be deceptive. On the other hand, the bumptious, arrogant and self-important Reverend Finch is the recipient of all the animus that Collins can summon up against clerical hypocrisy.

In his previous work Collins devoted his energies towards investigating the weaknesses in marital law across the United Kingdom. No such elevated subject drove him to write this novel, but he still did not stint on his research - he carefully studied cases of blind people who regained their sight and the subsequent physical and psychological impact upon them. He also looked at the effects of Nitrate of Silver on the skin of epileptics. Through careful study and explication, Collins made a basic plotline which sounded superficially ridiculous believable and engaging. This is not a great work of literature, but it is a very readable and enjoyable novel.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Book Review : Man and Wife by Wilkie Collins (Oxford World's Classics 2008)

Despite the success of The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins did not follow up immediately with another mystery or detective novel. Having defined the Sensation genre and laid down the basics for proper detective fiction, he promptly changed tack once again and wrote Man and Wife, his first and probably his best "issues novel". Not that this was a complete departure from Sensation fiction - this still has all the usual sensational elements intact: bigamy, murder, jilting husbands, imprisoned wives and ghostly, malevolent dumb cooks. But the plot itself was this time overtly constructed around two contemporary issues - the ambiguous state of marital law in Scotland and Ireland, and the moral risks posed by a focus on a healthy body when not balanced by a healthy mind.

Anne Silvester was governess to the aristocratic Blanche Lundy, but as she had been placed in an "interesting" situation by the "Honorable" Geoffrey Delamayne, she plans to utilise ambiguous Scottish marriage laws which rely purely on witnessed consent and not the full sacrament sanctioned by the Church and State in England by escaping to a remote Hotel and have Geoffrey address her as "wife" before witnesses. However, Geoffrey is called away to his dying father, and asks his friend Arnold Brinkworth to stand in for him, knowing that Anne will be ejected from the hotel if approached by a man who is not her husband. So Arnold innocently poses as Anne's husband. Meanwhile, Geoffrey gets a better offer, and tries to wriggle out of his commitment.

Geoffrey is a cad, but an athletic one with a finely tuned body which he has devoted much time to honing.Collins' assertion is that in spending so much time on athletic pursuits, he has neglected his moral development through reading books and following the arts. Unfortunately he overstates his position since, bone-headed though certain denizens of the gym may be (and many are not too, I hastily add, as I hide away my bicycle clips), few are brought to the verge of death or cold-blooded uxoricide through their obsession.

The Scottish marriage laws, however, are much more conducive to Collins' enquiry. In fact, they could almost have been designed for would-be Sensation Novelists as within their ambiguities lie boundless possibilities.Collins lays bare the problems inherent in them, whilst nicely contrasting through the story of Hester Dethridge the iniquitous way in which English matrimonial law forced women to surrender all their rights on marriage, placing them beyond the reach of the law.

By now, Collins has refined his craft and despite the above-noted flaws in conception Man and Wife is never less than a compelling read. The complex marriage plot is handled lightly without too much need for didacticism, although Geoffrey's foot-race is trite and the final few chapters descend into melodrama.

The story is aided by some of Collins' best drawn characters. Sir Patrick Lundie is a shrewd, wry Scottish lawyer, permanently at odds with the impossible snob Lady Lundie. The roguish head-waiter Bishopriggs has walked straight out of the pages of Sir Walter Scott, and Geoffrey Delamayne starts interestingly before descending into the role of a steroetypical cad. These outweigh the blandness of Arnold Brinkworth and Blanche, whose escape with her Aunt from Ham Farm is the only interesting thing that she does.And the mysterious dumb cook Hester Dethridge is never really convinces.

Unfortunately one cannot see what the shy, sensitive and virtuous Anne Silvester sees in Geoffrey Delamayne at all, and least of all why she might get herself pregnant by him. And this is really getting to the heart of the problem with the novel - why should Anne get herself in the position she finds herself, and is it really in character for her to devise such a devious plan to be wed? Similarly, one cannot understand why Hester Dethridge acts as she does in the final chapters, even if she is being blackmailed by Geoffrey. However, one is prepared to overlook these points, as Collins never lets your interest flag once you start to race towards the conclusion of this interesting book.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Aside : The European Sovereign Debt crisis

So, a deal has been done and the European Financial system has been saved. The markets, in their infinite wisdom, have endorsed it with the FTSE up 3% on the day, everyone staggers back from the breach, breathing heavily. However, I'm not so sure...

The deal seems to as follows :- lenders to Greece take a 50% haircut, which, if it is big enough, is OK as long as it is voluntary so Credit Default Swaps don't kick in; European banks impacted must make a provision for €106bn recapitalisation by June 2012, which is OK as long as they don't do so by reducing credit lines and starve the economy of the investment needed to stimulate growth. No, my issue is with the way in which it is proposed that the European Financial Stability Facility is expanded from its current remaining €250bn to €1tn.

We are told that this will be done in two ways - by allowing investors such as China to invest in it, which is reasonable as long as no-one asks the awkward question "Who won the Cold War, Daddy?", or by using the existing EFSF to provide insurance to buyers of new Eurozone debt in order to drive down the cost of borrowing and make it less risky to investors. This is a fine idea. So fine, in fact, that it was essentially the idea behind the Monoline Insurers, who originally insured American Municipal Debt before expanding into CDOs in the 1990s. The big banks insured their Super-Senior Debt with the Monolines, so that CDOs became theoretically risk-free - that was, until the entire US mortgage market started to implode and the ratings agencies reduced the Monolines' credit ratings ...

So what is different this time? Well, the EFSF is underwritten by countries with AAA credit ratings - like France. If France is downgraded, so is the EFSF and the cost of borrowing goes up. And its only part of the bonds that is insured - the top 20%, the riskiest portion. Needless to say, the financial whizzes have already worked out that both parts of the bond can therefore be priced separately, which negates the point of leveraged insurance in the first place.And then, if there is some general move to default, which is in my opinion would be not only possible but likely if another country heads the same way as Greece, the insurance would not only be inadequate,but would stoke the contagion that would rip like wildfire through the unprotected part of Financial System and leave the Policy Makers with no time for an adequate response.

There is an alternative - for the European Central Bank to print enough money to cover all losses on the bond market. But the consequences of pumping a couple of trillion euros worth of new money into the system would be anathema for a German banker with an inherent fear of hyperinflation. However, sometimes the threat of overwhelming force is what is needed to bring calmness to a situation - the threat of mutually assured destruction has limited the scale of international conflicts over the past sixty years, whilst it wasn't until there was a pair of policemen on every street corner of every city in England (and some exemplary punishments swiftly handed out by the courts) that the riots were calmed this summer. Maybe this is what is required - the threat of overwhelming force to force some sanity in the form of lower costs onto bond markets and to allow politicians some time to put in place policies that may generate the growth that is required to get us out of this mess.

However, as far as I am aware this is not what is proposed. Politicians and Bankers have an interest in talking up the rescue mechanism, but I'm not convinced, and I don't think it will take long before the cracks appear. This is one Equity market rally that I would avoid with a gilt-edged bargepole.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Book Review : The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (Penguin Classics 2010)

Few books can claim to be more influential. The Castle of Otranto is generally recognised as the first Gothic Novel, and as such its influence can be seen everywhere - in Gothic Novels themselves from Castle Rackrent to Dracula, in the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott, in the Sensation Novels of the 1860's. Hammer Horror films of the 20th Century are direct descendants, as is the current fad for everything vampire-related. Even Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey and Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights demonstrate its all-pervasive influence.

Yet the book itself is almost unreadable.

On the day of his wedding to Isabella, Conrad the son of Manfred is dashed to pieces under a giant falling helmet which has appeared from nowhere. A peasant called Theodore observes that the helmet is like that on the statue of the former prince Alonso, for which Manfred imprisons Theodore under the helmet. Fortunately the point of the helmet digs a hole in the ground through which Theodore can escape into the subterranean passages under the Castle. Meanwhile Manfred tries to ensure his dynastic succession by announcing that he will divorce his saintly wife and marry the now-available Isabella, who is not enamoured of this prospect.

What would become in time the clichés of the genre are met here first - the evil ruler who must have his way, the virtuous princess, the peasant who is really a prince, the prophesy of destruction of the family, thunder and lightning, inexplicable events...All fine in their place. Unfortunately, they are thrown together here in a completely indigestible mass. The falling helmet and the giant limbs are too silly for words. There is not a character who isn't a parody, who doesn't act in a predictable manner, there is no coherent plot but what is seemingly a stream-of-consciousness succession of incomprehensible events.

One must give credit to Horace Walpole for putting together such an original work in the first place - but one must also give him credit for knowing when to stop as this was the only book that he ever wrote.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book Review : The Maniac in the Cellar - Sensation Novels of the 1860s by Winifred Hughes (Princeton University Press 1980)

In this approachable academic analysis of the nature, origins and impact of the Sensation Novels of the 1860s, Winifred Hughes examines the primary works of Charles Reade, E.M. Braddon, Mrs Henry Wood and Wilkie Collins in detail, before making a strong case to show how the spirit of the Sensation Novels continued in a much more literary vein in the works of Thomas Hardy.

She sees their roots in the Gothic novels of the late eighteenth century, the romances of Sir Walter Scott and the Newgate Novels of the 1830s. However, whilst Gothic novels had the elements of romance, adultery and murder which Sensation Novels would appropriate, they lacked a contemporary context. The fact that Sensation Novels were not set in a medieval Italian castle but in middle-class England gave them a thrill and immediacy that was all the more shocking. Newgate novels were contemporary, but they dealt with a criminal underclass whose activities might as well have been as distant as Scott's warring clans to their readership.

She examines the nature of the criticism levied against Sensation Novels, much of which was for the way in which adultery, bigamy and murder was apparently condoned by the authors.Underlying this was a sense that books such as these were democratising the novel, bridging the gap between the penny-dreadful and serious literature and offering dubious moral examples to readers of the lower classes, just as characters such as Aurora Floyd or Magdalen Vanstone move with apparent ease between social classes. Equally, Sensation Novels threatened to usurp the traditional role of the Woman within Victorian literature.Rather than being the emotional lynchpin of traditional melodrama (or - in an area not explored by Hughes - the fulcrum and motive force around which all Women's literature from Jane Austen through the Brontes to Elizabeth Gaskell revolves),  women become for the first time forces of moral ambiguity (in the case of Lady Isabel Vane) or evil (as per Lydia Gwilt).

Hughes locates in Wilkie Collins the Sensation Novel's key place as the transitional form between early Victorian romance and melodrama and its successors in twentieth century thrillers and detective novels.  In tightly-plotted but essentially open constructions such as The Woman in White and Armadale, characters are still subject to external supernatural forces such as dreams, fate and coincidence. Collins' great insight was to enclose the construction of The Moonstone by making it a mystery to be solved. By limiting the scope, Collins reduces the dependence on the supernatural and thus transforms the melodrama into a form that is suited to the emerging materialistic society. The runaway success of detective fiction as a genre in the twentieth century validates this choice. In this respect, Hughes' highly perceptive coda on Thomas Hardy recognises his work represents a return to a more traditional melodrama, but one that takes place in a universe stripped of moral absolutes. As such it represents the bridge from the Sensation Novel to the literary nihilism of the Twentieth Century

Book Review - East Lynne by Ellen Wood (Mrs Henry Wood) (Oxford World Classics 2005)

East Lynne was one of the most popular novels of the 19th Century, yet, as is usually the case, its critical reception did not match its popular sales. Certainly it is moralistic, overly sentimental and Ellen Wood's writing style seldom rises above the workmanlike. Yet it is also extremely well-plotted, fast and intriguing, and introduces us to someone who to my mind is one of the more interesting heroines in Victorian literature. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

First published in serial form from 1860 to 1861, it is one of the books which helped define the "Sensation Novel" of the 1860s, yet - despite the heroine's adultery at the heart of the novel and her subsequent return heavily disguised as the governess of her children and the arrest of  the corpse of her father- it is less extreme than many other books of this genre. This is because of what I consider to be the skilful handling of the central character.

Lady Isabel Vane's mother has died, and her deeply-indebted father, the Earl of Mount Severn, is forced to sell his house East Lynne to his lawyer Archibald Carlyle, who nevertheless keeps the sale secret and allows Lord Mount Severn to remain there, where he inconveniently dies.Lady Isabel discovers that she is penniless and forced to live with her Uncle and his wife, who despises her for her looks and sweet nature. Fortunately, she is rescued by Carlyle's offer of marriage, much to the disappointment of Carlyle's neighbour Barbara Hare. Carlyle is secretly assisting Barbara's brother, who is on the run following an accusation of murder, and his frequent close discussions with Barbara arouse Lady Isabel's jealous suspicions. These are exacerbated by the nefarious rake Sir Francis Levinson, who is staying incognito at East Lynne whilst Carlyle tries to sort out his tangled affairs. Finally, Carlyle declines a dinner engagement pleading pressure of work, but Lady Isabel sees him with Barbara Hare as she returns. She learns from Levinson that Carlyle  has been with her all evening, and in a jealous rage, she elopes to the Continent with Levinson, leaving Carlyle and her children behind. She is not gone long before she realises that she has made a terrible mistake.

Wood's dilemma is to ensure that Lady Isabel retains the reader's sympathy despite her being an adulteress who has abandoned her children. This she does by very carefully constructing the reasons for her jealousy. Carlyle is a heroic character, almost too good to be true, but not given to great introspection. He has no idea how his work to assist his old friends the Hare family could be perceived. Levinson though ensures that Lady Isabel is aware of all his clandestine meetings with Barbara Hare. Crucially, Lady Isabel deeply respects Carlyle, and hopes that she will come to love him, but does not do so yet. She doesn't have parents or any close relative or friend to offer moral guidance, and she feels estranged in her own household by the oppressive presence of Carlyle's opinionated sister.

So she snaps, and regrets it for the rest of her life. The rest of the book follows her search for expiation. Carlyle marries Barbara Hare, and, badly disfigured in a train crash, Lady Isabel returns as Madame Vane, a governess who has to endure the torment of seeing her now-beloved husband being caressed by Barbara Hare, who is called mother by her children. The depth of her torment, and the knowledge that she had been manipulated by a bad man, ensures that she remains a sympathetic character.

Meanwhile, the other strands of the plot come together. Levinson ill-advisedly decides to stand against Carlyle for Parliament. The truth about the murder of Hallijohn slowly emerges. Justice appears to be done.

The success of the novel depends on Ellen Wood's ability to construct a believable set of reasons for Lady Isabel to be driven to elope with Levinson, and this she does with skill. To my mind the second half is weaker since her return unrecognised as a governess does stretch credulity a little far. However, by this point some genuine Victorian tear-jerking sentimentality has kicked in, and, coupled with fast-paced satire on the electoral and judicial processes, conspires to carry the reader breathlessly to the end.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Review - The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins (Oxford World Classics 2008)

The Dead Secret is Collins' last work before he struck gold with The Woman in White, and it marks a considerable step forward from the novels which preceded it. On her deathbed, Mrs Treverton, the wife of the wealthy Captain Treverton, dictates a confession to her maid, Sarah Leeson, to pass to her husband and makes her swear that she will never destroy the letter or let it leave Porthgenna Tower. Leeson, however, hides the letter and flees, and Captain Treverton dies without ever discovering the secret. However, his daughter Rosamund discovers there is a secret locked up in the mysterious Myrtle Room, and sets her mind to discover what it is.

Sarah Leeson is the most interesting character in the book. A shy and weak character, she is haunted by her past and the responsibility placed on her by Mrs Treverton.When she reappears as Mrs Jazeph, Rosamund's temporary nurse, Collins carefully manages her behaviour to make it both creepy and suspicious, but also sympathetic. As her past is slowly revealed, all Collins' skills are deployed to ensure that what may be ostensible faults of character to a Victorian audience never come between Sarah, Rosamund and his readership.Rosamund is a sparkier heroine than the bland Mary Grice in Hide and Seek. She is headstrong and has a temper, and although she and her husband Leonard Frankland (who is blind for some reason, as it has little impact on the plot) are of such unimpeachable uprightness and morality that they restore Andrew Treverton's belief in humanity, she is also believable as she comes to terms about the unexpected change in her circumstances as the Secret is revealed.

The novel works on several levels. Collins handles the Secret with great skill, ensuring that the reader is intrigued from the first chapter, and then gradually building the tension through the interplay of the main characters as Rosamund firstly finds out about the Secret, then Sarah tries to hide it once again. It is also very carefully balanced in terms of characterisation. Any oversweetness on the part of Rosamund and Leonard is balanced by the misanthropic Andrew Treverton and his manservant Showl.The intensity of Sarah Leeson is balanced by her engagingly eccentric Uncle Joseph.And finally, it is morally engaged, subtly showing the iniquity of Victorian laws on marriage, illegitimacy and inheritance, perpetual themes of Collins. Compared to Collins' other early works, this is really the springboard to his masterpieces such as The Woman in White, as by now all the key elements are in place - the sensation, the drama, the pathos - for Collins to make his mark on the Victorian novel.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Book Review - A Rogue's Life by Wilkie Collins (Dodo Press 2007)

This early work of Wilkie Collins is little more than a novella, and completely lacking the finely architectured plots that we come to associate with Collins' novels, but it is nevertheless remarkable for the cynical, worldly tone adopted by the first-person narrator.

Collins is capable of writing well, but he can also be a very functional writer with flat prose driving forward a complex plot, as in the following example from "The Dead Secret" :

  The nurse who was in attendance on Mrs Frankland had suddenly been taken ill, and was rendered quite   incapable of performing any further service for at least a week to come, and perhaps for a much longer period...Mr Frankland suggested telegraphing a medical friend in London for a nurse, but the doctor was unwilling for many reasons to adopt the plan except as a last resort. 

As can be seen, the tone is flat and functional, without any frills except those relevant to the matter in hand.

A Rogue's Life is different, as the narrator's passage below demonstrates.

  After I had left school, I had the narrowest escape possible of intruding myself into another place of accommodation for distinguished people; in other words, I was very nearly sent to college. Fortunately for me, my father lost a lawsuit just in the nick of time and was obliged to scrape together every farthing of available money that he possessed for the luxury of going to law. If he could have saved his seven shillings, he would certainly have sent me to scramble for a place in the great university theatre; but his purse was empty, and his son was not eligible therefore for admission, in a gentlemanly capacity, at the doors.

The cynical, smart, sarcastic tone is ideally suited to the feckless Softly, the narrator, who dedicates what wit he has to schemes for getting rich quick and getting to know the beautiful Alicia Dulcifer. Unfortunately, his get-rich schemes come to naught, until he discovers Alicia's father's secret.

By this point, Collins command of tone has waned, and the novel becomes plot-driven once again, which is a shame as what plot there is is nonsense of the highest order and not really worthy of further discussion. However, it shows what tools Collins had at his command as a writer when he put his mind to it, and gives us a foretaste of bravura rogues such as Count Fosco in his later books.

Book Review - Hide and Seek by Wilkie Collins (Oxford World Classics 2009)

By no stretch of the imagination can this be counted a great novel: at best, it is engaging, tightly plotted, reasonably well-written with some interesting satire on the art market. However, it is also full of unbelievable coincidence, over sentimentalised, with a lead character so irritating that one could cheerfully throttle him. It certainly offers no great insight on the human condition. Compared with Basil, the controversial novel which preceded it – and despite Basil's many faults – this is a step backwards.

Collins is a master of the slow-reveal, the plot which reveals its secrets layer by layer, and this is a good example. Mystery surrounds the background of saintly deaf and dumb girl Mary, known to all  - heavy symbolism alert – as Madonna, who has been obtained from a circus, where she was being mistreated, by artist Valentine Blythe. Blythe wants to hide her so that she cannot be reclaimed from him by her real family, but unfortunately his ne’er-do-well young friend Zack Thorpe has met with a mysterious character in a punch-up in a London drinking den who is also on the lookout for Mary.

Zack is an impetuous, rash young man: rebelling against his repressively strict father he is much given to carousing, but his heart is in the right place. He is however totally unreflective and has a mouth on overdrive  that gets wearing after a while. Valentine is probably the most believable character in the book, not a particularly good artist, but one good enough to make a living from those who didn’t know any better. Having an artist-father (a very good artist at that), Wilkie Collins knew what he was talking about here. Valentine’s wife and Mary herself are simply too good to be true. However, it is the mysterious Matt that dominates the second part of the book. Is Zack being naive in trusting him? Is he a force for good or evil? What is his link to Mary?

Throughout his writing career, Collins is a consistently harsh critic of hypocrisy. As the father of at least three illegitimate children himself, his respect for such children’s opportunities in life and contempt for those who seek to evade their responsibility for them is clearly shown through all his works. Eventually, the mystery of Mary’s origins are explained, whilst – unlike in Basil – Victorian proprieties are respected. Whilst this is a neat resolution, the novel lacks the real cutting edge that one associates with Collins’ best fiction.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Art Review : Joan Miro : The Ladder of Escape (Tate Modern 9/9/11)

The turbulent history of Spain in the Twentieth Century can be quickly summarised - the instability of the early years erupted into violent civil war in 1936, which led to the dead hand of Franco holding the country in thrall for the next forty years, until his death in 1975 and the rebirth of Spanish democracy. Any artist who has chosen to live in Spain through these years must be viewed in the context of such upheaval. What is brilliant about this exhibition is the way it uses the political context of Spain and specifically his native Catalonia to contextualise the work of Joan Miró.

Tête de Paysan Catalan
by Joan Miro
Tate and Scottish National
Gallery of Modern Art
It starts in Mont-Roig - the home of Miró's family near Barcelona, which he depicts lovingly in paintings which already set out essential aspects of Miró's vocabulary, such as the ladder between earth and the stars which recurs throughout his work and gives this exhibition its subtitle. Miro's work is rooted in his Catalan soil, and when in 1923 General Primo de Rivera comes to power in a coup and bans the Catalan language and flag, Miro subtly responds with a series of paintings based on the heads of Catalan peasants, all of which feature a highly stylised barretina, the traditional headware of the Catalan peasant but also associated with the Revolta dels Barretines, where 17th century Catalan peasants rose up against oppression from Madrid.

As the tanks rumble into Barcelona, Miro escapes with his family to Paris, where he works on the Spanish Republican pavilion. Yet he doesn't produce an overtly political masterpiece like Picasso's Guernica. Miro's work is difficult to interpret, reaching for a vocabulary which has been developed over several years.Yet his title "Le Faucheur" - The Reaper - is an explicit reference to Els Segadors, the Catalan national anthem (incidently, as a protest against the banning of the Catalan language, Miro always gave his paintings French names).

For many years under Franco, Miro painted little, concentrating on pottery. He lived on Mallorca, enjoying international fame but little recognition at home since he refused to participate in state-sponsored shows. When a major retrospective was put on in Barcelona, Miro countered with a project entitled Miro Otro in which traditional dynamic of a multi-work exhibition was challenged by a vast, temporary collaborative mural constructed with young radical artists.

Even as an old man, focussing on a starling series of meditative triptychs which have been heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, he responds to political repression in Catalonia, and in particular the sentence to death of Salvador Puig Antich, by painting The Hope of a Condemned Man. 

What this exhibition does so well is to demonstrate in broad terms the way in which Miro's work has developed, but then to use the political context as a means to highlight aspects of his art. The political is never overplayed, the art is paramount, and this is exemplified by the way in which The Hope of a Condemned Man is displayed alongside explicitly non-political works. The net effect is to make a significant and highly intelligent enhancement of one's understanding of such an important aspect of Miro the person, the artist and of his works.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Art Review : The Vorticists (Tate Britain 2/9/11)

What is the purpose of an exhibition? Usually, it comprises a number of art works brought together in such a way as to present a different perspective on the artist, movement, genre or collection. My preferred way to "do" an exhibition is to go round slowly, trying to understand each work on show on its own terms, then reading any explanatory cards and listening to further explanation on the audioguide. Then I buy the catalogue to read at my leisure, thus giving myself ample opportunity to understand the main themes that the curators wish to develop.

However, I left the recent Vorticists exhibition feeling that I was missing something, and it's difficult to identify exactly what the gap was, as this was an interesting and well-constructed show. Perhaps it was simply a lack of historical context in the exhibition itself, which was covered in greater detail in the catalogue.

Certainly in this case, context is all. The Vorticists may have been a largely British art movement, but they were entirely of their time and could not exist without the impact of cubism, futurism or the various strands of early 20th Century modernism. At the exhibition itself these themes were hinted at, but it needed the catalogue to fill in the background detail. I hope this doesn't presage a trend towards less information being on display in the exhibition hall itself.

Newcastle c1913
by Edward Wadsworth
Johanna and Leslie Garfield Collection
The Vorticists themselves were a mixed bag, dominated by Percy Wyndham Lewis. Of the paintings on display, his works and those of Edward Wadsworth are really the only Vorticist works of interest (that is, excluding  the works of David Bomberg and CRW Nevinson who never counted themselves amongst the Vorticist ranks). Wyndham Lewis's work has a rough, jagged energy which aggressively confronts the viewer. Many of his paintings are now lost, but his power - and the influence of cubism - is best seen in his Timon of Athens lithographs. Wadsworth is more restrained, yet his black and white woodcuts of northern towns combine a stark modernist vision of industrial Britain with immense sensitivity of execution.

However, the most powerful work on display for me was the sculpture of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein. Both were deeply influenced by native sculpture reaching Europe from Africa and the Pacific Islands, and the way in which this was starting to be used by Picasso, Modigliani and others. Epstein was never formally part of the Vorticist group, although he did exhibit with them. The Rock Drill that confronts you when you enter the exhibition encapsulates the Vorticist aesthetic: modern, angular, aggressive and sexual. Meanwhile, Gaudier-Brzeska's Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound represents the High Priest of modernism as monumental, instantly recognisable, and decidedly phallic.

Vorticism's philosophy was encapsulated in the periodical Blast, only two issues of which were produced. It is undoubtedly Wyndham-Lewis's creation, pretentious, provocative and wilfully contrarian. The exhibition attempts - rightly - to put Blast centre-stage, but it is difficult to appreciate a wordy production in such a context. It is obvious that much effort has been made to display Blast's philopsophical, literary and artistic aspects in a coherent manner.

Ultimately, the Vorticists rage against the modern world was subsumed in the First World War. Their posturing appeared irrelevant in the context of the slaughter of the trenches. Wyndham Lewis and Wadsworth joined up and fought with distinction in the war, whilst Gaudier-Brzeska's death at the Front is commemorated in the second issue of Blast. Ultimately, the Vorticists were too derivative - and, let's be honest, not talented enough - to make a significant impact beyond British shores. Their art took from Cubism, their philosophy from Futurism and the pot-pourri of modernist groups trying to understand the new century. This exhibition is a worthwhile attempt to place them in their proper context.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Book Review : Armadale by Wilkie Collins (Penguin 2004)

Now listen carefully, I will say this only once...

In Barbados, Allan Armadale disowns his son Allan Armadale and passes his fortune to his cousin Allan Wentmore on condition he takes the surname Armadale. Armadale-Wentmore hires Fergus Ingleby as his clerk, and sails to Madeira where he has been promised his relative Miss Blanchard in marriage - however, Ingleby, who is of course the disowned son Allan Armadale in disguise, has got there first and married Miss Blanchard. Armadale-Ingleby sails for England with Armadale-Wentmore in hot pursuit. Twenty-one years later, and young Allan Armadale is being brought up by his widowed mother in England. He befriends a young man of similar age named Ozias Midwinter - but that is not his real name.

Wilkie Collins is the master of the convoluted plot, but the explication in this novel is of a Byzantine complexity that completely outdoes all others. The above is only for starters - when the devious Lydia Gwilt discovers Ozias' secret, she embarks on a scheme of her own which is even more bewildering, which culminates in a denouement which presages all these films where the baddie has devised a long-drawn out end for the hero, when a quick shot to the temple may have been less elegant but much more practical.

That is not to say this is not a good book - it is. It takes time to develop, but once it gets going it is compelling. In the young Allan Armadale Collins created an engaging if infuriating hero, charming but impetuous, who needs Ozias Midwinter and the Reverend Brock to keep him out of trouble. Armadale has fallen for Eleanor, the daughter of his tenant, Major Milroy. But Lydia Gwilt has her eyes on Allan, has obtained a role as Neelie's Governess, and Jane Eyre she isn't.

Lydia Gwilt is a masterly creation, an attractive lady of dubious background but well-educated, few morals but a talented pianist and much more cultured than the oafish Armadale. She has no compunction in using her looks to influence the men around her, especially the pathetically besotted Bashwood. A creature of pure will, yet she wavers when confronted by the forcefield for good that is Ozias Midwinter. Collins implies that Gwilt's immorality is a product of her ambiguous background, how she was badly treated as a child and as an adult. But Midwinter has an equally ambiguous background and has been equally badly treated, yet is innately good.

This is a deeply subversive novel about the ambiguity of surface appearance, of superficial morality. Few characters are exactly who they appear to be - young Armadale has to be instructed how to behave as a gentleman, the villagers of Thorpe-Ambrose shun him accordingly yet welcome Lydia Gwilt. Mother Oldershaw is superficially respectable and Doctor Downward's sanitorium is reviewed approvingly by his fellow Hampstead residents. Yet interestingly given that the novel was written in the 1860's, Collins makes little of the possibility of any perceived discrepancy between Midwinter's creole skin and his gentle nature.

In the end, the weight of Collins' plot weighs the novel down. That is unfortunate, since the novel contains some of Wilkie Collins' most finely drawn characterisations in Bashwood and Lydia Gwilt, and offers much sharp social satire. He makes a telling critique on the weaknesses of Victorian matrimonial law whilst never failing to entertain. Yet the complex plots of The Woman in White or The Moonstone have a lightness which Armadale lacks and it is this over-earnest explication which keeps it from attaining the heights of the other great Wilkie Collins novels of the 1860s.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book Review : No Name by Wilkie Collins (Penguin 2004)

Magdalen and Norah Vanstone are the much-loved daughters of Andrew and Mrs Vanstone, who live comfortably with their governess Mrs Garth in Somerset. Norah is quiet and sensible, but Magdalen is high-spirited, a natural actress and who has fallen in love with the boy next door.But when Andrew Vanstone receives a letter that causes Mrs Vanstone and him to travel at short notice to London, all starts to unravel, as their parents are hiding a secret that neither of the girls suspect.

Within a short time, their parents have died tragically and Magdalen and Norah are cast out of the family home with their fortune passing, against their father's intentions, to their uncle - who believed that he had himself been cheated by Andrew Vanstone many years ago, and so was disinclined to help the girls. Norah accepts her fate, but Magdalen cannot, and with the help from the "moral agriculturalist" Captain Wragge, she sets out on an audacious journey to try to reclaim her rightful fortune.

For me, one of the biggest surprises in this novel of shocks is why this book is not as well known as The Moonstone or The Woman in White, as to my mind this book is easily their equal. It is classic Collins - densely plotted, twisting and turning - as he draws on his legal training to chart a convoluted course through the Victorian laws of inheritance that would have satisfied all at Dickens' Court of Chancery.

Magdalen Vanstone is a superb heroine. Collins contrives to ensure that whilst she is acting in a way that is, superficially, morally reprehensible, she has sufficient justification for her actions to keep her audience onside. Equally ambiguous is Captain Wragge, who, after some initial equivocation, shuns exploiting Magdalen when he could have easily done so. But much more subversive is the way in which characters glide with apparent ease between the rigid strata of Victorian society - the rapid fall of Magdalen and Norah, and Magdalen's subsequent donning of roles above and below her station - even, at one point, encouraging her lowly maid to impersonate a Housekeeper.

Equally ambiguous are Noel Vanstone and Mme Lecount, his faithful housekeeper. Noel Vanstone is a miser, a coward and a fool, yet he has come by his fortune honestly and is in a way unfortunate to inherit the baggage in the shape of Magdalen that comes with it. Mme Lecount may be icy and calculating, yet nevertheless she shuns the opportunity to manipulate Noel Vanstone's will for any more than what she feels she is due for many years of service.

Several of the minor characters are a delight - Mrs Garth and Mr Clare, both straight-talkers in their own way, and the bluff Admiral Bartram, scared of offending his cook, and Mazey the drunken coxswain. Only the mentally deficient Mrs Wragge, essentially an affectionate figure of fun, makes the modern reader uncomfortable.

But there are also two bigger shortcomings, familiar to readers of Collins' other books. Magdalen's sister Norah and Commander Kirke are both simply too good to be true, and consequently of little interest. And the coincidences required to effectuate the conclusion are simply too much to be able to accept - it's as if the author had simply run out of energy and invention by this point (Collins was in fact very ill when completing the novel).

However that is beside the point. One senses that Collins' delight was in the intricacy of the main body of the plot, which had been by now resolved - the final irony is that it is the passive Norah not Magdalen who effects this resolution. One cannot blame Collins for running out of steam at the end - true to the tradition of Sensation Novels, the pace of this book has never slipped, and if its moral ambiguities were too much for a Victorian audience, it suits it even better to today's readership.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review : Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet (Faber and Faber 2001)

Think of the Victorians. Do you conjure up pictures of sexually repressed patriarchs who covers their piano legs to prevent their wives, daughters and servants developing impure thoughts? Or do you have visions of stench and squalour, new railway lines being thrust through putrid slums whilst dark satanic mills belch the fumes of unfettered capitalism throughout the land? Or, for that matter, do think of Oscar Wilde and his aesthetic friends, sipping absinthe and giggling over improbably-endowed satyrs in Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations. Or Jack the Ripper, carving his way through Whitechapel?

All these pictures are valid, and Matthew Sweet explores each in his engaging work on Inventing the Victorians. His thesis is that time has distorted our vision of the Victorians and in actual fact they were very similar to us. They were less stuffy about sex than we imagine - the covered piano-legs in fact originate in the United States, and it wasn't Queen Victoria who first lay back and thought of England, but a certain Lady Hillingham in 1912 (although as a counter-example, the form of body-piercing known as a "Prince Albert" was actually the invention of an American proprietor of a string of body-piercing parlours around 1970.)

Despite the book's publicity which focusses on sex and serial killers, it also delves into less extreme byways, such as the nature of Victorian advertising which was, if it can be conceived, even more intrusive and less truthful than today, interior design, or the remarkable feats of the tightrope walker Blondin, who cooked dinner above the Niagara falls, and took a lion in a wheelbarrow on a wire slung between the towers of the Crystal Palace. Apparently spam mails originate in the nineteenth century, as does the first Indian Restaurant in Britain, which predates the first Fish and Chip shop by 54 years. It is an eclectic, enjoyable mix, with the emphasis on the interesting anecdote rather than the thesis which does get rather lost as Sweet gets carried away describing in detail the debauches of the Yellow Book set, or Charles Dodgson's attitude to little girls.

Sweet's conclusion is that the Victorians weren't as stuffed-shirt as we would like to think they were. To be honest, I don't think that most people actually think that - the cliché today, buttressed by numerous Sensation novels both of the 19th century and today, is of the hypocritical veneer of the Victorian patriarch whose outward respectability hides a penchant for prostitutes and pornography. However, let that minor cavil not detract from a most enjoyable romp through some of the less-well known byways of Victorian life.