Books I read this May

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Oh, the month of May! The not-so-merry lockdown month of May! Between getting hooked on videogames that let you wander through Renaissance cities and watching TV programmes I probably shouldn’t be watching in a pandemic (Chernobyl, The Report), I got through ten books. It’s not much for a month where all I did was bide my time, but one of them was The Canterbury Tales, so I’m pleased with that.

And Then There Was No-One, by Gilbert Adair

The last and least of the Evadne Mount trilogy where the author goes full po-mo and narrates the tale in his own person. It’s got all the tics of such novels–silly names, literary gossip, a fixation with Nabokov–all elbowing out the murder, which the author shows very little interest in. The final 20 pages are engagingly madcap and surreal, but didn’t merit the trudge of the previous 250.

The Bacchae, by Euripides, trans. William Arrowsmith

The last and perhaps the best play by Euripides–a departure in so many ways, from the wild spectacle of the mid-play earthquake to the gory dismemberment of the King at the end. I don’t think the chorus is ever so well used as it is here. For a late work, the innovation seen here is astonishing.

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Re-read. A comfort book, still astonishingly vivid in its scenes and characters. Who wouldn’t give their right arm to have written the apple barrel scene, or a glorious monster like Hands or Silver? It marks for me the point where I left the safety of Enid Blyton behind and entered a more vivid, savage, dangerous world.

Book V of The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser.

My history with this monolith of English verse is chequered. I’ve read Book I (twice), Book II, bounced of Books III and VI, and enjoyed the Mutabilitie Cantos. I think Book I is easiest because the allegory follows the character arc of the Redcrosse Knight–he falls into error, then into despair, returns to a state of grace, and fights a dragon. It’s a basic 3-act structure. The other knights don’t have this–Guyon, knight of Temperance, doesn’t slob out in the middle cantos of Book II. The closest Artegall, knight of Justice, gets is a deeply weird section where he yields to a female knight through chivalry and is made to put on women’s clothing and do some weaving. There’s recognisable allegorical episodes–a version of the Judgement of Solomon, as well as the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots and War with Spain, but it feels rather disconnected. One thing it did inspire me to do was return to some scholarly articles in search of further illumination–which I read, for the first time in a while, with real enjoyment.

The Wedding of Sir Gaweyn and Dame Ragnell, in Middle English Verse Romances

The worst poem I’ve read in quite some time. It’s one of the sources for the Wife of Bath’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales, which is why I looked it up, but it’s so clunky and metrically incompetent as to be almost painful. Chaucer’s own spoof romance, Sir Thopas, looks like a masterpiece compared to this. For specialists only.

False Value, by Ben Aaronovitch, read by Daniel Kobna-Smith

Only of the few series where I will listen to an audiobook without reading the hard copy. This one gave me my PC Peter Grant fix and expanded the world building, as foreign agents attempt to get their hands on a magical Babbage engine. It’s hampered in the early chapters by flashbacks which are not nearly so interesting as the present-day narrative, but exploring a Silicon roundabout tech firm gives Aaronovitch a cast of geeky eccentric and opportunities for endless Hitchhikers references–both of which I appreciated.

Jeeves and the King of Clubs, by Ben Schott

I’m rather fond of the pseudo-Wodeshousiana, because they usually end up as fascinating cross-breeds rather than straight imitations. Sebastian Faulks’s Jeeves and the Wedding Bells stole a bunch of tricks from Upstairs Downstairs, while this one takes its cue from the spy novel. Wit sparkles from every page, and the endnotes are an extra treat. Characterisation and description are on point, but Schott hasn’t been able to resist the temptation to over-egg, bean and crumpet the dramatis personae. Too many familiar characters are introduced, meaning the plot ends in a confusion of loose ends quite unlike Wodehouse’s elegant double bow.

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, modernised by Nevill Coghill

I’ve always had a bit of cognitive dissonance when it comes to Chaucer. Everyone always talks of jolly old Dan Chaucer, heart of Merrie England, and the bits I’d read before included blood libels and honour killings. Reading it end to end, I got more of a sense of it as an anthology, each tale having a new narrator who’s unreliable in a whole new way. Began reading after watching Two Noble Kinsmen at the Globe. I looked into the play but struggled, so I switched to The Knight’s Tale, where upon the easy lope of Coghill’s modernised couplets swept me on through the whole thing.

Selected Poetry, by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Anthony Wood

I adore Pushkin, and this Penguin selected will sit beautifully beside Eugene Onegin and the Collected Prose. Wood is a skilful poet and a metrically ingenious translator. Some of the lyric verse feels a little straightened, but with the narrative verse and folk tales the translation is fluid and easy. Pushkin is a welcome reminder that great poetry needn’t be wholly serious. For my money, he’s greater than Byron.

The Princess Casamassima, by Henry James

It is perhaps fortunate that Henry James was to write so many short stories and novellas, as they provide accessible opportunities for the impatient and distracted modern-day reader to sample and appreciate his perspicacious, equivocal, delicately nuanced style; a style that sprawls across sentences of enormous length and paragraphs that stretch for three pages at a time. Whole novels in this vein can become rather wearisome, but after a long preface in his almost unintelligible late style, it is a relief to spring upon the relative sharpness and directness of the earlier James, and the book turns out to be gifted with many of the novelistic virtues: vivid characters, deftly sketched locations, conflict and co-operation. Above all, it has the charm of seeing James step outside of the aristocratic drawing room and attempt a sketch of low life in the mode of Zola or Gissing, for the book’s noble title conceals its preoccupation with revolutionary struggle among the London working class. I wearied of it several times in the reading, but on finishing I find these frustrations have melted away into a sublime satisfaction.

Books I read this March

IMG_1641You don’t need me to tell you that this has been a month of drastic change and disruption, but despite it all I still found the time to finish eleven books, from classical tragedies to modern fantasy.

James I: The Phoenix King, by Thomas Cogwell

Cogwell hits on the neat concept of introducing each chapter with a fresh portrait of James, starting with a truly wonderful childhood portrait where the King has a tiny waist and cartoonishly flared puffling pants tapering to delicate feet. Only the hawk perched on his wrist and the directness of his gaze show the cool depths of his power. It’s a sympathetic portrait of a King whose manhood was tested in the poisonous cut-throat world of Scottish politics, and who treated his English reign as if it was Christmas every day; a King who, for all his weaknesses and lack of interest in government as compared to hunting, brought stability to Britain after the tumultuous changes of the Tudor dynasty. Highlights are the plots and murders–not just Guy Fawkes but Sir Thomas Overbury, and enough Scottish backstabbing to rival Macbeth. Plus King James’s steamy homosexual affair with his court favourites, where we have the letters and can overhear their terms of endearment.

The Legend of the Sleepers, by Danilo Kis, trans. Michael Henry Heim, revised by Mark Thomson

A pair of biblical short stories by a Balkan writer who wasn’t quite my thing. I liked the premise of both, but I found the prolixity of the Sleepers rather tiresome, and Simon Magus bathetic in its conclusion. I can see the influence of Borges, but I don’t feel the fascination of Borges’ puzzle-box conceptual plotting.

Come Close, by Sappho, trans. Aaron Poochigan

Dropped in for a poem, then thought I might as well read the whole thing, given it’s 40 odd pages of very short poems. I thought a rhyming translation of Sappho would be utterly odious, but these ingeniously enjambed full and half rhymes avoid the trap of making Sappho sound like a pop-song; it’s more like stumbling on a modernised Renaissance lyric, which is fine craftsmanship indeed. Free verse captures the tragic fragmentation of Sappho’s work more accurately, but this one has a haunting music of its own.

Poems by Alexander Pope, selected by John Fuller

It’s often good to read a selected even when I have a collected, as the new arrangement casts new light. I skipped The Rape of the Lock, with which I’m a bit too familiar, but I enjoyed the rest of it, revealing a lighter, racier Pope than the sententious moralist of The Essay of Man and the Epistles, and one more willing to venture away from the exquisitely balanced heroic couplet, of which Pope remains the unsurpassed master.

The Vagabond King, by Jodie Bond

My first time reading a novel where I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements! Jodie brought this to our emerging writers weekend in Ty Newydd, and it was published about a year later. It’s interesting to read a fantasy novel with actual Homeric machinery, an original feature well exploited in the clash of Deyar and Zenith, elemental Gods playing games with the fates of men. A grimdark novel that moves along with admirable speed and urgency–the first 100 pages would serve more turgid writers as vol.1 of a trilogy.

Wigs on the Green, by Nancy Mitford

Her third novel, and the one where she cocks a snook at her fascist-sympathiser sisters, Unity and Diana, through a gentle Wodehouse-style comedy. There is a baffling lack of actual wigs on greens, and my 20s slang powers aren’t strong enough to translate. A wonderfully direct, vivid beginning introduces us to Jasper Aspect, a first-class rotter and the book’s most engaging character. It’s almost up there with Wodehouse, but you sense that Plum liked his thieves, blackmailers and even his models of efficiency, while Mitford has strong ideas who are the loveable rogues and who are the provincial snonbs. That and the rather comic-opera approach it takes to the rise of fascism are a bit of a drag on an otherwise amusing novel.

The Fortune of War, by Patrick O’Brian, read by Ric Jerrom

Aubrey and Maturin in America, during the War of 1812. The first half of the book is all about getting the players into place, but I don’t mind a voyage to nowhere in the least. The second part is a land-based espionage thriller. The appeal of O’Brian generally palls as the books spend less time at sea, but this one I like, due to the contrast between the cloak-and-dagger stuff in Boston and the never-mind-maneouvres-go-straight-at-’em thrills of the sea battles, taken faithfully from history. Suffers a bit from being the sequel to Desolation Island, one of my absolute faves, but this is still very very good.

The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens

The most feel-good Dickens novel, a collection of incidents linked by an engagingly silly set of characters–some of whom, like Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller, Dickens never outdid in his whole writing career. There are brief flashes of the satirical sledgehammer he was later to become, particularly when Mr Pickwick winds up in debtors prison on a matter of principle. But in general it’s easy, comic reading that rewards the time to relax and enjoy it. Not that dissimilar to Gavin and Stacey, or so I was musing, in its appreciation for pubs and their comforts, the joys of Christmas, vivid eccentric characters, and the pleasures and perils of the road.

Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret, by Craig Brown

It’s hard to imagine anything more dreary than a formal courtier-biography of Princess Margaret: fortunately, what we have here is a lively collage biography in 99 chapters, ranging from singular anecdotes to droll counterfactuals, exercises in style, character studies, Notes on Ma’am Camp and the London bohemia, and review essays on the memoirists who have chronicled their encounters with the Princess. It’s infinitely pacier than The Crown; a compulsive read that wears its gossipy erudition lightly.

Persian Fire, by Tom Holland

A fine popular history of the Persian War, the sort of thing that gives one a mental framework to make reading Herodotus a hell of a lot easier. Fits in rather nicely with the dribs and drabs of Plutarch I’ve been reading of late–though, perhaps because of this, I found the early background chapters on the Persian Empire, Athens and Sparta were rather slow. The battles, however, are enthralling. There are names here to conjure with: Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Platea, never more vividly brought to life. It still strikes me, however, that Rubicon is his best and most enjoyable book.

Electra, by Euripides, trans. Emily Townsend Vermeule

All the big three Greek tragedians took a pop at this episode: the murder of Clytaemnestra by her son Orestes, with his sister Electra urging him on. This play takes a fresh approach by opening with Electra forcibly married to a poor farmer in the country–quite the most sympathetic character in the piece, seeing he acts towards her with scrupulous honour and kindness, despite the fact that her constant mourning for her father must have been a trial. From there, the predictable beats resume: the recognition scene, the murder behind closed doors, the exhibition of the bodies. It suffers a bit from being read so soon after Orestes, with its ‘burn it all down’ approach to the same tired material, and the brooding presence of the cursed House of Atreus is missed in the new setting. A free verse translation, with long lines that ape Greek hexameters, not altogether as successfully as Richmond Lattimore does it.