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Archive for May, 2010

The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 (2006)
William Dalrymple
Bloomsbury, 578pp

Bahadur Shah Zafar II was the last of the Great Mughals, a monarch whose reign saw the city of Delhi transformed from backwater into a place of cultural brilliance and learning, only to be devastated in the Indian Mutiny of 1857. In his history of this man, this city and the Uprising, William Dalrymple has produced a work of astounding power, informed by his erudite reading of events, backed up by exhaustive primary materials, many of which have never been employed before to tell this story.

I first became aware of Dalrymple through his 1994 book City of Djinns (which is sitting in my book cupboard waiting to be read again), and over the decade and a bit between that book and this, he has taken much time to learn and study the city of Delhi: and has produced numerous books that explore the connections between East and West, Christian and Islamic and Hindu. His latest work, for instance, is Nine Lives: in Search of the Sacred in Modern India, in which he explores how modern faith is transforming this rapidly changing nation. It is easy to see it is a natural continuation of work begin in City of Djinns and advanced here.

The Indian Mutiny of 1857 is a rather infamous and bloody moment in British Colonial rule in India. Until I read this book, I had no idea the extent or sheer bloodiness of the conflict, and I admire the manner and sober attitude Dalrymple takes in telling it. His writing is so evocative and humane, it is easy to picture the horror – and though that is a good thing, it doesn’t always feel so. Details in this book turned my stomach. It is no surprise it won him the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize.

What becomes initially surprising about his book, is that he informs us he is using Indian documents regarding the Mutiny, documents that include personal testimonies and diaries of both Muslims and Hindus, and that barely any of these documents have ever been used to recount the story. It is use of these materials, along with the already familiar British documents, that give his tale equality, and provides deeper understanding. It highlights the mistakes made by all sides, and the sheer brutal ignorance of native cultures shown by the British (no surprise there, though).

This conflict had been brewing in India for some time, but all sides managed to find equilibrium again before it rose to violence on a grand scale. However, it was the introduction of the Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle that was to prove the final insult, and kick-start the rebellion. To load one of these rifles, the Sepoys (Hindu and Muslim soldiers in the British army) had to bite the cartridge open – the cartridge was coated in both pork fat and tallow. For those who do not understand the problem here: pork is regarded as unclean by Muslims, and tallow, which is beef fat, comes from the cow, sacred to Hindus. To fight in the English regiments, both the Muslims and Hindus were forced to break their sacred vows. Disgust at this was expressed to British rulers, but their complaints were roundly ignored. Very soon afterward, the city of Delhi was at war.

The bulk of Dalrymple’s excellent book is given over to an extremely detailed breakdown of events in Delhi, from British, Muslim and Hindu perspectives. It reveals the inability to act by Zafar II, the stupidity of the British forces who allowed themselves to be caught off guard more than once, and the hunger and illness that ravaged the city as clean water and food became scarce. When the British retake Delhi, the savagery they show is so total, and so harrowingly described, it is almost like one is there, with these men. Dalrymple’s writing roves the devastated city streets, into the nearby caves and settlements, into the royal court and the British camp, and excavates the truth of the Mutiny. He shows how it all could have been avoided. He reveals the end of an era and shows the beginning of another – and how events of this conflict lead directly into the modern conflict between East and West. For the Uprising became the first jihad – lessons that should have been learnt after Delhi have been ignored, as they are ignored now… and it is this that makes Dalrymple’s book more than history, it is a warning, a lesson, a plea for the peoples of the world to not commit to another holy war.

The Last Mughal then is a great book. It is unique, powerful, and one that should be read by all and especially by those in power. William Dalrymple should be applauded.

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Doctor Who: The Harvest (2004)
Dan Abnett
Big Finish #58
Starring: Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred & Philip Olivier

I took a two month break from listening to these audio adventures of The Doctor partly through choice – the show was returning to television, and I elected not to have the two overlap – and partly through circumstance (my work provided little opportunity to go walking, and it is on these walks that I listen to these adventures). Nevertheless, on an exceptionally bright and warm spring afternoon, I went for a walk along the beach, and listened to this, the fifty-eighth audio adventure from Big Finish.

It has almost been a year since I started listening to these – and because I listened to so many in such a short space, I think the break was necessary – that the return to the fold heightened my enjoyment of this story immeasurable. It was a pleasure to discover that Big Finish are still producing stories of such quality.

The Harvest takes The Seventh Doctor and Ace (sorry, McShane) to London at some point in the near future (I think they do say, but I forgot to make note, though an Internet search tells me it is 2021). The first part of this story, however, is almost entirely given over to Thomas Hector Schofield, or Hex as he prefers. He is a junior doctor in St. Gart’s Hospital, where it is his birthday, when a former friend is bought in following a road traffic accident. Doctor Stephen Farrer allows Hex to leave the operating theatre, but later, when Hex asks after his friend, Farrer is brusque, and tells him his friend is dead. Whilst this is going on, a mysterious woman from human resources is interested in him – this turns out to be McShane. When the two meet after work for drinks, they are attacked by a six foot man. McShane takes them to the TARDIS, where the reality of what is being conducted at St. Gart’s is slowly revealed.

The Harvest has a lot to do: it has to introduce Hex, whom at the end of this tale, will become a new companion. It has to explain how and why Cybermen are being constructed a hospital and what it all has to do with a Eurozone Space programme, and it has to entertain. Here Dan Abnett’s script works best – it zings along at a terrific speed, and there is little time to question its construction. Where it fails, for me, was in the choice of music used to indicate scene changes etc, they felt unnecessary and cluttering. Other than that, this was an entertaining reintroduction to the world of Big Finish’s Who.

I should make a note about Hex: played by Philip Olivier, he is somewhat under drawn, but likeable. There was a note of mystery about him as The Doctor read his personnel file in the hospital computer – and because I’ve had what this twist is spoiled by the friend who lends me these tales, I can say it is nicely done, and played well. It is good to see the series laying seeds that will sprout later.

I also enjoyed McCoy’s performance in this – his interaction with the computer, known as System, voiced with deadpan sexiness by Janie Booth, was a clever inversion of how these things usually go. And yes, I did just suggest a computer was sexy!

The Harvest then, a rollicking tale, and one that makes me eager again to delve make into this world. Now I just need a few more long afternoons off work to go for my walks.

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Dombey and Son (1846 – 1848)
Charles Dickens
Wordsworth Classics, 808pp

Dombey and Son was the first novel Charles Dickens mapped out thoroughly in advance. Many of his previous novels had this meandering, picaresque quality – which was fine for The Pickwick Papers, or Nicholas Nickleby. Dombey and Son, a novel in which Dickens conceived of a father who desired a son but is left with just a daughter, and turns wicked because of life’s unjust blows, needed control, a structure to hold it together and through which we could feel the pain of Florence Dombey and this eccentric, brilliant cast of characters.

In his preface of 1867, Dickens has this to say of Paul Dombey: “Mr Dombey undergoes no violent change, either in this book, or in real life. A sense of his injustice is within him, all along. The more he represses it, the more unjust he necessarily is.” This is a marked change in Dickens’s attitude to villainy: in Oliver Twist you had Fagin and Bill Sikes, in Nicholas Nickleby Sir Mulberry Hawk and Wackford Squeers. Choose any Dickens novel before Dombey and Son, and you have villains noted for their villainy. Mr Dombey is human, capable of heart, of love, of feeling pain: there must be humanness in him, for he woos not only Florence’s mother, but Edith Granger, whom willingly marries him. It is because the villainy in Dombey and Son has such a human face that this novel derives its great power.

The novel’s impact upon Dickens whilst writing it was equally powerful. I quote again from his 1867 preface: “I began this book by the Lake of Geneva, and went on with it for some months in France, before pursuing it in England. The association between the writing and the place of writing is so curiously strong in my mind, that at this day, although I know, in my fancy, every stair in the little midshipman’s house, and could swear to every pew in the church in which Florence was married, or to every young gentleman’s bedstead in Doctor Blimber’s establishment, I yet confusedly imagine Captain Cuttle as secluding himself from Mrs MacStinger among the mountains of Switzerland. Similarly, when I am reminded by any chance of what it was that the waves were always saying, my remembrance wanders for a whole winter night about the streets of Paris—as I restlessly did with a heavy heart, on the night when I had written the chapter in which my little friend and I parted company.” Dombey and Son is the novel that had Thackeray despairing of “Writing against such power as this.” It is a novel whose hold and power over the reader is vice-like, tendentious in its form and motive. Its importance has remained undimmed with age: men like Dombey exist today, and women like Florence are still subjugated the same.

Dickens is often criticized for his sentimentalism, and with echoes of Wilde’s line about needing a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell still in mind, one comes to the first truly sentimental moment in Dombey and Son: the death of the Son. Master Paul Dombey, until his death, has pulled at the heart strings for he is a sickly young boy, devoted to his sister, and who listens to the waves: “Very often afterwards, in the midst of their talk, he would break off, to try to understand what it was that the waves were always saying; and would rise up in his couch to look towards that invisible region, far away.” His death, inevitable as it is, provokes nothing like the same reaction Little Nell’s does in The Old Curiosity Shop. Master Dombey’s death is a hollowing of the heart, a masterpiece of subtle powerful writing:

“The golden ripple on the wall came back again, and nothing else stirred in the room. The old, old fashion! The fashion that came in with our first garments, and will last unchanged until our race has run its course, and the wide firmament is rolled up like a scroll. The old, old fashion—Death!
Oh thank GOD, all who see it, for that older fashion yet, of Immortality! And look upon us, angels of young children, with regards not quite estranged, when the swift river bears us to the ocean!
‘Dear me, dear me! To think,’ said Miss Tox, bursting out afresh that night, as if her heart were broken, ‘that Dombey and Son should be a Daughter after all!’”

The death of Master Dombey brings about a change in Mister Dombey, and the monster in him is unleashed through grief. He rejects his daughter and long before we even get there, the end game is set into motion.

Florence Dombey, meanwhile, grieves another way. The loss of her dear brother is softened through her friendship with Walter Gay, a man as dear to her as a brother, and one who rescued her when once she was lost. Dickens is at is cleverest in this plot line: all expect a romance to blossom, for love to prevail in this heartless of worlds, but further tragedy strikes as Walter is lost at sea. Though more literate and savvy readers can deduce the truth of Walter’s fate hundreds of pages before his fate is finally revealed, it is nevertheless a masterstroke of a move: with Walter at her side, Florence can survive, but without him, her life is doomed. As Mister Dombey becomes more withdrawn and violent, and his marriage to Edith crumbles, he strikes Florence. Without Walter, this incident sends her destitute into the streets. At every turn, Dombey and Son surprises you, and what is magisterial about it, is that every turn and machination of plot feels drawn out of the characters, not out of authorial interference. The people in Dombey and Son are people, not puppets.

This is not to say Dombey and Son is without its flaws. Some of the minor characters are little more than funny voices – Dickens truly lets rip with accents and caricatures in these minor figures (though I suppose this has the effect of allowing us to recall with ease who they are, as some do vanish for hundreds of pages) – and the final resolution is a little too neat. But these are minor quibbles in what is clearly Dickens’s finest novel (of those I have read thus far), and pale into complete insignificance when weighed against the rest.

Dombey and Son, then, is a fabulous novel. It is powerful because it is thought through, because its characters live and breathe on the page, but more importantly because the surroundings are right: this is the first of his novels that engages with the wider world. The railways, new to Britain, are spreading quickly, and the construction of stations is changing the face of London. Dickens thought on this modern advancement is spoken in Dombey and Son: “The power that forced itself upon its iron way—its own—defiant of all paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.” The railway is a monster, and it is no surprise that the true villain of Dombey and Son, James Carker, a manager in Dombey and Son, rides the train. The coming of the railway reduces Camden Town:

“The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood. Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy- turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond. Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable; Babel towers of chimneys, wanting half their height; temporary wooden houses and enclosures, in the most unlikely situations; carcases of ragged tenements, and fragments of unfinished walls and arches, and piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks, and giant forms of cranes, and tripods straddling above nothing. There were a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places, upside down, burrowing in the earth, aspiring in the air, mouldering in the water, and unintelligible as any dream. Hot springs and fiery eruptions, the usual attendants upon earthquakes, lent their contributions of confusion to the scene. Boiling water hissed and heaved within dilapidated walls; whence, also, the glare and roar of flames came issuing forth; and mounds of ashes blocked up rights of way, and wholly changed the law and custom of the neighbourhood.
In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.”

It is in this hell of a neighbourhood, that Good Mrs Brown kidnaps Miss Dombey; the railway is home to all undesirables. What Dickens shows is a London undergoing vast change, and a London engaging with the wider world – for the other recurrent motif is water, rivers, seas and oceans. Old Sol Gills, Captain Cuttle and Walter Gay, these men make their money from the sea – their transport is represented as nobler, a way of life. Its marked contrast to the railways is deliberate, though just as quick to take life.

These are just quick jottings of thought about Dombey and Son, and show, I think, the vast scope of this novel, and how Dickens wonderfully explores these themes through the intimate. It is a novel of the world and of a father and daughter; it is a novel of universal themes, and particular grievances. It is everything a novel should be. Dombey and Son is a novel that needs to be read more than once, and I anticipate the day I return to it.

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Le Chef-d’oeuvre Inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece) (1831)
Honoré de Balzac
Thompson Publishing Company, 31pp
Translation by Ellen Marriage

And so I return to the Études Philosophiques from Honoré de Balzac monumental La Comédie Humaine. It has been almost a year since I last read any of his work – so my archive tells me – though it feels like only a few months have passed, such I guess is the power Balzac’s work has on my subconscious. I can picture details of La Recherche de l’Absolu and La Peau de Chagrin even now.

Le Chef-d’oeuvre Inconnu is a short story, published first in the newspaper L’Artiste with the title Maître Frenhofer in August 1831. It appeared again later in the same year under the title Catherine Lescault, conte fantastique. It was published in Balzac’s Études Philosophiques in 1837 and was integrated into the La Comédie Humaine in 1846.

Le Chef-d’oeuvre Inconnu is one of Balzac’s more well-known stories – it has inspired both filmmakers, particularly Jacques Rivette, whose film La Belle Noiseuse (1991) is loosely based upon the story, and Pablo Picasso, who moved into the address this story takes place at, and in which he was inspired to paint Guernica.

It is an unusual story in that its protagonist is a real-life figure, the famous French painter Nicholas Poussin, a man whose work often stood in opposition to the popular cultural trends of the day: his work engaged with both the Renaissance and the classical world, and his motifs are often death and tragedy. Balzac’s choice of Poussin is entirely deliberate.

“”Ah !” said the old man, “it is this ! You have halted between two manners. You have hesitated between drawing and color, between the dogged attention to detail, the stiff precision of the German masters and the dazzling glow, the joyous exuberance of Italian painters. You have set yourself to imitate Hans Holbein and Titian, Albrecht Diirer and Paul Veronese in a single picture. A magnificent ambition truly, but what has come of it? Your work has neither the severe charm of a dry execution nor the magical illusion of Italian chiaroscuro.””

The old man is the revered painter Frenhofer, whom is critiquing a work by Frans Porbus (a lightly veiled Frans Pourbus the Younger or a mis-typing of his name, I am uncertain), whose studio he has entered with the young Poussin. Frenhofer tells Porbus that his painting of Mary of Egypt is incomplete, and with just a few more strokes of the brush, Frenhofer seems to make Mary come to life. Frenhofer tells them that though he has mastered the technique of creating a living illusion in painting, he has yet to find a suitable model for his masterwork, La Belle Noiseuse (or The Beautiful Troublemaker). We learn Frenhofer has been reworking and refining his painting for ten years, and that every time he thinks he is done, he sees he is not. A model, a perfect woman, is all he needs.

Where this story travels next is at once surprising and shocking: Balzac weaves his theme of death and tragedy effortlessly (see, I said Poussin was a deliberate choice). Balzac’s language is modern (even in Ellen Marriage’s translation), and his story could have been written yesterday: its themes resonant even now. Much of Balzac’s epic cycle is sparsely commented upon online, with some works having escaped attention entirely, but this story is well known and there are many fine essays out there discussing its themes and deeper meanings. For me, this is one of the finest short stories, and seems, in its structure and pay off, to anticipate much more modern works. It comes highly recommended.

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The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931)
Nathanael West
Penguin Modern Classics, 65pp

That title. From the moment you hear it, you cannot forget it. In a first year university course on contemporary American writing, one of the works we studied was West’s last novel, The Day of the Locust. The edition I bought of that work came with Balso Snell, and though I never got around to reading it then, the title remained lodged in memory. Sorting out my library the other week – most of my books have been stored in boxes since university, some years ago now – I discovered those books from that course, and I picked up West’s book, intending to read The Day of the Locust again: instead I went to Balso Snell, his first novel.

Reading the history of this work, one soon learns that it is indeed possible to forget the title of this work. West began work on Balso Snell as early as 1924, worked on it with more fervour during his stay in Paris in 1926 (one can easily imagine the writer in the city), and then completed it over two years in New York City. In 1929 West began trying to sell this short novella under the title The Journal of Balso Snell: he was rejected twice, but following a favourable appraisal by William Carlos Williams, Balso Snell was published in New York by the French publisher Contact Editions. The book sold less than 500 copies, and fell out of print. The Dream Life of Balso Snell remained unread and unpublished until a collected edition of his novels appeared decades after his death, in 1975.

Balso Snell is wandering in the grasslands around Troy when he discovers the Trojan Horse. Seeking entry, he tries each orifice, settling for the anus, leading to the first great line in this work: “the mouth was beyond his reach, the navel provided a cul-de-sac, and so, forgetting his dignity, he approached the last. O Anus Mirabilis!” In the horse Snell meets an array of people who tell their stories – and Snell begins to realise that these are all writers in need of an audience. Snell hears their tales and then discards them, nihilist in his approach, before ending in an orgiastic sexual embrace.

The above is a base summary of West’s novel, and it is obvious that critics have often interpreted it many ways. Leslie Fiedler sees the whole novel as “a fractured and dissolving parable of the very process by which the emancipated Jew enters into the world of Western Culture.” I read it in a similar manner – Snell is a writer trying to find his voice, and if everything that happens in the Trojan Horse is, as the title implies, the dream life of Balso Snell, then each encounter is a manifestation in his subconscious of various literary styles – the epistolary novel, the absurdist, the literary, the poetical – and his rejection of them. At the end of the novel Snell has not found his voice, or style, and instead chooses a sexual encounter – indicating that perhaps Snell has accepted living life over practising art. After all, at the very end, in a wonderful monologue, Snell proclaims: “And when dying, will you be able to say, I turn down an empty glass, having drunk to the full, lived to the full? Is it not madness to deny life?”

West said of this novel that it was a “protest against writing books”, and its structure, scatological detail and juvenile humour are designed to provoke and irritate as much as they are to entertain. It has produced some wonderful critical responses: some disregard it as merely “a sneer in the bathroom mirror at Art” (Alan Ross), “squalid and dreadful” (Harold Bloom) and “a hysterical, obscure, disgusted shriek against the intellect” (James F. Light). Responses to a work of art never cease amuse, and Balso Snell produces some wide ranging disagreement. The nihilism on display here is fascinating, and I have learnt it is more pronounced in his later novels. I responded warmly to Snell and his journey through the intestinal tract of the Trojan Horse – some of its ideas resonated deeply within me – but perhaps that is because I share similar beliefs.

In that university class all those years ago, I remember thinking The Day of the Locust was one of the great American novels of the twentieth century, and I think I subconscious avoided the others for fear they might not live up to that standard. Now, it is true that The Dream Life of Balso Snell is no Day of the Locust, it is nevertheless an interesting and provocative piece of work and one that I know I will read again. It reminded me of poetry, a work whose meaning is only truly deduced when every part has been processed: some of Snell will take a while to process. I look forward to reading the other two West novels, and then returning to The Day of the Locust.

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