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A Moment’s Liberty: The Shorter Diary (1915-1941, 1990)
Virginia Woolf
Edited by Anne Olivier Bell
Pimlico, 516pp

Virginia Woolf began her diary in 1915, by which time her first novel had been accepted for publication but had yet to appear. She was known as the husband of the novelist Leonard Woolf. Her diaries appeared in full to much public acclaim between 1977 and 1984, but it was only in 1990 that Anne Olivier Bell reduced them to this, The Shorter Diary. As A.S. Byatt said: “Her nephew Quentin Bell claims that the 30 volumes of Woolf’s diary are a masterpiece. Anne Olivier Bell has reduced them to a single volume. I think it is still a masterpiece.” She is right.

I will admit some reluctance to read the fiction of Virginia Woolf (though I have read some of her novels), and it was only hesitatingly that I began the diaries. I found them in a charity shop for a quid. There is something about the diaries that is missing from the novels: the novels are intellectual works, Woolf is playing games, challenged conceptions of what the novel is and can do – work that creates her reputation – but these diaries seem simpler, they are more direct. Through them one gains an impression, better than one can from the novels, of what it meant to be Virginia Woolf, and to be thinking of these novels. She also paints one of the best pictures of what it is to be alive during these turbulent decades – the 1930s, and the 1940s. Each entry has some little gem: I opened the diary entirely randomly just now, and it gives me this scathing portrait: “The reason why Colefax is so dull is that she never feels or thinks for herself. That is why I should suffocate of dust if she spent a night here.” Wonderful. Then a few lines later this: “It is a good idea I think to write biographies; to make them use my powers of representation, reality, accuracy; and to use my novels simply to express the general, the poetic.” Could I find a better example of what I was just saying?

Woolf’s diaries are not a work to be read quickly: they are a work to be savoured; each entry is a delight. I read the diaries over a three month period – and for the sake of honesty I’ll admit entirely on the toilet in the morning! (No jokes about that’s where Woolf is best left). The one downside to reading this version is that it makes you wish you’d begun with the full thing: I want all five volumes, and I want them now!

If you’re a lover of literature, and of early twentieth century literature in particular, then it seems to me Woolf’s diaries are essential reading. She knew just about everyone, and thought about all of them and her place within this pantheon, and her portraits and commentary illuminate not just her own work, but the work of her peers. A masterpiece for sure.

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Cambridge Ancient History 1.1: Prolegomena and Prehistory (1970 – 2007)
Edited by: I. E. S. Edwards; C. J. Gadd & N. G. L. Hammond
Cambridge University Press, 724pp

My historical knowledge, especially pre-nineteenth century, is a little weak: in fact it’s downright dreadful. Asking a friend what the best history series to read was, to fill in these disgraceful gaps, he suggested the Cambridge History series. Discovering that my local library had a complete set of their Ancient History range, I thought why not begin at the beginning: The first volume of this fourteen volume sets takes us from the geological ages through to the Stone Age in the Aegean. Written by a series of eminent scholars in each field, the series builds up a complete picture of early life in and around the Mediterranean basin and western Asia. (They have other series that detail the rise of civilisation in other parts of the world).

It has been a few years since I last read any true academic works, and it felt such a delight returning to that world. This series taught me much I had no idea on, and made me ask questions I’d never thought of before: how and why does a written language develop within a culture? When and how and why does a culture go from itinerancy to settlement? How do you domestic animals? When did the first multi-storey buildings first appear, and why? What we have in this series is the very building blocks of society being laid out before us: before long (well, actually a long way on from now) we’ll get to the Romans and the Greeks, and it will all seem like natural evolution.

The few problems with reading every page of a volume such as this, is that you do get a certain amount of repetition: details of pottery markings in Cyprus, Turkey, Israel, Egypt… all of these details are necessary to complete the picture, but it does become a little tiresome. It is with the appearance of people with names, and the beginnings of monarchy and human conflict that the series really came to life: and I look forward to beginning the second volume to see where this historical journey goes next.

Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-Vingts Jours (Around the World in 80 Days) (1873)
Jules Verne
Puffin Classics, 304pp

A truly famous story: Everyone knows of it – they know the name Phileas Fogg, and of his bet to circumnavigating the globe in 80 days. Many even remember the name of his loyal companion, Passepartout… there have been film versions, TV versions, spoofs, animations: Around the World in 80 Days, then, is a beloved classic, and one I thought I knew, until I decided to read it.

“Why you are a man of heart!”
“Sometimes,” replied Phileas Fogg, quietly, “When I have the time.”

The inventions of screenwriters has firstly planted in mind an image that is not even in this novel: Phileas Fogg travelling by balloon. Indeed, there is much that I didn’t know. Written in very plain language, Verne’s tale cracks along at such a pace that you forgive it all its plot holes: it is such a cracking adventure story, you miss its little nuances and the level of detail Verne puts into his descriptive passages. In a world and time when few people would get to see the Indian subcontinent or travel in the Middle East, Verne’s descriptions bring to life a world unknown. I suppose that that was its main appeal.

I wish I had discovered Verne as a child – the adventure and the danger would have appealed inordinately to me then, but I was too busy with Star Wars novels and Star Trek to even care about these progenitors of the world of children’s literature. It is, as I’ve previously noted, a chance for me to now catch up: Verne’s novels are all free, on Gutenberg, and read wonderfully on my Sony E-Reader.

If you’re reading this thinking about something for your kids: give them the gift of Verne; they’ll love you for it.

Le Bal de Sceaux (The Ball at Sceaux) (1830)
Honoré de Balzac
J.M. Dent & Co, 62pp
Translated by Clara Bell

The Ball at Sceaux is one of the oldest books in Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine. It was the fifth written book. It’s storyline is derivative, for he seems inspired by Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and the fables of La Fontaine, especially La Fille (“The Girl”) and Héron (“The Heron”). Nevertheless, he is able to put a typically Balzacian twist upon them.

Émilie de Fontaine is in desperate need to be titled: she will love nobody unless they are known in French society. At the ball at Sceaux she falls in love with a mysterious young man. Despite his refined appearance and aristocratic bearing, the unknown, Maximilien Longueville, never tells his identity and seems interested in nobody but his sister, a sickly young girl. But he is not insensible to the attention Émilie gives him and he accepts the invitation of Émilie’s father, the Comte de Fontaine. Émilie and Maximilien soon fall in love. The Comte de Fontaine, concerned for his daughter, decides to investigate this mysterious young man, and he discovers him on the Rue du Sentier, a simple cloth merchant, which horrifies Émilie. Piqued, she marries a 70 year old uncle for his title of Vice Admiral, the Comte de Kergarouët. Several years after her marriage, Émilie discovers that Maximilien is not a clothier at all, but in fact a Vicomte de Longueville who has become a Peer of France. The young man finally explains why he secretly tended a store: he did it in order to support his family, sacrificing himself for his sick sister and for his brother, who had departed the country.

Balzac portrayal of Émilie de Fontaine is a wonderful one: she is a petty, malicious young woman, and in lesser hands her story would not provoke the way in which it does. You hurt for Maximilien, and the final reveal of his true status is a damning indictment against Émilie de Fontaine. Though only a short work, The Ball at Sceaux rings with the tension of a much larger novel. It is one of the delights of La Comédie Humaine that we shall meet these characters again.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009)
Geoff Dyer
Cannongate, 291pp

Jeff Atman is a journalist. Sent to cover the opening of the Biennale in Venice, he is expecting to see too much art, drink too many bellinis at too many parties. What he is not expecting is to fall in love. In the second half of the novel, Jeff is sent on assignment to the Indian holy city of Varanasi, where erotic love and spiritual awakenings will transform his life forever.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi won Geoff Dyer a river of praise from critics and fellow writers, and earned him the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize. Writers as diverse as Michael Ondaatje, Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith and William Boyd lined up to comment upon it, and many made it their book of the year. It received some criticism as well – with many citing the lack of continuity between the two halves of this novel as a major stumble in Dyer’s otherwise magnificent ability.

I found Dyer’s prose wonderfully electric – it has the looseness that comes only through many hours of hard graft and an ability to tighten the prose to breaking point. The two separate stories, though narratively disconnected – the Jeff in one may not be the Jeff in the other – there is a sense of growth, of a man coming to understand the world a little better. With some very graphic sex thrown in for good measure.

Written in an overwhelming tense first person, the first half of this book sizzles with the kind of banter that graced those old screwball comedies – as Jeff’s relationship with Laura blossoms over a weekend in Venice, you can feel the heat, taste the bellinis, and imagine the great movie this first half would make. The second half increases the tension, but the romance of the first half is replaced by an increasingly unhinged mental state that leads to a wonderfully surreal ending that indicates Dyer spent a long time reading William Burroughs. There are also, contained within the narration, clever connections made to another famous novel that gives Dyer his title: Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. That novel hangs over this once, scenting its narration like pungent perfume. One keeps getting echoes, half-remembered quotes bubbling up and slinking away. The effect of it is wondrous.

I ended Jeff in Venice thinking that perhaps the negative critical reaction from British newspapers was because at heart this is a writers novel, not a readers novel. It is infused with a sense of the writers life, and perhaps only a fellow writer of novels could understand the nuance of it. It would explain why other British writers reacted so warmly towards it. I began Jeff in Venice not certain whether I would like it: I ended it hoping to read it again very soon.

Doctor Who The New Adventures #4- Timewyrm: Revelation (1991)
Paul Cornell
Virgin Books, 224pp

The final part of the Timewyrm tetralogy has a lot to do: it must tie up all the loose ends – Hemmings disappearance into a second TARDIS near the end of Timewyrm: Exodus for one – and see The Doctor defeat the villainous creature he created. Before I began this novel I was thinking how one would best top the previous three adventures which have seen respectively: ancient earth history, alternative earth history and an alien planet. If I were Paul Cornell, the man given the task of completing this novel sequence, I would want to do something strange and dramatic. Thank God Paul Cornell thinks like me.

Timewyrm: Revelation opens with something of a kicker: Ace being murdered by her school bully, while still a child. The church at Cheldon Bonniface is alive, and its visitors are yanked from the face of the earth to the surface of the moon. The Doctor is gives a baby to the visitors in the church, but by isn’t it crying or smiling? Hemmings is somehow behind it all, with the Timewyrm and one of Ace’s school bullies. And Ace… Ace is stuck between this life and the next.

Timewyrm: Revelation sings with an abundance of strange imagery. It is a testament to the skill of Paul Cornell that the surrealist nature of the opening of this novel doesn’t overwhelm or distract. It’s alienness is appropriate – in fact it heightens the tension admirably. We have an appearance from Death himself, and from some past Doctors (revealing that all the previous appearances of past Doctors and companions in the previous volumes did have a purpose after all), and the landscape this final journey takes place in: the Doctor’s mind. Yes, the final twist is that hell or purgatory is in the mind of this cosmic traveller – and that leads to some great biblical imagery, and reveals a very human and guilty corner of The Doctor’s soul.

This then was more than a satisfactory ending to the Timewyrm saga: it may even be the strongest entry. What I hope for this series of novels is that they learn from the lessons Paul Cornell has sown – that this literary Doctor Who can be dark, and bleak, and that not all endings have to be happy. This one leaves us with a bittersweet taste – and is entirely appropriate. Fans of Doctor Who know how good a writer Paul Cornell is: this simply proves it.

Doctor Who The New Adventures #3- Timewyrm: Apocalypse (1991)
Nigel Robinson
Virgin Books, 240pp

Though it seemed that The Doctor might have destroyed the Timewyrm – the villainous creature he helped created in Mesopotamia in the first Timewyrm novel – he knows it is only in hiding, redrawing its strength before another attack. Picking up the creatures signal, he travels with Ace to the planet of Kirith. Here they meet a planet of Adonis’s and goddesses, in something resembling paradise. This is Doctor Who, so we know straight away that something is rotten in this place of wonder. Soon The Doctor is embroiled with the Panjistri, and their medical experiments, and somewhere, behind it all, coils the Timewyrm, planning her revenge.

At the heart of Nigel Robinsons book, the penultimate part of this tetralogy, are some solid ideas. What the story lacks is the writing skill to successfully bring it off. On almost every page Robinsons book resorts to cliché when a more unfamiliar analogy would have worked more successfully: the cliché here renders the threat inert. We are already too familiar and see the narrative tricks that Robinson intends to pull long before he pulls them. Also, as with the previous two novels, there is too much referencing of past television adventures: I am sure for the Doctor Who fan starved off their favourite show on the box, and the unavailability of many stories on VHS, these novels reminded them of moments gone by, but they now read simply as extraneous and unnecessary diversions.

It also struck me that in Robinsons book, the Timewyrm was unessential: this is a story that might have worked better had she not been at the heart of it. But to do that would be to have robbed Virgin of their grand launch. Four novels, one epic adventure.

Had this been the first in the series I doubt the range would have proved so popular. Being part three of a part four adventure, and when part two was so successfully pulled off, it leaves the reader with a good sense of hope: hope that the next will be better. We shall soon see.