- Stone's Fall by Iain Pears - It's been nearly a decade since Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost blew me away, and during that period I experienced some disappointment trying to recreate to experience with his follow-up novels. You can't help but respect Pears for moving away from such a successful formula and trying new things, but neither the meditative but opaque The Dream of Scipio, nor the brief but overdone The Portrait (some thoughts here) delivered the punch that Fingerpost did--a richly detailed historical mystery that both immersed its readers in its characters' pre-modern viewpoint and encouraged us to question it. Pears's latest novel, Stone's Fall, suggested a return to form. Beginning in 1909, its first part is narrated by journalist Matthew Braddock, who is hired by the widow of a just-deceased industrialist, John Stone, to discover the whereabouts of his illegitimate child, whose absence is delaying the execution of his will. Instead, Braddock ends up discovering the depth of Stone's involvement in government and diplomacy, as an arms manufacturer who was steering Europe towards all-out war, while at the same time falling in love with Elizabeth, Stone's widow, who turns out to be a woman of surprisingly unladylike skills and intelligence, and quite a few secrets of her own. The second part moves back to 1890 and is narrated by Henry Cort, a British spy who encounters Elizabeth first as a common French prostitute whom he uses to spy on French officers, and later as a celebrated courtesan whom he introduces to John Stone, while at the same time discovering and preventing a plot to cause a run on the Bank of England. The novel's final part is narrated by Stone himself, as he describes a sojourn in 1867 Venice during which he laid the foundation of his business empire and made the mistake that would eventually lead to his death.
What's most surprising about Stone's Fall is that despite their similar structures, it has much less in common with An Instance of the Fingerpost than with something like The Baroque Cycle. Like Neal Stephenson, Pears's topic is economics, and the thrust of the novel is to translate all aspects of politics, diplomacy, and espionage into economic terms, while at the same time drawing deliberate and obvious parallels between Stone's near-messianic belief in the corporation as the purest expression of human will and endeavor, and his constant grasping at freer markets and greater profits, and the practices and mentality that have led to the current economic crisis. Unfortunately, Pears doesn't manage to make economics as interesting as the early development of the scientific method, or the English Civil War, were in Fingerpost. He tries very hard through Braddock, who is a complete naif in matters of finance and whose narrative consists of long chapters in which other characters explain to him, slowly and using small words, what Stone's business practices meant and what effect they had on England and Europe. This is about as exciting as it sounds, even if, like myself, you're as economically illiterate as Braddock and could use the hand-holding. The novel picks up quite a bit when Cort takes over the narrative, because even economic espionage is ultimately espionage and thus exciting, but the economic focus of the novel fades in his segment, and all but disappears in Stone's narrative. Instead, the mystery of Stone's guilty conscience and Elizabeth's shady past take over, but Stone's overly sentimental, meandering narrative wrings much of the suspense out of them. Perhaps more disturbing than any of these failings, however, is Pears's decision to ignore the history about to barrel down on his 1909 characters. Stone isn't simply an industrialist but a weapons manufacturer, arming nations that will soon use those weapons to decimate one another. The characters dismiss his complicity by explaining to one another that war is inevitable, but to a 21st century reader this feels like Pears twisting history to suit his own needs. A parallel to the current financial crisis can't accommodate a looming World War (I hope), so he ignores that war and what Stone's role in it should tell us about the character. Recognizing this manipulation made me less receptive to the points that Stone's Fall tries to make about the role of finance in government, and as the solutions to Stone's and Elizabeth's mysterious past were quite easy to guess, there wasn't much excitement left for me by the time the novel ended, especially as Elizabeth herself, though much talked about, is never given a voice in the novel, and remains a saintly, much-wronged image rather than a person.
- The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer - Dan Hartland inspired me to read this novel, an early harbinger of the Holmes pastiche craze in which Watson, realizing that Holmes's heroin dependence has gotten the best of him, tricks him into following Professor Moriarty (in reality, a harmless math tutor) to Vienna, where he is treated by Sigmund Freud and then falls into an actual mystery, and the weeks just following the conclusion of another Holmes pastiche, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss's Sherlock, seemed like the perfect time to do so. My feelings about the book mirror Dan's quite closely--it's an impressive pastiche, albeit one that is more concerned with playing The Great Game (as Sherlockians who pretend that Holmes and Watson were actual people call the attempt to square the various inconsistencies and contradictions in Conan Doyle's stories) than a casual Holmes fan like myself is interested in. But there's really not much more here than a clever pastiche, and the novel is eventually overcome by its own self-awareness, the constant knowing winks Meyer delivers as he incorporates Holmes into a world that not only includes real figures such as Freud but also other Victorian literary characters such as Rudolf Rassendyll from The Prisoner of Zenda, which eventually become a bit wearying. Ranked against other attempts to make a fallible human being out of Holmes such as The Final Solution or A Slight Trick of the Mind, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is quite thin, and its last minute revelation of a Deep Dark Secret that drives Holmes and is at the root of his addiction (and his fixation on Moriarty) is unworthy. Still, for what it is--a clever piece of Holmes fanfic--Solution is a lot of fun and worth a look.
- School for Love by Olivia Manning - an after dinner mint to cap off the six course meal that was Manning's The Fortunes of War, School for Love could very well have been a rehearsal for the final, unwritten part of that work, which would have followed Manning's alter-ego Harriet Pringle to post-war, pre-statehood Jerusalem. The protagonist here, however, is teenager Felix Latimer, delivered to the home of his distant relative, Miss Bohun, after the death of his parents. Felix is naive and young for his age, and desperate to regain the love he lost with the death of his parents, particularly his mother. He clings to Miss Bohun, herself desperately grasping for human connection, using her power over the weak and displaced--a widowed Polish refugee and her son still dreaming of their days of glory before the war, a sickly and elderly former merchant marine whom she plucked out of a refugee camp, Felix himself--to try to force them to become her family. She meets her match in Mrs. Ellis, a pregnant widow who takes a room in Miss Bohun's house on the understanding that she will take it over in a few months--a lie Miss Bohun has told in order to get Mrs. Ellis in her grasp. The two are launched into a battle of wits and wills, in which Miss Bohun demonstrates a surprising and terrifying strength while Mrs. Ellis's facade of indifference to her landlady's attempts to insinuate herself into her life slowly cracks and reveals itself as nothing but a childish seflishness. Felix, who starts out loyal to Miss Bohun, his surrogate mother, falls in love with Mrs. Ellis and ends up caught between the two women, in the process losing much of his innocence and immaturity. Manning's gift for crafting complicated, multifaceted characters is on full display here: Miss Bohun is both terrifying and pitiable, Mrs. Ellis both admirable and disgusting, and their dispositions at the end of the novel are, in both cases, a wrench to read. The only weak point is Felix, who is too blank and unformed to shoulder the large portion of the narrative that falls to him, and whose growth is nowhere near as interesting as the battle between the two women.
Of course, another reason to read School for Love is for the glimpse it gives us of Jerusalem in the last days of the British mandate, with tensions between Jews and Arabs, and between both and the British, beginning to mount again after the respite imposed by the war. This was a particularly fascinating glimpse for me because Manning's view of Jerusalem is dominated by foreigners--the English officials, hangers on, and soldiers, and the various European refugees. Jews and Arabs only enter the picture when dealing with these foreigners--when Miss Bohun renews the lease on her house, rented from a local imam, or when Mrs. Ellis befriends a group of Jewish and Arab freethinkers in a cafe to which she takes Felix. All of these characters--foreigners and locals alike--are focused on the outside world, and trying to get away from Palestine before it explodes. A very different attitude than the one familiar to me from Israeli stories about the period immediately preceding statehood, whose characters were focused on the struggle for the Jewish state and had no desire to leave. For both of these qualities, then--the pitch-perfect character work, and the window on a different aspect of Israel's history--School for Love is worth reading.
- Wild Life by Molly Gloss - I seem to have developed a taste for slightly aimless, beautifully written stories of frontier life, and Molly Gloss is rapidly stepping into that niche (previously occupied solely by Annie Proulx)--alas, she's only published one more novel that I haven't read. Wild Life, her second novel (followed by The Dazzle of the Day and The Hearts of Horses, which I wrote about here), is made up of the journals and writings of Charlotte Bridger Drummond, an author, feminist, and freethinker in 1905 Washington. The mother of five whose husband disappeared several years earlier (Charlotte, in a fit of protective self-deception, chooses to believe that he has left her rather than died), Charlotte pays the bills by writing adventure stories about plucky, capable young girls (who are always, to please her audience, rescued by a man in the final five pages). She sees an opportunity to have an adventure of her own when her housekeeper's granddaughter goes missing from the logging camp to which she had accompanied her father. Charlotte sets off on an arduous journey to reach the camp and an even more arduous trek through untamed forest and lava beds in search of the girl, but is separated from her party and adopted by a pack of creatures, neither men nor animals.
This might seem like quite enough to be going on with, but there's a lot more to Wild Life, which switches tones and emotional registers several times over the course of a mere 250 pages. In its early chapters, Charlotte explains her life in great detail--the working of her community, the lives of her neighbors, the compromises she makes with art in order to make a living, the geography of her region of the Colombia river. Some of this is over-detailed, but Charlotte's voice--intelligent, humorous, selfish and very much aware of and ambivalent about her selfishness--wins through. The further she advances in her adventure, and the further she gets out of her comfort zone, the more contemplative Charlotte's voice becomes, until, lost and starving in the woods, there is nothing left of the wry, analytical writer (Gloss's choice to present even these chapters as Charlotte's journal entries, and to describe even her loss of self and inability to reconnect with human civilization once she's rescued in perfectly comprehensible and grammatical English, doesn't simply strain credulity but shatters it to pieces. Lucky for her, the story is sufficiently compelling and well written for us not to care). In the final chapters of the novel, she has to start coming back to herself, and samples of her writing from the period after her sojourn with the beasts show how she's incorporated her experiences into a new level of artistry. If there's a flaw in Wild Life it's that it is either overstuffed--the question of what happened to the missing girl is given more attention than it is ultimately due, for example--or simply not long enough to fully encompass both Charlotte's portrait of her life in its first half and her loss of self in its second. Either would make a novel, but taken together they don't seem to have enough room to breathe. Nevertheless, Wild Life is too beautifully written, and Charlotte's voice, in all its registers, is too compelling, for me to resist, and I will be gobbling up the last remaining Gloss novel as quickly as I can.
- In Hazard by Richard Hughes - another short novel that, like School for Love and Wild Life, contains multitudes, but this time in a much narrower scope--the decks and holds of a 1929 cargo ship, the Archimedes, and the five days it spends trapped within a gigantic tropical storm, which carries the ship for hundreds of miles, battering it nearly to pieces. At its most basic level In Hazard is simply an extraordinary disaster story. The early chapters in which the ship's officers calmly prepare to face a normal-sized hurricane only to realize how monstrous the storm barreling on them actually is, the failure of each of their attempts to break free or keep the ship together, their slow realization of the damage that's been done to the Archimedes and the danger they're in, and finally the punishing strength of the storm itself, are simply terrifying. Beyond this, however, Hughes's interest is in the crew and their reactions to fear and danger. Whether they conquer their fear or are conquered by it, one by one the Archimedes's officers and crew start to lose their grip on sanity as they go for days without sleep, food, or water, seeing enemies in corners, hallucinating loved ones, regretting the choices that have led them to a life at sea, or learning some fundamental truths about themselves. These portraits are expertly done, but they also stand in stark contrast to Hughes's descriptions of the ship's Chinese sailors.
The novel was written in 1938, and though it's obvious that in many cases Hughes is commenting on the English officers' racism rather than participating in it, there are other instances in which the boundaries between the two states are less clear. It is particularly notable that unlike the English officers, who are strongly differentiated within pages of the novel's beginning and whose histories and personalities are much discussed, the Chinese sailors are treated as an undifferentiated group until nearly the end of the novel--a group whose behavior, as compared to the English characters, is decidedly unheroic. Though there are good reasons, which Hughes makes clear, for the sailors' fear and helplessness, the comparison between the two groups' behavior is troubling, so that when Hughes does get around to exploring the psyche of a Chinese character as he did the English ones--a bitter, resentful Communist who has boarded the ship using forged papers in an attempt to escape prosecution in China--it's hard not to look askance at this portrait, if only because it unbalances the novel, taking us away from the Archimedes and the storm. This is a major flaw in the novel, suggesting that Hughes may have had an aim loftier than a pitch-perfect disaster story which he didn't quite manage to reach, but even taking it into account In Hazard is an impressive achievement, well worth a read for its early, storm-centered chapters, and ultimately successful despite the unpleasant treatment of its non-white characters and the shift of its focus towards its end.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Recent Reading Roundup 27
Happy 5771, everyone! Let the year and its reading end; let the year and its reading begin.