Tuesday, May 29, 2018

E. R. Punshon's Music Tells All: A Bobby Owen Mystery

Music Tells All (1948) is the 24th out of 35 entries in the Bobby Owen mystery series of E. R. Punshon and only the second one I've read so I'm a relative novice here. In it he teams up with one of Punshon's other detectives, the gloomy Superintendent Bell.

The Dean Street Press eBook edition that I read comes with an introduction by the mystery blogging world's Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp.

The setup in this one is wonderful. There's what looks very much like a gift horse--a cottage in the countryside at a reasonable rent for Bobby Owen and his wife Olive--and Bobby Owen can't help but keep looking in its mouth. That horse has got two questionable teeth: it seems to be the headquarters--or is it?--of a 'smash and grab' gang operating in London, and then there's some sort of odd Gothic set of love--or is it?--relationships going on among the village's residents. Mr. Fielding is in love with Miss Bellamy, but Miss Bellamy won't talk to anybody, but merely plays the piano, moodily and brilliantly. Miss Rogers is in love with Mr. Fielding's chauffeur, Fred Biggs, but he's in love--or is he?--with Miss Bellamy. And then there's the great question of where all this good food is coming from: it's 1948 and rationing is still on.

The middle, though, I didn't find as strong. It's pretty clear who the murderer is going to be, and it doesn't help when Owen and Bell say it could be person X or it could person Y, all the time conspicuously not suspecting the actual murderer Z. Also a fair amount depends on the psychology of Miss Bellamy, with much portent being laid on her piano playing, and I'm afraid that level of psychological complexity is just a bit above Punshon's pay grade. So on the whole I didn't like it quite as well as the first one I read.

Still the final reveal is well-done and I'll be reading others in the series.

Vintage Mystery Challenge. Golden Age. Who. Crime-solving duo. A mashup of Punshon policemen.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Ellis Peters' Black Is The Colour Of My True Love's Heart

Black Is The Colour Of My True Love's Heart (1967) is an Ellis Peters' mystery from her other series. What? There's something other than Brother Cadfael? It was only after I finished the Cadfael stories that I began looking around.

The other series (there are also some one-offs, plus a historical novel or three) is based on Detective Inspector George Felse, with his wife Bunty, his son Dominic, and in this one, his son's girlfriend Tossa, all contributing to the solution. This is out of the middle of the series and is the third I've read. They're set in the present; Black is set (as you might guess from the title) at a folk music festival in the sixties. Dominic and Tossa are in attendance, but when one of the performers disappears and some bloodstains are found by the riverside, Dominic decides his father should be called in, despite any clear evidence of a crime. Well, of course, he was right when he did it. They find the body.

Some of the late Cadfaels have almost no mystery; the charm (which I still find considerable) is to see how Brother Cadfael plays matchmaker and to pick up a bit more of his complex backstory and maybe learn a little history. Black has a bit more mystery going. Lucien Galt is a folk singer, charming but very taken with himself, and we are shown a number of people with potential motives for his murder in the early pages: an ex-lover, a married woman who appears to be his current lover, her jealous husband who is also the music retreat promoter, a besotted teenage girl, and an irritating radio personality.

In presenting the setup, there's also some mild satire on the folk scene of the sixties. That was the weakest part of the story. I don't think Peters is a natural satirist, and I wasn't entirely convinced by the characters. Also all the Felses are just a little too sweetly understanding. Peters can't really bear to write a proper villain or even somebody a bit irritable. But the mystery plot I thought was quite strong, and when that got going, the story got much better. Several twists I didn't expect.

The story is also, it seems, a retelling of a traditional folk ballad, not one I'd ever heard: Gil Morice (Child ballad number 83). So if you know that ballad you'll know the motivation for the crime, though not the actual outcome, because there's also a twist on that story. But Peters does manage the pathos of an old murder ballad.

And Peters does put together one pair of potential lovers in the end.

Vintage Mystery Challenge. Silver. When. During a special event (folk music festival).

Monday, May 21, 2018

Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard

So good.

And no, I don't mean that appalling cover on my Time/Life edition of 1966.

Giuseppe di Lampedusa's novel The Leopard came out in Italian in 1958, and in an English translation by Archibald Colquhoun in 1960. Di Lampedusa died in 1957 and had garnered nothing but rejections (Mondadori, Einaudi) at the time of his death. It went on to become the second great success of the then-new publishing house Feltrinelli. The first was Doctor Zhivago. (Publishing details from Carlo Feltrinelli's biography of his father.) It is Giuseppe di Lampedusa's only novel and it won the Strega Prize (Italy's premier book prize) for its year.

The Leopard is the story of Don Fabrizio, prince of Salina. A leopard is the sign of his house, and the house owes its loyalty to the Bourbon kings of the Two Sicilies. But the main events take place in 1860, and the Garibaldini have just arrived on the island; it's the opening event in the successful reunification of Italy and the fall of the Bourbon kingdom. Don Fabrizio is not especially impressed with the Bourbon kings, not the father who died recently, nor the son, but he knows them personally and they are his kings. But his nephew Tancredi puts a red cockade in his hat and runs off to join Garibaldi's invasion, and Don Fabrizio isn't put off by it, both because Tancredi is his favorite, even more than his own children, and because it's a sort of insurance. As Tancredi tells him (a famous quote): "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

And things do both stay as they are and also change. Sicily remains hot, dusty, and dry--and impoverished. But Tancredi marries not his cousin, Don Fabrizio's daughter, but the beautiful and rich Angelica, daughter of the corrupt (but successfully so) mayor of the town where Don Fabrizio has one of his estates. Don Fabrizio says of the father: "his family is an old one, I am told, or soon will be." In fact Angelica's maternal grandmother was an illiterate peasant on Don Fabrizio's estates and may very well have been murdered, as an embarrassment, by his rising son-in-law.

But the book is also quite funny. Both the narrator and Don Fabrizio employ a dry irony; Tancredi, too, picks it up from his uncle. Of Concetta, the daughter Tancredi didn't marry, the narrator says:
...a nephew of hers, having caught sight in some book or other of a picture of the famous Czarina, used to call her in private "Catherine the Great": an unsuitable name made quite innocent by the complete purity of Concetta's life and her nephew's total ignorance of Russian history.
But also sad. Sicily does not change; the poor remain poor; Don Fabrizio, sophisticated and learned, but saddled with estates he can do nothing with but sell off piecemeal, is replaced by a grand-nephew totally ignorant of Russian history. When a representative of the 'Piedmontese,' the king of a now-unified Italy, Victor Emmanuel, comes and offers Don Fabrizio a seat in the newly constituted Senate, Don Fabrizio refuses, for nothing can be done with Sicily. "They never want to improve. They think themselves perfect. Their vanity is greater than their misery."

And so it goes. Highly recommended.

My reading the book right now was completely overdetermined: I had made it a Classics Club choice, a Back To The Classics choice, and it fits my Monthly Motif challenge, a book made into a film. It's a great Luchino Visconti film, with Burt Lancaster as Don Fabrizio and Claudia Cardinale as Angelica.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Lawrence Durrell's Quinx (The Avignon Quintet #5)

Quinx is the final volume in Lawrence Durrell's Avignon Quintet and the last novel he wrote (1985). I read the first ones a while ago, but slowed down in reading them. I've just now finished the series.

Lawrence Durrell, while not unknown now, was once a more famous writer; after his Alexandria Quartet (1957-1960) came out, he was apparently considered for the Nobel Prize a few times in the early to mid-60s. In the discussion for the 1961 prize the committee looked askance at his 'monomaniacal preoccupation with erotic complications.' The situation hadn't changed much by 1985.

But neither the Alexandria Quartet or the Avignon Quintet are, in fact, monomaniacally preoccupied with sex. Just maniacally. There's a lot of other things going on, too. Durrell was a skilled travel writer; both series make good use of place. Both have thriller plots and secret societies.

And both have philosophical underpinnings: in the later work, Durrell is interested in Gnosticism, and uses it to complicate his structure. In a Gnostic world, we deal most immediately with a malevolent creator god; the true god lies behind that and does not directly affect our physical world, and only by learning, by knowing (gnosis) can we come to perceive that true god. For a Christian gnostic, that true God is Christ. In the first volume of the Avignon Quintet, (Monsieur) we start with a story about a love triangle in the south of France; it involves a novelist Sutcliffe; by the end of that first novel we learn the story we started with is written by a novelist character Aubrey Blanford as a sort of roman-a-clef. And in case we didn't make the connection, the last lines of the first novel remind us "D. begat Blanford" who then begat Sutcliffe and the other characters.

Your mileage may vary with this sort of thing. It can quite easily fall into pretension, and I'm afraid I felt it did. And the final novel was the most impressionistic, most discursive in its style. There's a lot of verse in the last volume, spoken by more than one character. Durrell tells us he's got a plan. In the words of Aubrey Blanford:
The old stable outlines of the dear old linear novel have been sidestepped in favor of soft focus palimpsest which enables the actors to turn into each other, to melt into each other's inner lifespace if they wish.
He says that like it's a good thing...

With a strategy like that, you can't expect characters, a thing I'm retro enough to like in a novel. And, I have to say, there were times I was so put off by this novel series, I wondered if I had been right to like the Alexandria Quartet, which at the time I read it I really did. Have you ever read some book by a subsequent author you disliked so much that it made you question the earlier book you liked? Not a comfortable feeling.

In the end, though, there was enough in this to get me to finish it. Do I recommend it? I'm afraid I can't. I expect, I hope--unless I was really mistaken about the Alexandria Quartet and it wasn't good--that this was a mistaken attempt on the part of Durrell to capture that same lightning in a second bottle and it was doomed to failure.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Teju Cole's Open City

Julius, the narrator of Teju Cole's Open City, walks around Manhattan, visits an old professor of his, goes to Belgium in winter, possibly with the idea of finding his grandmother, but he doesn't try very hard. Instead he talks to whoever he meets; those conversations are mostly reported indirectly. He visits a few monuments in New York City. The old professor dies. Not much happens.

In this, Teju Cole's novel Open City is like one of Cole's clear model W. G. Sebald, maybe most particularly The Rings of Saturn. There is a quiet melancholy in both novels, an indirect reminiscent look at the injustices of the past.

I had read Sebald in the past and I was interested to see how another writer might use the example of Sebald without writing a pastiche. I'm not entirely sure Cole succeeds, but it's an interesting attempt.

The difference, I think, is that Cole is angrier, or, at least, lets his anger show more. Cole touches on a number of real injustices--Japanese internment, the Holocaust, slavery, the Global War on Terror, the difficulties of Muslim immigrants in Europe--and it's just this makes Open City feel overdetermined. The plot, such as it is, is constructed not to miss a one. Sebald limits himself to the injustices shown to Jews in Germany that lead up to the Holocaust, but he mixes it better with the simple melancholic pleasures of remembering and the occasional delight in odd bits of learning, some of which I think Sebald simply makes up. There are things to be angry about in the world, but to be consumed by them is in no one's interest. Sebald better manages that balance.

I read the book now--it had been on my shelf for a year--because he was coming for an interview at the main library in Toronto. In person he has a sense of humor, but that sense of humor is not to be found in Open City, I thought. He referenced Sebald as a writer whose handling of injustice he admired.

Anyway, interesting. I'd read another novel by him.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Book Beginning: Emily Barton's The Book of Esther

Dim pricks of blue light shone through the shutter's decorative punchwork. Careful not to wake her sister, Esther braced her hand against one door while she drew back the other. The wooden panel stuck a moment before popping free, letting in the damp, salty air and a view of purplish sky.  To the east, the sun cast its first pink glow over the place where the mighty River Atil spilled into the Khazar Sea. Esther raced through her morning prayers, her voice a sibilant whisper.

...is the beginning of Emily Barton's The Book of Esther.

I don't know if that beginning by itself would be enough to get me to read this, but I read Barton's first two novels and really liked them. Barton writes a sort of historical alternative world. Her first novel, The Testament of Yves Gondron, takes place in an English village lost to the modern world--their technological level is early medieval--that's stumbled on by a Harvard anthropologist. In Brookland, her second novel, the Brooklyn bridge is built, out of wood, by the daughter of a brewer a hundred years before the one we know. In this, her newest novel, according to the blurb, the early medieval, possibly Jewish, state of Khazar survives until 1942 and World War II. The novel came out in 2016 and I just got it from the library.

This will be my third (!) Khazar novel, after Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars and Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road. 

I'm looking forward to it.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like. Did you hear the one where a priest, an imam, and a rabbi walked into a central Asian state?

Monday, May 7, 2018

Michael Innes' The Secret Vanguard

The Secret Vanguard is a John Appleby mystery by Michael Innes from 1940 (Not yet Sir John Appleby.)
"Ploss," said John Appleby, deliberately. "Philip Ploss, the Cow-and-Gate poet. Who would want, now, to shoot a quiet fellow like that?"
But that (on page 8) is just about the last mystery-ish moment in this one. It's not giving away much to say he was killed by Nazi spies. It very quickly becomes a thrilling chase for a eccentric scientist with a formula through the Scottish highlands. Speedboats and airplanes--probably to get into the spirit of the thing I should say aeroplane--shootouts and slingshots, crofter's huts and lonely railway stations. A castle and a loch. If, as I said when I reviewed an Innes last week, he's an author that likes to have a model, the model for this one is John Buchan. Think The Thirty-Nine Steps. If it was filmed--and it could be!--it should be Alfred Hitchcock.

It's a very good chase, too, with not only John Appleby, our resourceful man from Scotland Yard, but also a plucky lass and two unworldly academics who come up to the mark when the pressure's on.

However. The plot is thrown into action when two people recognize a misquotation from Algernon Swinburne. Not just one, but two. Alright, Ploss is a poet and he may have an excuse for knowing Swinburne, but the plucky lass recognizes a Swinburne misquote, too. This strikes me as just a wee bit improbable, even in England, even in 1939. (How much Swinburne can you quote? Yeah, me, too.)

Ah, well, Michael Innes is really J. I. M. Stewart, English professor, and (at this point future) Oxford don. I guess he had some Swinburne by heart, and certainly he was able to write a few lines of misquotation that sounded like they could pass to me. Very enjoyable.

Vintage Mystery Challenge. Golden Age. What. Pseudonymous Author. Since he's been outed as an Oxford don.

Virgil's Aeneid

There was read-along of the first half of the Aeneid at the blog Mirabile Dictu earlier this year, and, though I didn't actually feel bold enough to contribute, I did read along. She intended to read the second half as well, but it hasn't happened yet, so I went ahead and finished the translation. Maybe if she'd had more active participants and fewer lurkers, she'd have scheduled the second half.

Some time ago my father asked me why I needed so many translations of the Aeneid and I didn't have a very good answer. I still don't. And I probably didn't have this one when he asked; this is my sixth and it was the only one I hadn't read at least once when the read-along started. I don't know why I thought I needed it. There's a short answer to that: I almost certainly didn't.

But it did get good reviews at the time and I can now say deservedly so.

And that's not counting the various editions in Latin. I still have my high school textbook, much beaten up. We read four books out of the first half in high school; Mr. Raispis, my Latin teacher that year, had us wear black crepe armbands for the death of Dido and would reward success in class with Jolly Rancher candies. I have a St. Martin's commentary for the second half of the Aeneid; I read four books out of the second half for an undergraduate class, not including the night-time raid of book nine, because that professor, the favorite of my undergraduate years, found Nisus and Euryalus tiresome. (Book X of the Iliad with Dionysus and Odysseus is much more fun.) She had gone to Stanford to study with the noted Virgil scholar Brooks Otis, but Otis had moved on to Tacitus by the time she got there, so her thesis was on Tacitus. I read some more, I forget exactly how much or which parts, as a graduate student.

So I ought to be able to say something, but I still don't have much to say. (Filling up this post with a bit of potted biography instead.) But:

One of the great questions of recent (recent meaning fifty years in classical scholarship) is to what extent was Virgil subverting expectations (of the man paying his bills, indirectly the Emperor Augustus) and calling into question how good a thing the Roman empire was. Reading Fagles' translation I was more sympathetic this argument than I sometimes am. It's especially noticeable in Book X. This may be Fagles' interpretation, though. (This question would never have occurred to John Dryden, author of another of my translations, in 1716.)

And also I wondered if Fagles was a secret Canadian. From Book 7:

Here is our home, here is our native land!

O Canada!

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Miguel de Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life

It may not have been the most sensible idea to read a work of philosophy (or theology or spirituality--more on that later) as reading for a vacation in Spain, but that's what I did. And it turned out, maybe it wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Miguel de Unamuno was born in Bilbao in 1864. He became a professor of Greek and then Rector at the University of Salamanca. He wrote novels, philosophy, poetry. Tragic Sense of Life came out in 1912 in Spain and was translated into English by J. E. Crawford Flitch (with the author's help) in 1921. Unamuno writes in the introduction to this edition "this English translation of my Sentimiento Trágico presents in some ways a more purged and correct text than that of the original Spanish." Though there may be some loss, he says, in the "spontaneity of my Spanish thought." In any case, the English version is the one I could read.

I don't know exactly what I expected from a book with this title--something different--but what it is, I would say, is Unamuno's attempt to describe the nature of his belief in God. If I can briefly summarize (and what else am I going to do?) Unamuno is doubtful about Cartesian dualism; sees the life of the body as the real life, not the life of the mind; asserts there is no spirit separate from our physical presence. Consequently, rational proofs of God don't convince him, and he's uninterested anyway. We believe with our heart. Tertullian (credo quia absurdum--I believe because it's ridiculous) and Kierkegaard are important antecedents for him.

"So long as I pilgrimaged through the fields of reason in search of God I could not find him," is how he expresses it.

So why tragic? It seems it ought to be possible to believe with the heart and be happy, though neither Tertullian nor Kierkegaard strike me as happy men. Nor, it seems, is Unamuno, though perhaps less unhappy than either of those two. But if we remain physical, and there is no Dantesque Paradiso, then we can never be in a perfect relationship with God, we cannot avoid suffering. Our suffering is what we offer God as individuals. He cites Kempis' Imitatio Christi, which I haven't read. It's here that the work becomes almost spiritualist.

Only a couple of other things. For a philosopher, Unamuno is lucid and readable. It's not a page-turner, of course, but compared to something like Kierkegaard, ordinary mortals like myself can make their way through it. Whether I was convinced or not, I found it cogently argued.

Also I want to note the year 1912. There are a number of things in the book that I would hope were rethought a few years later.  "War is the most effective factor of progress, even more than commerce." Or the words he ends his book on: "And may God deny you peace, but give you glory!" He may mean mostly suffering, but the expression of it is troublesome. In 1912, even literate civilized Europeans thought there was something powerful, something important to be found in death and violence and war. There needed to be more resistance to that way of thinking than there was.

He does say in the introduction to the English edition of 1921, that "if I were to set about writing an Introduction in the light of all that we see and feel now, after the Great War...I should be led into writing another book." It would be interesting to know what different things he might say, and I suspect if I read Spanish I could find out; Unamuno is not completely translated into English, I think.

And as for its purpose for me as a Spanish book? Unamuno thinks of himself as producing not just a Catholic's approach to our relationship with God, but particularly a Spaniard's. Unamuno is a very cosmopolitan man; I can't count the number of languages he reads, and he seems to correspond across Europe. But Spain is a bit of a European backwater in 1912, or, at least, Unamuno feels this, and wants to produce something pan-European, but also particularly Spanish. He does have the great Don Quixote to rely on for a bit of Spanish pride.

A statue of his predecessor Fray Luis de León on the campus of the University of Salamanca:

Friday, May 4, 2018

Book Beginning: Michael Innes' The Secret Vanguard

Peaceful is the the first word which a house-agent would have chosen in describing the home of Philip Ploss.

...is the beginning of Michael Innes' The Secret Vanguard. (1941)

Well, now, you just know something bad is about to happen, don't you? (Not to mention the cover.) The first chapter tells us more about Ploss, that he inherited a competence, but isn't fantastically rich, that he earns a little money writing poems about buttercups and daisies that are considered old-fashioned and harmless, that he likes to take the train to London and see friends at his club.

Then (bonus quote!) there's the beginning of the second chapter, page eight:
"Ploss," said John Appleby deliberately. "Philip Ploss, the Cow-and-Gate poet. Who would want, now, to shoot a quiet fellow like that?"
I guess I'm going to find out!

Book Beginnings on Fridays
 is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like. It seems I'm in for another Innes.