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Book Review – The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

19 Apr

Lawrence Durrell is famous for two reasons. Firstly he is the author of what many regard as one of the greatest literary achievements of the twentieth century (the subject of this review). Secondly, he is familiar to the many millions who read his brother’s hilarious reminiscences of a boyhood spent on the island of Corfu in My Family and Other Animals, in which he is affectionately portrayed as rather precious and pretentious, at least in the eyes of the young Gerald. If you approach The Alexandria Quartet in the hope of discerning which is the real Lawrence Durrell, you may just end up more confused than ever. I haven’t decided whether The Alexandria Quartet is a brilliant work of art or just a thousand pages of pretentious twaddle. Perhaps it is both. It is a series of books about everything and nothing, but mostly nothing.

To be fair to Durrell, if you don’t dare to pretend to greatness, how will you ever give yourself the chance of achieving it. And to continue with this being fair to Durrell thing, there are parts of these books where the writing is stunning. Unusual and brilliantly imaginative combinations of words describe things, people, events and feelings vividly and with great precision. This a bit hit or miss – at other times he seems just to be expending a great deal of ink (or pixels if you’re reading on Kindle like me) describing something which, arriving exhausted at the end of a paragraph, you realize is nothing at all. Still, It’s a tour de force, but there is no denying that many readers, myself included will need to force themselves to finish it.

The problem is that throughout the books he is basically repeating the same deep thoughts ad nauseam. Having found an intriguing way to express a thought or feeling, he proceeds to do the same, with slight variations throughout the whole bloody quartet, often in the form of over-ripe erudite dialogue that cries out for parody. In the absence of any significant plot, you are left with a bunch of characters to whom you can’t relate wandering around over-analyzing stuff and being deep. That’s really all there is.

The concept of the quartet is interesting. The same series of events are seen from four different perspectives, each adding information and often contradicting the narrative of the preceding ones. At least, that’s how it starts out. In Justine, the narrator, a preposterous aesthete who we later learn is called Darley, moons about the place contemplating his navel and that of his mistress Justine while behaving in a very ungentlemanly manner towards his girlfriend Melissa. That’s about it. Despite the quality of the writing, Justine is probably the most boring of all the books.

In Balthazar, Darley, now on a Greek island, receives a copy of his manuscript from an acquaintance in Alexandria. The manuscript is heavily annotated in ways that show Darley’s imperfect understanding of the events in the first book and especially of Justine’s motivations in having an affair with him. Balthazar is a bit more interesting than Justine because we are intrigued by these contradictions.

Mountolive is the most interesting of the books because the title character evokes rather more sympathy than Darley. The character of the brilliant writer Pursewarden begins to play a prominent role. The other characters constantly remark on how amusing he is. He is not. All kinds of things, people and events remind them of something clever he said in one of his books. God knows why!

In the fourth book, Clea, Darley is back, contemplating his navel. As he describes its contents in excruciating detail, we are not surprised, but nonetheless a little disappointed to find that they are still mostly fluff.

The idea of viewing the same events from different angles is interesting enough to have been imitated, notably by Iain Pears in An Instance of the Fingerpost. In The Alexandria Quartet, however, it’s as if someone painted a room four times and invited you to watch each coat dry. Top quality paint is used throughout and the end-result is quite a pretty color, though not as deep as it said on the can and a bit blotchy in places.

What you will not find painted on the wall is the much vaunted vivid depiction of Alexandria. Critics generally agree that Durrell does a bang up job of bringing the city to life. Strangely, while admiring his descriptions, I never got a feel for the place.

It’s not all boring. In Clea, Darley and Pursewarden’s sister Liza have to decide between their responsibility to posterity and Pursewarden himself in making up their minds whether to destroy his letters to her, which it appears constitute some of the most beautiful writing in the history of literature, but which would reveal a scandal that would destroy his reputation. That’s some pretty powerful stuff. And suddenly in the last book there is an action scene when Darley has to act quickly to save a drowning Clea. This is all the more powerful for being unexpected, popping up in the midst of a particularly eye-rollingly tedious series of ruminations about their feelings for each other. The character of the old sea dog Scobie and his improbable posthumous beatification would, in the hands of a writer with a lighter touch, be an amusing episode. All in all, however, it’s not enough to persuade you that the hours you spent reading the quartet could not have been better spent.

This is a confusing, paradoxical book. The emperor, one has to conclude, has no clothes. But aren’t they beautiful!

Some of them.

Note: I mentioned that Durrell is a tempting target for parody. Here’s an example.

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Book Review – The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

20 Apr

As a writer of humorous fiction, I had long intended to read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Written between 1759 and 1767, it is in some ways the granddaddy of English humorous literature and contains within its gentle, meandering, conversational style many of the elements that make comic writing from that country unique, in spite of Sterne’s admiration of authors such as Rabelais and Cervantes.

There is much to admire in the book, or rather series of books – there are nine of them – provided that you make allowances for the fact that it was a pioneering work (though not entirely without precedent). Its loose structure, which smacks of sheer laziness, would not stand up to today’s standards, but some of the comedic incidents and the characterization of the narrator’s father, his Unlce Toby and the latter’s servant Trim are ahead of their time. The satire of learned people, though a little hard to decipher for the modern reader, is also amusing. Perhaps the work’s most prominent virtues are its warmth and generosity, particularly apparent in the discussions involving the narrator’s father and his Uncle Toby – even when engaged in satire, Sterne is kind – and its engaging voice. Sterne is good company.

And he has to be, because much of what he writes is codswallop, and not all of it is funny. He takes us in huge digressions and even digressions within digressions. The whole of Book VII consists of a travelogue recounting a journey to France, which, while interesting in the insights it gives into the modes of travel and accommodation of the time, has nothing to do with any of the other books. You get the feeling that he just got up and wrote what he felt like writing, regardless of what preceded it, before popping out for a couple of beers. He seems to admit as much in the second chapter of Book VIII:

“The thing is this. That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident that my own way of doing it is best – I’m sure it is the most religious – for I begin with writing the first sentence – and trusting to Almighty God for the second…

…I wish you saw me half-starting out of my chair, with what confidence, as I grasp the elbow of it, I look up – catching the idea, even sometimes before it half-way reaches me –

I believe in my conscience I intercept many a thought which heaven intended for another man.”

It is a tribute to Sterne’s engaging style that you keep reading it, especially as it also includes chaotic sentence structure and punctuation and the occasional chapter towards the end of the book that consists of nothing at all! You forgive all this because you somehow like him. You don’t even mind that the books, with all their “progressive digressions” do not really have a plot, as such. You certainly never learn much about the life of Tristram Shandy, who doesn’t even enter the world until three volumes have passed, and as for the opinions – they are undisguisedly those of Sterne himself. This is a very strange work, and it somehow seems fitting that it should end strangely and very suddenly. In fact, it doesn’t really have a conclusion. It just stops.

And so will I.

The Turd Moment in Evelyn Waugh Novels…

12 Oct

… in which I compare myself to one of the greatest writers in the English language.

I have been reading a collection of four novels by Evelyn Waugh and very much enjoying them. The first three are the satirical novels Black Mischief, Scoop and The Loved One, and reading them one after the other has led me to an intriguing discovery. There comes a time in each of these novels when the chap you thought you were going to like turns out to be a bit of a turd. In Scoop, it’s when William Root behaves like an ass to everyone on his return to England. In Black Mischief, it happens very early – you find the character of Basil Seal amusing, but he soon becomes tiresome and just obnoxious. In The Loved One, it takes quite a bit longer. It’s not until the poet Dennis expresses the motives behind his intention to marry Aimee that you become aware that you are confronted by yet another Waugh turd.

Waugh seems totally immune to developing any affection for his characters. This doesn’t stop the books from being funny – often hilarious – and this detachment might allow him to wield his satirical scalpel with greater precision. However, I can’t help wondering if the novels would not be even more satisfying if there were a sympathetic character in there somewhere for us to engage with – if we could root for Root, for instance. Without this, he comes across as a misanthropic PG Wodehouse.

Although I very much admire Waugh’s style, I could never write like him. One reason for this of course, is that, well, he’s Evelyn Waugh, but another is that I end up growing fond of my characters, no matter how ridiculous they are. The fact is, despite his many, many failings, I like T. John Dick, and I’m sure this comes across in the stories. There are plenty of other sympathetic characters too, of course, such as the Ostrich, Rich, Greg, Hans Kartoffel, Clayton Sipe and even Grace, with whom I would enjoy hanging out – as well as the occasional turd, like Ray Hacker and Aaron Fink. I can’t think of any character of Waugh’s whose company I would enjoy, at least not in these three books. The fourth novel in the volume The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is completely different and features a character with whom one can certainly sympathize – a fictionalized version of Waugh himself, but that is a whole different post.

By this time, you are probably thinking, “Who does this Gump fellow think he is? He starts off talking about Evelyn Waugh and ends up comparing him with himself!” I agree, but a cat may look at a king, as the old saying goes, and with the benefit of feline eyesight, notice the odd pimple upon the royal visage. Despite this, of course, the king is still a good deal more handsome than the mangy old cat.

Misguided Book Selection a Growing Problem among Malaysian Youth

6 Oct

The decision of what to read is a strange and mysterious process. Sometimes it’s a friend’s recommendation or a review. Other times, it’s more random. I have often plucked a book from a shelf in an idle moment just to flick through a page or two, only to find myself sucked in and still reading it hours later. On other occasions, I have failed to be engrossed and simply replaced the book and gone about my business. I found myself pondering this question when considering my failure as an author of workplace comedies set in the marketing department of a US corporation to appeal to the key demographic of fourteen-year-old Malaysian boys.

What, I wonder, led the unfortunate Haziq* to pick up The Management Secrets of T. John Dick. It sits on his virtual bookshelf at Goodreads beside Little Women, The Arabian Nights and Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye by Geronimo Stilton. So far, these are the only four books listed on his shelf, which is quite understandable since he has only been a member for one day. To date, my book is the only one Haziq has rated, and clearly he was not impressed, dishing out my first ever one star rating. Nobody likes to get a one star rating of course, but I suspect that my distress is as nothing compared to Haziq’s at trying to plow through The Management Secrets of T. John Dick. He has my sympathy. Had I been there to guide his reading selection, I would have gently advised against the undertaking. On seeing him take the book from the shelf, I would have placed my hand on the lad’s shoulder, looked him squarely in the eye and said, “This is not the kind of thing for you, Haziq. It is unlikely to appeal to you. If you read it, at some point in the future you will join a social network for readers and give it one star. Put it back on the shelf. Look, here’s a copy of The Arabian Nights. Now, that’s the stuff for you, my boy.”

Haziq is an illustration of a growing problem. Worldwide, a staggering 11 billion** hours are lost annually to injudicious reading material selection (IRMS), and nowhere is the problem greater than in Malaysia. In that country alone, the figure is over 2 billion. By comparison, in neighboring Thailand, that number is only 15 million.

Clearly Haziq feels very strongly about just how bad my book is. Within minutes of joining Goodreads he had shared his feelings with the world and, by his public-spirited action in forewarning other adolescents in oriental countries of the dangers of unwise book selection, he may have averted untold suffering. Indeed, it is tempting to think that he joined Goodreads for the express purpose of doing so. If that’s the case, I am consoled by the fact that at least my novel provoked a strong reaction. Surely that is preferable to indifference.

Whom I am I fooling? As an author, you are always disappointed when someone doesn’t like your book, even if he’s not the kind of chap you would expect to enjoy it. My failure to please Haziq stings. In claiming otherwise, I’m deluding myself as much as my wife, who thinks perhaps Haziq, being new to Goodreads, might not have got the hang of the rating system and thinks one star means this book is great and five stars mean it sucks.

Sorry Haziq. I really think you will like The Arabian Nights, though.

* – Haziq is not his real name. It was, however, number seven in the top boy’s names in Malaysia in 2012. You have the right to expect this kind of rigorous research from a literary giant.

** – There is an 82% probability that all statistics in this article are made up. The margin of error is 18%.

Michael Deacon on Dan Brown

15 May

Whenever Dan Brown comes out with a new novel, the critics rush to their computers to slam it mercilessly. He is an easy target, as this hilarious send-up of his writing style by Michael Deacon in the Telegraph shows. Enjoy!

Book Review – Summer Lightning by P. G. Wodehouse

10 May

You can’t be serious about writing humorous fiction – maybe I should just leave it at that, but what I was going to say is that you can’t be serious about writing humorous fiction without some degree of familiarity with the works of the great P. G. Wodehouse, for many the funniest writer in the English language.

I recently renewed my acquaintance with the master after many years and read “Summer Lightning.” This is one of the Blandings Castle books, after the Jeeves and Wooster tales perhaps the best known and best loved of Wodehouse’s creations.

A little way into the book, I was surprised to find myself enjoying it less than I expected to. It’s not difficult to figure out where my problem lies. The plot is funny, of course, and the language is sublime, but – and it’s a big but – there’s no Bertie Wooster telling the tale.

In the Wooster books, it’s Bertie’s character and his reaction to events that makes us chuckle more than the plot. This is heavily dependent on Wodehouse’s brilliant use of the first person narrative, which puts us right there in Bertie’s muddled brain. Bertie leads us through the story, and he is excellent company. It’s this fondness we have for the narrator that lends the stories their charm and immediacy. Take away the first person narrative and you still have the plot and the language, but there’s no Bertie. This is also the reason why no television series has ever been able to do justice to the books, no matter how good the adaptation and how excellent the efforts of Messrs. Carmichael and Price or Lawrie and Fry.

Served up in the third person, Wodehouse’s characters can seem bland. Imagine Aunt Agatha, if she were not seen through Bertie’s eyes. She would not seem half as terrifying. Worse, the “romantic leads” can occasionally be annoying, a case in point being Ronnie Fish in Summer Lightning. The situations his childish jealousy lands him in, make me roll my eyes rather than laugh. This is never a problem in the Wooster books, as Bertie himself never plays this role and the amorous friends he attempts to help are clearly silly asses and a source of exasperation to Bertie, rather than to the reader.

Just when it looks like Summer Lightning is going to be a bit of a disappointment, the action switches to Blandings Castle and Wodehouse hits his stride with a plot whose very complexity makes it hilarious and a set of characters to savour – Lord Emsworth, the Honourable Galahad, Beach the butler, Percy Pilbeam, private eye, and especially the Efficient Baxter, his Lordship’s ex-secretary, whose every action aimed at correcting the widely held view that he is completely bonkers only serves to reinforce the impression that he is not only a first rate loony, but also the kind of scoundrel who would steal his host’s prize pig and blame it on an innocent butler.

Very funny and recommended. I have to give it five stars, even if it is not in the same sublime class as the Jeeves and Wooster books. Those should have six stars.

A performance bonus to Amazon Reviewers (well, some of them)

11 Apr

No, I don’t mean those who have reviewed my books, although they clearly deserve a very hefty bonus indeed. I’m talking about the folks who review books like this one. The book being reviewed, “Birth Control is Sinful in the Christian Marriages and also Robbing God of Priesthood Children!!” clearly has a lot to say. Otherwise there would not be two exclamation marks in the title, nor would it be written in all capital letters.

The Amazon review of books like this is emerging as a mini-genre in itself. And on the plus side for the author being lampooned, the tongue in cheek effusions of praise are often accompanied by five stars. I also suspect that this particular author, like other purveyors of the breathtakingly awful, is not burdened with a finely developed sense of irony. Otherwise, she could not have written what she did. She may well take the reviews at face value – in which case everyone is happy.

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