Sunday, June 10, 2012


Ivanhoe by Walter Scott.  I read an Oxford UP reprint of the novel, with many editor's notes glossing Scott's debt to medieval, Renaissance, and Biblical texts.  He was evidently fond of Shakespeare.  (The most fascinating nugget, to me, was the simplest: the etymology of the English word "lord".)  The pacing is uneven (with a lengthy setup) and the dialog often laborious (though many novelists fall into that trap), but neither flaw can condemn such a pleasant read.  Various historical points of color are anachronistic or wholly fabricated (well pointed out by the notes in my copy), and the plot does not order or explain events precisely as they occurred.  Since I never read fiction to learn history, no such objections bother me.   Indeed, the degree to which any fiction (however putatively realistic) is speculative is troublingly underrepresented, and we are often too unwilling to admit authorial meddling into fiction worlds not overwhelmed by aliens, spaceships, and high-tech (or no-tech) wizardry.  (Thomas Mallon, writing in The New Yorker, made a more substantive yet similar point in the conclusion to his review of Stephen King's alternative-history novel 11/22/63.)

Scott's Scottish novels are his most highly-esteemed.  My second dose of his historical elixir will be The Heart of Midlothian.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (1881).  I considered parodying (or, since the novel was excellent and enjoyable, echoing) one of the long wandering psychological episodes or condensed dialogues.  Next post perhaps.

Also made a brief sojourn into "Daisy Miller" (1878), to accompany (for my own edification) a friend in the curriculum for a class he is teaching.  No more James for a while.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) by John Buchan.  Fun, though episodic, novel.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Foreign Familiar of "King Solomon's Mines"

Like the India of Kipling's Kim, Haggard's South Africa of his Allan Quatermain novels is a "normative" literary experience, establishing the landscape and personalities for the place. Here, the web is deeper, though not necessarily more profound, than recognizing a Hungarian melody in Brahms or Italy in Radcliffe.  In King Solomon's Mines (1885) Allan Quatermain, the narrator, describes himself as a guide to Lord Chelmsford during the Zulu War, and various other principals in that conflict are named in passing. The races of the indigenous characters and geography of settlements are specified with chalky precision, as befits an aspiringly realistic narrative textured by its plot. (Mercifully, the Wikipedia pages for the Zulu War and related events in British colonialism are well-written, at the time of this post. A more thorough treatment--perhaps a volume of the Oxford History of the British Empire?--would probably be worthwhile reading.)

Adherence to the mores of its period is boilerplate for literature of all ages.  No one, reading a Victorian novel, should be scandalized when black characters are inferiors; women are weak creatures rescued by noble defenders; elephants are slaughtered by the half-dozen; a tomb is raided of its treasure. Indeed, the strangeness of each license, assumed to be shared with its reader, reminds me how fortunate we are for the last hundred years (though we might yet need another century) for rights gained and protections conferred. Perhaps Haggard crafted a story more pleasing to my modern sensibilities?

Alas, I was distressed how completely Quatermain's basic journey conformed to the expectations developed by other, generally later, adventure fictions. The narrow regard for native underlings rings hollow, but true to form. (When a Zulu is sundered by an elephant:  "'Ah, well,' [Good] said presently 'he is dead, but he died like a man!'".) The final episode, when the companions entering the diamond mine, follows a predictable arc.  (Surprise!  Someone shuts them in.  They get out.)  Sir Henry's brother is discovered in an unlikely, though narratively convenient, location.  (On the road home.) Indiana Jones, at least, has humor.

Of course, Haggard may not deserve so much blame. The faults of time break strangely, and predicting the lines are beyond the capabilities of men. One of my favorite novels, published a few years later, is Stevenson's The Master of Ballantrae (1889), a historical "thriller" (may predate the coinage of that sense).  Stevenson's composition and plotting are defter, but a world might have seen it be the lesser work. Not mine, never!, nor this one.

The adventures of Allan and his companions are continued through Allan Quatermain (1887), which I am now reading, and further volumes, which I may or may not read. The virtue of this light, aged, antiquated fiction is relief between more serious endeavors, and the want of cheap filler between George Meredith (always rewarding reading; next up: Beauchamp's Career) and Henry James (now reading The Portrait of a Lady) may cause me to follow the novels to the tomb-raiding, woman-rescuing, big-game-hunting finale.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

D. G. Compton? Anyone?

D. G. Compton begins his novel The Silent Multitude (Ace, 1966) with Tug, a tom-cat, scurrying through an unfamiliar Gloucester.  The city, abandoned by its people, is disquietly quiet and amid the bright lights and decorations--it is Christmas Eve--seems almost desert-empty.  Tug notices and pauses, but continues on, to satisfy his hunger and his lust.

Though Tug reappears at intervals, the novel is about people, about the lives of four strangers just before and through the disaster which befalls Gloucester.  Compton, story-teller that he is, lets details out slowly.  Why is Gloucester empty?  Who are these lingerers and visitors?  Why do they stay?  Fortunately, even when these questions are answered, when fates can be surmised, the characters remain complex and compelling.

Throughout, the tension between personalities is presented against (and exacerbated by) the peril of the place.  The tone is ominous.  As we discover, the buildings will soon be crumbling, one-by-one--skyscraper, cathedral, and home--until the city is a mass of rubble.  But each person, with his or her imperative to survive, must evade annihilation, to stay intact, in body and psyche, while witnessing it all.  Of course, none was whole before.  One of our inhabitants, Sim, even desires the forthcoming destruction:

He longed for the tall buildings to start, for the decorative cladding to peel away in huge patches like blistered skin, the cantilever beams to snap as if they were made of stale bread.  He knew the stress points and liked networks of tiny cracks to spread as he watched them.  In its moment of falling the shape of a block against the sky was significant; it was alive as at no other.  And he was a child who had built a sand castle against the tide, a child feeling with a thrill the tug of the water at his ankles.

It is unfortunate that Compton's novels have been consigned to the dustbin of science fiction past.  Over the last weeks, I have read several, including the Nebula award-winning The Steel Crocodile, and each adopts a unique voice and technique for its subject.  The commonality are the development and subtlety of character and plot, that assured authorial hand behind the page.  In a genre where so many authors (even well-respected ones) wrote the same novel again and again, Compton's oeuvre is almost unfamiliar.