I am back from a week in Northern Ireland and a weekend in Warwickshire, and hope some of you are still around - will try and pop into most of the blogs tomorrow to say hello and catch up, but too late to do that tonight. Instead, will give a round-up of three books I've read recently... that's right, leave me alone for a week and I have to burst with bookish things. None of these three books would make my top ten of the year, but each was worth writing about - and that might be where the connections end. We'll see if any more come up as I write...
Capuchin Classics kindly sent me another of their reprinted novels - Tom Stacey's The Man Who Knew Everything, which was published as Deadline in 1988. If you're thinking 'Oh, wasn't that a film with John Hurt and Imogen Stubbs?' then I'll stop you there - Stacey's foreword to this slim novel makes it clear that he has no wish to be associated with that film. Despite talented actors, 'the director and editor went to ground for three months to emerge inexplicably with an edited version, not readily intelligible, which re-shaped the story as a tragedy of love'. So, if it is not a tragedy of love, what is it? Granville Jones is an aging newspaper correspondent in the 1950s Gulf, writing occasional dispatches and mostly idling towards the end of his life, reflecting on the two women who have played significant roles therein. He is there when a coup threatens the island's leader, also a personal friend, and must report on it - and must meet the journalistic deadline before anyone else gets there.
In some ways it's a pity Stacey had to lose the title, as it lends the narrative an urgency which can't always be felt by those who, like me, haven't lived the journalist's life. It doesn't help that Granville isn't a particularly likeable character (I felt more than a little sympathy for his abandoned family) but he does come into his own when in conversation with the island's leader, the Emir. 'We have grown old together, Jonas. You and I are too old to fear to die.' All in all, an interesting novel with some touching moments, but requires a mind with a greater political bent than mine possesses.
Piccadilly by Laurence Oliphant was also a reprint, but my copy is a 1928 reprint of the 1870 original. Victorian literature forms too large a gap in my reading, which I decided to rectify with the shortest Victorian novel I owned. Piccadilly is described as a satire on London politics of the 1870s - well, I'm not particularly clued up on the political scene of that era, or indeed any era. No matter, I continued regardless. The hero, Frank Vanecourt, decides to launch himself on a life of selfless charity, and to write a book:
'I shall tell of my aspirations and my failures - of my hopes and fears, of my friends and my enemies. I shall not shrink from alluding to the state of my affections; and if the still unfulfilled story of my life becomes involved with the destiny of others, and entangles itself in an inextricable manner, that is no concern of mine'.
It might not astonish you to learn that the story of his life does become involved with the destiny of others - specifically his noble (and quite lovable) friend Grandon; the woman Grandon loves, Lady Ursula; and Ursula's mercenary mother Lady Broadhem. What unravels is a complex and often amusing plot of secrecy and blackmail and love and much introspection and expostulation from Vanecourt - presumably mocking a vogue for novels of this ilk. Some rather unsavoury, but perhaps inevitable, racism occasionally spoils what is quite a witty work, but I can't help feel I'd appreciate Piccadilly more if I'd read any of the sort of novels which it mimicks.
Finally, a collection of short stories by Mathias B. Freese, Down to a Sunless Sea, which I was sent to review. Full marks on the title - I do like quotations in titles, as I might have mentioned before. Vulpes Libris are kicking off a week on short stories over on their blog, and very interesting I'm sure it will prove to be - whilst they're at it, perhaps someone could answer a query. Why does the short story so often attract the macabre? I thought (and wrote!) quite a lot about the Victorian short story for a dissertation at university, but the macabre didn't pop up nearly so often... Freese's collection has large doses of it, and wasn't always my cup of tea, shall we say. I did want to mention one story, though, which seemed head and shoulders above the rest - 'Young Man'. It's a little like Virginia Woolf's The Waves in style, but communicates some sort of mental illness, in an atemporal confusion. If I could remember Genette's Narrative Discourse, then all sorts of terms would be appropriate. This is part of it:
One day his daughter asked him, "What's on TV for children tonight, Daddy?"
One day his wife said, "Someday it will be all right."
One day he asked himself, "Is this it?"
Again his daughter asked him, "What's on TV for children tonight, Daddy?"
"Watch me, instead," he replied