Sunday, 25 June 2017

MISSING FAY by Adam Thorpe: review

Here's a link to my review of Adam Thorpe's latest novel, a mysterious, lucent piece of work, for THE SPECTATOR. Read it here.

Friday, 16 June 2017

THE ADVENTURES OF JOHN BLAKE by Philip Pullman: review, Times Literary Supplement

I've reviewed Philip Pullman's first graphic novel, THE ADVENTURES OF JOHN BLAKE, for The Times Literary Supplement. Check it out here.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Revenge Tragedy Talk at Harrow

Last week I gave a talk on Revenge Tragedy at Harrow. Happening on the school from the road is rather a wonderful experience: as if, turning a corner, you've left London and slipped into another world.

My lecture was, specifically, on Hamlet and The Duchess of Malfi. Revenge tragedy is such a fascinating concept: two people on a stage; one wrongs the other, and then everything spirals out from there. I looked at the origins of the genre, from the House of Atreus' first crimes to their absolution in Orestes; and at the threads that bind Orestes to Hamlet (with a sideglance at Titus Andronicus - and those poor Goths baked in a pie.) I discussed how Hamlet's attitude to revenge is very much linked to memory, and whether he really wants his revenge; and then looked at how The Duchess of Malfi isn't really a revenge play at all. There was plenty more to discuss, and meat (quite literally) for myriad articles.

I note now the aptness of talking about revenge at Harrow: the school of Lord Byron, whose heroes, moody, implacable and aware of their own villainy, can be seen as logical extensions of the revenger. And his links to vampires make it even more fitting: the vampire as revenant, seeking revenge from beyond the grave. Next time...

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Note on Hermes and Robertson Davies' The Cunning Man

The caduceus: two snakes

The rod of Asclepius: one snake
I have in the past couple of years discovered Robertson Davies: author of gripping, humorous, intelligent novels that deal with the human stage. They tend to feature cultured professional men observing increasingly bizarre situations. The Cunning Man sees a doctor trying to reinstate a kind of Paracelsian philosophy into medical practice. He refers often to Hermes and the caduceus as the symbol of medicine, and uses the two serpents symbolically to aid his own practice. He is, of course, wrong.

It's interesting how easily a mistake can become embedded into a culture. Many have noted that the statue of Eros in Piccaddilly is actually Anteros. That kind of mistake is easily forgiven - who on earth has heard of Anteros?

But Hermes has got nothing to do with medicine. His caduceus, or staff, has two snakes entwined around it; somehow it has become associated with the medical profession in America. It does not seem all that appropriate for a god who ushers the dead into the underworld to be the symbol of the profession. It all rests on a simple error of sight: the staff of the god Asclepius, the god of healing, has one serpent entwined around it - an ambiguous symbol, of course; but what a difference a snake makes.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Decline and Fall: a note on the recent BBC adaptation

Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall was one of the first "grown up" novels I read, a recommendation from my prep school headmaster, who was never one not to stretch an imaginative reader. I loved it, of course, though I had no idea what were the dubious sexual indiscretions Captain Grimes had really been "in the soup" for - I just thought he was a cad.

The recent BBC adaptation, starring Jack Whitehall, was beautifully rendered, and successfully captured the meek nature of Paul Pennyfeather set against the grotesques who people his world. It struck me though that the novel's central image of the big wheel at Luna Park was placed in the wrong mouth. The adaptation gave it partly to the criminal butler, Solomon Philbrick (and I can see why it was dramatically necessary to do so), and partly to Peter Beste-Chetwynde; but Waugh gives it to the architect Otto Silenus, in whose mouth it sits much better:

"Now you're a person who was clearly meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored watch the others. Somehow you got on to the wheel, and you got thrown off again with a hard bump. It's all right for Margot, who can cling on, and for me, at the centre, but you're static. Instead of this absurd division into sexes they ought to class people as static and dynamic."

This circular imagery is very common to Waugh: people end where they begin, as Paul's career ends where it began, pointlessly.

Finishing the series on Pennyfeather's resurrection and a new Bollinger outrage was a good idea; but it lost the deep poignancy of Waugh's final scene in which Peter, having newly inherited his uncle's title and become the Earl of Pastmaster, comes into Paul's rooms at Scone College: it's apparent that the young man, whose interest in making cocktails at first seemed so charming, is now fast on the way to becoming an alcoholic:

"You drink too much, Peter."
"Oh damn, what else is there to do?"

One of the only truly close relationships in the novel, between the fatherless Pennyfeather and the fatherless Peter, also remains broken: "So Peter went out, and Paul settled down again in his chair," where he reads about the "ascetic Ebionites", and Peter, presumably, dashes off into the drunken night. I think the adaptation suggests that Paul has learned from his time in the centre of the wheel: Waugh  suggests that he doesn't; as if, in fact, he has woken from a dream, or as if his "shadow" has returned to his real body (there is a mysterious passage half way through the book where Waugh talks of a moment when Paul becomes "real", and his "shadow" flits off into the second half.) Round and round and round goes the world; with nobody any the wiser.

A final note: I also must speak in defence of Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington; who in the adaptation is presented as a slippery fellow who'll betray Paul at the first moment. In Waugh he is at least honourable - though he does end up being Margot's lover.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Neil Gaiman's Norse Mythology & Carolyne Larrington's The Norse Myths

I've reviewed Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, and The Norse Myths by Carolyne Larrington for The Times Literary Supplement - read it here (behind a paywall).