Here’s what I’ve been reading in the last month or two. There is something to like in all of them.
Hungry As The Sea by Wilbur Smith
Wilbur Smith writes exhilarating sentences that pull you along through page after page of cliff-hanging action. When it comes to describing how to rescue a stricken cruise ship from the icy wastes of the Antarctic, he is awesome. But ask him to play with the relationship between a petite curvy blonde and a fearless rugged adventurer and he falls back on hollow clichés. He’s still far ahead of Colleen Collins but he’s a long way behind Maugham, while Flaubert is just a tiny speck on his horizon. His prose never falters but he has no vocabulary for the nuances of lived emotion.
A Spy By Nature by Charles Cumming
This introspective and accessible novel appears to be based on real experiences. It has the stamp of authenticity in part because the protagonist is gauche and immature, an intriguing blend of intelligence and stupidity that makes you fully believe he could be rejected by MI6 and used instead for a piece of trivial industrial espionage in which the the height of danger is the possibility of being caught at the photocopier. There is a touching scene in which he is almost seduced by a lovely American woman who turns out to be working for the CIA. Who would have guessed? There are some nicely observed descriptions of, for instance, a piece of bread dissolving in olive oil. The ending made me wince. What an oaf!
A Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
Sublime and beautiful. Frédéric Moreau is another naive and gauche young man and at times I wanted to wring his neck. I could relate better to the cynical and louche Arnoux. But when you start to feel like this about the characters it’s because the details are so masterfully drawn. The story lacks the narrative verve of something by Wilbur Smith and I had to re-read many passages because my concentration wavered, but the personalities and the events linger on in the imagination long after the book is back on the shelf.
The Dark Forest by Hugh Walpole
I downloaded this from Project Gutenberg. Hugh Walpole was a bestselling novelist in the 1930s and I was curious about the quality of his work after reading that his success was largely due to his ability to make social connections and take his detractors out for a good dinner at an expensive restaurant. The Dark Forest is based on his experiences with the Red Cross on the Eastern Front in World War One. It’s sombre, earnest and very slow. The characterisation is painstaking but desperately dull. Wilbur Smith would have had a lot more fun with this material.
Promethea (Book 1) by Alan Moore
This is brimming with mischievous ideas, as you might expect from a work extolling the virtues of the creative imagination. Alan Moore lets his interest in magic and the occult have free rein in this comic series, which is about a young woman who becomes the mythical creature she is researching. This mystic mayhem and witty hocus pocus is definitely good for the soul. I love the way Alan Moore’s playful imagination makes use of everything it encounters. He’s one the boldest adventurers in the realm of the Immateria, which is the place where stories live.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I love this novel. I enjoyed every moment. It has depth, insight, humour, pathos, subtlety and suspense. I find it hard to analyse because I just like the way Dostoyevsky thinks and the fun he has with his characters. He lets them talk and talk. Sometimes they seem to talk about whatever comes into their heads. I loved this about The Idiot too. It was reading The Idiot as a teenager that made me decide to spend three years studying comparative literature at university. I thought to myself, whatever else happens in my life, I will always make time for reading the novels of my friend Fyodor Mikhaylovich.
Shock Waves by Colleen Collins
The subtitle of this novel is Sex on the Beach, which kind of gives away the whole plot. I was hoping to identify with the heroine, Ellie Rockwell, who likes Lou Reed. (I like Lou Reed.) She also likes Marilyn Manson. (I don’t like Marilyn Manson.) Her dubious musical tastes and the fact that she is really a black-haired goth rather than the blonde beach babe she has turned herself into, are her guilty secrets as she tries to seduce and hang onto her childhood idol, Bill Romero. I didn’t like Bill Romero. Unfortunately, I didn’t like Ellie Rockwell either. I think she likes Lou Reed for the wrong reasons. Still, it was a very easy book to read with simple but effective vocabulary.
Medea by Euripides
What a shocker! After bringing his exotic barbarian wife home to civilised Corinth, Jason deserts her in order to marry a local princess. Who is the barbarian here? Understandably, Medea is plunged into despair. But she puts on a false face, poisons the rival princess and stabs her own children to death in order to deprive Jason of the joy of holding them in his arms. She gets away with it, too, fleeing the scene in a chariot whisked through the heavens. The scene with the chariot is pretty impressive but, disappointingly, the horrible deaths happen off-stage. This is a failing in French classical tragedians too. Didn’t anyone explain to them the show-don’t-tell rule? Thank goodness modern film makers have read all those books on how to write screenplays.
Les Femmes Savantes by Molière
This is what happens when you bring together the disciplined focus of classical French theatre and the exuberant buffoonery of improvised Italian farce. Sheer comic genius. Molière is a model for writers everywhere. There are some lessons for grammarians here too.
The Hairless Mexican by W. Somerset Maugham
This is a spy story based on Maugham’s experiences in World War One. It’s more exciting than A Spy By Nature, funnier than The Dark Forest, sexier than Shock Waves, more ironic than Hungry as the Sea and shorter than The Brothers Karamazov.