The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey (1994) 422 p.

If the varied works of Peter Carey have a unifying thread, it’s his fascination with what it means to be Australian, and Australia’s relationship with the rest of the world. Illywhacker, his second novel, was the first to thoroughly explore this theme, covering three generations of an Australian family across the 20th century, their country in thrall first to the British and later to the Americans. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, written a few years after Carey moved permanently to New York, explores this relationship through the use of two invented countries: Efica, a French-settled collection of subtropical islands with a population of three million, and Voorstand, an enormous, continent-sized superpower originally settled by the Dutch.

Tristan Smith is born in Chemin Rouge, the capital of Efica, to Felicity Smith, the founder and operator of a left-wing theatre and acting troupe. His father may be any one of her three lovers: Vincent, a business magnate, Wally, the theatre’s producer, and Bill, one of the young actors. Unfortunately for him, Tristan is born a deformed cripple with mangled legs and not enough skin across his face, and the novel follows his difficult life in Efica and later Voorstand.

Tristan is the novel’s narrator (an oddly omniscient one, not unlike Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda) and he addresses his story to a hypothetical reader in Voorstand, admitting that this is “the periphery shouting at the centre.” Later, when he arrives in Voorstand as an adult and is dismayed by how the dirty and decrepit cities do not match up to his expectations, he explains to the reader why this upsets him: “Madam, Meneer, you are part of our hearts in a way you could not dream.” The novel is littered with Tristan’s patient explanations to the Voorstand reader about just how important Voorstand is to the rest of the world, in subtle ways they may not grasp.

This is not unique to Australia, of course. People in countries all over the world, these days, grow up on a diet of American culture. You feel you know the place well before you ever go there, and you know much, much more about America than Americans know about wherever you’re from. (This is also true of Australia looking up to the United Kingdom, and perhaps New Zealand looking up to Australia.) It’s not a negative thing, it’s just very interesting, and odd in the sense that Americans themselves can never experience it, because no country’s culture is more pervasive than their own.

Passive cultural domination is one thing; aggressive political and military domination is quite another. The caves in Efica’s southern islands are threaded with Voorstandish naval navigation cable; their northern islands contain toxic waste dumps from Voorstand’s nuclear plants; and when Tristan’s mother runs for office and looks set to claim a victory for her left-wing party, the Voorstandish intelligence agencies become increasingly, horrifyingly hostile. This segment of the book is based in part on Peter Carey’s long-standing belief (which he explores more thoroughly in his 2014 novel Amnesia) that the CIA played in active role in the dismissal of Australia’s left-wing Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975. This belief is of dubious merit, in my opinion, but no matter; one does not need to look far to find the long arm of American interests meddling in the governments of minor countries all over the globe, all over history. The useful thing about using allegorical countries is that they can stand in for many real countries, and indeed Carey has spoken about how The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith was received in different countries:

INTERVIEWER: As you write in Tristan Smith, again addressing Voorstand, “You stand with your hand over your heart when the Great Song is played. You daily watch new images of your armies in the vids and the zines.”

CAREY: When I read that line to a Canadian audience, I can feel them ‘get’ the line. I mean, they understand about the big country and the little country and they know which is which. Yet I have sometimes been surprised to discover American readers who never saw any connection between Voorstand and the United States. I suppose that one of the things about false consciousness is not having self-perception.

Carey spends a lot of time developing this alternate little world dominated by Voorstand – a world in which he can naturally never mention America or Australia, nor any part of the New World at all, but in which Europe and Africa and Asia still exist. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is full of footnotes, asides, maps, and references to fictional books and documentaries, all in an attempt to build a sense of verisimilitude for these made-up nations; for Efica with its history of dyeing and convict settlements, for Voorstand with its unsettling Disney-esque religion and the great entertainment of the Sirkus. Carey also invents hundreds of slang words derived from French and Dutch, used in dialogue throughout and filling a glossary appendix. Whether this worldbuilding succeeds or not is largely a matter of opinion. Personally I thought he scraped through.

The novel is then, unfortunately, let down by its own plot. It creaks along well enough for the first half, carried by the reader’s expectation that this will all build to something. The second half becomes something of a shaggy dog story – and not in a good way like Illywhacker. Carey lost my attention about two thirds of the way through and never regained it. His prose here also seems to lack something. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what. Perhaps it’s so caught up in servicing the fictional world that it doesn’t strike the level of wry clarity I’ve come to expect from him. It feels a lot more like one of his bizarre short stories than one of his great novels.

The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is undeniably an ambitious book. It’s big, it’s bold, it makes an audacious and unapologetic demand for your suspension of disbelief. I can understand why Carey wrote it and why some people would love it. But for me, although it strikes some interesting notes (mostly because I’m Australian) it’s ultimately a failure. Carey is one of my favourite writers, but I found this to be his least interesting novel since Bliss.

His next two are Jack Maggs and True History of The Kelly Gang, both of which I’ve already read, so next up is either his non-fiction book 30 Days In Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account or his 2003 novel My Life As A Fake.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979) 149 p.

The Bloody Chamber has been kicking around on my to-be-read list for a while now; one of those books the average reader probably hasn’t heard of, but which is very popular in academic circles. It’s a collection of stories by Angela Carter which are presented as mature retellings of European fairytales, but which Carter preferred to describe as “attempts to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.” Frankly I think that has a whiff of Margaret Atwood insisting her books aren’t science fiction; certainly the first story, The Bloody Chamber (which takes up almost a third of the book) is more or less a straight rendition of Bluebeard.

The stories in here also include stalwarts Puss in Boots, Beauty and the Beast and Red Riding Hood, and Carter sometimes retells the same story more than once. I quite enjoyed the story The Bloody Chamber, but there was a sense of diminishing returns the deeper I went into the book. Carter has a particularly rich writing style which is pleasant to immerse yourself in, especially since so many of the stories take place in manors and castles and the trappings of luxury: richness described richly, as it were.

I wouldn’t argue that there’s anything hugely feminist about this book, other than shining the focus on the female characters in well-known fairytales; too often Carter’s protagonists simply rise to strength by emulating male traits, and this doesn’t seem particularly radical – although I suppose it was the 1970s. But in any case, The Bloody Chamber didn’t stir enough passion in me to bother trying to analyse it. I’m sure there are many essays out there on the internet without my two cents. Overall it’s exactly the kind of book you’d expect to see on a university reading list, but has less appeal for the average reader.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) 258 p.

It’s been quite some time since I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful Never Let Me Go, a dystopian sci-fi novel about an unusual group of children, a deceptively simple and readable book which nonetheless carries a great weight of subtext. The Remains of the Day is Ishiguro’s slightly more famous novel, winner of the 1989 Booker Prize, concerning the life of traditional English butler Mr. Stevens (no first name, naturally) at the grand country manor of Darlington Hall.

The novel is told from Stevens’ first-person perspective, and it soon becomes apparent that he’s going to be something of an unwittingly unreliable narrator. He is the very model of a classic English gentleman, crisp and courteous and reserved, and also the pinnacle of what a butler should be. It’s increasingly sad to realise, as one reads on, that Stevens really does want nothing more in the world than to serve his master faithfully and accomplish the highest standards of his profession. Or does he?

It’s fascinating to watch Ishiguro craft Stevens’ voice so carefully that by the end of the novel, we realise that our narrator has, at least on some level, been lying to himself – but we’re not sure if he realises. There’s a particularly great extended scene, the crux of Stevens’ career, when Lord Darlington is hosting an informal international conference to discuss the situation in Weimar Germany, while Stevens’ father – once an enormously reputable butler, now an ailing old man with reduced duties – is dying in his bedroom upstairs. When informed of his father’s sudden death in the midst of the evening, Stevens nonetheless carries on with his duties, giving the reader nothing to suggest he has any kind of emotional core until one of the guests remarks: “I say, Stevens, are you crying?” Which, naturally, the butler chalks up to the stress of the day. When he reflects on that evening later on, he feels nothing but immense professional satisfaction at how he overrode his own emotions in order to carry out his service to his master. Something which we as readers find deeply tragic is, for Stevens, a point of pride. His deception of himself is utterly merciless.

Most of the novel is concerned with his relationship with the head housekeeper, Miss Kenton, and the undercurrent of romantic tension which is ruthlessly quashed by their rigid professional circumstances and Stevens’ own inevitable refusal to acknowledge it, despite Miss Kenton’s repeated pushes. He is tragically unable to contemplate any kind of life beyond his own blind loyalty to his master – a man whom, we later find out, is a Nazi sympathiser, something Stevens pointedly refuses to accept. The novel is framed by a narrative in which Stevens – many years later, in the 1950s, Lord Darlington deceased – is undertaking a roadtrip to Cornwall to seek out Miss Kenton again; purely for professional reasons, he assures us, to see if she wishes to take up her post at Darlington Hall once more, because of course he is incapable of imagining any other respectable reason to reintroduce her into his life.

When I first read Never Let Me Go I was probably too inexperienced to properly appreciate it; I was frustrated that despite the narrator’s access to vehicles and money, it didn’t even occur to her to try to escape the ghastly fate society had laid out for her and her kind. But of course that was the point: an allegory about the many ways in which society convinces us, slowly but surely, to become things we don’t really want to be. Ishiguro uses an extreme sci-fi version of this, but how many of us actually want to be, say, minimum-wage retail slaves? The Remains of the Day runs along the same theme, the only crucial difference being that it condemns not society, but the individual: the role we play in our own indoctrination, the things we tell ourselves we want, the cages we build around our own lives.

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan (1978) 138 p.

Despite having lived here for a year, I have a subconscious stereotypical vision of England – perhaps most Australians do – as a dour and bleak and irredeemably brown place which is fundamentally linked to the 1970s and 1980s. Council estates, concrete, flared jeans, Northern accents and a biting cold and an endlessly overcast sky. This isn’t real, of course, anymore than the posh Downton Abbey or quirky Richard Curtis visions of England are real. But the cover of this edition of The Cement Garden is perhaps a perfect distillation of that sort of Ballardian, Thatcherite feeling. I don’t know, maybe the ’70s were just bleak everywhere. But apart from the fact that it takes place over summer, The Cement Garden is certainly a grey and grimy novel, portraying macabre events on the outskirts of an unnamed town in a windswept, derelict neighbourhood where few houses remains standing.

This is McEwan’s first novel, continuing my recent trend of inexplicably sampling new authors by reading their first and probably weakest books. It follows a family of four children, narrated by the 13-year old Jack, his 16-year-old sister Julie, his 12-year-old sister Sue and their youngest brother, Tom, who I think was meant to be around primary school age. Their father dies early in the book of a heart attack, and it becomes clear that they are an odd and self-contained family unit. They have few outside friends and no outside relatives, the children are sexually experimenting with each other, and their mother confines herself to her bedroom after their father’s death. Some time later she grows ill and eventually dies of cancer. Fearing that they will be split up and sent off to foster homes, the children conspire to hide her corpse in a trunk in the basement and cover it up with concrete.

This is a weirdly compelling and readable book – its short length helps – and it’s pretty much a classic case of a debut novel, in that it’s well-written and objectively good, but ultimately pointless and unmemorable. It’s also very much a Schroedinger’s cat sort of story – like The Lord of the Flies or the movie Buried – in which you’re presented with a gut-wrenching scenario and you want to see which of two possible outcomes will occur, i.e. whether anybody in the outside world finds out about their mother or not.

Ian McEwan is a contemporary grandee of English letters, but I can’t say I feel hugely compelled to keep reading his work; not because I expect a debut novel to be brilliant, but because I feel I got a pretty good impression of his writing style, which is readable but bland. Nonetheless, I want to read every Booker Prize winner, so I’ll have to read Amsterdam, even though I’ve heard it’s one of his weaker novels and was more of a lifetime achievement award. I may also read Atonement, since the film adaptation was excellent.

The Light Fantastic, by Terry Pratchett (1986) 285 p.
Discworld #2 (Rincewind #2)

Terry Pratchett never intended the Discworld to be a series, and certainly never expected it to become a best-selling, translated-into-dozens-of-languages, millionaire-author book-signing type of series. His first few (non-Discworld) novels were well-received but didn’t sell particularly well, and when he published The Colour of Magic in 1983 he was still working full-time as a press officer for an electricity utility. The Colour of Magic was far more successful than his previous novels. It didn’t happen overnight, but a few years later he’d quit his job to work full-time as an author, and began steadily producing an average of one or two books a year until his death.

Many people dream of being an author; few actually accomplish it, and fewer yet manage to do it full-time. (It’s a depressing fact that when you walk into a bookstore, most of the names you see on the spines have day jobs.) Childhood dreams of being the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling are replaced, for young aspiring writers in their twenties, with a desperate yearning to simply earn maybe thirty or forty grand a year; the kind of money you can maybe live off if you move out of the city and don’t have kids. (I am totally not projecting.) Pratchett was 35 when The Colour of Magic became an unexpected success, and he knew he was onto a winning formula — which actually sounds like a strange thing to say, given how different the later books are.

Because The Light Fantastic is still a different book from its distant progeny, no doubt about that. It’s a direct sequel to the madcap adventures of Rincewind and Twoflower from The Colour of Magic, although this time we have a single overarching plot. When we last saw the Discworld’s first tourist and his cowardly wizard tour guide, they were plummeting off the edge of the world. At the beginning of The Light Fantastic they find themselves magically deposited back on the Disc, in a gloomy forest in the middle of nowhere. Rincewind the wizard has but one all-powerful spell inside his head, which invaded his mind during an ill-advised student prank in his university days, and which makes it impossible for him to remember any others. Great A’Tuin, the space turtle which bears the weight of the Discworld through space, is travelling towards a baleful red star, and the Spell and its book-bound brethren are keen to keep Rincewind alive, as they suspect they’ll be needed. But the wizards of Unseen University have cottoned on to this, and are racing to find and kill Rincewind themselves in order to recapture the Spell, while Great A’Tuin swims ever closer to the dire red star.

That sounds fairly confusing, and it is. It holds up better than the disjointed, episodic adventures of The Colour of Magic, but it’s still fairly weak as plots go, and it’s held together by the comedy. There is nonetheless an eerie sense of potency as the Disc grows ever closer to the red star, until it becomes so huge and bright that it lights up the night-time, and the city streets are filled with apocalyptic cultists. But it’s not a patch on the later plots Pratchett would come up with, and this is still a book which is mostly about silly fun. Mere pages from the beginning, recapping the events of the prototype spaceship which catapulted Rincewind and Twoflower off the Disc, Pratchett had me smiling with the pun “no such thing as a free launch.” Later, during the chaos that envelops the city as the red star swells in the sky, Twoflower mentions people breaking into a musical instrument store; “Luters, I expect.”

We have gnomes:

Red hats! He wondered whether to enlighten the tourist about what life was really like when a frog was a good meal, a rabbit hole a useful place to shelter out of the rain, and an owl a drifting, silent terror in the night. Moleskin trousers sounded quaint unless you personally had to remove them from their original owner when the vicious little sod was cornered in his burrow. As for red hats, anyone who went around a forest looking bright and conspicuous would only do so very, very briefly.

We have gingerbread houses:

Once you had made the necessary mental adjustments, the gingerbread cottage was quite a pleasant place. Residual magic kept it standing and it was shunned by such local wild animals who hadn’t already died of terminal tooth decay.

We have the problem of metaphors:

The sunlight poured like molten gold across the sleeping landscape. Not precisely, of course. Trees didn’t burst into flame, people didn’t suddenly become very rich and extremely dead, and the seas didn’t flash into steam. A better simile, in fact, would be “not like molten gold.”

We also have Cohen the Barbarian, something of a one-note joke: the geriatric barbarian hero, clearly modelled after Conan, but the basic gag being that he’s so good at what he does that he’s reached old age without being killed, and now goes about with liniment oil and haemorrhoid rings and so forth. This joke, to me, wore out its welcome fairly soon, and the character unfortunately hangs around despite not having much more to him than that. He doesn’t recur again until the 17th book, Interesting Times (which is also incidentally the next and last time we’ll see Twoflower) but I remember liking him a lot more in that one. Possibly because Pratchett was simply a much better writer at that stage.

I suppose part of the reason The Light Fantastic is disappointing is because it’s more of the same. When The Colour of Magic was released it was a smart and funny skewering of stale fantasy tropes; and for me, re-reading it, I was surprised by how much better it was than I remembered, and how fascinating it was to revisit the early Discworld. The Light Fantastic is just a variation on that theme; Pratchett treading water before he went on to develop this world into a living, breathing fictional universe which he used to parody every single aspect of human society. It’s easy to forget that it took him many, many books to really attain greatness; I’d argue the series isn’t really on solid ground until Mort (#4) and doesn’t truly hit the golden age until Feet of Clay (#19). But you can’t really blame someone for a few missteps along the way; as I said earlier, it was perfectly reasonable that Pratchett tried to repeat his initial success while he figured out exactly what to do with a setting that seemed to have struck a chord with the reading public.

Next up is Equal Rites, which I also remember little of, and which I have mentally filed away as a dodgy, experimental book like these last two. It does, nonetheless, introduce one of the Discworld’s best characters, the cynical village witch Granny Weatherwax.

Discworld Reread Index

Bad News by Edward St Aubyn (1992) 242 p.

The second of five books in Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series, Bad News re-enters Patrick’s life at the age of 22: a trust fund gadabout in the depths of a serious heroin addiction. His hated father has died, and the novel covers several days in Patrick’s life as he travels to New York City to collect his ashes.

It’s an interesting choice, to write novels which are effectively glimpses into hugely different periods spanning a character’s entire life. Patrick is a pretty rotten person: a self-pitying, misanthropic posh boy who uses and abuses those close to him to get what he wants, which is usually drugs. But at no point do we dislike him; we merely pity him, because after reading Never Mind we’re all too aware of the reasons he’s like this. He’s entirely a product of his abusive father, and it’s terribly sad to see what the innocent five-year-old boy of the first book has become.

St Aubyn’s prose is as wonderful as ever; deeply evocative without being overwrought, literary yet readable, crisp and clear as a bell. Patrick travels between the richest and poorest spheres of New York life in his quest for heroin, which involves some pretty gut-wrenching Palahniukian scenes. Even in the age of meth I think a lot of people are most squeamish about heroin, because it combines the fear of hard drugs with the common phobia of syringes. I don’t consider myself easily grossed out, but there was one particular chapter in which Patrick (driven by desperation) goes into the scummiest of Lower East Side heroin dens, notices but ignores the crust of dried blood in the syringe he’s given, drops the syringe in a toilet puddle while trying to shoot up, misses the vein and injects directly underneath his skin, and, well… maybe it’s just because it was a sweltering day on the Underground and I hadn’t slept or eaten much in the past 24 hours, but I actually felt physically sick and had to stop reading. St Aubyn is a really masterful writer, to go so easily from these depths of depravity to the equally-but-differently depraved gentlemen’s clubs of Manhattan, and to do it in such a precise, laconic prose style.

It’s because he’s writing from experience, of course – he was raped by his own father as a child and became a heroin addict in his 20s, before eventually rebuilding his life and then writing a fictionalised version of himself in Patrick Melrose. If I didn’t know there were further books I would have expected Patrick to dreamily overdose and drift away at the end of this one. Fortunately, we can look forward to seeing him recover in the next glimpse of his life, the third book in the series, Some Hope.

Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones (1990) 285 p.

This is the sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, though I read it sometime in primary school – about fifteen years ago, now – before I’d ever read the first book. Which is mostly fine, since it begins in a totally new location with a new set of characters. Abdullah is a humble young carpet merchant living and working from his stall in the grand bazaar of a generic Arabic fantasy country, whose life is turned upside down when a mysterious stranger sells him a flying carpet. That night Abdullah falls asleep on it and finds himself transported to the gardens of the Sultan’s palace, where he meets the princess Flower-in-the-Night. The two of them fall in love over the course of several nocturnal visits, but before they can elope she is kidnapped by a djinn, and so Abdullah sets out on a quest to rescue her.

Castle in the Air holds up as strongly as I remember. It flows well and has a good sense of adventure: Abdullah is captured and recaptured, gives chase and is chased in turn, and encounters desert bandits and djinns and a classic wish-granting genie. I’d be interested to know how much the film Aladdin (which came out two years later) was influenced by this book, and how much of it was just generic Arabic fairytale stuff already sloshing around in pop culture. I mean, the genie is even blue. Were genies traditionally blue?

The novel switches gears suddenly about halfway through, however, as Abdullah is transported from his Arabian Nights-style desert kingdom to the northern, Europeanish country of Ingary. I barely remembered this half of the book, and I can see why – it’s where all the characters from Howl’s Moving Castle start showing up, and my twelve-year-old must have become quite confused. Despite appearing to be a totally new story, Castle in the Air ends up being heavily dependent on the reader’s familiarity with the first book. Which is fine, just a little odd after the first half.

In any case, Castle in the Air is a charming and fun YA adventure which lives up to Howl’s Moving Castle. I look forward to reading the final volume, House of Many Ways, which will be the first one where I don’t have any idea about the plot.

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene (1932) 197 p.

Where did I pick up the notion that it was a good idea to at least try to read an author’s books from beginning to end – even if they’re not connected, just so you can get an impression of the author’s growth? I think it was Gun With Occasional Music, though that was mostly just because I liked the sound of it. Most writers, naturally, take a while to grow into their style, and don’t produce their best works until later in their career. Graham Greene, in any case, doesn’t make it easy for the modern reader working back over the English canon: not only were his books divided into “serious” novels and “entertainments,” but he was apparently not particularly fond of his debut, The Man Within, and hated his next two (The Name of Action and Rumour at Nightfall) so much that he refused to allow them to be republished. So we begin with Stamboul Train, his fourth novel but the first to gain any real traction; the faintest hint of a mention in his bibliography.

It’s not particularly good – or at least, I didn’t enjoy it. It follows the fortunes of a mixed bag of travellers (a journalist, a dancer, a novelist, a Jewish business magnate, a Serbian communist revolutionary) as they travel by express train from Ostend in the Netherlands to Istanbul in Turkey. Really, that should have been right up my alley: political intrigue, a train journey, Europe in interwar period, shades of the hugely underrated video game The Last Express. (Which, obviously, horse before the cart.)

But I found myself unenthused by it, and halfway through it became one of those novels where I was no longer waiting for it to grab me, and instead counting the number of pages left until it was finished. But does that matter, really, when Greene is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century and I’ve never heard anybody mention Stamboul Train as one of his better novels? Probably not. It may be time to stop trying a new author with their first works, unless they sound particularly compelling.

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian (1969) 403 p.

Even amongst keen readers like myself, I wouldn’t be surprised if most people originally heard of these books through the 2003 Peter Weir film adaptation Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe. That was how I first encountered it, and I have to say I quite like it – it’s one of those movies nobody would ever nominate as particularly great, or their favourite, but it’s nonetheless fun and enjoyable and sort of perfect by its own little standard. A good movie to watch on a plane, if you will. Ever since then I’ve noticed that the books have a strong following amongst a surprisingly diverse array of writers and readers, and nobody ever seems to have a bad thing to say about them.

Despite the film’s title the books are not actually known as “the Master and Commander series;” they go by the rather more awkward moniker of “the Aubrey-Maturin series,” after the two principal characters: Jack Aubrey, captain in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, and Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan physician, naturalist and secret revolutionary. Master and Commander, the first novel, begins on Minorca in the spring of 1800, as the two meet at a classical music performance at Government House, and get off on the wrong foot as Maturin repeatedly complains about Jack tapping his knee half a beat ahead of the musicians. Returning to his quarters Jack discovers a letter which grants him his first commission as ship’s captain, and is so delighted that when he later runs into Maturin on the street, he puts aside their argument and invites him to dinner to celebrate. It transpires that Jack’s new vessel, the Sophie, is lacking a surgeon, and so he invites Stephen to take up a position aboard. And thus a great friendship is born.

These are naval historical novels. There’s no getting around that. Did you know that in the early 19th century, as the Age of Sail was drawing to a close and the Industrial Revolution was about to begin, a square-rigged sailing ship such as the Sophie was the most complex machine yet invented by mankind? Patrick O’Brian did, and he wants to tell you about it. He takes us through the rigging and the manoeuvres and the battles and the naval administration with as much care and attention as certain other types of middle-aged English men give to steam trains or the battle logistics of WWII.

I don’t mean to make fun; obviously there are plenty of people out there interested in that sort of thing. There is absolutely no doubting O’Brian’s command of the subject, his sheer skill and insight, but your devotion to it may not be as great as his own. Certainly mine wasn’t; as much as I appreciated watching a master at work in his chosen field, I often found my eyes glazing over, like a poet at the Super Bowl. The numerous battle scenes, in particular, failed to stoke my blood in the way O’Brian doubtless intended them to. Stephen is as clueless at sea as the rest of us, and serves as a very-much intended reader surrogate during long explanations about how the ship works – but that nonetheless leaves you reading long explanations about how the ship works. And for Christ’s sake, a glossary appendix wouldn’t have gone astray, not just for all the ropes and spars and fiddly bits but for the confusing array of ranks and titles: midshipman, post-captain, landsman, loblolly boy, and so forth.

Nonetheless, O’Brian’s a very good writer: not a beautiful lyricist or a Nobel Prize contender, but a writer who perfectly captured the tone of his setting. Master and Commander was published in 1969, but I had to look that up before I wrote this review. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it was written anywhere between 1850 and 2000. I’ve seen his style compared to Jane Austen’s, and while I don’t recall much of the Pride and Prejudice we were force-fed in high school (and which I really must revisit one of these days), that sounds about right.

I don’t think you have to be interested in navy ships and battles to be attracted to this book, and therefore this series. A great appeal to me was the exoticism, the travel, the sense of adventure. The Sophie criss-crosses the Mediterranean from the sands of Egypt to the Rock of Gibraltar, and O’Brian does great work in evoking the fragrant scents of the classical realm of antiquity: Barcelona, Palermo, Malta, Valencia. Olive oil and palm trees, Madeira wine and Greek sponges. There’s another nineteen of the books to go, and a big wide world to explore – one hardy soul is mapping it all out.

The glue that really binds this story together is the unlikely friendship between Jack and Stephen. Jack is a big, bluff, loyal, straightforward Tory, who serves his King and country and his own glory in equal measure; Stephen is a smart, shrewd renaissance man, an adventurer, a former Irish revolutionary with a more nuanced view of the world than Jack. He is also charmingly penniless; one of my favourite parts is the first viewpoint scene we get from him, after he’s known Jack for a few days and given him no reason to believe he’s not a respectable citizen, when he wakes up from a night spent sleeping in a ruined chapel outside Port Mahon and eats a piece of beef he put in his pocket at last night’s dinner, which Jack was paying for, because he’s literally homeless. I also quite liked the fact that Stephen is a brilliant doctor, and yet, because he is a product of his age, has no idea whatsoever about germs – towards the end of the novel he slices himself a side of beef with the same knife he’s using to dissect a dead dolphin.

This is why I can get behind Patrick O’Brian: a boyish sense of adventure, a realistic sense of time and place which revels in the glories of the age without rose-tinting them, and a well-drawn friendship between two interesting characters. It seems strange to be endorsing a novel in which I can fairly say that at least 40% of the text went straight over my head, but there you go. I’m not rushing out to buy them all at once, but I can certainly see myself reading the next nineteen books over the next four or five years.

Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake (1959) 196 p.

Mervyn Peake’s first two Gormenghast novels, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, are not so much separate books as they are chapters in the same vast, powerful work of literature. Titus Groan is merely the stage-setter: it’s Gormenghast which details the climax to the twin story arcs of Steerpike’s ruthless ambition and Titus’ growing urge for freedom, for liberty, for escape from the stifling confines of the ancient castle of Gormenghast – and indeed, the novel ends with Titus finally fleeing the castle.

Titus Alone is, to put it mildly, very different. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice to say that we finally find out what lies beyond Gormenghast, and perhaps wish we hadn’t. Throughout the first two books, the outside world was rarely mentioned, only vaguely alluded to; we had no idea what it might contain, in this bizarre little fantasy world of Peake’s, and nobody except Titus seemed to think it even mattered. It was Schroedinger’s world, an object of intense curiosity for both Titus and the reader, and I couldn’t help but feel that for Peake to open the box is something of a betrayal.

It’s important to note that Peake was in poor health when he wrote this novel, which was supposed to be merely the third volume in a planned five-book series. He was suffering from early-onset dementia, and by the time Titus Alone was published in 1959 his mental capacity had badly deteriorated; he spent two decades in a care home before dying in 1968. There is much debate about the extent to which Peake’s illness influenced Titus Alone, and indeed the novel itself has undergone certain revisions. The 1959 edition was heavily modified by the publisher, removing certain scenes and references that readers accustomed to medieval Gormenghast might object to; in 1970 the writer Langdon Jones revised it to more accurately reflect Peake’s final manuscript, which I believe is the version I’ve read in my collected Vintage edition. It nonetheless remains a very different book from the previous two: less than 200 pages long, with many chapters lasting only a few paragraphs, and – while Peake’s writing style is as distinctive as ever – there is a certain lack of intense, baroque descriptions. In Titus Groan and Gormenghast Peake could easily spend pages describing the physical descriptions of certain characters; here, several major figures are barely described at all.

The basic question is how much Titus Alone was supposed to be different, and how much it’s a result of Peake’s crumbling sanity. I suspect it was always supposed to be a weirdly different book – breaking the barrier between Gormenghast and the outside world is no light thing, after all – but I also suspect Peake’s own fears and anxieties about his mental health greatly affected the book. Much of the novel, particularly towards the end, revolves around Titus doubting his own sanity as to whether Gormenghast ever really existed. Having lost any physical connection with the place, he has lost his identity: he stumbles through a bizarre, confusing world full of people who refuse to believe his claims of such a place. When I began reading it I thought perhaps this bubble of strangeness would be pierced, later on, by the return of old characters – Dr Prunesquallor and the Poet, for example, riding to Titus’ new abode to fetch him back to Gormenghast, and reasserting his fears about why he left in the first place – but the further I read the more I came to think such a thing might be impossible. For the first two novels, Gormenghast feels like an imperturbable reality and the outside world a mere fantasy; in Titus Alone, this formula is flipped.

Around the same time I was reading this, I was watching the Alien films again for the first time in years. Wait, come back! (It says something about the strength of Peake’s writing that although his novels are technically in the fantasy genre, and although Alien is among the hundred greatest films of the 20th century, I still feel lowbrow for comparing them. Although now that I think about it, the vast and byzantine structure of the Nostromo… anyway.) Nobody disputes that Alien and Aliens are brilliant, near-perfect examples of their respective genres of horror and action, but Alien 3 is a much more reviled beast. And certainly, it’s nowhere near as good. But watching it for a second time, knowing what to expect, I found myself strangely sympathetic to its aims. The first two films are so ensconced in pop culture canon that they feel like immutable reality, so it feels like a betrayal for Alien 3 to change gears so rapidly, to sit so awkwardly outside the box. Ripley finds herself stranded amongst prisoners in a grubby, low-tech prison colony, hunting a very improbable alien whose presence stretches suspension of disbelief, and the entire film plays out more like fantasy than science fiction. It looks, talks, and feels very different from the first two, almost like it takes place in another world altogether. At one point the leader of the prisoners says to Ripley, “The outside world doesn’t exist for us any more.” Right up until the film’s conclusion it’s possible to think this may be true: that it’s a sort of purgatory, or a nightmare she’s having in hypersleep aboard the Sulaco. Or, most terribly of all, that the opposite is the case: that the events of the first two films weren’t true, that they never happened except in Ripley’s mind, and only this horrible place is real.

That’s probably not the best comparison in the world, but that’s what I was thinking about at the time, and there it is. Titus Alone is a novel hugely different from its predecessors, but also one obsessed with the very concept of difference: with how much our external surroundings affect our own internal world, our thoughts and our memories and our sense of reality. I can’t argue that it stands well alongside Titus Groan and Gormenghast; I can’t even argue that I’m glad to have read it, or that I’m glad it exists. But for better or worse, it’s what Peake intended for us to read. It’s a terrible shame that illness robbed us of his genius and our chance to see Titus, in those further planned novels, to return once more to his ancestral home.

Archive Calendar

July 2015
M T W T F S S
« Jun    
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031  
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 90 other followers