No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, July 26, 2013

2013/24: The Element -inth in Greek -- Alison Fell

On the basis of something she can’t yet define, she feels a strong affinity with the place. No amount of scepticism can diminish the sense of being brushed by microscopic vibrations from the past, as though atoms of ecstasy have been stamped on the very air. [loc. 4363]
Ingrid Laurie, Scottish archaeologist, is working on a biography of linguist Alice Kober, who died at 43 before her monograph, The Element -inth in Greek. was published. That monograph laid the basis for the decipherment of Linear B: it also, for Ingrid, reveals ancient goddess-worship practices in Crete.

Ingrid is in Crete to progress her research: she's untroubled by the unspoken disapproval of the locals. ("The Sheely Valentai. This is what they call them now, these women without family, belonging to no one. Women with dyed hair who wear the bright revealing clothes of the young. Women who come to Greece to look for men. "[loc. 268]) She encounters local policeman Yiannis Stephanoudakis, who's investigating a curious death. The body of a young man has been found on the hillside, naked, opium-drugged, covered in honey, crawling with bees. Ingrid's knowledge of pre-Minoan Crete casts surprising light on the man's death, and on the activities of the commune up the road.

This is a difficult novel to encapsulate, because it has so many levels. There's a murder mystery, though not an especially straightforward one; there are discussions of misogyny (including some mockery of Freudian therapy: Ingrid's been told that she smokes because she "want[s] to bite and tear at the penis" [loc. 4112]). There is the biography of the real Alice Kober, and a subtle comparison of Kober with Ingrid's difficult mother, Greta. Themes of sensory deprivation and excess, sex versus intellect, the joys of philology, imagination in archaeology, the sudden prickle of the hairs on the back of the neck, bulls and bees, goddesses and eunuchs, the labyrinth and the thread ...

Alison Fell's prose is gorgeous. I frequently found myself staring into space, turning over a single sentence in my mind. (On a child's experience of learning to read, connecting the letters C-A-T with the beast: "...quite suddenly, like the sun, an animal entered the room, graceful, four-footed, and entire." [loc 158].) Substance isn't sacrificed to style: the novel is pacy, the threads of the plot knitting together to make a coherent, intelligent (and intellectual) whole.

I could, however, have done with a Greek dictionary whilst reading: I don't think it's necessary to know what 'eniautos' or 'tavrokatharpsia' or 'melipnois' or 'kerinthophagia' signify, beyond what's clear from context, but it would have been useful to understand the modern Greek words with which the dialogue is sprinkled.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

2013/23: A Dying Fall -- Elly Griffiths

"...He’s a funny bloke, a bit prone to black moods."
He’s a druid, Ruth wanted to say, of course he’s odd. He wears white robes and leaves gifts out for a witch who died four hundred years ago. But she didn’t say any of this because, despite being a druid, Cathbad had unblocked the sink that morning. [location 1707]

Fifth in the Ruth Galloway series, this is something of a return to form after the somewhat disappointing A Room Full of Bones. Ruth, with her daughter Kate and her Druid friend Cathbad, are on a working holiday in Blackpool (of all places), where an old friend of Ruth's has just died in what turn out to be suspicious circumstances. Detective Inspector Harry Nelson and his wife Michelle are also visiting Blackpool. Coincidence? I think not.

Dan, Ruth's deceased friend, had made a discovery that would make headline news and could solve the university's funding problems. However, it might also upset a few people, not least local neo-Nazi group the White Hand. It's all tied in with the folklore of the Raven King, and the discovery of a Roman grave ...

As usual, a couple of minor niggles: in Blackpool, Ruth's toes would be cooled (and irradiated) by the Irish Sea, not the North Sea; and any archaeologist who can't 'work out' a translation of 'Britannorum Rex' should probably be sent for remedial training. But the archaeological mystery -- and the wealth of context, detail and discussion that surrounds it -- is intriguing and carefully paced. Harry Nelson's glowering observations on the changing demographic of Blackpool are an excellent foil to Ruth and Kate's enjoyment of the Pleasure Beach; Cathbad is as intriguing as ever, and has an active role in the story. A good read.

2013/22: The Sense of an Ending -- Julian Barnes

What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realised? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival? Who paid his bills, stayed on good terms with everyone as far as possible, for whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in novels? [location 2229]

Julian Barnes' first novel Metroland was one of the first mainstream 'literary' novels I enjoyed: I must've read it soon after its publication in 1980, and I've reread it several times over the years, each time finding something new. As a teenager, I found Chris and Tony enviably sophisticated; as an adult, I found them entertainingly pompous. It's a book that's grown with me.

The setting and premise of The Sense of an Ending are comparable: it begins, again, with the narrator and his schoolfriends; progresses through first love and betrayal; is told from a perspective of advanced age. Narrator Tony and his friends still believe that Suffering confers Soul, or possibly Love; are still desperate to have sex; still find themselves gradually retreating from the passions of youth; still settle into a comfortable life. But there are differences, of course there are differences: this is not a young man's novel, and the 'advanced age' from which Tony looks back is the wrong side of sixty, rather than Chris' thirtysomething.

Most significant of the differences is that Tony realises -- slowly, gradually, painfully -- how much of the story of his own life he's missed or misinterpreted. "...what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed." [location 62]. He's (eventually) harsher on his younger self than Chris ever is. And the events set in motion by Tony's youthful rejection of his (ex)girlfriend Veronica and his best friend Adrian, who've begun a relationship of their own, are more tragic, more complex and more consequential than anything in Metroland.

Though I am not wholly convinced that the novel explicitly states those consequences.

There's a pair of equations (hey, Adrian is a Serious Intellectual, given to philosophising) which seem to hold the key to events, to be the pivot-point of the whole novel. Characters are encoded as initials. And life (well, The Sense of an Ending) would be much simpler if 'Tony' wasn't short for 'Anthony'.

The Sense of an Ending is, structurally, a marvellous artifice: it's short, unshowy, but packs an amazing amount of plot and character. Unpacking everything that happens, and the motives of the various characters, may require one or more rereads. Here, on first reading, I wish to record that it's a novel that repays close attention; that left me slightly queasy; that riffs on Metroland -- and possibly on Barnes' other work, with which I don't have as close an engagement -- in interesting and poignant ways.

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others. [location 1286]

2013/21: Mortal Gods -- Bonnie Quinn

"...while many people believe that we are truly gods – especially the younger generations - the reality is quite different. We aren't omniscient. We have limits. The only reason we didn't become superheroes is because the first gods were mythology buffs."
"And we don't have a kryptonite," I added.
"That could change." [location 1024]

It's twenty years since the first of the new gods manifested. Formerly human, they have become immortal, able to exert their will to shape reality. Each god has adopted a name from mythology (Morrigan, Ishtar, Mannannan, Cupid) though that name may not wholly reflect their ... interests. And, of course, their interests are not always in harmony.

Mortal Gods is the story of Loki, formerly a human woman and now a genderless trickster. Though there are several parallels with the Loki of Norse myth -- unpredictability, playfulness, shapeshifting, cleverness -- this is emphatically not a retelling of old tales. Instead, Loki is caught up in the petty squabbles and sabotages of the gods. There are philosophical issues, too. Would it be better for the human population (who 'worship' the gods as celebrities) to forget that their deities were ever human? Is it best to guide humanity by example, or to assist human scientists? Can anyone, god or mortal, escape their fate?

I bought this self-published novel on spec and thoroughly enjoyed it. There are a few typos ('taunt' rather than 'taut', 'discrete' rather than 'discreet') but the prose is well-written and well-paced. It's also frequently very funny. I liked Loki's vulnerability -- far from omniscient, even in the sphere of self -- and was fascinated by the variety of identities and repertoires selected by the other gods. At times Mortal Gods is a little self-conscious (for example, in discussion of pronouns) but that's wholly in-character for Loki, so forgivable.