October 5th, 2008


October Books 2) The Historian

2) The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

A friend of mine has been writing a vampire novel set in the Balkans. When I first became aware of The Historian, I expressed a friendly concern to him that his book might suffer from being in its shadow. My friend snorted derisively that his book was much better, so he wasn't going to let it worry him. Having now read The Historian, he was right; his book is much better. I'm glad to say he now has a publishing contract, but I will leave you in suspense about it until it is actually on the shelves.

Unlike The Da Vinci Code, with which it has sometimes been compared, The Historian is not a bad book. The basic plot concerns a series of twentieth and twenty-first century researchers getting caught up with the legacy of Vlad Ţepeş, alias Count Vlad III of Wallachia, alias Dracula, who turns out to be still around in undead form. The scenery features Slovenia, Croatia, Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria (with a peculiar climax in France), and people who know little or nothing about the Balkans will probably be intrigued enough to find out more about the region; and that's not a bad thing. The nested narratives and understated romances are rather sweet, and will appeal to the sentimental reader who wants to be made to feel they now understand a bit more about history. But there were three things that really annoyed me about it.

1) The nested narratives just don't work. At one point we have the unnamed narrator reading her father's account of listening to Dr Stoichev translating his joint edition with Professor Angelov of Zacharias of Zographou's note of the dying words of Stefan of Snagov. Yet all of these people sound remarkably similar. In addition, the jumps between different levels of narrative get rather abrupt in the second half of the book, as if Kostova had given up on smooth transitions between them. It is a striking contrast with, say, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, surely a model of how this sort of thing can be done well. Not very surprisingly, the climax, where most of the narrative lines combine, is confused and ineffective.

2) The Balkanology. Probably few will be as irritated as I was about this, but really, why disguise Ljubljana as "Emona"? Are readers so thick that they can't cope with the spelling? And after many pages of insisting on "Ţepeş", and on the Hungarian and Turkish diacriticals, why then spell Târgovişte incorrectly? Rather more seriously, the Getzi family of the narrator's grandmother are presented as being Romanian speakers, when clearly they would much more likely have been Magyars trapped the wrong side of the border by the Treaty of Trianon. (The Wikipedia entry for the book points out other anachronisms.)

3) As so often, I was utterly unconvinced by the means and motivation of the villain. All this carry-on with scholars across the decades and the continents, and it turns out that Dracula just wanted to Collapse )? There are easier ways of doing it. (At least so I understand.)

Anyway, I'm glad that's over.


Love in a Cold Climate

Over the last few weekends I've been watching rather gradually the 2001 production of Nancy Mitford's novels, The Pursuit of Love and  Love in a Cold Climate, which have long been favourites of mine. Things I liked: i) the music by Rob Lane (now writing for both Merlin and John Adams). ii) John Wood as Lord Merlin, a bit part character but a really memorable one. iii) the other three rather more monstrous male leads, Alan Bates as the barking mad paterfamilias, Anthony Andrews as the louche Clark Gable look-alike Boy Staunton, and Daniel Evans as the gay Canadian Cedric. iv) two of the three key female leads: Rosamund Pike as Fanny the narrator, and Elisabeth Dermot Walsh as the ultimately tragic Linda.

Love in a Cold Climate is certainly the funnier of the two books; and it would have worked really well as an ironic counterpoint to the more tragic plot of The Pursuit of Love except that I felt Megan Dodds as Polly really wasn't up to it, and since she is such a central figure that kills the story despite the excellent performances of the male leads in that plot strand; you rather wonder what Boy saw in her. Also, I have to say that my memory of the end of the book was that there is a strong implication that Boy and Cedric have settled down with Polly's mother as a threesome, an aspect which I missed from the TV play.

The Pursuit of Love
is probably the better of the two books, but it also wasn't terribly well served by the production; Rosamund Pike had to more or less support Fanny's story single-handed, matched up against a series of unimpressive males (apart from her father). Having said that, the TV format perhaps shows Linda's love-life a bit more vividly than Mitford's original text, and some of the best scenes are when she is a) being converted to communism and b) being confronted with the Spanish civil war; and at the very end, I thought it came out just about right, with Frances Barber as the Bolter coming back into the story and providing an ironic perspective on it all, which I have to admit brought a certain moisture to my eyes as the final titles rolled.

I really wish the 1980 version, starring Judy Dench as Linda's mother and Anthony Stewart Head as Linda's first husband, was commercially available, but you can't have everything.


What are you doing here? - postscript

A few days ago I linked to a brilliant fanvid showing all the times that the phrase "What are you doing here?" or variations thereof is used in Doctor Who - including the very first words spoken in the role by William Hartnell in the first episode.

Actually it has a long and glorious literary history. In Beowulf, back in the 7th century, the very first lines of direct speech in the poem are these words of Hrothgar's herald greeting Beowulf's party:
Hwæt syndon gē             searohæbbendra,
byrnum werede,             þē þus brontne
cēol ofer lagustrǣte             lǣdan cwōmon,
hider ofer holmas?

which Seamus Heaney renders:
What kind of men are you who arrive
rigged out for combat in coats of mail
sailing here over the sea-lanes
in your steep-hulled boat?

or in summary
What are you doing here?

(Lines 238-241, if you want to check.)

October Books 3) Beowulf

3) Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney

I got this some time back and skimmed it rather casually; but this weekend I have taken a short break from Shakespeare to read it thoroughly. It is a tremendous achievement. I think I had read two other adaptations of the epic poem, one probably by Roger Lancelyn Greene, the other a re-telling of the story from Grendel's point of view by John Gardner. I also saw Julian Glover recite most of it on stage in Belfast many years ago. I haven't seen the recent film as we so rarely get to the cinema.

Heaney has tried to retell the poem in its own terms, and his recasting of the poet's original imagery is vivid - we can almost smell Grendel and his mother, and Smaug's hoard seems a pale reflection of the dragon which brings about the tragic end of Beowulf's life. (Of course, Tolkien was one of the leading Beowulf scholars of the twentieth century, and there are entire sections of The Hobbit which have practically been copied from here.)

Apart from the gloriousness of the overall narrative, three things struck me, two more or less for the first time. First, it is actually an explicitly Christian poem, if in a rather weird way. Hrothgar commissions Beowulf to fight Grendel in terms that sound like God the Father sending his Son to defeat evil. Although the setting is the pagan past, the writer makes frequent allusions to Judeo-Christian concepts of destiny and virtue; the only explicitly non-Christian characters are the monsters.

Second, and related, there are numerous reflections on what makes a good king - not just the narrator's own oft-repeated phrase, "þæt wæs god cyning!" but also discourses from various characters in the midst of the action. It practically makes Beowulf a treatise on political science, along with its many other features.

Third - and this was the point I had noticed on previous skimming of the text - is the occasional diversion of the narrative to tell some other story only tangentially related by theme or personality to the main narrative. I'm going to stick my neck out and say that it doesn't work well for me, and I can't believe it worked well in oral presentation (I can't remember, but I'm pretty sure Julian Glover skipped those bits in his stage show). I am inclined to think that the compiler of our version used the opportunity to fold in some other bits and pieces of epic poetry which he or she had handy, so that they would not be lost to posterity.

Anyway, this is (quite literally) epic stuff.