Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Iliad, Canterbury Tales, Sabriel

I've got a bit more of a mixed bag this time around than the three mysteries from last time.

First off, I finished book 17 of the Iliad. The last section of the book shows, I think, why the Homeric poet is a great poet, not just a great story-teller. In a few rushing lines, as the two Ajaxes cover Menelaus and Meriones's retreat from the Trojan advance, we get 5 similes, and each one is beautifully worked to show one (or sometimes more) aspect of the conflict. First, the conflict is like a raging fire, pushing townsmen away, with a horrible din. Then the two heroes are like mules, hauling Patroclos's body, as they sweat and strain. The Aiantes hold back the Trojan advance like a wooded ridge holding back a river, but Aeneas and Hector scatter the greeks as an eagle scatters starlings.

It's even more amazing when you consider that this was all worked out within the constraints of a very strict formular system.

I sent Garth Nix's Sabriel with Moshe to summer camp because I'd heard very good things about it, and, now that he's back, I decided to give it a try myself. It was very, very good indeed. Nix has a great feeling for similes (an evil spirit laughs like a match striking, for example), and his fantasy world feels unique. I'm not normally into books about the undead, and I probably wouldn't have started this one if I'd known that undead spirits were going to be a theme, but he really pulled it off in a way that didn't owe anything to other authors. Necromancers in this book control the dead through the sounds of bells, and Nix's aforementioned skill with similes really works well, here -- each bell has a different sound, and he evokes them all beautifully.

I've been listening to The Canterbury Tales, and I've been very gratified to find that it was better than I'd hoped. Chaucer tells all sorts of tales in all genres -- animal fables, ribald jokes, sermons, courtly love, and so on. I'd known that going in, but I wasn't expecting to find how much he gave each narrator his own voice, whether by giving some characters Latin words to throw in, or quoting from more or less learned sources, or using more or less foul language. The multiplicity of narrative voices is something that I've associated with more modern writing, and it's interesting to run across it in some of the oldest English literature extant.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Roseanna, Wireless, Angel's Flight

In the past week, I've listened to/read 3 mystery novels with somewhat different approaches (I guess it's more accurate to say that two have different approaches, and the third is in some wild place of its own).

Roseanna is a straightforward police procedural with no fireworks. Even the setting (a city in Sweden) barely impinges in the story -- one can imagine the story occurring in just about any city anywhere. The story is told in a very down-to-earth fashion: the victim isn't somebody special, there are no wider implications in her death, the investigation plods along in a very straightforward way. Unfortunately, it's easier to admire that sort of attention to quotidian details than to enjoy it. I found the story rather dull over-all; I think that any job is probably dull if it's described in enough detail.

Angel's Flight is an entry in Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series, and overall it felt like a reach that didn't really work for him. He's trying very hard to be politically relevant with references to the Rodney King case, but it feels very forced. In addition, the ending attempts to put an ironic spin on the whole story, but I found it very weak. I think irony and police procedurals don't really mix (with the exception of Michael Dibdin's novels, but he writes with a much lighter touch, and is very judicious in its application).

And then, as if to demonstrate the wide range of the mystery genre, there's Jack O'Connell's Wireless. Although it's technically a crime novel (a priest is killed at the beginning, and there's a police officer trying to solve the case), the crime gets very little space. O'Connell uses radio jammers (who disrupt legitimate radio broadcasts) to explore questions of anarchy and authoritarianism, and questions of ends and means.

I realize that I haven't done an Iliad update in a long time. I don't actually have much to say about what I'm reading, but, as a marker, I'm near the end of book 17 now. I think the most striking thing about the original that doesn't come through in translation is the driving sense of rhythm always pushing the reader forward. Homer varies the locations of the caesurae and diareses in a way that prevents the simple hexameter from growing stale.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Angels and Insects, Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

The second story in Angels and Insects, "Conjugal Angel," is sort of the obverse face to Byatt's earlier novel Possession. The heart of Possession is the love affair between two Victorian poets that Byatt invented. One of the attractions of that book is her pitch-perfect mimicry of poems she invents for her characters, and the analysis she has her literary detectives perform on the poems.

All this falls flat, though, in "Conjugal Angel," when she takes the game a step further and concerns herself with the real poet Alfred Tennyson and the real poem "In Memoriam." Now, instead of giving us a whole new poem, she only gives snatches (since, after all, one can read the real poem anywhere), and gives the analysis to Tennyson himself and his sister, which just feels tendentious. Underneath it all, there's a nice romantic story trying to get out (just as in Possession and also in "Morpho Eugenia"), but here it's too buried in all the Tennyson details.

Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by Gordon Dahlquist, takes an intriguing idea and chracters, and pulls them until they're spread paper-thin, which is a pity. The novel, set in Victorian England, gets off to a good start when Miss Temple gets a letter ending her engagement to Roger Bascombe, and she decides to follow him and see why he might have broken the engagement. Dahlquist writes wonderful scenes, and is great at imagining derring-do and hairbreadth escapes. But, at the end, it just didn't amount to very much -- a simple adventure doesn't suddenly become deep just because it's been stretched to 800 pages.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Angels and Insects, Confession

"Morpho Eugenia", the first story in A. S. Byatt's Angels and Insects, is a literary mirror maze, starting with the title. Morpho Eugenia is a species of butterfly which is beautiful to behold, but poisonous to eat, and Eugenia Alabaster, the eldest daughter of the Alabaster household, was betrothed once, only to have her fiance die, and is now pursued by a second lover.

So the mirror seems clear enough, until we realize that Eugenia isn't the main character of the story, and in fact disappears from it for most of the second half, as the story focuses on the naturalist William Adamson. His name, I think, also gives us clues to the theme of the story -- Adam, of course, named the animals, as a naturalist does (the references to Linnaeus just cement this theme). But, in another inversion, Adamson spends most of the story pointedly not discovering new species to name, as he so dearly wishes to do, but instead is stuck in England, teaching the Alabaster children about the ants in their own backyard.

This all sets us up for the main mirror in the story, insect and human society. Byatt draws some clear parallels to start with: the males who do nothing except flock around the queen = the young men who do little but drink and hunt; the hive with all the workers = the Alabaster house with its many servants, and so on. But I think she's also playing a bit of game with all this. Throughout the story, many people are mentioned as drawing lessons from the insect world -- insects are cooperative like socialists, or insects care for their young as God cares for us, or insects take slaves like evil humans, and so on. Ultimately, the insects can't be anthropomorphized so easily, as William himself constantly reminds us. They must be studied on their own terms if we want to understand them.

Mattie Crompton reminds us that things aren't always what they seem. The Alabaster house seems like a hive, and sometimes has a hive-mind, but people within it can change roles (as a caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly, another persistent image). Eugenia herself changes from object of pursuit to object of disgust, and, of course, Mattie herself goes through the biggest changes of all, finding her voice as an author and naturalist.

There's so much going on in this story (I feel I'm just scratching the surface with these musings -- I haven't even touched on the questions of hybrids, Darwinism, the stories-in-stories) that it's almost hard to believe it's just a novella. I've started on the other story in the collection, but so far it seems relatively barren; I hope that will change as I finish it.

On the other side of the literary spectrum, Olen Steinhauer's Confession is a police procedural set in a Soviet state around the time of the Hungarian Uprising. (He doesn't give his state a name, but it's clearly supposed to be near Hungary). The mystery itself is fairly hum-drum -- it's not hard to stay ahead of the detectives in figuring it out -- but Steinhauer is more focused on the tension of living in a totalitarian state, where one can be shipped off to labor camps for any infringement, and sometimes for no infringement at all. Ferenc, the main character, ends up doing vicious and brutal things, just to be able to do something over which he has control, and I think that this same theme is reflected in the characters who return from the work camps driven by revenge.

In the end, I found the book emotionally devastating, in a way that Child 44 (a natural comparison to this book) never was. Child 44 is more focused on the hero's slow discovery that the Soviet state is not just brutal (which he already knew), but brutal toward innocent targets, and not always interested in actual justice. In the end of that novel, he's offered the chance to create a true police force, and there's a sense of closuer. In Confession, there's never a sense that justice is served. It's true that the main antagonist is executed, but for the wrong reasons, and, in the meantime, innocent lives remain ruined. Ferenc discovers that vengeance doesn't set things right, and can make things even worse, but isn't given anything to replace it with. In the end, justice is arbitrarily handed out, and sometimes you're lucky and the right person is punished.