Sunday, 25 April 2010

Review Post 18 - Bits and Bobs

I'm rather busy at the moment (things to do, people to see, you know how it is), so after finishing Cloud Atlas, I decided to take it easy and not plunge straight into another long book which might take me a long time to finish.

Instead, naturally, I went through three short ones in five days. I really should learn not to kid myself that I'm not going to read... Anyway, the books in this post, unlike those in some of my recent reviews, have very little in common, other than the fact that they live in my study, and I've been vaguely meaning to read them for a while. Enjoy ;)


As you may have noticed, my preference is for long, involved novels, so short stories are not really my thing (I find them a little frustrating at times, to tell the truth). However, there is something more frustrating than a short story, and that's an unfinished short story - and that's where we'll start today. You may have read my first and second reviews of Katherine Mansfield's Collected Stories, and this week I finally managed to polish off the last parts of the monster, consisting of her last (posthumously) published collection, The Doves Nest and Other Stories, plus a bunch of fragments which remained incomplete at the time of her death.

Again, there were some lovely pieces; I particularly liked The Doll's House, a moving story involving Kezia and her family (the stars of a couple of earlier stories), and A Cup of Tea, an interesting tale of a random act of kindness between social classes. However, once through the few complete stories and into the fragments, I just lost it. I simply couldn't engage with four pages of build up towards a denouement which had never been written and never will. I'm sure academics specialising in Mansfield find these morsels fascinating; I was just glad to get them out of the way.

I know. It's my own fault. Short stories aren't meant to be devoured by the plateful, and I have behaved like a little boy at a wedding, stealing a plateful of fairy cakes and stuffing them all into my mouth as quickly as possible (before regurgitating them outside the toilets). There were some amazing stories in the collection, but there were also several weaker efforts, and the problem with reading them in such a large bundle is that they blur into one big mess after a while. I promise that the collection will be revisited at some point: one. book. at. a. time.


When I was a teenager, Neverwhere, a short series written by Neil Gaiman, was shown on the BBC, but it was one of those things I never got around to watching. Even though I read Good Omens, Gaiman's collaboration with Terry Pratchett, I had somehow neglected to read any of his books until now (which is strange because: a) I've read plenty of Pratchett books in my time and b) I loved the concept behind Neverwhere). Finally, this week, I got around to reading the book behind the show, and pretty damn entertaining it was too.

The story follows Richard Mayhew, a young Scottish office worker living in London who, after a random act of kindness towards a woman he finds bleeding in the street, finds his world turned upside down. Ignored by the people around him, he finds his way into a world beneath the city he knows, a parallel, twisted version of the metropolis above. Welcome to London Below...

Richard finds himself involved in a quest to help Door (the woman whose aid he came to) find out who killed her family and is initially all at sea in a dark world of fantastic and sinister characters. Accompanied by the enigmatic Marquis de Carabas and the sultry bodyguard Hunter, Richard and Door traipse the byways of London Below, seeking help from some of its denizens and avoiding others. Mind the Gap indeed...

It's a marvellous read, reminiscent (naturally) of Pratchett but slightly more measured and less frantic (I often feel that a Discworld novel rushes you through it as if it has somewhere else to be, and you're holding it up). It does have the feel of an adaptation - a lot of 'scenes' and not as much characterisation or description as one might have hoped -, but it does have some interesting twists and turns which most readers will be fairly surprised by.

Of course, like many people, I was most amused by the twists on the city above. Richard encounters such people as the Black Friars, Old Bailey, the Angel Islington and Lady Serpentine (one of the Seven Sisters) and visits both the Earl's Court and (K)Night's Bridge. Believe me, after reading this book, you'll never look at a tube map the same way again.

The special edition I have is padded out with some book club questions (something I'm not really fond of) which allude to serious themes of reflecting the lost souls of the real London, but I doubt that the average reader is thinking much about social issues when Richard is trying to avoid having his liver cut out by a variety of underground ne'er-do-wells. This is an entertaining book, and that's how I read it. American Gods next? Don't mind if I do...


Short stories, a novel and now a play; it certainly has been a varied week so far. Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt is an old favourite of mine, and even though I'm not really one for drama, I'm happy to make an exception for him. Der Besuch der alten Dame (usually translated into English as The Visit) is a short play describing a visit by the titular lady, Claire Zachanassian, to her hometown of Güllen. Claire, through a series of well-judged marriages, has become fabulously wealthy while Güllen has gone the other way, so poor that the whole town has been mortgaged. When she decides to come back and visit, the town is counting on Alfred Ill, Claire's childhood sweetheart, to persuade her to restore its fortunes. It turns out that she is prepared to do so, but only at a price. She will give the town of Güllen one billion dollars on one condition: namely, on receipt of Alfred Ill's dead body...

You see, Claire's past is anything but happy, and Alfred's is anything but as flawless as people think. Woman, scorned, revenge, dish, cold, laugh, last longest... Cliches are wonderful, but this is no joke; when the richest woman in the world wants something, she is used to getting it. The Gülleners close ranks initially, the mayor declining her offer amid loud cheers from the citizens of Güllen, but Claire's ominous reply "Ich warte" ("I'll wait"), hints that this may not be the final answer, as much as the townspeople believe that they stand behind Ill.

The crux of the story is temptation, personified in the figure of the old, seemingly unkillable, Zachanassian. The artificial limbs fitted after numerous crashes and air disasters (of which she was always the only survivor) serve to make her seem more sinister and inhuman, a hideous goddess straight out of a Greek play. The townspeople, despite professing to support Ill, mysteriously begin to appear richer, buying new clothes, drinking more expensive beer, smoking more refined cigars - all on credit. It becomes clear that they are all speculating that someone may just take up Claire's offer, and Ill quickly begins to fear for his life. While denial is rife, the more responsible members of the community do let their facade crack at times: the priest begs Ill to flee; the teacher threatens to make the truth known to the outside world in a drunken rant; the mayor and the policeman visit Claire to beg her to change her mind. All to no avail.

It sounds very dark, but it's actually just as much of a farce as a tragedy. The stage directions are absurd, as is Dürrenmatt's wont, with actors pretending to be trees, and four chairs serving as a car. Claire is a monster and brings a bizarre court with her, including a couple of muscly ex-con stretcher bearers and two blind eunuchs who speak in unison (not to mention the three husbands she goes through whilst in Güllen, all to be played by the same actor).

When it comes to the crunch though, the writer knows how to pare away the comedic elements and leave a stark truth facing the protagonists: either Ill's body is placed in the coffin the old lady has brought with her, and taken away to buried in Capri, or he lives, Claire leaves, and Güllen rots in poverty. We all suspect we know the outcome, but it is still painful to watch. In another work, the writer talks of his Swiss countrymen as being "spared and not tempted", a response to Swiss moral superiority over the actions of Germans in World War II. Here, we see what it is to be tempted and hope fervently that it never happens to us.