My review of Andre Gide’s “Straight is the Gate”

Straight Is the GateStraight Is the Gate by André Gide
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It so often happens that I read 19th Century fiction and marvel at how much better the writers of the day were at controlling the mechanics of their craft. Characters are richer, the vocabulary is wielded with greater ease and the plots flow with the confidence of certain conclusion. Is it the Great Filter of History in action? Or is it simply that our ancestors spent more time reading and writing than we do, therefore became better at it?

Whatever the reason, Andre Gide’s “Straight is the Gate”, a masterful novella, is further evidence that older is sometimes better. Even in translation, it easily surpasses most, if not all, of the digitally processed fast food that streams across the cyberbookshops of the digital age. And as is often the case, it does so without the aid of gimmickry: no bodies on page two, and a simplicity of narrative style (first person, referencing the letters of a second person) at which most modern writers would balk – I am including myself here.

The story is nonetheless interesting, in the very complexity of its eventlessness. A young couple, in love, yet unable to come together as a result of twisted piety and self-imposed restraint; one which belies a deeper psychological illness. I have often reflected how the current state of COVID-hysteria has a religious dimension to it, and in reading ‘Straight is the Gate’, I found eerie parallels. The female protagonist, Alissa, uses her religion as a cloak for her mental illness, in the same way our mentally ill society is using COVID as an excuse to collapse into itself.

Great novels may yet be written about our time, which explore a similar theme – how COVID is being used by the mask-wearing masses to shield themselves against the emotional void created by this godless, consumerist society in which they feel so lost. I just hope that, buried in the ashheap of digital junkies, there are enough real writers out there with the craft to do such a theme justice.

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My Review of Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth”

The Pillars of the Earth (Kingsbridge, #1)The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Imagine an apple that has been drawn two different ways. The first is a mere illustration, an outline in black and white, one which lacks detail. Simple, yes. Yet it perfectly expresses the essence of the fruit – like the logo of a certain computer company.

The second drawing attempts to render the apple as true to life as possible, with colour, texture and background: all the details the human eye supplies to the brain when confronted with the real thing. But imagine the artist lacks the high degree of skill to deliver on this photographic promise. Let’s say the colour is wrong, the hue of the light rings false, the texture is not sufficiently apple-y.

When we put these two pictures side by side, we ‘see’ a better apple in the illustration. By providing us only with an idea, it allows our imagination to fill in the other details. The second, on the other hand, jars in our brains. It bothers us, despite the effort that might have gone into its crafting. Less is sometimes more.

In ‘The Pillars of the Earth’, Ken Follett has tried for more. A lot more. His portrayal of medieval life in the south west of England is very detailed. We eat, sleep, travel and even copulate with the stonemasons, monks and earls who populate his pages. It is obvious to the reader that he has meticulously researched his subject. But that is precisely the problem – the reader is too aware of the research. At times it feels like we are reading his notes and not his fiction. It is too studied, and therefore rings false.

There are also a number of structural problems, again due to the high level of ambition. It’s damn nigh impossible to sustain over three generations and as many cathedrals the strong plot dynamics for which Follett is known. There are lulls and the conclusion to one of the central plot threads is both contrived and unsatisfying. Follett also seems unsure whether to write Aliena, one of the central characters, as a fierce female protagonist, or as a weeping damsel in distress. In the end, he tries a bit of both, and for me it simply doesn’t work. This I found particularly disappointing, given how well he rendered the characters in the other novel of his I read (“Night Over Water”).

That said, the opening is strong enough; the protagonists likeable enough and the villains loathsome enough to keep the reader hooked.

It’s just a pity he didn’t stick to mere illustration.

My review of George du Maurier’s Trilby

TrilbyTrilby by George du Maurier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It happened the other day, while I was reading George du Maurier’s Trilby, that a young man asked me whether I read mainly fiction or non-fiction – his preference clearly being for the latter. I answered the former, and had to supress within me a slight sense of shame. Does the fiction reader not, after all, sunbathe in supercillious fantasy while lazing on the beach; whereas the non-fiction reader applies his mind to the ‘hard facts’?

Maybe it is engrained in us to think so. But the distinction is shallow and meaningless when you dig a little deeper. For one thing, if 2020 has anything to teach us, it is that the ‘hard facts’, even those that are as hard as rock, are so numerous and tiny that they give way to the cudgel of dogma and zealotry, like grains of sand on that very same beach. One eye-catching event, propelled by the right algorithms, can trump an entire discipline of rigorous empiricism.

Non-fiction can easily fall into the trap of pretending the ‘castle of truth’ which the author has built up is structurally sound. Fiction, as written from the perspective of the narrator, or better still, the third persons who inhabit the narration, harbours no such pretense of architectural stability. The reader knows that the truth on which a novel is based is a shifty one; changing with the tide and giving way to the footprints left by the author’s own biases, those of his characters and those of the reader.

In this respect, a book like ‘Trilby’ helps us gain perspective on the ‘truthiness’ of our own age. It places fantastical events in a historical and subjective context, and in doing so removes us from the fantastical context of our own time, allowing us to regard these as no less subjective and ephemeral.

At the time of its publication, ‘Trilby’ was a sensation – the ‘Da Vinci Code’ of its day. Upon reading it, it’s easy to see why. Borrowing with self-effacing openness from Thackery, Dickens and Dumas, this festival of vanity, a tale set in Two Cities, chronicles the adventures of three very British ‘musketeers of the brush’ (artists) and their acquaintance with the Anglo-Irish Parisian washerwoman of the title. The narrative is light and fun, rich in the tradition of turn-of-the-Century satirists like Wilde or Saki. The plot is compelling, though perhaps somewhat too linear for modern tastes.

Mostly though, I read it as an antidote to the irrationality and illiberalism of the dominant ‘Liberal’ world view. If we must inhabit sand castles in order to have a coherent frame of reference, let’s at least decorate them with the colourful seashells of funny, well-written Victorian prose.

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My review of Gary Paulsen’s ‘Hatchet’

Hatchet (Brian's Saga, #1)Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some books smack of polish. The prose is heavy with the weight of old creative writing classes or mimickry of past literary idols.

Sometimes the polish even drips and coagulates into globs at the bottom of the page. It’s as if we can smell the coffee from the Starbucks where the author sat, back in February of 1998, when she first read Hemingway and, looking out the window at the drab Seattle rain, dreamt of one day living in New York City and ‘being an author’. Or else we hear the writer’s impatient fingers upon the keyboard at his office in the community college’s English department, desperately trying to ‘find his voice’ the way he tells his students to, rather than just telling a story.

Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet is certainly not one of these books. The prose has no polish whatsoever. As a result, the writing is crude, almost to the point of distraction. Choppy. Fragments of sentences, running on. An attempt. An attempt to convey the protagonist’s panicked state of mind. A heavy-handed abuse of language. At least in my opinion.

But what Paulsen lacks in literary finesse, he more than makes up for with the quality of his story. The tale is a simple one – a teenage boy named Brian survives the crash of a single engine plane and must learn to live in the Canadian wilderness, with only the eponymous hatchet and the clothes on his back.

Like all great stories, Paulsen has no need to mimic other writers, or to worry about finding a voice. He simply tells Brian’s story, and that is more than enough for the reader to suspend disbelief; to join Brian in the woods, rejoicing with him over every little comfort, salivating at the taste of berries and fish in the starving boy’s mouth.

I understand completely why this book has become a favourite of high school English teachers. And as is the case with all good young adult fiction, it reads just as well, even if you are much older.

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My review of ‘I Am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes

I Am PilgrimI Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It takes special skill to write a book with over 850 pages – all of which are torturously overwritten and peppered with cheap hyperbole – and yet still retain the attention of people accustomed to better. Terry Hayes possesses this rare talent.

I am a slow reader, with diminishing patience for crappy writing as I get older and crankier. In the months it took me to get through ‘I Am Pilgrim’, there were moments when I literally winced at the bad writing. There were times I thought, that’s it, I’m done with this cliche-ridden piece of trash.

Yet I kept coming back for more. Partly this was an act of loyalty to the man who wrote the screenplay for one of the great, childhood-defining movies of the 1980s: ‘Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome’. But it was also because I Am Pilgrim has something seriously good to offer.

What Hayes lacks in classical writing talent, he as good as makes up for through the books two principle strengths: first, his attention to detail and second, the muscle behind his storytelling. For the first, the secret agent protagonist (whose name I have, tellingly, already forgotten) is given a severe credibility handicap by Hayes’ inability to imbue him with any real depth of character. And yet the detailed descriptions of how he approaches his work, the tricks of his trade, make you share in his world. Some are deliciously simple, such as when he points out that the way to break into someone’s house is not to creep around the dark with a flashlight (which neighbours tend to notice), but simply to switch the light on and move through the house normally.

But it is the second strength, the storytelling, that is the real reason I kept swerving around every unnecessarily unnecessary adverb and past every pastiche minor character. Hayes wrote ‘I Am Pilgrim’ not because he wanted to write a book and needed a story to fill it. He wrote it because he had a story to tell and a book was a way of getting that story out into the world.

The plot is perfectly paced. It builds suspense as it needs to and juggles competing story lines via a narrative voice with multiple layers stretched just to the limits of credibility. There are not many writers who will dare to depart on a chapters-long diversion to narrate the backstory of a villain whose crime has not even been hinted at. But Hayes gets away with it, precisely because the reader is left in the certain knowledge that the storyteller knows exactly where all this is going.

I won’t say too much about the conclusion, for two reasons. First, I hate spoilers. But second, if you’ve managed to forgive Terry Hayes all the sins against literature he committed in the preceding 849 pages, what happens from page 850 can no longer harm you.

So if you want a good read, look elsewhere. But if you want a good story, this is a Pilgrimage worth embarking on.

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My Review of Jo Nesbo’s ‘Nemesis’

Nemesis (Harry Hole, #4)Nemesis by Jo Nesbø
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the parcours of every reading adult, books will be encountered that challenge his perception on a deeper level. Books that connect the loose, live wires of his mind and satisfy an aching in his heart. These are the rare books that manage to do what mere human interaction cannot: They transcend the vacuum divide of isolation that separates all of us – teacher from student, husband from wife, brother from brother. Through such books, the writer creates a deep communion with the reader.

Nemesis, by Jo Nesbo, is not one of these books.

It is a book you read to avoid connections, not to make them. It is a book you read when work is hard, and you want something other than a Tuesday evening glass of wine to clean your brain of the meetings and spreadsheets which pay for the rent and the wine alike. It is a book you read on the train, because the alternative is looking out the rain speckled window, and in the four and a half years you have commuted through South Morley and Wenton Village, the scenery has not changed by even one semi-detached house.

Nothing about the protagonist, Harry Hole, seems real to me. I don’t believe the story in the Nemesis could ever remotely happen.

Nor am I meant to. Scandi-crime novels are comforting precisely because they not only have nothing to do with our lives, they also have nothing to do with the lives of actual Nordic police officers.

They are comforting because I know every tired cliche that will befall Hole before I break the paperback’s spine. I know it before his new partner – a young female cadet with the best marks in the policy academy – makes her first appearance on page 50. I know it before his relationship fails; before he breaks down and pours his first whiskey; before he arrests the obvious yet ultimately innocent suspect, then is forced to release him under severe reprimand from the police chief, twenty pages later.

And that’s just as we, the readers of Scandi-crime novels, want it. Because spreadsheets and management meetings are a pain in the ass. And so are commuter trains.

For this, we show our thanks in the only way Jo Nesbo – artist that he is – truly appreciates:

We buy the next one.

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My review of John Buchan’s ‘The 39 Steps’

The 39 Steps (Richard Hannay, #1)The 39 Steps by John Buchan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What is the ultimate homage one can pay to an author?

Surely it is to say that his or her work, when viewed through the lens of time, has lost some of its impact on the modern audience because it has become a genre-defining cliche – done and redone by copycats, some very talented, until the novelty fades. This kind of ‘victimhood of one’s own success’ can be said of the great Alfred Hitchcock. It can be said of the classic hip hop group Public Enemy.

And it can be said of John Buchan’s ‘The 39 Steps’. For the contemporary reader whose appetite for vicarious thrills has been fattened on the fast food of Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer – not to mention James Bond, the antics of Richard Hannay come across as a little hammy.

For one thing, his protagonist (Richard Hannay) has a first name which doesn’t begin with J. And then, many of the plot devices – the just-in-time escapes, the ‘ordinary man antihero’, the ratcheting up of the stakes as the plot reveals – all seem rather tired. That is, until you remember that Buchan’s character was penned in 1915, at a time when writing of this kind was largely non-existant. Richard Hannay was escaping from exploding buildings long before John McClane was even Born Hard, never mind the ‘Die’ bit.

Regarding the plot of this book itself, I won’t say too much, except to note the extent to which it is pregnant with the zeitgeist of a powerful Britain, caught in the midst of the Great War. The villification of the Germans and the rabid jingoism of the Empire are anacharonisms, which, when viewed in the tail lights of the muddy, blood-soaked trenches and sour colonial legacy of racist Western powers, retain appeal only insofar as they provide us with historical context.

Buchan called his books ‘shockers’, which in itself sounds silly and antiquated, until you think a little on the word ‘thriller’ and realise it’s actually no less silly-sounding. As a politician and a well-known biographer, he considered his shockers among the least important of his accomplishments. And yet even in his own lifetime it was clear that this is what he would be remembered for.

I give ‘The 39 Steps’ three stars for the story in its own right, and an additional star in recognition of the many Johns, Jacks, James’ and Jasons who followed in Richard Hannay’s wake.

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Review of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’

The TrialThe Trial by Franz Kafka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When you get used to reading inferior books, even a nibble of a great masterpiece can challenge your digestive system in ways that cause stomach cramps. Franz Kafka is no light read. After a diet of heavily processed modern literature, Franz Kafka’s The Trial is as hard to digest as a meal of wholegrain rice and raw vegetables would be to a junk food aficionado. And yet like its gastronomical equivalent, Kafka’s prose stays with you and nourishes you much longer.

Though hard to digest, The Trial is not hard to chew. The prose is in fact deceptively accessible, inviting the reader into a world that is familiar enough, and well rendered enough, to suspend one’s disbelief, despite the many incongruities that make that world so intriguing and so mysterious. This, indeed, is the fine art of surrealism: To lure the reader with hyper-realistically crafted descriptions into the acceptance of things he might otherwise dismiss as simply absurd.

But unlike, say, a Magritte painting, Kafka’s Trial does not stop at flaunting absurdity. Instead, it takes the reader well beyond the ridiculous into something far more dangerous, as we accompany Joseph K., our middle-aged protagonist, on his descent into insanity. We begin our journey in his bedroom, following him into the bank at which he holds a mid-ranking position, into a farcical courtroom and through the various sordid relationships that belie his repressed sexuality. At no point are we sure of what is truly real and what is a projection of his mental illness. Yet the quality of the prose is such that we can glimpse through the cracks in the protagonist’s madness the light of a more solid world; one that is just beyond his grasp, the existence of which is indispensable for us to appreciate what Joseph K. is experiencing.

The narrative device which Kafka uses to set up this surreality is the bureaucracy of a modern judicial system. This is particularly effective for any reader who has had the displeasure of knowing the vagaries of an inefficient and often self-contradictory public administration; in particular, the infuriating functioning of the legal system. Bureaucracies really are insane, which makes it all the easier for us to accept what Joseph K. is going through. Yet we are reminded at regular intervals that this device is only a metaphor, and that the trial, the court which hosts it and the many court attendants we meet throughout the story, are all of the protagonist’s own making.

It’s possible, if one reads about Kafka’s life, to draw parallels and seek explanations for this or that aspect of the book. But I feel doing so adds nothing to the reader’s experience. My best advice is to sit down at the table, clear your palate and take small and deliberate bites.

But be prepared to spend a lot of time digesting.

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Review of Daphne du Maurier’s “The Scapegoat”

In many fields of human endeavour – cookery or ballet, perhaps – lightness is considered a quality to be striven for. Even as a description of one’s mood, the adjective ‘light’ trumps all others. Yet in literature, the quality of lightness is decidedly dysphemistic. We might say of the latest airport thriller, “it was a light read”; when what we really mean to say was that the book in question was a pile of rubbish. This, I think, is a great pity, for it arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes literary quality.

Daphne du Maurier’s “The Scapegoat” is the quintessential light read, but it is far from being rubbish. True, her skillful plotting and razor sharp descriptions render characters and images with such stunning ease the reader find himself chauffer-driven straight into the French post-war village of St Gilles. In fact, it’s almost as if by the mere act of reading, we could step effortlessly into the clothes and skin of the local châtelain, the feckless and self-centred Count de Gué. Yet the lightness of style does not prevent du Maurier from delving deep into the well of the human soul, from which murky depths all great literature must draw its substance.

It’s not giving too much away of the plot to mention the key premise; that of Doppelgängers meeting by chance, allowing one man to enter into the life of another, whose complex and sinister history slowly reveals itself as the plot unfolds. This allows for much grimace-inducing comic light-heartedness, an opportunity du Maurier masterfully seizes throughout.

But it also allows for a deep exploration of the meaning of self. It asks the question whether any of us, if thrust into another’s world, with the full weight of that person’s past bearing upon us, could live his or her life any better. Are we, after all, victims of our circumstances? How much of the character we inhabit is the fruit of our free will, and how much sketched for us by the Great Novelist in the Sky?

These are deep questions indeed. And like all good philosophers, du Maurier is careful to treat them with delicacy, and without venturing too far down the road of the moral preacher. In this, one might say she takes on a very heavy subject. And does so with incredible lightness.