Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath - Ronald Hayman

It's an odd book, first published in 1991 when Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn were both still alive, still exercising their notorious stranglehold over the Plath estate, and revised in 2003, after Hughes had died and more material had become available.  Revised, but not rewritten - you sense, as you read, that some of the old material still pokes through where the new is available and indeed given.

Hayman tries to be even handed; he shows that Plath was demanding and ultimately deranged, but she is nevertheless his subject and protagonist, and Ted Hughes is always referred to by both names and thereby distanced.  There are some very good parts.  I personally enjoyed Hayman's critique of the sole radio play, Three Women.  I felt less confident with his reading of some of the later, indeed last poems.

The style is simple and direct, even in extrapolating the unfathomable (Plath's most elusive poems and her roiling psyche), and wisely doesn't do what Middlebrook too often does in her study of the marriage (see below) - he doesn't try to show off his own literary talents.

The Death and Life is therefore a slightly odd construct but it's a good book and essential reading for Plath enthusiasts.

In the Darkness - Karin Fossum

Karin Fossum is one of the leading lights of Nordic Noir. She has won all the prizes and is up there with Mankell and Nesbo in Scandinavia.  It is such a shame that she is so poorly published in English.  You never find her books in major bookshops and the product itself looks cheap and frankly manky.

In the Darkness dates from 1995 and is ostensibly an Inspector Sejer novel (her other protagonist Skarre hardly features).  In fact Sejer appears to do very little - until everything falls into place at the end and you realise just how clever a book this is.  The final twist came out of nowhere but, for me, was just perfect.  In many ways I was reminded of Nesbo's standalone novel Headhunters, which I've raved about before on this blog (I still haven't plucked up the courage to watch the movie for fear of disappointment).  It's no secret that Nesbo is a Fossum fan - the endorsement on the moon above is, for once, genuine.  Indeed he pays homage in Headhunters to one of the more startling moments here.  I won't go into detail, because the last thing I want to do is give any plot away, but toilets are involved.  Nesbo's cyclical structure, so different from the linear arrangement of the Hole novels, is surely also influenced by In the Darkness.

A magnificent achievement.  My interest in Nordic Noir, which was slipping a bit after a couple of imported duds on TV, is reinvigorated.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Christine Falls - Benjamin Black

You have to start a series somewhere; I just wish Banville/Black hadn't started the Quirke series here. This opener is by some distance the least interesting of the series and if I hadn't read all the others before finding Christine Falls my involvement would have ended here.  Of course there has to be a certain amount of exposition when you set up the series, and the minimal amount offered here merely proves my point.  The problem throughout Quirke is the rather preposterous domestic arrangements of Quirke, his adoptive brother Mal and the Crawford sisters (and, in later volumes, the sisters' stepmother Rose).  Couple that with an overheated transatlantic Catholic conspiracy and you are on sticky ground.  It is a tribute to Banville's measured writing style that he manages to keep us involved to the end.  But he does.  Personally, I'd recommend new readers start with one of the others, all of which I liked.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Her Husband - Hughes and Plath: A Marriage - Diane Middlebrook

The title is well-chosen.  Middlebrook, an eminent US scholar and poet who sadly died in 2007, just three years after this major work was published, focuses on the marriage itself and the art that resulted for both protagonists.  Of course an account of their very different childhoods is essential context, but Middlebrook keeps it short and to the point.  What matters for her, and for us, is their coming together and their creative partnership.  Likewise, Plath's end has to be there - it changed everything and will always colour our perceptions of surely the most accomplished poetic couple.  Middlebrook does this very well and very fairly.  Plath killed herself because she was ill.  She had always had mental problems and had been hospitalised after a suicide attempt as a teenager.  Hughes's humiliating affair with Assia Wevill can't have helped but it certainly wasn't the trigger.

The first two-thirds of the book are exemplary.  Of course as an American, a woman, a scholar and a poet, Middlebrook feels more attuned to Plath and her work.  I am a man, an academic, and an English northerner born in same Pennine post-industrial wasteland as Hughes, so naturally my affinity is with him.  For me, the final third of Her Husband falters slightly, though I do not know what Middlebrook could have done to improve the situation.  Hughes and Plath were still married when she died.  Her estate automatically came to him.  He oversaw its publication but - some would say infamously - removed unfortunate references to himself and others.  Without him The Bell Jar would not have become a core feminist text, Ariel would not have cemented Sylvia's reputation whilst the memory of her was still fresh, and the Journals would likely not have surfaced until after his own death in 1998.  Because he edited them, there are other versions out there and a thriving trade has emerged in Plath's literary afterlife.  Middlebrook treats Hughes's work as editor with an open mind; the problem is that she feels obliged to also consider his personal work, which does not appeal to her so much. This in turn leads to rounding-off his biography and his reprehensible behaviour to other women in his life.  To my mind she would have been better sticking to her thesis - the marriage of minds and talents with a survey of Plath's legacy as managed and manipulated by 'her husband' as an afterpiece.

It is, nonetheless, the best Hughes/Plath study I have read.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

1876 - Gore Vidal

I keep reading Gore Vidal's novels over and over.  I must have read Burr at least three times, and 1876, in most ways its successor, twice.  Both feature Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, illegitimate son of Aaron Burr and half-brother of the similarly illegitimate President Martin van Buren.  Van Buren and Burr are obviously real but Charlie is fictional, and possibly Vidal's most beguiling creation.  Journalist, author, friend of great men - Charlie is sent to France in the 1830s and only returns to America for the Centennial, together with his devastatingly beautiful daughter, the Princess d'Agrigente.

Scratching for a living and hoping for an ambassadorship (the ambassadorship, back to France) he spends the entire year in New York and Washington.  As a political animal, he is much more interested in the presidential election than the centenary celebrations or even the dying days of President Grant's corrupt administration.  Schulyer's candidate is the Democratic Governor of New York, Samuel Tilden (below, top). Various Republican aspirants come and go until, almost in desperation, the party fields the unknown Rutherford B Hayes (below, bottom).

No doubt Vidal's American readers all know the outcome.  As a non-American I knew of Hayes but had never heard of Tilden before reading 1876 the first time.  In fact Tilden won the election - that is to say, the popular vote - by a considerable majority.  But the electoral college was rigged so that Hayes became the winner, ultimately voted in by Southern Democrats in return for a pledge, which he kept, to pull the troops out of the last unreconstructed Confederate States.

This is the advantage of reading good books twice.  The first time predated the Millennium and I felt sure, at that time, that ballot rigging on such a scale could not happen again.  Then George W Bush contrived to 'beat' Vidal's cousin Al in a state controlled by his brother Jeb.  Thus the lessons of history go unlearned.

Overall, though, re-reading the same books repeatedly at my age is not a good idea.  I should focus on reading the other five novels of the Narratives of Empire, and then perhaps move on to the Breckenridges, Myra and Myron.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Homer and Langley - E L Doctorow

Doctorow, the arch-manipulator of modern American history, produced this atypical short novel in 2009.  It is atypical in the sense that whereas in novels like Ragtime and Billy Bathgate he goes in for panoramic sweep of a particular era with multiple protagonists, Homer and Langley covers an immense period (roughly 1900 to 1970) and has only two significant characters, the eponymous Collyer brothers.  I didn't know when reading the novel that the Collyers were real and every bit as bizarrely behaved as Doctorow shows them to be - the ultimate compulsive hoarders who dressed in rags but who were immensely rich.  Doctorow swaps their identities and I think I can see why. In reality Homer was the elder brother who didn't go blind until middle age and Langley was the pianist.  But Langley was the one who died first and fell victim to his own hoarding, and Doctorow makes that more impactful on Homer because - in the story - he has been reliant on his 'older' brother for almost his entire life.  The novel is about withdrawal from normal society and therefore Doctorow chooses to make Homer deaf rather than paralyzed as he became in real life.  What I can't understand, and what I think undermines the book, is the decision to add thirty years to their lives.  The brothers actually died in 1947, and the opening up of their Fifth Avenue brownstone mansion was a press sensation.  Surely the interest was on account of how much the brothers had when the general population had gone without of recent years as their contribution to the war effort.  Also, I feel that Doctorow was much better at capturing the flavour of the first half of the Twentieth Century than he is at tackling the second.  He really doesn't get the hippies which seem to be the main reason for stretching the timescale - they rather conveniently take to the elderly brothers as fellow drop-outs, which is lame and predictable.  The end is also predictable but that matters less, because Doctorow handles it so well.  The idea of Jacqueline, for whom Homer is typing out his life story on a Braille typewriter scavenged by his brother, strikes me as pointless.

I know I'm being picky but it's only because Ragtime is one of my Desert Island books.  For all its flaws what we have in Homer and Langley is an autumnal display of Doctorow's huge literary skills, quirky imagination and skewed take on the society which bred him.  For most of his rivals, that would count as a major achievement.

For those who want to read Homer and Langley reviewed by one of Doctorow's most eminent peers, here is the link to Joyce Carol Oates in the New Yorker.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Mistresses of Henry VIII - Kelly Hart

Hart started something of a trend when this book appeared in 2009.  Before that, everyone knew that King Henry had one illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond and Somerset (the double duke) by Bessie Blount, who became the king's mistress shortly after the birth of Princess Mary.  Most people also knew that Mary Boleyn preceded her sister Anne between the royal sheets.  Mary did not rise so high as her sister, nor did she fall so far and so fatally.  What Hart brings into the equation is the question of whether Mary Boleyn's two children, Catherine and Henry Carey, were actually the king's by-blows.  Sure, many people have thought they were, over the years, but Hart discusses the matter in detail, laying out the pros and cons without coming to any firm conclusion.  My suspicion is that she feels the Carey siblings were half-Tudor.  I base this on the lack of similar discussion about other proposed bastards, all of whom are dismissed out of hand.  It is interesting (and I did not know this) that Catherine and Henry flourished at court - but, of course, they were Queen Elizabeth's cousins in any event.  My own favourite potential royal bastard, Ethelreda or Audrey Malte, is one of those summarily dismissed by Hart.  But she too moved in royal circles (serving Princess Elizabeth during her time in Tower) and might have risen higher had she survived Mary's reign.  What is certain is that Henry VIII gave Audrey land and money - this from a man who didn't even pay for the funeral of his acknowledged bastard Richmond.  In the end, we can only speculate, which Hart does very well.

Her main problem, though, is that there weren't enough mistresses to warrant a full-length book.  So she speculates about who may or may not have slept with the king over the years.  Many are only snide remarks in Ambassador Chapuys' reports to the Emperor.  Others are confused within their own families - for example Mary, Madge and Margaret Shelton; only one did the deed with the dude, but which one?

She also fills space by tracing the family connections of her protagonists.  She makes too much, I feel, about cousins in an environment where everyone was to a greater or lesser degree the cousin of everyone else.  Similarly, she relies overmuch on what the Church considered a proscribed degree of consanguinity and the status of sisters-in-law.  The crowned heads of Europe were accustomed to give not a toss about such things, save where it suited them.

Nevertheless, this is a well-written and thoroughly entertaining read.