Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Charles Brandon, Henry VIII's Closest Friend - Steven Gunn

Steven Gunn is a very distinguished history professor at Oxford. This book is based on his thesis from the Eighties. Research standards have moved on since then, not least because so many original sources are available online.

That brings me to the first problem. There is, as Gunn says, surprisingly little known about Brandon, given that he was a pivotal figure in a reign so thoroughly documented as Henry VIII's. There are reasons and those reasons are part of the attraction. He was always hard up and his matrimonial arrangements make Henry's seem straightforward. Very little written evidence from the man himself survives. I suspect he was bit thick. He was certainly a man who made his presence felt physically: he was bigger and better looking than Henry and he was a man who seems to have thrived on friendship.

One thing that is certainly known about him, and has always been known, though not apparently to Dr Gunn, is where he lived in London. He famously developed Suffolk House in Southwark, but Southwark Place, where he lived in his later years, was close by what is now Trafalgar Square. The evidence for this is twofold: the Elizabethan historian Stow, whom Gunn quotes on the subject but clearly didn't follow up by reading the passage in full, and the deed of Edward VI granting Southwark to the City of London, all except what used to be Suffolk House but had become Southwark Place, which belonged to Edward and his father before him, the latter having got it from Brandon in exchange for Norwich House in Westminster. An Oxford professor should really have sorted that one out.

The second problem is the habit of quoting the records as they were written. Why? Gunn has modernised dates, numbers etc., so what is so precious about leaving handwritten texts in ye olde englysshe? It doesn't work for me. It means the reader having to go over many of them twice when a goodly proportion weren't really worth reading once.

That said, the amount of research that has gone into building a picture of Brandon's activities outside London is hugely impressive. Gunn writes very well and even holds our interest through passages on feoffees and shire courts, which were no more interesting then than they are today. Overall, I miss the women surrounding Brandon. This, after all, is the man who married up to eight times, had at least six daughters, ran off with the French Queen and finally married his teenage ward, one of the brightest Englishwomen of the century. Brandon, I think, was very much a lady's man.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Loved One - Evelyn Waugh

The Loved One is Waugh's satire on the American Way of Death, dedicated to Nancy Mitford (whose sister Jessica, if memory serves, wrote something similar). Dennis Barlow is a young war poet who has headed to California to try his luck in the movies. He has somewhat let the side down, not only by losing his place at the studio but - far worse - by taking common or garden employment, to whit assistant at the Happier Hunting Ground pet cemetery. Members of the Hollywood Cricket Club, expat writers, actors and general support players, have called to express their disapproval. Sadly, it is not Brown who takes their warning to heart. It is his landlord, Sir Francis Hinsley, celebrated author turned scriptwriter turned publicist turned nobody, who when he loses his last tenuous connection to Megalopolis Pictures, does the decent thing and tops himself.

Dennis has to take charge of making the arrangements. The Club has decided no expense should be spared, which takes our hero to Whispering Glades Memorial Park where he meets the dedicated mortician Aimee, and complications ensue...

The Loved One is a brilliant, beautiful book, 140 pages of magnificently elegant prose, very funny and very dark. I have become a Waugh fan in my later years but this is by some distance the most enjoyable of his fictions I have come across.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

The Razor's Edge - Somerset Maugham

The sharp edge of a razor is hard to pass over; thus the wise say the road to salvation is hard." (Upanishad)

The Razor's Edge (1944) is said to be Maugham's last great novel. It came as a shock to me, who remembers Maugham's death being announced on the BBC News in 1965, to realise that by 1944 he had been a novelist for almost half a century. No wonder then that his prose is beautiful yet simple, utterly devoid of cliche. What is more remarkable is the structure, which borders on the experimental. In the very first section he tells us that this is a novel, based on fact, that will not have a conventional ending. He - Maugham - remains the narrator and makes it very clear that this is a close approximation of the real Maugham and (just once) he is even called Maugham by one of the other characters. Who they really are, beneath the false names he has given them, is neither explained nor hinted at; he tells us we would not know them, they are not famous people.

They are however glamorous people, as Maugham himself was supremely glamorous by that point. He starts just after World War I in America. Maugham is already famous and wealthy enough to roam the world at will.  Through his friend Elliott Templeton, a snobbish, effete American ex-pat, he is introduced to the Bradley family. Mrs Bradley is Elliott's sister, the widow of a middling US diplomat. Her daughter Isabel is a coltish adolescent hopelessly in love with Larry Darrell, who lied about his age to fly in the war. Isabel is doted on by Gray Maturin whose father is a millionaire stock broker. Also present is a younger girl, Sophie Macdonald.

And that is basically it. Maugham narrates his encounters with these people over the next twenty years. He tells us when he is reconstructing conversations and events he only heard about but did not witness. There is a vast amount of travel and a hell of a lot of conversation. Elliott becomes increasingly flamboyant and ridiculous but is always saved by fundamental goodness of heart. Isabel almost marries Larry but ends up marrying Gray, whose fortunes rise and fall with the Crash of '29. Larry almost marries Sophie but doesn't.

So what is it all about? Maugham, of course, witnessed the war and the human damage first hand with the Ambulance Corps. He understands something of the lost generation but is too old and too British to understand the repercussions for the American Dream. This is what he explores. Larry never recovers; he avoids all responsibility, professes no ambition, commercial or academic, but instead wanders the world in menial jobs in the search for 'meaning'. Isabel meanwhile clings to the battered remnants of the Dream like a tigress. Sophie lets it all overwhelm her. In the end, nothing is resolved. Elliott and Sophie die, Gray gets back into business, and Larry vanishes, his quest unresolved. Maugham is the only one left in Europe.

One key section towards the end is an interminable evening in a French cafe in which Larry tells Maugham about his time spent on the ashram of an Indian mystic. This is in fact Maugham's own story. It was he who really visited the ashram of the enlightened guru Sri Ramana Maharshi. Did he find meaning or peace? He doesn't say. This is a novel, not autobiography. And it is a wonderful novel, surely a Twentieth Century classic. It encompasses that quest for meaning in the face of mechanized war and unrestrained capitalism which was surely the driving force of all art in the last century.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Henry: Virtuous Prince - David Starkey

The contrast with the earlier Starkey, also reviewed here this month, is (pun unavoidable) stark. The first, Personalities and Politics was short but deep; this - half a two-volume life of Henry VIII, published in tandem with a Channel 4 TV series in 2008, is chunky but feels very slight. Everything is in half-page segments, like the novelisation of a TV script.

I didn't see the series, so I can't tell if this is in fact the case. However, the sense of slightness is misleading. There is a great deal of information here that I haven't encountered anywhere else. For example, there is detail on the treasonable behaviour of the Duke of Suffolk, Edmund de la Pole, in 1501. Similarly, though of less interest to me personally, Starkey provides lots of information about Prince Henry's nurses and an early favourite, Lord Mountjoy. On the other hand, there is far too much - in my view - about Henry's love of the joust. I suspect Starkey is laying the groundwork for an argument in the second half that jousting accidents turned Henry into a tyrant. It's a weak argument which we will never know the truth about. Severe injuries, especially to the head, have unpredictable outcomes. Both of mine, for example, have been largely beneficial.

The real problem, though, is that nobody really cares about the young Henry VIII. He was vain, self-indulgent, and lazy. He achieved very little in the first half of his reign and, equally, hardly any harm. Everything of interest - five of the wives, the Break with Rome, the Pilgrimage of Grace and the elephantine weight - comes in the second half. Still, if you're stuck with writing a life, doing so in two volumes is a reasonable way out, though the first half will inevitably be padded. I'm about to request the second instalment (Henry: The Mind of a Tyrant) from my local library.

Finally, the notes and references here are better, but still nowhere near good enough for the serious student. There is again no bibliography whatever. And to think - they may have been axed to make room for the awful author interview which takes up twelve unwanted and unnecessary pages at the end.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Seven Gothic Tales - Isak Dinesen

Isak Dinesen was the pen name of Karen Blixen, best known, I suppose, for Out of Africa, which was ruined for many of us by the stultifying movie with Streep and Redford. Seven Gothic Tales was her first book, written in English and published in 1934 when she was nudging 40.

The term 'gothic' has come to be synonymous with horror, but Dinesen reminds us that it need not be so. These tales are not horror but they are complex, fantastical, and very dark. Gothic, for Blixen, hovers on the boundary between fantasy and madness. They take as their starting point a sort of northern European upper class respectability and then, piece by piece, reveal the transgressive passions lurking beneath.

'The Roads Round Pisa' hinges on cross dressing, "The Old Chevalier" still fantasizes about the free-spirited woman he met in Paris in his youth, the unbridled sex they enjoyed together in the age of crinolines and corsets. "The Monkey" has a strong tint of voyeurism. Survivors of "The Deluge at Norderney" confide their dark and shameful secrets as they wait to be rescued from the flood. Sisters n "The Supper at Elsinore" maintain the fiction that they are still the local belles they were in youth. "The Dreamers" begins as a tale told on an Arab dhow off Zanzibar but becomes a trans-European quest for a prima donna who has lost her voice in a deliberate fire. And the final, shortest of the tales, "The Poet" begins with charity and goodwill before turning to passion and ultimately murder.

The tales are all very long - "The Dreamers" is nearly 90 pages and even "The Poet" is more than 50. They are tales within tales, layers within layers, and even on occasion refer to other tales within the septet. The writing is simply magnificent. Blixen spoke several languages but the fact that English was not her first means that, like Conrad, she creates new and often startling phrases that play up the falseness of the poses struck by her outwardly respectable protagonists. I see influences - Conrad, obviously, and stars of the original gothic craze like Beckford and Mrs Radcliffe; and of course you cannot think of a gothicmonkey without thinking of le Fanu and "Green Tea"- but even so the result is something so original that I cannot think of a comparison.

Sheer brilliance.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Germinal - Emile Zola

Yes, here we are – another classic writer I have not read until late in life. Another I wish I had found earlier, though Zola wasn’t as prolific as many and there may yet be time.
I remember watching a BBC adaptation of Germinal back when I was a teenager, with Michael Bryant, I think, and maybe Rosemary Leach. Having read the book I now understand why nothing similar is offered today. For a book published in 1885 Germinal is tract for today – about the exploitation and progressive impoverishment of the poor by international capitalism. What struck me is that Zola is explicit – he uses those terms – and is equally open about the appeal of pure communism. This translation is by the first sexologist, Havelock Ellis, and he naturally does not seek to sanitise or euphemise Zola’s vocabulary for dealing with sex and nudity, of which there is plenty.

Zola was apparently criticised at the time for his lack of flowery description and for his unsentimental characterisation. For me the semi-journalistic style worked fine and the characterisation was plenty good enough to distinguish who people are among the huge cast. The main character is Etienne, who pitches up jobless and becomes leader of an all-out strike. The main female is the truck-puller Catherine, who Etienne should have taken up with to begin with. The ending, with the two of them trapped for days in the flooding mine, took my breath away. Superb.  

Monday, 5 February 2018

The Reign of Henry VIII, Personalities and Politics - David Starkey

This deceptively slim volume is Starkey at his best, one of his earliest books (written in 1995, republished in this form in 2002), before he became a TV character, cartoonish contraversialist and fawning royalist.

The attitude here is what made his name - that Henry VIII was the source of political power, not powerful in himself, and that his court was driven - and riven - by faction.
Because Starkey here is not aiming for sales but for reputation, he does not shy away from explaining his thesis and discussing the views of others. That gives tremendous life to the text. He also paints vivid pen portraits of the key players, not only Wolsey and Cromwell but figures like Anthony Denny, Groom of the Stool and absolute controller of access to the king. Likewise he offers assessments of the court women, especially the queens, that are fresh and which invite debate.

Essential reading, then, for both those new to the idea of court politics and those who simply want a vigorous and invigorating refresher. This Vintage paperback, however, sorely needs a better bibliography. A discursive one is not good enough for a thesis so heavily reliant on court papers of the time.

Thursday, 1 February 2018

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

American Gods is Gaiman's big hit, the core of Amazon Prime's drama strand and the centrepiece of what is referred to in the end papers of this tie-in paperback as "The American Gods Quartet". Turns out I have now read three of the four, I have read the novella Black Dog, which is definitely part of the Gods sequence, and I have read Anansi Boys, which I suspect really isn't. Both are reviewed on this blog. In a nutshell, I loved Black Dog (and particularly relished the illustration by Daniel Egneus) and enjoyed Anansi Boys though I thought it was a bit superficial in places.

The good news is, I loved American Gods. The writing was never superficial and the core idea - immigrants bring their gods with them to America, then forget about them, so what happens to the gods - was brilliant enough and deep enough to sustain the narrative. That said, there seems to have been an earlier version - this, Gaiman tells us, is a manuscript put together with the aid of Pete Atkins. It includes cuts made in the original manuscript and some new bits. All I can say is that any mashing together is expertly done and doesn't show.

Our hero is Shadow, about whom we don't learn much save that he went to prison for his wife, who has now died but still feels obliged to repay the favour. Shadow falls in with Wednesday, who is a bit of a flimflam man, and comes up against a digital agency where agents have names like Town and World. Lots of modern writers who have been taught the Joseph Campbell hero theory make it a subtext. Gaiman, being a natural storyteller and inspiringly disinhibited, gives us the full hero ordeal of death and rebirth.

Yet through it all the characters remain real, rounded, and largely likeable, even the worst of them. I also enjoyed the immigrant stories, tales of 'coming to America' which show us how the gods and supernatural entities made it across the Atlantic. These really deepen the text and at the same time preview much of what is to come.

American Gods is, in a nutshell again, magnificent.

NOTE: This particular edition contains a lot of extra material, none of which held my attention. It also includes the full text of the other novella, The Monarch of the Glen. I already have it on my KIndle and am saving it as a treat for later.