Monday, 30 January 2012

To The Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf

What can I say about this that has not already been said? (When did that ever stop me?) Save to say that, as always, I have trouble getting started. The first section of Part One always seems to me to be much longer than it really is. Perhaps an indication of the extreme compression involved in the writing. There is so much to take on board at the beginning of the work that It makes the rest seem daunting, when in fact when has once found one’s balance, so to speak, the rest flows like... well... thought.

The best part of the book as far as I am concerned is the short, middle section. Ten years in fifteen pages and the sense of change and decay in an otherwise unchanging universe are conveyed with all the intensity of a poem – a nocturne in which the bursts of light are not stars or comets, but the falling of shells and the shock of sudden death.

That it is, for me, the best part of the book does not detract from the context in which it sits. Rather it enhances the preceding and following sections, providing a different perspective on the scene; perhaps even the perspective of the scene itself – a meditation on how the places we live view the passing of time. A triumphant work.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

A Man Lay Dead - Ngaio Marsh

The first of Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn mysteries. As a book written partly to entertain herself and partly to see if she could do it, it is quite remarkable. Focussed, smooth, and well paced with an intriguing storyline, it is an excellent first attempt. In retrospect (I have read a number of her books before, including this, though never in order) it is clear this is a first book.

Characterization is sketchy and often so subtle (if at all there) as to make some characters indistinguishable from others, whilst others still are mere ciphers (e.g., the Russian sub-plot). The story is also a little light in places. But in the end, what we have a thoroughly diverting tale that does not rely on a gimmicky detective. It is clearly written without a word wasted, spiced with a dry wit, and full of all the indications that here was a writer who would become a queen of the genre.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Interim - Dorothy Richardson

The fifth of Richardson’s Pilgrimage series and I can only say these are works of genius. Engaging, witty, written with great simplicity and still finding room to experiment with form and style. Miriam Henderson’s development is so subtly told, that you are carried along, unaware of much change until you glance back and read, again, the fragile uncertainty of the know-it-all teenager of the first book.

Whilst Miriam still struggles with some of her pre-occupations (especially that of adequately conveying her inner life to others – which must make these not only the first stream of consciousness novels, but amongst the first meta-narratives), she has matured. Still uncertain about much that goes on around her, she is independent and living a life that quietly questions many of the male-centred and dominated establishments of the day.

To have sustained such a detailed and endlessly fascinating psychological study of a single character with such style and maturity; to write so well and explore the way in which words can convey the inner life of a person; to conjure up a picture of society with all its quirks, prejudices, and possibilities; to chart the progress of new ways of thinking; and still not be feted alongside the likes of Woolf, Joyce, and other modernists, suggests to me that there is something sadly awry in the world of literature.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Moment Of Eclipse - Brian Aldiss

This collection of short stories from the latter half of the 1960s demonstrates both Aldiss’s craft and art as a writer. The stories are science fiction (in the broadest sense of the term – many of them demonstrating the exploration of inner space that exemplifies the so-called New Wave that centred around Moorcock’s New Worlds magazine), yet they are highly literate. The writing is polished and intelligent. It shares space with some of Ballard’s work.

Technically the stories explore language and form without being self-consciously ‘experimental’, particularly so in ‘Orgy Of The Living And The Dying’ which is reminiscent of his novel Report On Probability A. They treat the reader as an intelligent being capable of appreciating subtlety and the jumps in narrative. They are also imaginative, displaying both a social awareness and a dry wit.

A third of the book is taken up with three linked stories that explore (at different periods of time) the consequences of a virus that infects animals with immortality. Others explore the consequences of artificial intelligence (‘Super-Toys Last All Summer Long’ and ‘Working In The Spaceship Yards’), and others introduce meta-narratives where the boundaries between the creation and its creator are blurred or dissolved.

All in all a fascinating and entertaining collection with stories that stay in the mind, slowly evolving, long after the covers of the book are closed.