Tuesday, 1 October 2002

Books and Bordeaux

Listening to:

Schubert, octet in F, D803. I believe this piece was written as a vehicle for a clarinettist friend of Schubert's. Certainly the clarinet has a prominent role.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, The rover.

This is Conrad's last novel, and one I enjoyed a lot. It probably helped that the central character, Peyrol, was competent and basically good-natured, as opposed to the pathetic Almayer in my previous Conrad. The novel is set in Napoleonic France, and is about the last stage in the career of the rover Peyrol, an experienced sea-man who has spent most of his time in waters far from Europe. He returns to France to retire, and hooks up with a dysfunctional household in the country-side near Toulon.

Toulon is being blockaded by the English fleet, and after a little while, a naval lieutenant turns up with a plot that will require the rover's help. So, Peyrol gets drawn back into one last naval adventure. Yes, the plot is a bit stereotypical, but it's well done. It seems pretty clear that an old Conrad identified a bit with his Peyrol character, and he is drawn sympathetically. (Conrad began his seaman's career out of Marseilles.)

Philip Pullman, The subtle knife.

This is the second book in Pullman's His dark materials trilogy. It's very exciting, and reveals more tantalising details about the nature of the cosmic struggle that the main characters are becoming involved in. Again, I'll hold back on further comment until I've read the whole trilogy. Still, I think I can see why one reactionary claimed that Pullman was “the most dangerous author in the UK”.

Granta 77: what we think of America (contents).

This issue of the literary magazine is dominated by a series of 24 brief essays written to the title What we think of America, by a variety of authors from all around the world (one Australian, even, but no New Zealanders). There are five other normal length pieces in the issue, and the usual photo essay.

The 24 essays on America were inevitably a mixed bag. I liked Ian Buruma's and Michael Ignatieff's for example, and thought Harold Pinter's ridiculously over the top. In general, I thought the essays very much of their time. Now, six months later than publication, the general impression is of staleness. The story of the war on terrorism and America's place in the world has moved on, and I want to hear specifics about what's happening now. I'm not sure that a literary magazine is the right place for current affairs editorials, even if they are written by literary types.

The other pieces in this issue were all good. Francis Spufford's description of learning to read while bedridden with the mumps is very effective, even if I doubt its detail (this being my standard suspicion of child-hood memoirs). I enjoyed Blake Morrison's exhumation of his parents war-time love letters, even if it did feel a bit voyeuristic, and Ziauddin Sardar's description of getting out of Saudi Arabia is quite enthralling; easily enough to convince me that it's somewhere I don't want to go.

Now reading:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and daughters.

Last week I was away at the tenth European SIGOPS workshop, in St. Emilion. This is a very pretty village in the Bordeaux region, and famous for its wines. A good time was had by all. On returning to the UK, I was soon struck down by a nasty cold. Thus I make my excuses for the paucity of entries recently.

Yesterday was my last day as the Heller Research Fellow at St. Catharine's College. Yesterday we also paid the full amount for our tickets to Australia. The world is a-changing.

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