Monday, 17 November 2003

Three Junes and Portuguese irregular verbs

Listening to:

Mozart, Divertimento in G, K63.

Just read:

Julia Glass, Three Junes.

This novel is a good read. It is divided into three sections, each being one of the Junes of the title. The first June is that of 1989 and describes a holiday to Greece taken by a recently widowed man. Flashbacks to his family story are interspersed with descriptions of his holiday and the people he is on tour with.

The second June is in the mid nineties, and is told from the perspective of the widower’s first son. This section is the heart of the book, and again consists of intertwined stories. One story is in “the present” and sees the son return to Scotland, where he grew up, from New York to deal with an important family matter. The other chunks of narrative are all about the earlier stages of the son’s life in New York, and his various relationships.

The third June is that of 1999, and is told from the perspective of a younger woman, who has a distant connection (via a couple of routes) to the family that is central to the whole novel. This third June is something of an epilogue to the novel, and relatively brief (though still a chapter or two in length). Here again, the story is constructed by alternating flashbacks with events in the present.

Plot-wise, Three Junes is really very conventional. It is what I’d call a “family saga”, with the story gaining its power from persuading the reader that they care about what’s happening to the central characters, who have the sorts of trials and tribulations that you might expect. I think it does a pretty good job of this. The central character of the novel, the eldest son who is the focus of the second June, is well-realised. He seems plausible, and makes comments about life and the people around him that ring true. His family and the people around him are also well-drawn, on the whole.

I didn’t think much of the third June. This was because so much had been invested in the main family up to this point. Having to back off and see them from a distance as the novel closes, and to have their story mingled with that of another character, with her own independent back-story too, was just a distraction.

Alexander McCall Smith, Portuguese irregular verbs.

This slim book is a gently humorous series of vignettes about a ridiculous German professor of linguistics, Professor von Igelfeld. The charm comes from the fact that the ridiculousness of the setup is allowed to seem quite reasonable, and from the fact that everything is narrated from the professor’s point of view. He doesn’t appreciate just how much of an incompetent and bore he is, and the reader is carried a little into his own odd view of the world.

Nor are all the stories simply instances of von Igelfeld behaving stupidly or ridiculously. One story has him visit Goa and it’s strangely fascinating watching his reaction to the unfamiliar surroundings. The closing story in the book is about a trip to Venice, and is a strange miniature spoof of Death in Venice (this is also McCall Smith’s title for this chapter), featuring a beautiful young Polish boy, and a strange affliction in the city.

This book is slightly weird. It's certainly not guffaw inducing, but it's amusing, full of character, and worth reading.

To read next:

Karl Popper, The open society and its enemies.