Monday, 27 November 2006

The secret sharer

Listening to:

Yes it is, by the Beatles. Somewhat drone-y, I have to say.

Just read:

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer and other stories.

This Folio Society edition of Conrad short stories collects seven stories that originally appeared in two volumes, ’Twixt Land and Sea, and Tales of Hearsay. I definitely liked the first two stories, A Harbour Story and The Secret Sharer. The first is dark and tropically decadent. It’s mainly set on an island where the narrator has come to harbour. He gets entangled in a local merchant’s affairs, and with the merchant’s daughter.

In the second story, the narrator is another ship’s captain, who happens to pick up a man lost at sea and shelters him in his cabin. The castaway is from a nearby ship, and jumped because he had accidentally killed another member of the crew. The narrator keeps his presence a secret, making him the secret sharer of the captain’s cabin. There are two episodes of drama, as the fugitive is hidden from his original ship, and then helped to freedom. It’s all quite effective.

The third story is Freya of the Seven Isles, a romantic tragedy, featuring a loathsome Dutch lieutenant and a doomed love. It’s rather tedious really.

Fourth, The Warrior’s Soul is better again, being set during the Napoleonic Wars and about the discharging of an honourable debt between two soldiers on opposing sides (France and Russia). It’s formally neat, and a little bit vicious. Condensed it might have more impact, but Conrad’s typical psychologizing works quite well too.

Of the remaining stories, The Black Mate is cute and about as comic as Conrad ever gets. It reads a bit like a camp-fire story with an amusing twist. The Tale is another impressive and nasty story about a naval captain interrogating a merchant captain who may actually be a spy. Finally, Prince Roman is a so-so story about family loyalty and honour, set in nineteenth century Poland.

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

The Eyre affair

Listening to:

Mozart, piano concerto no. 20 in D minor, K.466. Kathryn Stott (piano), and the Manchester Camerata conducted by Douglas Boyd.

Just read:

Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair.

This is a very entertaining comic novel, set in 1985, but on an Earth with an alternative history. The main character is a detective called Thursday Next. Just this name suggests that the novel is not going to be taking itself entirely seriously. Plenty of details in the alternative history support this: Wales is a rigid socialist republic in the vein of North Korea, and England and Russia have been fighting the Crimean War for over a century.

Perhaps more importantly, the metaphysics of the setup allows people (or at least, Thursday’s father) to travel in time, and to move in and out of fiction. Thus, this book is the Eyre Affair because it features a villain who messes about with the novel Jane Eyre, as well as conducting all of his other nefarious plots. One of the many amusing touches is that when Thursday enters the novel to catch the bad guy, she ends up altering the ending so that it ends the way the way it does in “our world”. Up until that point, everyone in Thursday Next’s world agreed that Jane Eyre ended rather insipidly.

It’s all very clever, and amusing with it. What’s not to like?

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Coot Club

Listening to:

Béla Fleck, Sinister Minister.

Just read:

Arthur Ransome, Coot Club.

This novel is one of only two of Ransome’s novels that don’t feature the Walker family (John, Susan, Titty and Roger). Instead, Dick and Dot, who we met in Winter Holiday, are central, along with a new character, Tom Dudgeon. The only other character to earn any real definition is a Mrs. Barrable, a grown-up no less. The rest of the “gang” is three working class boys (boat-builders’ sons), and two twin girls (a lawyer’s daughters). The class signals are quite obvious, but these five don’t otherwise get to become real people.

The setting is different too: instead of being set in the Lake District, the book is set in the Norfolk Broads. It still features lots of messing about in boats. There is one important plot-arc to Coot Club: Tom casts a cruiser full of Hullabaloos loose because it’s moored on top of a coot’s nest, and the rest of the book centres on escaping them, and going on a big sailing expedition.

The drama of being chased by unpleasant and uncomprehending grown-ups moves the book along very effectively, all the way to an exciting finale. Dick and Dot are fun company, and all the characters get important and interesting things to do, even William, Mrs. Barrable’s pug dog.

Thursday, 30 November 2006

Stalin: the court of the red tsar

Listening to:

Richard Strauss, Four last songs, no. 4: Im Abendrot (“At sunset”), sung by Anne Schwanewilms, with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder.

Just read:

Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar.

This is an interesting biography of Stalin, focussing on the period from 1932 (when Stalin’s wife, Nadya shot herself) to 1953 (when he died). His earlier career (i.e., 54 years) is summed up in about 100 pages, and then the remaining 570 pages go over 21 years in great detail.

In 1932, Stalin is the Soviet Union’s top politician and leader, but he is not yet the all-powerful Great Dictator. This transformation happens in the early ’30s, and is a fascinating process. It’s also a horrifyingly bloody one. Stalin was paranoid and quite willing to see anyone killed if he thought they were a threat. Given the stranglehold he had on power, it’s hard to imagine how he could think anyone might be any sort of threat. But he’d got that far by being ruthless, so when he had the werewithal to be even more ruthless, he was.

And he is operating in an environment that really is quite court-like, making the book’s sub-title quite appropriate. He is top dog, but he works with a Politburo full of ambitious revolutionaries and politicians. None of them can afford to offend him, but he does rely on them in the formulation and implementation of policy. Most of them end badly, but at least one, Molotov, demonstrated that it was possible to start and finish your career with Stalin. The courtiers’ stories are very interesting, not least the consternation that envelops them when Stalin goes into a coma and eventually dies.

Finally, this is a very interesting period of global history. Stalin concludes evil deals with Hitler (partitioning Poland, for example), but has to go with war with him just a few years later. During the war he holds summit meetings with Churchill and Roosevelt. Then he drops his “Iron Curtain” over Europe and avidly pursues atomic weapons for the USSR. This book’s basic angle on this, centred on Stalin’s life as an individual, is fresh and engaging, but I imagine readers might best come to it with a basic grasp of those global events.