About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 29 November 2015

"The Wild Boys" by William Burroughs

Burroughs, heir to a fortune, dropped out, became a junky, killed his wife and wrote gay erotica. His books are so much of their time. The Wild Boys was written in 1969.

Burroughs wrote a number of his books using a 'cut up' technique: narratives were written, cut and pasted in a different order. This makes it very difficult to talk of a plot. The Wild Boys is about a group of boys near Marrakech who go feral and roam the desert (and. it seems. the Mexican jungle) killing and having ritualistic gay sex. The story mixes in science fiction and supernatural elements: one gay ritual involves boys creating 'zimbus' during gay copulation enabling the tribe to procreate without women.

In the late sixties these books must have seemed daring and avant garde. But now it is relevant to ask whether they are actually any good.

The book starts with a description of a derelict Mexican slum. It appears in the first paragraph and is then forgotten. The first paragraph has a fly-by drone taking photos; the second concentrates on adjectives of dereliction such as choked, rusty, cracked and broken; the third introduces colours. There are lots of colours in this book; they are almost his favourite adjectives. Yet his palette isn't terribly extensive and the same colours are repeated again and again.

Repetition is also a feature of the book and one wonders whether the cut-up style might have been invented to space out the repetitions and avoid them seeming to become burdensome. Certainly, fragments from the erotic couplings are repeated again and again; Burroughs seems to see this as a sort of peep show arcade as opposed to the blue movies which are given rather more story and rather less sex.

After some effort, we arrive at the meat of the novel. A number of named characters, all young boys, including prep-school Aubrey and all-Americans Johnny and his cousin Mark, and poor Mexican Kiki have anal sex. These episodes seem to be retellings of first times. Rather cutely, Burroughs takes refuge in Spanish when it comes to some of the more explicit moments: vuelvete y aganchete means turn around and get down, quiero follarte means I want to fuck, buen lugar para follar means good place to fuck etc. Intrioguingly this, the pornographic heart of the novel, straddles (I think that might be an apposite word) the dead centre of the book.

So far, so undistinguished. Burroughs has produced a shocking book which aspires to literary greatness partly because of its subject matter but also because of its disdain for many of the literary conventions. Does that make it good or merely self-regarding?

The only reason Burroughs gets away with it at all is because of his ability to create vivid images. The whole wild boys adventure is a fantasy and others can go further down this road. But there are some phrases which stand out:

  • "A jungle seen through a faceted eye that looks simultaneously in any direction up or down"
  • "Occasionally the overseer adjusts a slow worker with his eyes."
  • "trailing white-hot wires like a jellyfish"
  • "Everyone has reversible linings and concealed pockets"
  • "the walking dead catatonic from hunger ... the legs of this river of flesh ... burrows of walking flesh."

In the end, though, it is just another sixties work of art promising a revolution that was never delivered.

Allegedly, David Bowie was influenced by the book when creating his androgynous image (and possibly also by the paragraph which talks of two astronauts, gay lovers, who orbit in a Gemini space capsule which then loses radio contact; this seems a possible source for Major Thom).

I have now also read by Burroughs:

November 2015; 184 pages

Friday, 27 November 2015

"The Warden" by Anthony Trollope

This is the first of the Chronicles of Barsetshire, Trollope's clerical life series.

Septimus Harding, a meek and mild clergyman whose principle interest is early choral music and playing the cello, has been awarded wardenship of an almshouse, a sinecure worth £800 per annum. But this is so vastly more than the allowances of the old people who are the intended recipients of the almshouse charity that it is challenged by local radical doctor John Bold (who wants to marry Warden Harding's daughter) both legally and through the Thunderer national newspaper.

It is one quarter of the length of any one of Trollope's political books which make it a neat enough novella. If you can forgive the repeated intrusion of the author's own voice in telling his story, and the use of comic names, this book does enjoy the character of the Archdeacon, who is the Bishop's son and Mr Harding's son in law, who bullies his father (whom he calls 'My Lord') and his father-in-law; they are both rather comically afraid of him. But he is almost the only nuanced character. Mr Harding is depressingly goody-goody, the Bishop almost vacuous in his ineffectiveness, and the journalist a stock baddy. The women are rather better being more conflicted but the outcome is that you never feel that Mr Harding will not resolve his dilemma honourably, the only real question being how much he will be made to suffer the consequences.

And in a story about the conscience of a man it is sad to see that the noble and honourable Warden Harding hardly considers poor people. For him, religion is about singing in church. He is more than happy to take the income as awarded to him. And, most damningly, when he considers resigning the wardenship he thinks he can move to his country parish which at the moment is administered by his curate who supports a family on the income from the parish. If Harding moves, the curate will lose his job. This does not worry Harding in the slightest.

A small book with a decent plot and some interesting details about clerical life in the early Victorian era.

November 2015; 169 pages

I have also read and reviewed Trollope's political Palliser novels:

  • Can You Forgive Her? in which Alice Vavasor oscillates backwards and forwards between goody two shoes John Grey and her wicked cousin George Vavasor. This book is blessed with a humorous counterpoint as rich and merry widow Mrs Greenow oscillates between rich farmer Mr Cheesacre who repeatedly tells everyone how well to do he is and penniless chancer and fraud 'Captain' Bellfield; the funniest of the palliser books
  • Phineas Finn, Irish charmer Phineas enters parliament and seeks marriage with Violet Effingham (he fights a duel over her) or Laura Standish (who rejects him for dour Scot Mr Kennedy whom Phineas subsequently saves from muggers) whilst being pursued by a poor Irish girl from home. Phineas suffers political tribulations but the best part of the book is the sadness over Laura's marriage.
  • The Eustace Diamonds, The wonderful minx Lizzie Eustace, who has married a dying man for diamonds and is determined to keep them despite legal attempts to win them back for the family, is Trollope's best character. She lies, she manipulates and she breaks the law to retian what she has convinced herself is rightfully hers.
  • Phineas Redux  Phineas returns, is again embroiled in woman trouble, and stands trial for murder. This should be the most exciting of the Trollope books were it not for the fact that Trollope writres his own spoilers.
  • The Prime Minister Plantagent Palliser, Duke of Omnium, becomes Prime Minister of a coalition but he is too concerned for his honour to be a successful leader and he struggles on the rack of his own conscience
  • The Duke's Children in which Plantagenet's children do their best to make unsuitable matches. The Duke finds it hard to apply his own liberal principles to his children.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

"Sapiens" by Yuval Noah Harari

The real beauty of this book is that it is written in very clear, very accessible, very simple language. It explains ideas and concepts. And it covers 2 million years of human history in 466 pages.

The inevitable downside of all this simplicity and brevity and clarity is that it admits no uncertainty. There is no suggestion that the ideas it presents may be controversial, that even the facts it offers are interpretations of evidence about which there are often fundamental disagreements.

For example, on page 55 he states that there is "some evidence that the size of the average Sapiens brain has actually decreased since the age of foraging." (p 55) Fair enough. But he then builds speculation on this evidence as if it were a fact. Human brains have decreased in size because agriculture opened up "niches for imbeciles".  One of his great themes is how well adapted humans were to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and how much more miserable agricultural peasants were than their forebears.

He defines religion as "a system of human norms and values that is founded on belief in a superhuman order" (p 255) and thus he claims that Buddhism and Marxism are religions even though they deny the supernatural. I would classify religions as systems of beliefs that accept the supernatural and thus I would deny that either Buddhism or Marxism are religions. He doesn't argue the point, he just states his definition and that is that. Later he says "if it makes you feel better, you are free to go on calling Communism an ideology rather than a religion" but that just made me feel patronised! Presumably science, in that the Laws of Nature are 'superhuman' and that  a scientist is likely to have a world view with human norms and values embedded into it (such as Occam's razor) qualifies as a religion. Hmm.

Another example: On page 266 he states that "one of the distinguishing marks of history as an academic discipline" is that "historians tend to be sceptical of ... deterministic theories." Yet this comes at the end of several pages when he is arguing that empires inevitably grow.

I mean, I like the idea that: "Capitalism's belief in perpetual economic growth flies in the face of nearly everything we know about the universe. ... The human economy has nevertheless managed to keep on growing throughout the modern era, thanks only to the fact that scientists come up with another discovery or gadget every few years." (p 352) But is this a fact or Mr Harari's opinion?

I have grumbled enough. Such a wide sweep over world history in such an accessible book inevitably requires short cuts. On balance, Sapiens is a delightful book with lots of brilliant insights. I agree with most of his claims above. I also thoroughly enjoyed the insights below.

  • Chimpanzees have a hierarchical structure in which less dominant grunt and grovel to the alpha male (p 28)
  • The Maoris only reached New Zealand 800 years ago; almost immediately the islands' mega-fauna became extinct. (p 74): We are not the first generation to drive other species out of existence.
  • Wheat "domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than the other way around". (p 90)
  • "From a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural." (p 164) Some things are forbidden in our culture but they are not 'unnatural'
  • "Every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions." (p 182) For example, the values of equality and freedom inevitably contradict one another (p 183) "Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values , it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture." (p 184) Eg God and the devil. Logically, monotheists cannot admit a dualistic belief such as the devil (p 247)
  • History is a "level two chaotic system" (p 267) because predictions made by historians are likely to affect the outcome (the weather is a level 1 chaotic system because weather forecasts won't affect what the weather is ,unless we start seeding clouds etc). He suggests that this is likely to make historians "prophets who predict things that don't happen" (p 268)!
  • Cultures are "a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host", carried by memes (p 270)
  • "Ardent capitalists tend to argue that capital should be free to influence politics, but politics should not be allowed to influence capital." (p 367)
  • "It is chilling to contemplate what might have happened if Gorbachev had behaved ... like the French in Algeria." (p 414)
  • Many of us act like a man on the beach trying to welcome good waves and push back bad waves. Buddhists suggest we should behave like a man who "sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please." (p 442)

Read this book. It is beautifully written and full of important ideas (but remember that they are ideas, not holy writ). November 2015; 466 pages

Sunday, 15 November 2015

"1606 William Shakespeare and the year of Lear" by James Shapiro

What is brilliant about this Shakespearian scholar (James Shapiro) is the way he roots each play in its context.

King Lear was borrowed from an older play called King Leir which was printed in 1605. With numerous quotes and including the fact that in Shakespeare's first version Lear is spelt Leir several times, Shapiro demonstrates how Shakespeare rooted his play in the old one. But then he goes on to demonstrate Shakespeare's brilliance in the improvements that he made,for example using a line that mentions nothing to make nothing a motif for the entire play: "Nothing comes of nothing."

Intriguing stylistic aspects of Lear include:

  • the remarkable part of the Fool: "a role unlike any Shakespeare ever wrote before or after - witty, pathetic, lonely, angry and prophetic"'; 
  • the subplot of Edmund and Edgar and the Earl of Gloucester which "would be the first and last time that Shakespeare ever included a parallel plot of subplot in one of his tragedies;
  • the  "highly experimental" passage at the end of Act Three when Lear's madness "shifts in and out of lucidity, from prose to blank verse to snatches of song" and which is "closer to Samuel Beckett than to Jacobean drama";
  • the use of not one but "two powerful recognition scenes: the first between Lear and Cordelia, the second, soon after, where the two plots converge, between the mad Lear and the blind Gloucester";
  • and the biting irony: "We hear, time and again, a version of 'The Gods are just'. But the Gods are not just; as the blinded Gloucester has learned, 'As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; / They kill us for their sport."
And then we discover that the device of the mysteriously delivered letter by which Edmund throws suspicion on his half-brother Edgar by letting his father Gloucester read it was mirrored a few days after it was written when a mysterious letter was delivered which contained sketchy details of the Gunpowder Plot; the 'recipients' of the letter similarly allowed King James to divine its meaning. Suddenly we are into the most famous conspiracy of English history: Guy Fawkes and his fellows. And Shakespeare is in the thick of it, living in both London and in Stratford-on-Avon, very near where the conspirators are massing (Ben Jonson, fellow playwright, was also involved, having recently dined with the conspirators at a London pub). Can a history book get any more exciting?

The Gunpowder plot was close to the London theatre scene. On 9th October 1605, less than a month before the discovery of Guy Fawkes, Ben Jonson, playwright, Shakespeare's friend and a Catholic, dined on the Strand in the company of conspirators Robert Catesby (ringleader), Francis Tresham (most likely author of the mysterious letter) and Thomas Winter.

And of course a major theme of Macbeth is equivocation ('Fair is foul and foul is fair') which was a controversial talking point in the immediate aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. 

Macbeth also has interesting stylistic points: 
  • King Duncan is killed offstage ... and so is Macbeth!
  • In the 'Hell's Porter' scene "Shakespeare offers us, in the most down-to-earth scene in the play, the closest thing to an evocation of hell itself." It is also a comic interlude (perhaps the only moment of humour in this dark play) which comes immediately after Duncan's murder, the point of no return.

Shapiro discusses the discovery of an old beam, scorched and marked with mesh design based on a pentagram. The symbols are towards the fireplace because "fireplaces and chimneys were thought to be rapid transit systems favoured by hellish spirits." And so to Harry Potter?

And finally, Shapiro deals with Antony and Cleopatra. In this play:
  • Shakespeare virtually abandons the soliloquy
  • He "never lets us see Antony and Cleopatra alone together on stage"
  • "His account of Cleopatra is suffused with paradox and hyperbole: ... 'she makes hungry Where she most satisfies'" (A2 S2) (Shapiro 2015 1606 William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear; p 280).

In Titus Andronicus there is a mad scene in which Marcus Andronicus kills a fly and Titus first reprimands him and then attacks the dead body of the fly; this scene was introduced between the Quarto version of the play and the First Folio and dhows that Shakespeare revised his works. I wonder whether the famous 'Fly' episode of Breaking Bad when Walter White spends a whole episode trying to kill a fly that might conceivably contaminate his meth cook (ironic since Crystal Meth is not known for customers who worry about the possible harm it may do).

The genius of Shapiro is that he lets us see how the plays were constructed by an ordinary man who was writing in the context of his company, the limitations of his theatre, and the context of events happening at the time. He tells us of the sources for the plays, the dates when they were published, the extensive borrowings Shakespeare made and the changes he made, and why he made them.

This book is a brilliant sequel to Shapiro's equally fabulous 1599 and the wonderful Contested Will. Read them all!

Also read Charles Nicholls The Lodger and the unputdownable Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World as well as Shakespeare and Co by Stanley Wells.

November 2015; 359 pages

Friday, 13 November 2015

"The Great Pursuit" by Tom Sharpe

A literary agency receives a manuscript from a novelist determined to remain anonymous and persuade one of their unpublishable authors to pretend they wrote it for the US book tour. With arson, serpentine Southern services and sex and skulduggery in Oxford, this is a classic farce.

There are some brilliant lines: the fat agent Frensic stuffs himself with food because his "appearance tended to limit his sensual pleasures to putting things into himself rather than into other people." (p3) And near the end, when someone suggests that the epithet 'late' shouldn't be applied to a man who is still alive the riposte is that it scarcely seems suitable for one who is dead. But it was originally published in 1977 and some if the stereotypes, such as the gay publisher with a boyfriend called Sven, seem predictable and laboured.

November 2015; 380 pages

Thursday, 12 November 2015

"Measure for Measure" by William Shakespeare

A playscript is a first for this blog but I saw this production at the Young Vic and was inspired to read the play.

This is scarcely the bard at his best. In Act 1 Scene 2 Mistress Overdone the brothel keeper knows why Claudio has been arrested and sentenced to death but a few lines later on she has to ask Pompey her pimp for this very information; perhaps two versions were conflated for the final folio.

I found the character of the Duke very difficult. He leaves Vienna in a hurry, to return in disguise to see how his deputy is doing. It is almost as though he has set Angelo up. Later, the Duke lies, repeatedly, to Isabella about her brother being dead; this is cruel and manipulative. At the end the man who claims to be shy orchestrates a final showdown; his final judgement is to pardon those he likes and punish those who have annoyed him personally. Did Shakespeare think the moral dilemmas through here or was this an incredibly subversive comment on a powerful being who seems to set us up, disappears from the strange but keeps us under observation, tricks us, lies to us, and manipulates us, and finally condemns us or pardons us according to his whims?

Isabella is also a difficult character. She pleads half-heartedly (or perhaps hard heartedly) for her brother who has been condemned to death for sleeping with his fiancee but she is clearly disapproving of what he has done and it is Lucio, a dissolute fool, who has to egg her on. She prizes her virginity so much that she is unwilling to sacrifice it to save her brother from execution, even when he begs her. But she is prepared to see Mariana sacrifice her virginity ( a scheme proposed by the Duke, disguised as a holy man! who seems to have no issues with breaking his own laws), incidentally committing the same crime as Claudio has done. But this persuasion of Mariana is done off-stage (and in five lines) missing an opportunity for a great moment of drama; in the very same scene a little earlier Isabella (pretends to) agrees with Angelo to let him have his wicked way with her; another opportunity for a fantastic scene, again done off stage. Was Shakespeare really off his game or is the version that we have abridged and bowdlerised?

Because there are great moments, The scene in which Angelo makes his indecent proposal to Isabella is great. Even better is the moment when Claudio, having resigned himself to death, realises that if Isabella will agree to Angelo he might be saved at which point he first becomes reluctant, dry; almost speechless and then he begs her to save him: "Death is a fearful thing." And she turns on him; her honour is worth more than his life, she wishes he would die quickly. Dramatic diamond.

And there are moments of great irony and Shakespeare does his usual trick of switching between intense rhetoric as the characters make key moral points to bawdy humour with Pompey Bum and Lucio. There is often irony in the counterpoint as well.

This is a play which has the potential to be great but someone Shakespeare takes his eye off the ball. How can I criticise the immortal bard? All I can say is that, at the end, even with both the bed trick and the head trick, I was disappointed.

Charles Nicholls in The Lodger suggests Act 2 Scene 2 (137-8) "Go to your bosom,/Knock there, and ask thy heart what it doth know" echoes the motto of the essayist Michel de Montaigne: "What do I know?"; this predates the scepticism of Descartes; Montaigne's essays were designed to test ('assay') assumptions

November 2015; 114 pages

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include:

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

"The Judgement of Paris" by Ross King

This is a book about Meissonier, the highest paid artist in the world in the 1860s, whom almost no one knows now, and Manet, who sold almost nothing in the 1860s but is now regarded as the father of Impressionism. It is set in Paris between the years 1863 and 1873 and most of the action revolves around the attempts by the Parisian artists to exhibit their work in the annual Salon, the equivalent of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London.

Whch makes the book sound dry as dust. But the genius of Ross King is that he can take this tiny little bit of history and weave a story which incorporates so many other things. Because this was the Paris of the Second Empire when Emperor Napoleon III ruled over a city which had been transformed by the Boulevards of Baron Haussman; the Paris of cafes, artists, prostitutes (one in six Parisians was a sex worker) and the demi-monde; the Paris of the Universal Exposition, of glamour and glitter and industrialisation; the Paris of the secret police, of censorship, of political repression. And in 1871 it was the Paris which was beseiged as France lost the Franco-Prussian war and the Emperor fled; it was the Paris of the Commune.

This was a fascinating time, a revolutionary time, and art underwent its own revolution. But, as always, the opponents in the revolution were so much more interesting than their stereotypes.

Meissonier painted tiny oil paintings of incredible and exacting detail. He had made his fortune with pictures of Bonhommes (a bit like the Laughing Cavalier) but he longed to do more heroic work. He toiled for years over (slightly) larger works depicting the glories (and the tragedies) of the first Napoleon. He was a studio painter who rarely painted outdoors but his preparations and research were meticulous. He attended the Battle of Solferino for research and he had a train track laid in his garden so that he could move alongside galloping horses and study them precisely.

Manet really wasn't an impressionist and he certainly shouldn't be confused with Monet, who was. Manet's inspiration came from the old masters. His controversial Dejeuner sur l'Herbe featured a riverscape inspired by a Titian in the Louvre, a female nude inspired by Rubens and a clothed man who reclines in the same position as Adam on the Sistine chapel ceiling, albeit reversed. His even more controversial Olympia was a copy of another Titian. But both paintings owed much of their daring and their notoriety from the clever visual hints added by Manet (such as a black cat with an erect tail hinting at pussy); even the name Olympia hinted that the woman was a prostitute and the position of the left hand suggests that she isn't just being modest (and did you know that our word pudenda for female genitalia comes from the Latin pudens which means shame).

Manet must have been a resilient man with enormous self-belief. Year after year he exhibited to howls of derision. People laughed at his paintings, they said he was useless. It must have been hard for his models. Victorine posed naked for Dejeuner sur l'Herbe; many horrible comments were made about her ugliness; it was assumed she was a prostitute; she was laughed at. Next year she posed again, naked again, as Olympia (clearly a prostitute), and again was on the receiving end of ridicule and scorn. It wasn't even as if the pay was good and Manet took hours and hours over his models!

I learned so much from this book, from the controversial career of Napoleon III (two failed coups before he came to power including escaping from a French prison by dressing as a workman and walking out of the door with a plank across his shoulders) to the derivation of pompous (the French called the overblown toga-and-sandals paintings of David and fellows 'pompiers' because the helmets of the heroes resembled the helmets of French firemen) to Baudelaire, notorious author of Fleur du Mal, who so courted notoriety that on a visit to Belgium he pretended that he had killed and eaten his step-father to Whistler who had been expelled from West Point by Robert Lee to Manet who failed his naval training (proved by the fact that on one seascape the flags and sails of one of the boats are being blown in opposite directions) to the fact the landscape painting only really took off after oil paints began to be available in metal tubes rather than the much less wieldy pig's bladders ....

Written in 38 short chapters, this is a very easy read. It is so packed with characters and incidents that it never flags. It is brilliant and deserves a wide readership.

Ross King also wrote (reviewed in this blog):

November 2015; 374 pages

Friday, 6 November 2015

"Oroonoko" by Aphra Benn

Aphra Benn was a woman playwright and novelist during the restoration. When she was young she seems to have lived in Suriname (before it was ceded to the Dutch by the Treaty of Breda in 1667 following the Anglo Dutch War (the English got New Amsterdam which they renamed New York). This story is about an African slave who led a revolt there.

Oroonoko is a Prince in his own country and very good looking (in fact he resembles a fine young English gentleman except for the colour of his skin). He falls in love with a very beautiful woman, Imoinda but the King, his grandfather, summons her to join his harem. The old King is impotent so Imoinda's virginity is preserved until Oroonoko can sneak into her bedchamber and ravish her. All night. The King finds out and sells Imoinda into slavery. Shortly afterwards, English sailors seize Oroonoko by trickery and transport him to Suriname and sell him as a slave to a very nice overseer called Trefry who treats Oroonoko with all respect. Surpirse, surprise, Imoinda is there (and has resisted all advances). So Oroonoko is reunited with her. But the story doesn't end there. Oroonoko leads a slave rebellion which is put down with great ferocity, despite promises of peace made by yet more treacherous Englishmen. Oroonoko is whipped to within an inch of his life and swears revenge ...

It is really short, only 66 pages, but the prose is long-winded and there is a lot of description. It is remarkable as a history and as an example of the nascent flowering of prose fiction; it is a classic story but the characters are too stereotyped for modern tastes.

November 2015; 66 pages

Thursday, 5 November 2015

"Ragnarok" by A. S. Byatt

Byatt tells the story of a thin girl, evacuated with her mother during WWII and missing her airman father, who reads two books: Pilgrim's Progress and Asgard and the Gods. This last tells her the story of the Viking Gods, of Odin and Thor and Baldur and Loki, of wolves and sea serpents and bareserk warriors, of frost and forests and night.

Byatt has written a poem in prose form. Her images are intense and lyrical, her descriptions of seaweed and hedgerows are colourful and fresh. The great thing about the Norse Gods, which she brings out, is how vulnerable they are. Odin is one-eyed having sacrificed the other eye to buy prophesies from the head of Mimir, Tyr the hunter has his hand bitten off by Fenrir the wolf, Loki is captured and tied and has poison dripping into his face, Baldur is killed. And they are doomed. The world will end at Ragnarok and all of time is hurrying towards this finish.

This is a book filled with wonderful writing, fabulous, haunting characters (Hel, goddess of the underworld, has a face and a body which is half alive and half dead) and mysteries. What was the word whispered by Odin into the ear of his dead son? What will come after the destruction of Ragnarok?

Byatt has written a beautiful book. November 2015; 171 pages

Also reviewed by A S Byatt: Possession a delightful, Booker winning novel about a literary researcher tracing the details of an unknown and illicit Victorian love affair.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

"Bonjour Tristesse" by Francoise Sagan

Cecile and her widowed father take a villa on the French south coast for the summer. Elsa, the latest in a line of her father's girlfriends, joins them. Cecile meets Cyril.

Then Anne, a friend of Cecile's dead mother turns up. In very short order, Anne ousts Elsa and pwersuades Cecile's father to promise to marry her; she takes over as Cecile's step-mother and forbids her to see Cyril.

So Cecile concocts a plan: Elsa and Cyril will pretend to be lovers and arrange it so that Cecile's father and Anne will keep happening upon them; Cecile's father, not known for his fidelity, will bed Elsa and Anne will depart. Everything will be back to the previous free and easy ways.

What could go wrong?

In the course of this very short novel, Cecile grows up in several ways and realises that free love can have a very painful price.

A shocking book in the 1950s, more for its depiction of amoral sex than for the explicitness of the sex scenes which would today be regarded as very coy. But this book has simplicity and poetic naturalness that combine with the classic plot to produce an almost mythic tale. Indeed, under the surface of lax morals and promiscuity, the core message is surprisingly moral and old-fashioned: you need to remember that the people around have fears and weaknesses and wants just like you and that they can hurt just as much as you can.

November 2015; 100 pages

Sagan's next book, a haunting tale of a love affair with a married man, is A Certain Smile.