Sunday, 13 April 2014

The First Blast of the Trumpet: Marie Macpherson

(published by Knox Robinson, £12.99, or from Amazon)


The John Knox Trilogy: Book I

John Knox made a brief cameo appearance in my GCSE History course, mainly to demonstrate that many people in the 16th century thought female monarchs were A Bad Thing. As part of a monstrous regiment of my own, in my girls' school, I never had the chance to learn much more about him than the title of his most famous work, which naturally made me regard him with slight disapproval; and now, fifteen years later, it's time to finally redress the balance. Marie Macpherson's novel - the first in a proposed trilogy - turns him from merely a name on a history syllabus into a much more rounded and appealing figure, set firmly in his time.

And what a time that is! For all my admiration of certain Scottish historical novels, I'm not all that good on the country's history in the early part of the 16th century, and found myself plunged into a period of political and religious turmoil. Plagued by a series of misfortunes - a regency, followed by a weak-minded king, and yet another regency - the Scottish monarchy is becoming little more than a fragile shell, circled by ambitious magnates who see their chance to seize power through an advantageous marriage or a place on the Regency Council. Without a strong figure at its head, the realm risks descending into chaos, while on its southern borders the menace of England ebbs and flows in periodic bloody invasions. As if this isn't enough, new ideas are seeping in from the Reformation on the Continent, and finding rich soil in a country where the great churchmen are nobles first and clerics second; and where gluttony, avarice and fornication are rife. Sickened by the lack of Christian feeling in their church hierarchy, a small handful of men begin to question the need for priests and mysteries; and among their number is a young clerk, called John Knox.

But I'm getting ahead of myself of course. Macpherson's novel shows us this whole dense, dazzling period through the eyes and experiences of one powerful family: the Hepburns. In 1511, when the book opens, Elisabeth Hepburn, her sister Meg and their cousin Kate are on the brink of adolescence, still bewitched by folk traditions and fairy ballads; but by 1548, at the novel's close, they will each have experienced for themselves the danger and bitterness of a world in which they can never rest on their laurels, but must always strive for more to keep their family strong. The most determined and most successful of these three is Elisabeth, a strong spirit who falls in love and dreams of marriage, but whose qualities fit her out for a very different kind of life. Directed by their formidable aunt and uncle - respectively a prioress and prior – each of the three orphaned girls finds herself pressed in a different direction. Sweet, malleable Meg is destined for a great marriage; flirtatious Kate is packed off to the Court to delight the king's eye; and Elisabeth finds herself designated as her aunt's successor as prioress of the great foundation of St Mary's. And it is through her life there that she comes into contact with the newborn child whom she takes as her godson: John.

There are many things to like about this book: it veritably teems with detail, not only in the kind of everyday scene-setting context that makes it feel real, but also in the care given to the language. Scottish words are used not only in the dialogue but also in the narrative and, while I'm not always a fan of such things, I thought that it worked remarkably well here. It means that the whole book has a linguistic integrity and richness. There were several words I'd never heard before, but the context made them plain and by the end of the novel 'hirpling' had become something of a favourite. Chapters all begin with quotations from contemporary books, often ballads or works by the real-life David Lindsay, and this too helps to maintain the period flavour. And, which is a true blessing in a Kindle version of a book, the novel opens with a generous spread of character lists, family trees and maps, so you haven't the slightest excuse not to know who someone is or how they all fit together.

This kind of historical sensitivity is precisely what I enjoy in a book, but there were a few things, largely on the stylistic front, which prevented me being able to lose myself in the story. I couldn't help noticing, for example, an effort to avoid the word 'said'. Some of the alternatives used could come across as inappropriately charged or melodramatic. For example, some characters would ‘simper’ or ‘whine’ when such behaviour wasn’t consistent with their strong personalities, their mood or the tenor of their conversations. I did find this particularly distracting, although I confess it's a personal foible and not something that will bother everyone. (I feel that if someone 'says' something, you pay attention to the words, but if someone 'bellows' something then your focus is on the bellow, not the words.) Occasionally there were also points when there was a little too much exposition, when it might have been more effective to drip-feed hints about the political situation or characters’ feelings. And one final thing to mention is actually a matter of formatting, which might be entirely due to the Kindle format. We would sometimes jump from one location and conversation to another, with no more distinction than a line break; and this can leave the reader a little disorientated about where the characters were and whether any time had passed.

Nevertheless, let's return to its strengths. Another of the book's most interesting aspects is its main character: Elisabeth. She is competent, determined and innovative, and I liked the fact that despite her youthful infatuation with David Lindsay she is able to meet him on a more equal ground as she grows older and, indeed, to hold the greater power and authority in their relationship. And yet, for all her good qualities, she's also flawed and that made her much more absorbing. She is not suited to be a prioress of a convent in an ideal world, because she has no religious conviction; but she is exactly suited to be a prioress at this particular thorny, difficult period in history, when the rule of a religious house requires firm handling rather than piety. The convent of St Mary's offers a very historically plausible vision of what life in a wealthy priory might have been like. Indeed, there are times you almost forget it's a convent: rather than being cloistered away, these nuns are players in the great game in their own right. The convent seemed remarkably open, too: with so many men coming in, including grooms and altar-boys and noble visitors, and nuns going out, it's hardly shocking that one or two of the sisters might have let their vows slip slightly. It's striking too that someone who grows up to be something of a misogynist - or so he was presented in my syllabus - should have been raised in a convent community. Do I foresee a rebellion against the overpowering female figures of his boyhood?

For those who enjoy the Tudors or the Wars of the Roses, but are looking for something slightly different, this will certainly be up your street. Full of passion and knowledge, it's a book that certainly makes its mark, even though I felt that some of its stylistic quirks were just that little bit too distracting for me to fall entirely in love with it. I'm very much out on my own in that respect, however. The book has been garnering a plethora of rave reviews wherever it goes, so in this particular case I would thoroughly urge you to try it for yourselves. It's been a very enjoyable way to build on my (limited) knowledge of Scottish history and to give me a foundation of understanding for a certain other series. On that note, actually, I couldn't help wondering all the way through if there was going to be some kind of reference - sparked off by the sudden appearance of a Mariota, Lady Crawford (who may, for all that, have been a genuine historical figure). Nevertheless, I couldn't help 'scanning the background' just in case, especially when one of the characters is sent off to the galleys. I'm glad, of course, that Macpherson didn't bow to temptation: her book has heroes and villains and love stories all of its own, and it will be interesting to see how John Knox develops, both as a character and a preacher, as the trilogy goes on.

I received a copy of this book from the author in return for a fair and honest review.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Moranthology: Caitlin Moran

(published by Ebury, £8.99, or from Amazon)


A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer but a citizen instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate 'need' for 'stuff'. A mall - the shops - are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy's taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead.
I'm a little bit in love with Caitlin Moran. The glorious mixture of frankness, feistiness and common sense in her How To Be A Woman made me an immediate devotee and her follow-up book has been on my wishlist for a long time. Collecting together some of her columns, it gives Moran the chance to demonstrate that she's able to write wittily and perceptively about many other topics than that of being a woman, although she is, as she points out, quite an expert on that. The book is effectively a smorgasbord of opinions, most of which are liable to make you snort with laughter (and potentially choke, if you happen to be drinking coffee at the same time), but some of which are unexpectedly serious and all the more moving for that. From Doctor Who to the problems of mental health care in modern Britain; from her pride in paying tax to her loathing for Lola from Charlie and Lola; from burkas to children's party-bags; from government benefits to 19th-century lesbians; Moran is never less than thoroughly entertaining, engaged and a darn sight more down-to-earth and competent than most columnists I've read. Plus, she's a massive Sherlock fan.

Moran describes her journalism as 'pointing at things'. Those might be things she likes, in which case she is gloriously, endearingly fangirlish about them (Doctor Who; Aberystwyth); or they might be serious issues that she deals with, very acutely, by revealing how fundamentally ridiculous it is that the world should be like this (poverty; mental health cuts). It's actually when she's being serious that her writing is most beautiful, as she tries to convey why she believes libraries are so important, offers up an obituary to Amy Winehouse, or shows us how a certain place has witnessed a series of different vignettes in her life. Cleverly tucked in among the more light-hearted columns, these pieces have the ability to tug unexpectedly on the heart strings you'd put to one side, not intending to use. 

However, what lingers in the memory is Moran's slightly maniacal, gleeful lust for life. Her transcripts of her night-time conversations with her long-suffering husband Pete are prime examples of this ('Call Me Puffin' is my favourite). As I said of How To Be A Woman, what I most enjoy about her writing is that she's so open about her hopes, her fears and her beliefs, and she doesn't really give a damn whether you agree with her or not, but will politely and persistently keep to her principles. She doesn't have a niche that she's trying to fit into; she's not tailoring her ideas to any particular social or particular formula: she's just having a ball following her own convictions and doing things her way. Her energy sparks through her writing, as she embarks on sweeping metaphors so rich and involved that they almost take on a life of their own. For example, in describing the hormonal upheaval of the menstrual cycle, she likens it rather fabulously to 'a circus that's on fire ... [with] clowns jumping out of windows, and crying seals everywhere'. Yes, on one level it's totally barmy and makes no sense, but on the other hand I do rather see what she means. She is articulate on the subject of exactly how to describe Benedict Cumberbatch's voice: one moment it's 'like someone smoking a cigar inside a grand piano' and, at another, 'like a jaguar in a cello'. And, in a stroke of genius, she manages to interview Keith Richards on Talk Like A Pirate Day, musing that he
has the air of a rakish gentleman forced to steal a frigate and abscond from polite society - due to some regrettable misunderstanding about a virgin daughter, a treasure map and a now-smouldering Admiralty building.
If you haven't yet read any Moran, this is a great place to start. You can dip in and out very easily, because the pieces are so compact, and since it's not quite as outrageous as some parts of How To Be A Woman, there's less chance of you alarming fellow commuters with sudden sniggering. One thing to be aware of is that the choice of subjects is very much skewed towards British politics, culture and humour - which suits me perfectly, of course, because I can thoroughly relate to Moran's comments on the London lifestyle, but it may be that non-British readers might sometimes miss out on some of the references. But even so I'd urge you to give it a go. The best thing about Moran's attitude to life is that she accepts that some bad things happen - things which are crazy, blinkered, bigoted or simply daft - but, fundamentally, she believes that life is to be savoured and her book, as she describes it, is 'a manifesto for joy'. For me, anyway, it succeeds with flying colours.
This is the best world we have - because it's the only world we have. It's the simplest maths ever. However many terrible, rankling, peeve-inducing things may occur, there are always libraries. And rain-falling-on-sea. And the Moon. And love. There is always something to look back on, with satisfaction, or forward to, with joy. There is always a moment where you boggle at the world - at yourself - at the whole unlikely, precarious business of being alive - and then start laughing.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. 

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Vikings: Life and Legend

(British Museum, London, until 22 June 2014)

Bearing in mind I went to see the British Museum's Vikings exhibition on the day after it opened, almost a month ago, you might think it strange that I haven't got round to writing about it yet. The simple truth is that it's been hard to weigh up my feelings about it. And I'm not the only one who has been rather underwhelmed. The lovely Elisa, a fellow Dunnetteer, came along with me and I think was similarly nonplussed; and I've spoken to several other people who've shared our feelings. In my particular case, I think I'd probably gone into the show with unrealistically high expectations. After all, I'd been waiting for this for a long time: I bought my ticket back in the autumn and had ordered the catalogue well in advance, although I didn't actually read it for fear of spoiling the surprise. It was, without a doubt, my most eagerly-anticipated show of the year. Unfortunately, it seems to have been eagerly anticipated by an awful lot of other people too. One of the greatest disappointments about the exhibition was the overcrowding, which the British Museum's shiny new galleries and timed-ticket entry did nothing to ease. And, while many of the exhibits are beautiful and breathtaking, the show concludes with such an anti-climax that I was propelled out into the gift shop with a sorry sense of deflation. But more on that later.

The show is laid out by theme, beginning with an overview of the Viking world and the cultures they would have encountered, from the Hebrides to Byzantium, and then it proceeds to look more closely at trade, social status, lifestyle, shipbuilding, warfare and religion. There are plenty of artefacts from the British Museum's own collection, of course, including the familiar dumpy figures of the Lewis Chessmen, and a selection from the Vale of York Hoard: a treasure-trove of hack-silver, coins and a golden cup, discovered in a Yorkshire field in 2009. Some of the most captivating exhibits in the opening rooms, in my opinion, are the pieces of jewellery, with their intricate decoration. I was especially amazed by the sheer weight of the elaborate brooches worn by wealthier women. Although I'd seen such brooches many times in books and paintings, I'd always imagined them flat and was astonished to see that many of them are actually heavy and hemispherical, encrusted with gold and gems. The men had their own fair share of unwieldy finery, in the form of magnificent brooches in which a silver ring is counterbalanced by a lethally long pin. If the brooch were fastening a cloak at the shoulder, some of these pins would project well above the collarbone and must have come in handy as an extra weapon in case of trouble, as well as showing off the wearer's status. 

There are, predictably, many examples of more conventional weaponry later in the show, where we see elaborate sword-hilts above corroded blades, a circular wooden shield which has managed to survive ten centuries, and fragments of helmets. One of the most interesting exhibits in that section, actually, was the skull of a warrior who'd indulged in the common practice of filing horizontal grooves into his teeth, which he would have painted, so as to appear particularly fearsome on the battlefield. And there are the sorry remains of an unsuccessful troop of warriors from a mass grave at Ridgeway Hill in Dorset, where the hapless Vikings were nastily massacred by the natives. Their bones now offer an insight into Viking nutrition and diseases.

A sample of the stunning Vale of York Hoard (left)  |  A remarkable survival of a 9th-century wooden shield (right)
While I was excited to see all these things, I wish I'd come away feeling that I'd learned a little more. Although the first room touches on Viking expansion out into Eastern Europe and Byzantium, it would have been interesting to hear more about their presence there, and the cultural cross-fertilisation. Much of the show also focuses overwhelmingly on warrior society. Now, I don't mind that per se because it interests me; but why not include more about the broader cultural setting, with its myths and skalds and sagas? And, as someone said to me yesterday, what about the loom weights? They may not have the glamour of swords and drinking horns, but they're a typically Viking artefact and weaving was a key part of women's duties: indeed it was the discovery of a loom weight out at L'Anse aux Meadows which confirmed the presence of Viking settlers there. The show does feel rather sparse in certain areas.

It's probably appropriate to mention
the exhibition book in this context, rather than at the end of the post. It's an extremely good book, with wonderful photographs, in-depth essays and lots of glorious meaty detail which was missing from the show itself. But it is not a catalogue, and I think that needs to be made clear. Many of the things reproduced in the book are not in the show; more confusingly, for something being sold (at least implicitly) as an exhibition catalogue, many of the exhibits in the show are not illustrated in the book. While trying to refresh my memory for this post, I went through the list of exhibits in the back, and time after time I saw 'Not illustrated'; 'Not illustrated'. So you must be aware that you can't necessarily revisit the exhibition afterwards from the comfort of your own home. What you can do, however, is read what seems to be a thorough and passionate set of articles about many different areas of Viking life and culture. I'm not enough of an expert to know whether these articles reflect the most up-to-date research on the subject, but the BM's publications are usually of a pretty high standard.

All right: let’s get it over with. The ship. Roskilde 6: the centrepiece of the show and the focal point of much of the publicity. I knew just enough about Viking ships to have seen awe-inspiring photographs of the greatest surviving examples - the Gokstad Ship and the Oseberg Ship - which led me to expect a similar, almost complete vessel. What else could account for the amount of excitement in the press releases? Unfortunately I knew just too little about Viking ships to be aware what Roskilde 6 actually was. As Elisa and I rounded the corner to the final hall, my excitement threatened to bubble over: and was then swiftly, anticlimactically doused. There was merely a modern metal skeleton shaped like a ship, with a few clinker-built timbers at the bottom and odd traces of a keel. Was this it? In admitting this, I feel rather foolish, because I fully understand that from an archaeological perspective the discovery of Roskilde 6 was immensely exciting. Constructed on a considerably larger scale than most Viking vessels, it offers lots of new evidence about ship-building at that date. Half of me - the academic, serious, scholarly half - can appreciate that these timbers should make me excited. But unfortunately that half of me wasn't dominant in the exhibition. It was the other half - the enthusiastic, wide-eyed, childish half - which had been impatiently waiting to see a proper Viking longship and which, faced with little but a metal steel model, quietly and sadly deflated.

The ship: what I was rather foolishly expecting (the Gokstad Ship, left) and what we got (Roskilde 6, right)
If you look very closely you can see the original timbers towards the back, running along the keel.
Vikings is the inaugural show in the British Museum's brand new exhibition wing. These galleries offer purpose-built facilities and, crucially, more light and space, enabling the Museum to display large objects that couldn't have been shown in the Reading Room (where special exhibitions have been held for the last few years). While I agree that it would be nice to get the Reading Room back to its intended function, I always rather enjoyed seeing exhibitions in there. Approaching up a darkened ramp, it felt rather like entering the burial chamber in a pyramid: the promise of ‘wonderful things’ which, displayed in semi-darkness and carefully lit, glowed like jewels in their setting. Hadrian and Pompeii are just two of the shows that I felt worked incredibly well in this space. The crowding was always a problem, it’s true, and that’s one thing that I imagined would have been tackled by the new purpose-built space; but as I said earlier it remains a problem. In the new galleries, just like in the old ones, people sweep into the first room and become piled up against the first row of cases. And, try as you might, there's always some audio-guide listener who stands firmly in front of a case for minutes on end, blocking the view not only of the object but also the label displayed below. There just isn't enough space for people to flow easily through the first part of the exhibition, although it’s true that things do ease off later. And the really funny thing is that I felt the show was smaller and barer than comparable exhibitions I saw in the Reading Room. Perhaps it’s just because the larger spaces, particularly in the final hall, made the exhibits feel small, but I didn’t get the same sense of rich satisfaction that I’ve had from previous shows. 

However, let's not be too downhearted. There are still many things worth seeing and, if you manage to visit at a less overcrowded time, you'll probably be able to take your time and savour it all a bit more. Perhaps I'll even go back when the initial rush has calmed down, and see if I get more out of it a second time. In any case, we'll be back to exuberant gushing over the Vikings very soon on this blog, because I'm currently devouring Season 2 of the TV series, which is just as much fun as the first.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Bosch to Bloemaert

Early Netherlandish Drawings in Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam

(Fondation Custodia, Paris, until 22 June 2014)

This post comes with a flag for excessive enthusiasm. You have been warned.

Every spring, Paris goes a little bit crazy for drawings. The dealers' galleries put on displays; there's an art fair at the Bourse; and the museums and libraries hold exhibitions giving us a glimpse of the beautiful things which spend most of the year tucked away in print rooms. This year, the Fondation Custodia triumphs with a real treat of a show. They've borrowed more than a hundred Dutch and Flemish drawings from the Boijmans in Rotterdam, and the result is an exhibition which forms a perfect introduction to draughtsmanship in the Netherlands between around 1400 and 1600 (with the emphasis on the second half of that period). Beginning with a group of early Renaissance silverpoint drawings, and concluding with Wtewael, Bloemaert and the full flower of Utrecht Mannerism, this truly is an embarrassment of riches. 

Among the silverpoints in the first room is the portrait of a girl by Petrus Christus, drawn in about 1450. Although the sheet has suffered a bit, it's still a luminous and beautiful drawing, crisp and with an almost translucent sense of light. For those who aren't familiar with silverpoint, it was an exacting technique: the use of prepared paper meant that mistaken lines couldn't be rubbed out. It required an artist to be absolutely precise and absolutely confident. And Petrus Christus is confident, as he depicts the girl's serious, delicate face, the soft fur trimmings of her robe and the deep, shadowed folds of her sleeves. Wonderful. And, jumping out of the exhibition's chronological format, it's interesting to juxtapose this image of young womanhood with another example from the end of the show, equally beautiful and tender, but so very different stylistically. In Abraham Bloemaert's red-chalk studies of a girl, from about 1600, the lines swoop and curve, giving an impression of great freedom and spontaneity, with white heightening used to suggest the shimmer of light on the model's sleeve. 

The early drawings, like the Petrus Christus, impressed me in an aesthetic, intellectual kind of way, but I found myself reacting with increasingly incoherent wonder to the later 16th and early 17th-century drawings. Usually when I go round an exhibition I take a notebook so that I can keep track of my thoughts later; but here my notes don't suggest any train of thought beyond the wide-eyed excitement of a child in a sweet-shop, and I swiftly come into danger of running out of superlatives. 'Really striking', I write about a Pieter Bruegel landscape; 'Remarkable. Figure of Job stunning' about Maerten van Heemskerck's Job on the Dunghill. By the time I'd moved onto the next wall of that room, faced with Heemskerck's masterly drawings of the Triumphs of Isaac, Joseph and St Stephen, my words are flagging and I can only manage 'All remarkable'. But I bounce back with Hendrick Goltzius's Portraits of Jan Baertsz. and Maritgen Pietersdochter, two staggeringly beautiful little roundels that earn the scrawled comment 'Absolutely stupendous', underlined twice for good measure. 

Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Girl  |  Hieronymus Bosch, The Owls' Nest  |  Abraham Bloemaert, Studies of a girl
Let me try to explain why they impressed me so much, because I'm fully aware that drawings don't do it for everyone. First, consider the age of these sheets. They're all roughly around four hundred years old and yet these pieces of paper have survived not only intact but in incredibly fresh condition. Virtually every drawing in this exhibition is an excellent example of that artist's work and often the same artist will be shown experimenting in different styles and techniques. Take Hendrick Goltzius, for example. He was one of the most brilliant draughtsmen and printmakers of his day. The two portraits I mentioned earlier show him working with the finesse of a miniaturist, but it's not just their technical skill that makes them so wonderful. The sitters are the artist's parents-in-law and the portraits were probably commissioned as gifts for Goltzius's new wife, their daughter. Suddenly it becomes clear exactly why so much care has gone into these exquisite portraits, and why both figures are shown with such warmth and affection. Behind each of them you can see scenes from their everyday lives: Jan Baertsz. is shown standing proudly in front of his shipyard, while his wife is shown in front of the family's house and estate. 

But Goltzius also excelled in other areas. His little drawing of Doctrina shows an allegorical figure studied with crisp, very controlled pen-lines and cross-hatchings which make it look almost like one of the engravings he was so famous for. It's a very accomplished piece of work, but it's also a bit of a game: a trompe l'oeil. Goltzius is playing with us: he's showing off not only his renown as a printmaker, but also his ability to replicate the effects of his prints in another medium altogether. So, you might say: well, he's good at small, detailed drawings. But the exhibition has another trump up its sleeve: one of Goltzius's large portrait drawings in coloured chalk. This bearded man has rosy cheeks and a flushed nose and forehead; seen in the flesh, the condition's incredible. Goltzius considerately signed and dated this one for us, so we know it was drawn in 1609; and yet it's as perfectly fresh as if it were done yesterday. These are just three examples - I could go on - but you see how versatile he was. 

Goltzius: Doctrina, Portraits of Jan Baertsz. and Maritgen Pietersdochter, and Portrait of a Man
And that's just Goltzius. The show is full of wonderful things and pretty much every exhibit is a little masterpiece. There is Hieronymus Bosch's delightful drawing of an Owls' Nest: a family of quirky owls bustle home to roost in the hollowed-out trunk of a tree. Beyond them, almost as an afterthought, a troop of tiny pikemen trudge their way across a meadow in the distance. Then there is a wonderful series of twelve drawings of the Months by Hans Bol, each showing figures engaged in an appropriate activity, with the corresponding sign of the Zodiac hovering in the sky overhead. There's one of the fabulous 'pikeman' drawings from Jacques de Gheyn's series 'Exercise of Arms', all of which I love. This was a 17th-century step-by-step guide on how to handle your pike and your musket, which was an instant bestseller across Europe and was translated into several languages including English. Peter Bruegel is represented by several drawings, which alternate between beautifully detailed, naturalistic pen-and-ink landscapes, and bizarre allegorical scenes which seem to have escaped from one of Bosch's nightmares, with vices shown in the forms of toads, bears and strange lizards. 

The exhibition will be moving to the Boijmans next and in 2015 it'll also be shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Do see it if you can. I was so impressed by it that I've been recommending it left, right and centre ever since I saw it. The catalogue, which is fortunately (for me) published in English, is of the good old-fashioned kind, with fine colour illustrations and notes for each and every drawing. Even though the authors explain that they've stripped back the details for a more general readership, there's still enough provenance information and cataloguing to satisfy the drawings geeks among us. And yet the catalogue is no substitute for seeing the drawings in the flesh. When you're standing in front of them, they genuinely take your breath away and that experience can never, never be replicated on the page of a book. Without doubt, one of the best drawings exhibitions I've seen.

Maerten van Heemskerck, Job on the Dunghill  |  Hans Bol, January  |  Heemskerck, The Triumph of Isaac
P.S. If you still have any energy left after seeing the main exhibition, head downstairs to the basement where the Fondation are showing a wonderful little show called Dialogues. By pairing drawings from their collection with sheets from the Boijmans, they offer up some mouthwatering juxtapositions. I had considered writing about this show separately, but since so few of the images are available online, and since I've already subjected you all to quite enough superlatives for one day, I thought I'd just add a postscript here. As Dialogues isn't restricted to the Dutch and Flemish theme of the show upstairs, there are drawings by Rubens and Rembrandt, but also Goya, Lorenzo di Credi, Carpaccio, Fra Bartolommeo and Pontormo, to name just a handful. "Haven't had enough yet?" the curators seem to be saying, with glee. "Right! Have some more fabulous drawings." Personal favourites included a portrait by Jan Cossiers showing his handsome teenage son; a fascinating profile portrait of a young man by a follower of Leonardo, which had been reworked by Rubens; and a charming study of a porcupine by Frans Snijders. When I eventually emerged back out onto the rive gauche, my head was spinning and I wobbled happily back off towards the centre, where I spent the rest of the evening enthusing wildly about both exhibitions to everyone I met. 

Monday, 31 March 2014

The Boy with the Porcelain Blade: Den Patrick

(published by Gollancz, £14.99, or from Amazon)


The Erebus Sequence: Book I

I can't remember exactly where I first came across The Boy with the Porcelain Blade, but I was intrigued enough to buy it without knowing anything about it. Then, shortly before I was due to start it, I spotted a review at the Speculative Scotsman, which made it quite clear that the book was going to have some weaknesses. (I don't usually read reviews of things that I'm about to read for myself, but I'd only just discovered his blog and was enjoying it too much to stop.) However I went ahead and read it anyway. The title was interesting, the cover enticing and, as we all know, I'm not the kind of girl who can easily resist a fantasy swashbuckler. Having turned the final pages, I'm inclined to agree with much of what the Speculative Scotsman said about its problems. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that the ideas are so tantalising, but the concept is let down by the weakness of the writing itself. (Incidentally, apropos the cover, just pause a moment to savour the tagline "He'll fight until he's shattered". Surely such a jokey tone is inappropriate for a book as weird and dark as this?) 

We are in the sprawling citadel of Demesne, where four noble houses are jostling for influence: House Fontein, known for their soldiers and swordsmen; House Contadino, with their farmers and rich harvests; House Prospero, with their artificers and craftsmen; and House Erudito, with their scholars. But each of these four families also has a share in a darker, less palatable legacy of their world of Landfall: the Orfani. These children, motherless and fatherless, are shared out among the houses and brought up as adopted members of the nobility until they can make their own choice of allegiance at the age of sixteen. They are given an excellent education, military training and the best care money can buy. And yet privilege isn't the only thing that marks them out, for all the Orfani have some kind of strange deformity. Bound together by their situation, these young people engage in their own feuds and struggles as they try to understand their purpose in their shadowy world. Where are their parents? Why does the sinister Majordomo take such an interest in them? And what is the point of the Orfani being under the king's protection when no one has even seen the king for hundreds of years?

Lucien de Fontein is determined to start getting some answers. He has been marked out his whole life, not only by his missing ears which show him to be Orfano, but also by his solitary habits which have kept him at a distance from most of his fellow Orfani. As he reaches his eighteenth year, he realises that cracks are beginning to show among the Orfani, as the more powerful begin to pick off the young and the weak. With the king still cloistered away, the Majordomo playing his own enigmatic part in the game, and a series of young girls going missing, there is clearly something very wrong at the heart of Demesne. With little on his side except courage, a strong sense of injustice and a sword, Lucien is going to find out what that is. But it won't be easy. Despite his reclusiveness he has his fair share of enemies - including the formidable Golia, who is the most dangerous of all the Orfani, and Golia's protector, Maestro di Spada Giancarlo - both of whom have their own reasons for wanting him removed from the game-board. And so Lucien finds himself forced into the very heart of a power-play not only for his own future but for Demesne's.

How to describe the feel of the book? Much of it is quite cinematic and sometimes it strays into positively nightmarish territory, as if Guillermo del Toro had blended Gormenghast and X-Men and added a slight seasoning of The Tempest. However, the impressive images which it conjures up aren't matched by the quality of the writing. The representation of emotions, in particular, can feel quite superficial and somehow adolescent. While I appreciate that most of the characters are teenagers, there could be greater depth and subtlety in the way that the narrative deals with them, which in turn would make them feel more like real people. I had real difficulty feeling any kind of emotional investment in Lucien's fate: although he was clearly supposed to be our hero, I couldn't help feeling that we were being told how special he was rather than being shown it. As a result, I just got the impression of a rather spoiled young man with a penchant for storming out of rooms and getting into fights, and I didn't quite understand how he had managed to assemble his affectionate circle of protectors. There was also a slight issue of consistency in how the Orfani are regarded by their non-Orfano peers. On the one hand you have Lucien's classmates making snide comments about 'streghe' and there is obviously a lot of fear and wariness among the population as a whole; but, on the other hand, Lucien is welcomed and feted by the nobility and he's even the prime candidate for a very elite marriage. It's never really explained why the attitudes would differ so much. My final comment, because I don't want to be too stern about the whole thing, would be that there's slightly too much skipping around in time: the chapters alternate between the 'present day' and vignettes from Lucien's younger days. As I said regarding The Republic of Thieves, I'm a bear of little brain in this respect, and often find it distracting when there are too many flashbacks interrupting the course of the main plot. That was very much the case here too. 

Well, actually that wasn't my final final comment, because there's something that niggled me all the way through. It's either an example of sloppy world-building (which I doubt) or the promise of an extremely clever twist coming up later in the series. I couldn't help noticing that, for a fantasy novel, the inhabitants of Demesne rely very heavily on European culture. The language they speak is Italian: not a fantasy language influenced by Italian (like the pseudo-Spanish used in The Golden Key) but proper Italian. Lucien reads books about Greek mythology and the Trojan War, and names his pet drakes after Achilles, Antigone and Agamemnon. There is a throwaway reference to the 'Maltese' cross-piece of a sword. How is it, I wondered, that we could be in a fantasy world and yet still have the Trojan War, Malta and Italy? Why wouldn't the people in Demesne refer to myths or neighbouring countries of their own?

Two possible explanations occur to me. These aren't spoilers, obviously, because I haven't the faintest idea what's going to happen and I could be barking up entirely the wrong tree; but just in case I am on the right track, you might want to be careful. The first possibility is that it's just laziness: an unwillingness to spend time creating a back-story of myths and geography which are native to this world, and using references from our own as a shortcut. I don't want to believe that. The author has worked hard to create a social structure and a physical setting for his characters, and it seems odd that he wouldn't have taken the same care over the rest of his world-building. If, on the contrary, he deliberately decided to use these European cultural references, that throws up an absolutely fascinating second possibility. Perhaps Demesne and Landfall are in our universe, if not actually on our planet. Perhaps the people who live there originally came from our world and have brought our culture with them. I began to suspect that the ships which were wrecked on Landfall, bringing the original settlers, were actually spaceships rather than sea-ships, and that the travellers were sleeping so deeply because they were in some kind of cryogenic suspension. Seen in this way, the world of Landfall is essentially an island in space; and the king becomes a blend of Prospero, Frankenstein and Dr Moreau, exploiting those under his control to satisfy his own ruthless desire for experimentation. And the book, of course, turns out not to be fantasy at all, but science fiction. Now that would be a twist worth having.

However, I can't really give extra credit for plot twists which may or may not be coming up, and the fact remains that the book is stylistically a little awkward here and there. Lucien needs to become slightly more sophisticated, both as a person and as a fictional construct. Rather than just being told he's special, we need to start seeing his talents and qualities for ourselves. But it may be that, with a little more time and a bit more polish, this series could develop into something rather interesting... 

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice

(National Gallery, London, until 15 June 2014)

The National Gallery's Veronese exhibition is already being described as the one show that you have to see this year and glowing opinions have proliferated: from The Times's five-star review to the enthusiastic post by the exacting Grumpy Art Historian. Needless to say, I'd been very much looking forward to it. And I was especially excited because, a couple of weeks ago, I went to a very enjoyable lecture by Matthias Wivel, one of the curators, who'd suggested a way of 'reading' Veronese's pictures that I was keen to put to the test. "Follow the hands," Wivel urged us. "The hands always show you where you should look." I devoutly followed this advice as I walked around, and it's absolutely true. Veronese's articulate use of gesture adds an extra level of detail to his paintings: an unexpected note of humour, perhaps, or a touch of hands that unlocks the emotional core of the commission. 

Rather amazingly, this is the first exhibition dedicated to Veronese that has ever been held in the UK and it aims to show us an artist who is so much more than just the third wheel in the Titian-Tintoretto-Veronese triumvirate. Born in Verona in 1528, Paolo Caliari was a fully-formed artist even before he moved to Venice, and the show kicks off with the young artist in action at the age of around eighteen. His little oil sketch of The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus, from the Louvre, still feels a little awkward as the figures self-consciously cluster on one side of the picture, with an opening onto a sunlit vista on the left. For all the crowding of the figures, he's already experimenting with hands: the gestures of the foreground figures all lead the eye inwards to that key detail of Christ grasping the ill child's wrist. And he quickly got the hang of things. In 1548, at the age of twenty, he painted a picture with a very similar kind of composition: The Conversion of Mary Magdalene; and here he has it nailed. The figures are still crowded together but they've lost the stiffness of the earlier group; the monotony is broken up by twisting figures whose craning heads direct your attention to the Magdalene's shadowed, awestruck upturned face. And here the hands become ever more explicit: framing, directing and welcoming. 

The young artist: The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus (detail) |  The Conversion of Mary Magdalene
But hands can exclude as well as include. In the Supper at Emmaus which Veronese painted seven years later, we're plunged into a rather overcrowded scene. This isn't a simple inn on the road to Emmaus but some classical portico on the edge of the Forum; and Christ's moment of revelation is witnessed by the large brood of a noble family. At first the patrons and their numerous children seem to press too tightly onto the sacred scene (you begin to see that exuberant lack of distinction between secular and sacred which was going to lead him into trouble with the Inquisition later on). But then you notice the hands. The arms of the tavern keeper and the two apostles serve to create a kind of sacred boundary: a circle within which there is only the bread, and Christ's placidly folded hands. Despite the tumble of dogs and children around it, the central motif of the picture is one of divine peace.

Hands seem to be becoming a theme and heaven forbid I should break it. Another of the paintings which most impressed me was the Pala Bonaldi from the Accademia in Venice, painted around 1562. At first glance (which would have been my only glance, without Wivel's comments) this shows Veronese paying tribute to the great altarpieces of Bellini and Titian; but it's also a painting which is rich with emotional resonance. It was commissioned by Francesco Bonaldi, who had recently lost both his brother Girolamo and his son Giovanni. The namesakes of all three appear in the painting: St Francis, for Francesco, moves in from the left; while St Jerome, for Girolamo, strikes a scholarly pose on the right. But the focal point of the painting is not either of these saints, or the Madonna and Child, but the very young St John the Baptist, little more than a toddler, who perches on the Madonna's pedestal, representing Francesco's dead son. And just look at how St Francis, in the painting, gently reaches out to support the little Baptist, in a very slight, passing touch of hands, which takes on a whole other register of meaning in light of Francesco Bonaldi's bereavement. It's understated but incredibly moving.

But Veronese wasn't always so serious, especially with children. He had a bit of a gift for them. In The Supper at Emmaus two little noble girls tumble on the floor with their dogs, oblivious to the sacred drama unfolding behind them; in the magnificent Family of Darius Before Alexander, Darius' daughter is distracted by the antics of a dwarf holding a dog; and in the two full-length portraits of the da Porto family, the liveliness of the children adds a playful note to the staid grandeur of the adults. Iseppo da Porto's son Leonida wriggles under his father's gently restraining hand, while his daughter Deidamia peeks out at the viewer from behind her mother Livia's skirts. Children were certainly one of his strengths. Fabrics were another: rich patterned brocades in crimson and gold; cut velvet; swags of red. And he had a gift for composition: not only in making sense of jostling groups of figures, but in his sense of drama. The splendid St Menna looks as if he is about to stride straight out of his niche, with one sabaton already poking over the edge, and many of the larger scenes look almost like theatrical sets, unfolding in a shallow plane with an architectural backdrop in the background and sometimes even a ledge running along the bottom of the picture, as if to emphasise that we're watching something develop on a stage. These strengths make up for some of his weaknesses, which become apparent when you see a large number of his pictures in close quarters: he had trouble with foreshortening toes on several occasions; and, like many artists of the time, he simply could not paint camels.

A testament of hands: The Supper at Emmaus  |  The Family of Darius  |  Christ and the Centurion (all details)
I hate to jump on bandwagons - it's uncomfortably crowded, for one thing - but there's no doubt that the star of the show is the monumental Martyrdom of St George (c. 1565), which has been brought all the way from the church of San Giorgio in Braida in Verona. It's a stunner. Catching sight of its lower half from the first room, seen through a series of doorways, I felt as if I was looking at some kind of fabulous set. The figures are very slightly larger than life size, the light is splendid and the colours are astonishingly rich. The vigour and energy of the picture makes it even more compelling, as the gestures of the figures lead the eye through the crowded scene. It's a testament to its power that it could command my attention even with my beloved Family of Darius before Alexander hanging off to one side. And in fact, here the curators have chosen an intriguing juxtaposition, because The Family of Darius hangs alongside the Christ and the Centurion from the Prado. While the comparison didn't do much for Christ and the Centurion, which looked rather weak, it does show something interesting about workshop practice and the use of stock gestures. Look at Alexander's pose in The Family of Darius: the left hand extended in a gesture of magnanimity: the right in reassurance (yes, we're back to hands, I'm afraid). Now look at the kneeling figure of the centurion in Christ and the Centurion: almost the same gesture, but used in an entirely different way to show the elderly soldier's beseeching of Christ. I'm sure I would never have noticed that without seeing the two hanging side by side.

Mounting an exhibition on Veronese is a challenge, because a curator runs up against two significant problems. First, many of his greatest works are fixed to walls, either as frescoes in the Palladian villas of the Venetian terrafirma, or as canvases in the state rooms in the Doge's Palace. You're obliged to automatically forego the chance of showing Veronese's splendid allegories of Venice, or the sumptuously sensual Rape of Europa. And two of his most impressive pictures - arguably his masterpieces - are so enormous that it's physically out of the question to bring them to London. The Wedding at Cana remains at the Louvre; The Feast in the House of Levi, eighteen feet tall and forty-two feet wide, is still in the Accademia. These are obvious gaps - unavoidable, but noticeable. One might also ask where the drawings are (well, 'one' might not, but I certainly did). To give a full picture of Veronese's artistic production, it might have been interesting to see some examples of his draughtsmanship and the National Gallery wouldn't even have had to go that far for them. The British Museum has some fine examples and there is at least one excellent sheet in a private English collection. Someone in the know has told me that the drawings have been claimed for another Veronese exhibition happening in Verona at the moment, so that explains their absence. But the result is something that - at the risk of being seen as overly pedantic - is not quite the full monographic retrospective you'd hope for. It's a splendid introduction and should definitely be seen, but bear in mind that to really get an idea of Veronese as an artist, you also have to visit the Doge's Palace and the Villa Maser and the Accademia, or the Louvre.

There's still no doubt that this is one of the most impressive exhibitions we'll see in London this year, and it's beautifully curated. In a stroke of genius, the curators haven't put notes on the wall labels but there's a free booklet you can take in which there are short discussions of every picture. That's a trend that other museums would do well to follow, rather than subjecting visitors to the misery of jostling to read a label in an inaccessible place. When the Grumpy Art Historian went, he noted the overcrowding; but I've now been twice and I've obviously been lucky because it hasn't been that bad (mainly because I'm comparing it to the scrum at the Vikings exhibition). The catalogue, it's true, isn't an old-fashioned exhibition catalogue but more of a monograph: as a guide to the exhibition, it's not all that useful, but as a book on Veronese per se it looks very good and I'd thoroughly recommend it.

St Menna  |  The Martyrdom of St George  |  The Pala Bonaldi

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

The Eyre Affair: Jasper Fforde

(published by Hodder, £8.99, or from Amazon)


Thursday Next: Book I

For several years my friend Martin has been telling me that I have to read this book. I don't know why I resisted for so long: stubbornness, probably, more than anything else. But recently another friend, Alex, completely independently recommended the same thing. And so, finding myself once again in an airport lounge with nothing to do, I decided it was time to give Thursday Next a go. My reaction began with wariness, progressed into bafflement and eventually shuffled rather awkwardly into acknowledgement that this was rather good. 

Set in an alternate-universe 1985, this introduces us to an England where the Crimean War is still going on after a hundred and thirty years. Wales is a fiercely independent socialist republic, with tense diplomatic relations with England and a border simmering with unrest. Genetic developments have led to the reversion of extinction and the potential for ever more exotic pets. Dodos are particularly popular. And people are passionate about books. When I say 'passionate', I don't mean in the way that you or I are passionate. Even about the Lymond series. I mean 'passionate' in the sense that public riots are kicked off by bands of Marlovians and Baconians fighting in the streets over who actually wrote Shakespeare. The most devoted fans change their names by deed poll to match their favourite author's, and so there are mass John Milton conventions where everyone, male and female, turns up in doublet and hose. And one of the secret services is devoted to protecting literature. In a world where Gad's Hill is a pilgrimage site and the original manuscript of Jane Eyre is surrounded by top security, that's partly a case of protecting the physical integrity of books. But it's also about protecting their literary integrity. For this is a world where the boundaries between literature and reality are fluid; and, when someone with evil intentions gets into the manuscript of a classic novel, there's no telling what chaos they might cause...

Thursday Next, our no-nonsense heroine, is an appealing cross between book-geek and hard-boiled detective. (If you're now thinking, "Why is she called Thursday Next?" this may not be the book for you. Fforde revels in odd names: Milon de Floss, for example. Leigh Delamare, by contrast, is a perfectly real name, although that particular in-joke will be lost on anyone who hasn't spent large parts of their life travelling the M4 to and from Bristol. Anyway.) Down-to-earth and capable, Thursday is haunted by a tragic tour of service in the Crimea and now works in the cosy, scholarly environment of the Special Operations LiteraTec offices in London. Here she polices books and protects the country's literary heritage, while deftly fending off her mother's solicitous questions about marriage. But she is dragged out of her routine when her charismatic, dangerous former professor Acheron Hades registers on the Spec Ops' radar: a criminal so ambitious that he plots to invade novels and take characters hostage until his dastardly demands are met. Determined to stop him at all costs, Thursday decides that she needs a change of scene and moves back from London, with her pet dodo Pickwick, to her native Swindon. Here, among the emotional wreckage of her past, she plots how to run Hades to ground. But Acheron isn't the only person threatening her peace of mind. Her erratically brilliant uncle Mycroft has invented a machine that allows people to enter books and poems. Her renegade time-travelling father is popping up with strange questions. And her return has brought her into painfully close proximity with her former boyfriend (and her mother's ideal future son-in-law), the writer Landen Parke-Laine. 

Fforde had me at 'dodos' to be honest (long story), but he also really impressed me with his ability to create a world which is simultaneously so familiar and so incredibly strange. He doesn't do it by setting out all the differences on a tray, but by making casual throwaway comments that leave you scrabbling to rearrange your mental furniture. His playful treatment of classic novels is also very smart: even when negotiating the text of Jane Eyre, Thursday and her partner-in-crime Rochester must ensure that the 'front-line' text is never disrupted, so that the book itself can carry on as usual. It's classic, off-the-wall British humour. Acheron Hades makes a fabulously corrupt villain ('Shall we get to work? I haven't committed a singularly debauched act for almost an hour.') And I'm rather touched, as a West Country girl, that Swindon is getting some literary love. Incidentally, it was only while doing research for this post that I've discovered Swindon is in fact home to the Bodleian Library's book repository: 153 miles of bookshelves, according to Wikipedia. Is that why Fforde was inspired to give it such literary credentials, I wonder?

All this cleverness does have a slight downside: reading the book for the first time feels rather like being buried under a sparkling heap of literary confetti. There's just so much to absorb... but it is just the first in a series, and I'm certainly going to be carrying on with more of the books. Moreover, this is one of the rare novels that gets better the more you think about it. (Spoilers in the rest of the paragraph.) For example, a couple of days after I finished it I was doing my chores around the house and suddenly had a eureka moment, when I realised that the romantic subplot actually mirrors Jane Eyre. Thursday's uncertain relationship with Landen; her comradely affection for the nice, workmanlike Bowden, who offers her the chance to come with him to work abroad (in Ohio, rather than India, but you get the point); the wedding in the final act, which is disrupted by news of a prior marriage... There aren't quite madwomen in the attic, but I still had a little flush of satisfaction when I figured it out.

If you enjoy Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman then you should give this a go; but Fforde's Thursday Next novels have a large enough following that they don't need to be described by reference to other authors. They're practically a cult in their own right: a winning blend of whimsy, sci-fi and film noir. I'm a bit late to the party, and I wasn't won over immediately, but this book has a persistent, pervasive charm that has continued to work its magic on me long after I finished it. I'm definitely going to be continuing to the sequel: Lost in a Good Book.

Monday, 24 March 2014

The Gospel of Loki: Joanne M. Harris

(published by Gollancz, £14.99, or from Amazon)

««« ½

Friendship is overrated. Who needs friends when you can have the certitudes of hostility? You know where you stand with an enemy. You know he won't betray you. It's the ones who claim to be your friends that you need to beware of.
I've only ever read one book by Joanne Harris and that (predictably) was Chocolat, many moons ago. As a result, I was intrigued when huge posters appeared all over the Underground advertising her most recent novel, her first foray into what the publicists call 'fantasy' but which is actually revisionist mythology. Naturally there was no way I could resist it. I've always loved clever, creative, not-entirely-trustworthy heroes and it's a given that the devil always gets the best lines. Moreover, with the Vikings exhibition looming at the British Museum it seemed the perfect moment to brush up on my Norse mythology. And, although Harris would (apparently) prefer us not to mention it / him and simply to judge the book against the myths themselves, there's always that pop-culture elephant lurking in the corner of the room. Loki is very much the man of the moment.

And this is Loki's version. For years, he informs us, he's been much maligned, thanks to the pervasive influence of Odin's pro-Asgardian propaganda. But now, sensing a more sympathetic climate, he is determined to put forward his own account of events. From the creation of the Nine Worlds to Ragnarok, this is the story of a being who has, through no fault of his own (so he says), become a scapegoat for all that is out of joint: 'the wrong note in the symphony; the cockroach on the wedding cake; the bear with its paw in the honey pot; the razor blade in the cookie jar'. From the moment that Odin lures him out of his primal state of Chaos, and introduces him to the suspicious and supercilious gods of Asgard, Loki is an emphatic outsider. His role, indeed, is to provide the note of challenge and disorder that will reinforce the unity and order among the rest of the divine fraternity. He is the shadow that throws the rest of the gods into more dazzling relief. But does anyone appreciate him? No. They find his intellect threatening and, for all his clever ideas and self-sacrifice, Loki remains less popular than someone like Thor, whose chief qualities are that he is 'big and strong and good-natured and about as bright as your average Labrador'.

Yes; you might have noticed that this isn't all that serious. And actually that rather surprised me, because I had been expecting something rather more sweepingly epic and saga-like: the cover encourages such expectations. More fool me. Chocolat was such a long time ago that I've forgotten what Harris's style was like; but I'd be willing to bet that it wasn't quite like this. The chatty, informal and relentlessly modern language of this novel came as a complete surprise: like a blend of I, Lucifer and Good Omens. The funny thing is that on paper I should have been the ideal audience for this sort of thing; but I didn't enjoy it as much as I'd expected to at the beginning. Judging by the glowing reviews that appear everywhere else, I have a niggling feeling that I've missed something, but I can only speak as I find. Perhaps part of that was because the very contemporary narration felt a bit like a gimmick and the novelty wore thin towards the end. Sometimes it just felt a bit too frivolous. Take this bit, for example, when Loki plots how to thwart the mason who has demanded the goddess Freya as his price for rebuilding Asgard:
The day a cowboy builder takes Loki for a ride is the day that pigs fly over the Rainbow Bridge and Lord Surt comes to Asgard for tea and little fairy cakes, wearing a taffeta ballgown and singing mezzo-soprano.
On the other hand, it's true that all seriousness and no fun makes for a dull reading life, and you can't fault the novel's verve. It fizzes cheerfully along like a glass of cava: satisfying for the moment, but with no real lasting flavour. Since my knowledge of Norse mythology is shamefully scanty, it did give me slightly more of an idea how all the gods fit into the greater scheme of things; and I quite enjoyed being able to mentally check off the few bits I did recognise. And, for all its cheerful irreverence, the book threw up some tantalising links that I wasn't aware of before; though I don't know how faithful these are to the original myths or whether Harris herself might have consciously chosen to emphasise them. With his role as the Trickster, his frequent association with snakes (for all that he hates them) and (spoiler?) his eventual defection from Asgard and Odin, in order to lead the challenging forces of Chaos, darkness and evil... surely there's a strong Loki-Lucifer vibe going on here? 

If you're looking for something lively and light, or if you have a long journey looming and want something fun to while away the hours, this might well be right up your street. I actually read it on a plane and the undemanding humour was (at first, anyway) a bit of a godsend. A lot of people have thoroughly enjoyed it and there are many reviews out there which are much more enthusiastic and effusive than this one. Just don't expect a thorough, faithful treatment of Norse mythology, because you'll be disappointed. I clearly came at the book with completely the wrong set of expectations, because I'm not against irreverent treatments of the myths per se (I quite enjoyed that pop-culture elephant in the corner of the room, actually). But I can't help feeling that a promising opportunity has somehow been frittered away.

Time to finally get round to reading Magnus Magnusson's Hammer of the North, I think.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Bull from the Sea: Mary Renault

(currently out of print in the UK but available second-hand from Amazon)


Published four years after The King Must Die, this book picks up the thread of Theseus' story once again. Having brought down the ancient Cretan house of Minos, he comes home to Athens flushed with glory, accompanied by his loyal team of bull-leapers, the Cranes. But the joy fades quickly: Theseus is greeted by news of his father's premature death; and, for all the Cranes, the Athens they return to seems smaller and more provincial than the city they left. With a year of Cretan polish behind them, they too have changed and they find that their family, friends and lovers might as well be strangers. They long to be able to step back into the relationships they left behind, but things have changed forever. No one except their fellow Cranes can comprehend the thrill of life in the bull-ring and the dazzling achievement of having survived. They may be conquering heroes, but that means they must suffer the fate of heroes, in being set apart from all they loved before. 

It's a rather sober, melancholic way to open a book, but it's very apt because The Bull from the Sea is all about longing for unattainable things. As king in Athens, Theseus yearns for the days when he had the freedom to wander wherever his feet took him. He'll never truly have that liberty again, but he plays at it in episodic raids with his friend Pirithoos, the charismatic pirate king of the Lapiths. Later, he finds himself longing for the freedom to choose a queen who would be the companion of his soul as well as his state: the magnificent Hippolyta, leader of the warrior cult of the Moon Maiden. And yet she can be his lover, but never his wife or his queen, because that honour belongs to another: Minos' little daughter Phaedra, who lingers in Crete dreaming of her promised marriage to Theseus. Little does she know she has become simply a pawn in a game of political expedience, or that she will never truly be able to command her husband's heart. If you know your myths, you'll know that Phaedra later develops another, much more destructive desire for something she can't possess, with searingly tragic consequences.

While The King Must Die focused on just a few years in great detail, The Bull from the Sea sets itself the challenge of covering the rest of Theseus' life in what is, by historical-novel standards, a rather modest number of pages. As a result, the book feels rather disjointed and episodic, skipping from one event to the next like counting beads on a string, rather than having the strong narrative unity of the first novel, in which the same themes recurred in different stages of Theseus' youth. Another thing that's noticeable, when you move straight on to this after the first book, is that the integration of other myths no longer works so well either. Primarily I think that's because it's less subtle here. Although Theseus does have a myth cycle of his own after the Labyrinth, Renault also uses him very much as a pair of eyes through which to see other famous figures. As I noted on Goodreads, by page 77 we'd covered the Bull of Marathon, but also Lapiths, centaurs and Oedipus; while after twenty more pages we'd also come across Jason, the Golden Fleece (in a manner of speaking) and the Amazons. Other myths came on stage, took their bow and moved on like a series of guests on a chat show. Mind you, that's not to say I didn't enjoy it: it was like taking the scenic route through mythology; but it doesn't make for a smooth, focused narrative to rival that of the first book. And I must confess that I was rather galled in the final chapters, where Renault teasingly denies us the chance to 'meet' the young Achilles: the one mythological character whom I'd have really loved to see her deal with at close range.

Even if the narrative itself isn't as successful as the first book, there are still plenty of interesting things going on behind the scenes, as Renault tries to ground her fictional explanations in academic theory. There were two areas that I found particularly fascinating. First, the culture clash between matriarchal Goddess-worship and the patriarchal Hellenic system, which continues to be a central theme. Renault uses this as a way to rationalise the issues surrounding Theseus' relationship with Hippolyta and the chastity of Hippolytus. The reason that Theseus worries about Hippolytus' suitability as his heir isn't just his abnormal chastity: it's more that he fears Hippolytus' devotion to the Goddess, and worries about the religious changes he might make if he becomes king. As ever, the struggle for religious identity is almost more significant than the fight for political identity. The second mythological explanation that intrigued me was Renault's interpretation of the Kentaurs. (I'd love to know what other people think of this.) Should we understand them as just members of a very reclusive, 'primitive' culture, or does Renault actually mean to suggest that they're some kind of earlier evolutionary survival, protected by the isolated pockets and clefts of the Greek landscape? Tantalising. And of course, with my myth-spotting hat on, I had great fun figuring out who Old Handy was meant to be and (spoiler) felt very smug when I discovered that Chiron means 'hand' in Greek. 

Ultimately I don't think that I could really fail to enjoy anything by Renault. She's very much like Dunnett in that, even when not firing on all cylinders, she's a darn sight more impressive than many authors at full power. Naturally, if you've read The King Must Die then you have to carry on and read the sequel; and, even though it doesn't flow quite as smoothly and the plot seems to meander a bit, this is still a book that - by any author - would have me tripping over myself with excitement. Renault's only problem is that she's too good, so I have to raise the bar a little bit... But I think my next book by her is going to be Fire From Heaven, which  will take me back into ravishment territory once again.
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