Florentine follies

22 09 2018

Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham

 

Mary Panton walls up her desires in a beautiful villa high up in the hills above Florence, as she calmly contemplates her disastrous marriage. But a single act of compassion begins a nightmare of violence that shatters her serenity. She turns for help to the notorious Rowley Flint, and through him comes to realise that to deny love, with all its passions and risks, is to deny life itself.

A short novel of two parts, the first evocative, languid and contemplative as Mary reflects on her life as she looks out over Florence, and the second a roller coaster of events which changes the course of her life for good. Really well-paced, perfectly pitched and crafted, it’s a classic Maugham and well worth a read.

 

four stars

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Small town boys

15 09 2018

The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani

 

Into the insular town of 1930s Ferrara, a new doctor arrives. Fadigati is hopeful and modern, and more than anything wants to fit into his new home. But his fresh, appealing appearance soon crumbles when the townsfolk discover his homosexuality, and the young man he pays to be his lover humiliates him publicly.

As anti-Semitism spreads across Italy, the Jewish narrator of the tale begins to feel pity for the ostracized doctor, as the fickle nature of a community changing under political forces becomes clear.The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles is a gripping and tragic study of how lives can be destroyed by those we consider our neighbours.

A quite outstanding book, set in the same place and time as the equally marvellous The Garden of the Finzi-Continis which I inexplicably have failed to review here previously. It’s a beautifully written and translated tale which is perfectly paced and judged. Painful and thoroughly compelling it really is a thoroughly recommended read.

 

 





The end of the world as we know it

8 09 2018

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

 

What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.

One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again.

Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened.

If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?

An outstanding novel covering the beginning of the end as a deadly virus rapidly brings the world to its knees and then the years afterwards as the few remaining try to survive and rebuild society in whatever way they can. Some great characters, switching of the narrative between the crisis and two decades later and a throughly convincing backdrop means that Mandel offers a quite compelling dystopia which feels complementary to the post-virus British survival trilogy conjured up by Louise Welsh.

Recommended (with thanks to @BlatherwickIain who recommended it to me).

four stars





What’s up Doc?

11 08 2018

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon – private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog.

It’s been awhile since Doc Sportello has seen his ex-girlfriend. Suddenly out of nowhere she shows up with a story about a plot to kidnap a billionaire land developer whom she just happens to be in love with. Easy for her to say. It’s the tail end of the psychedelic sixties in L.A., and Doc knows that ‘love’ is another of those words going around at the moment, like ‘trip’ or ‘groovy’, except that this one usually leads to trouble. Despite which he soon finds himself drawn into a bizarre tangle of motives and passions whose cast of characters includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, a tenor sax player working undercover, an ex-con with a swastika tattoo and a fondness for Ethel Merman, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists.

In this lively yarn, Thomas Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there…or…if you were there, then you…or, wait, is it…

I don’t think it really is that unaccustomed a genre for Pynchon to be honest. The setting feels a bit like a straight version of Vineland and the characters are exactly what you would expect. It’s a bit of a rambling plot but the drug-fuelled narrative somehow hangs together and the cast of strange friends and associates of Doc rarely disappoint. Entertaining stuff.

 

four stars





Rakish progress

4 08 2018

The Professor of Desire by Philip Roth

 

As a student in college, David Kepesh styles himself as ‘a rake among scholars, a scholar among rakes’ – an identity that will cling to him for a lifetime. As Philip Roth follows Kapesh from the domesticity of childhood out into the vast wilderness of erotic possibility, from a ménage à trois in London to the depths of loneliness in New York, Kapesh confronts the central dilemma of pleasure: how to make a truce between dignity and desire; and how to survive the ordeal of an unhallowed existence.

This really isn’t one of his best. Stylistically strong and well written as ever but Kapesh is not an appealing character and at the end of the day his journey of desire feels neither profound nor meaningful. Not a great addition to the campus novel list.

 





Vinyl dreams

14 07 2018

 

The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills

 

Two men with a passion for vinyl create a society for the appreciation of records. Their aim is simple: to elevate the art of listening by doing so in forensic detail. The society enjoys moderate success in the back room of their local pub, The Half Moon, with other enthusiasts drawn to the initial promise of the weekly gathering. The master of the comic deadpan returns for his ninth novel, a spectacularly disingenuous exploration of power, fanaticism and really, really good records.

 

A wonderful novel which two vinyl-loving musical purists launch a distinctive society, which meets in a local pub and is dedicated to listening to records (mainly singles) forensically. Others soon join in, each with their own musical preferences, but then there are ideological splits, the forensic records society fractures and different groups form, with alternative musical criteria. Nothing is ever quite as it seems in Magnus Mills’ novels though and, despite the matter of fact, plain deadpan style, strange things happen in the Half Moon pub, time seems to pass unevenly, the musical selections are eclectic to say the least and the undercurrents at play between the main characters are difficult to fathom. Ultimately, the forensics are very much left to the reader but it is nevertheless a highly entertaining and delightfully strange story.

(This brief review originally appeared in THE on 5 July.)

four stars





Let it Snowe

30 06 2018

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

 

With her final novel, Villette, Charlotte Brontë reached the height of her artistic power. First published in 1853, Villette is Brontë’s most accomplished and deeply felt work, eclipsing even Jane Eyre in critical acclaim. Her narrator, the autobiographical Lucy Snowe, flees England and a tragic past to become an instructor in a French boarding school in the town of Villette. There, she unexpectedly [develops] her feelings of love and longing as she witnesses the fitful romance between Dr. John, a handsome young Englishman, and Gineva Fanshawe, a beautiful coquette. The first pain brings others, and with them comes the heartache Lucy has tried so long to escape. Yet in spite of adversity and disappointment, Lucy Snowe survives to recount the unstinting vision of a turbulent life’s journey – a journey that is one of the most insightful fictional studies of a woman’s consciousness in English literature.

Plot summaries like this really fail to do justice to Brontë’s big, deep and hefty novel which paints an incredibly detailed picture on a very small canvas. Lucy Snowe’s narrative is long and winding and often frustrating in its detail of her life, work and longings. However, the overall effect is incredibly powerful in places and the characters are portrayed in delightfully rich detail. Undoubtedly a great book which leads to a remarkable conclusion.

 








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