Sunday, 22 November 2009

Matilda. By Roald Dahl


Roald Dahl

Puffin Books
First Published 1988

A book for children, enjoyable. About a child (five and a half years old) prodigy, Matilda, who is completely neglected by her parents, terrorised by the headmistress at school, but loved by her class teacher, a lovely young woman, who, like the rest of the school, is also terrified of the HM. Matilda discovers magical powers and uses these to restore to the classteacher her rightful inheritance, which the HM, revealed to be the classteacher's aunt, has stolen from her. As with all Roald Dahl, there are scenes which are just not right (e.g. Matilda get her own back on her father by supergluing his hat on to his head), and scenes which you want read again and again (e.g. when the class teacher discovers Matilda's genius). In one of the early chapters Dahl gives the following list of books that Matlida reads, obviously approved by him. Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Tess of d'Ubervilles (!), Gone to earth (by Mary Webb), Kim, The Invisible Man, The Old Man and the Sea, The Sound and the Fury, The Grapes of Wrath, The Good Companions, Brighton Rock and Animal Farm. I have read almost all of these, and find Dahl's choice of great works coinciding with mine. The ones I have not read are Gone to Earth, The Sound and the Fury, and Brighton Rock.

Two quotes. The first one a limerick written by Matilda

The thing we all ask about Jenny
Is 'Surely there cannot be many
Young girls in the place
With so lovely a face?'
The answer to that is 'Not any!'

Another is quote by Dahl of some lines from a poem (In Country Sleep) by Dylan Thomas.

Never and never, my girl riding far and near
In the land of the hearthstone tales, and spelled asleep,
Fear or believe that the wolf in a sleepwhite hood
Loping and bleating roughly and blithely shall leap,
My dear, my dear
Out of a lair in the flocked leaves in the dew dipped year
To eat your heart in the house in the rosy wood.
There are two more stanzas as well, but more about these poems when I read them.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Book of Merlyn. By T.H. White

The Book of Merlyn
T.H. White
Ace Books, New York, 1977
The book was written during WWII just after 'The Once and Future King' (TOAFK) as its fifth part, but was first published only in 1958. I expected this to be a magical ending to TOAFK, giving White's spin on the Lady of the Lake, and Excalibur, and Sir Bedwedyr, and Lancelot becoming a Hermit, and Guenever becoming a nun and later Abbess, etc. But except the last two events, which are briefly mentioned in the last few pages, the book is a boring diatribe on White's take on politics, before, after and during WWII. A committee consisting of animals and Merlyn is convened ostensibly to advice Arthur, (now a very old man, waiting on the battlefield to fight his bastard son, Mordred, and as it turns out, die at his hand) on the future course of his great civilisational project. White comes across as a misanthrope who sees nothing good in mankind, as compared to animals, birds or insects except perhaps ants. Ants colonies represent totalitarian (or even communist) societies, and are harshly dismissed. So is capitalism, which the committee claims is a form of society that is solely man's creation, and that no animals exploits its own kind or even other animals for personal benefit - an irrelevant observation, I thought. Anyway the final conclusion that White appears to heading for is some more ideal form of a free market society, actually quite in tune with neo-liberalism. A thoroughly disappointing, badly written book, especially since the two chief set pieces - Arthur's visit as an ant to an ant colony, and then his visit as a wild goose to a colony of wild geese - have both appeared already in The Sword in the Stone. The rest of the book represents the committee's discussions and arguments, except, as I said, the last few pages, where Mort d'Arthur and the rest of it is written as a kind of brief essay in an encyclopedia (Wikipedia?).

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Doctor in the Nude. By Richard Gordon

Doctor in the Nude

Richard Gordon

Penguin Books

One of the Doctor series, no storyline, mainly jokes, witticisms, and a climactic sit com scene in which all the principal characters are nude, mainly for sexual reasons, and happen to meet at the top floor of a newly built hospital building about to be inaugurated by the Queen. 1960s British humor starring Sir Lionel Lychfield and Sir Lancelot Spratt. Very very light read, for a flight or train journey.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Leopard. By Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The Leopard

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. from Italian by Archibald Colquhoun)
First Published 1958
Everyman's Library, New York
This edition published 1991

The novel relates a few years in the life of Don Fabrizio di Falconeri (known as the Leopard, because he looked like one, and his family coat of arms bore a leopard), a Sicilian Prince, who faces a rather rapid disintegration of the age-old feudal system after the 'risorgiomento' or revolution spearheaded by, among others, Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1860.

The novel opens with Don Fabrizio at home in Palermo, Sicily, and establishes his status as a feudal lord. It also gives the political background, it being the time just after Garibaldi and the 1000 men fought their battles in Sicily in favour of a republican and united Italy. The novel then moves on to Donnafugata, a desperately poor village, near which the prince has his luxurious summer resort palace. The entire family moves there. We are made acquainted with Tancredi, a poor nephew of the prince, who has joined with Garibaldi but is still the Prince's favourite, even more than his own son. Tancredi is adored by the prince's daughter, he in turn falls in love with Angelica, the beautiful daughter of a nouveau riche minor official of the village, who is rapidly buying up the land of his 'betters', but is not able to rapidly enough change his manners and habits to be accepted easily as one of them. Nevertheless, Don Fabrizio is happy to give his consent to the wedding of Tancredi with Angelica who comes with a large dowry, thus retrieving, for the Prince's family, some of their lost wealth.

The rest of the novel is mainly descriptions of hunts and balls and parties, and at all these events we see a wearing away of the power and authority of the prince, and then the comeback of his family by making correct marriages, and practising correct politics. The last few chapters takes us a few decades forward and deals with the death of the prince, in unremarkable circumstances. The very last chapter is somewhat comic - the religious relics in the family chapel, looked after now by the princes's aged daughters, are assesed by the local prelate of the catholic church and shown to be mostly fake, fit to be only consigned to the rubbish heap.

The language is gripping and the story itself is so well written, it fully deserves its status as a classic. One other thing that struck me was the apparent continuation of the manners and habits (and names) of these feudal lords by the mafiosi, both as depicted in books like 'The Godfather' and as described in TV and newpaper reports of modern day happenings in Sicily and Italy.

Some quotes:

'The bonfires were stoked by men who were themselves very like those living in the monasteries below, as fanatical, as self-absorbed, as avid for power or rather for the idleness which was, for them, the pupose of power.'

'... the Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery; every invasion by outsiders, whether so by origin, or, if Sicilian, by independence of spirit, upsets their illusion of achieved perfection, risks disturbing their satisfied waiting for nothing; having been trampled on by a dozen different peoples, they think they have an imperial past which gives them a right to a grand funeral.'