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Archive for the ‘Novels’ Category

Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh (1928)

If Waugh had died after completing Decline and Fall, just as if Swinburne had died after completing Atalanta in Calydon (1865) or Poems & Ballads (1866), his reputation in English literature would still be secure, I think. Swinburne’s reputation in fact would be higher and though Waugh’s wouldn’t – he never lessened the impact of his early genius with much hack-work in old age – Decline and Fall remains an astonishing achievement not just as a first novel but as a novel full stop.

Though to be strictly accurate it wasn’t a first novel: that honour had gone to The Temple at Thatch, “about madness and magic”, which Waugh burnt in manuscript after his friend Harold Acton was unenthusiastic about it. The “magic” in question was black magic, so perhaps there is something Pagini-esque about Decline and Fall. Did Waugh sell his soul to the Devil in return for the supreme skill as a novelist that he would go on to confirm with books like Black Mischief (1932) and Scoop (1938)?

It’s certainly plausible: Decline and Fall is not only extremely well-written in a deceptively simple style à la Hemmingway, but also extremely witty in a way Hemmingway never was. It tells the tale of Paul Pennyfeather, who is blown hither and thither by the winds of vicissitude but is ultimately weighty enough to settle into a sheltered niche. At the beginning of the novel, he is set upon and debagged by upper-class hooligans while studying theology at Oxford. With gross injustice, the college authorities promptly send him down for indecent behaviour, so he’s forced to take up school-mastering to earn a living. His first and, as it happens, only employer, Dr Fagan of Llanabba Castle School in Wales, is not shocked to learn the true reason for Paul’s expulsion from Oxford. “[T]rue to his training”, Paul confesses all:

“I was sent down, sir, for indecent behaviour.”

“Indeed, indeed? Well, I shall not ask for details. I have been in the teaching profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal. …”

But Dr Fagan is not sufficiently blasé to forget to force a reduction in salary out of Paul because of his misbehaviour. It’s a compounding of the original injustice that will happen again and again as the novel proceeds. At Llanabba Paul meets Captain Grimes, whose single appearance in this book was sufficient to secure him a permanent place in English comic writing, and begins teaching the son of the woman he will eventually marry.

But I won’t quote more and give more details of the plot, because that would spoil the book for those who haven’t read it. I’ll just say that Paul sees the idiocies of education from the inside, then resigns to marry and suffer more grotesque injustice. Decline and Fall should be read by anyone who loves prose and wit for their own sake. Imagine a Wodehousian farce written by a more cynical and sophisticated Wodehouse who was an even greater master of prose. Decline and Fall is perhaps the best first – or first-published – novel ever written in the English language. Or any language. High praise? Read it and see if I’m not right.

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O mie nouă sute optzeci şi patru, George Orwell, translated by Mihnea Gafiţa (Biblioteca Polirom 2002)

During much of the twentieth century, it was much easier for Romanians to live Nineteen Eighty-Four than to read it. Romania had a real Big Brother in the form of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918-89). And the ideology that once tyrannized the country might as well have been called RomSoc. The novel was (I assume) banned under Ceaușescu, but all things must pass and Ceaușescu was one of them. So Nineteen Eighty-Four is now available in Romanian in this attractive edition by Polirom.

I don’t like the image on the front cover, though. It doesn’t capture what happens inside but I suppose it would be interesting if the novel is new to you. I don’t know how good the translation is because I don’t know Romanian. But I can understand much more of this book than I could of the Polish edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four I’ve kind-of reviewed here. As the name suggests, Romanian is a Romance language, descended from Latin and related to Italian, French and Spanish. And if you have a good knowledge of Latin and Italian, you’ll be able to understand a lot of Romanian without ever studying it. The title of the book is mostly Romance, for example, though I didn’t see that at first. “Why have they chosen a new title?” I thought. Well, they hadn’t, I realized: mie must be related to mille, nouă to novem, optzeci to octoginta and patru to quattuor.

But Italian and Latin will only take you most of the way to mastering Romanian in quadruple-quick time. If you add Bulgarian or Russian to the mix, you’d really be flying, because Romanian has borrowed a lot from Slavonic languages. There’s an example of that borrowing in part of the book that any educated English-speaker should be able to understand:

RĂZBOIUL ESTE PACE
LIBERTATEA ESTE SCLAVIE
IGNORANŢA ESTE PUTERE

Compare an Italian translation:

LA GUERRA È PACE
LA LIBERTÀ È SCHIAVITÙ
L’IGNORANZA È FORZA

And a Spanish:

LA GUERRA ES LA PAZ
LA LIBERTAD ES LA ESCLAVITUD
LA IGNORANCIA ES LA FUERZA

And a French:

LA GUERRE C’EST LA PAIX
LA LIBERTÉ C’EST L’ESCLAVAGE
L’IGNORANCE C’EST LA FORCE

In Romanian, “RĂZBOIUL ESTE PACE” must mean “WAR IS PEACE”, but RĂZBOIUL doesn’t look Romance. It isn’t: it’s Slavonic. Elsewhere in the book you might spot this: Oceania se află în război cu Eurasia şi în alianţa cu Estasia – “Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia.” The change from războiul to război might help you work out that, as in Swedish, definite articles go at the end of words in Romanian. Which is odd, but Romanian is the oddest language in the Romance family. By no coincidence, it’s also the easternmost. I’d like to learn it, but I can say that of many other languages. This book was a fascinating glimpse into another room in the vast mansion of human language. And that mansion is not a totalitarian monstrosity like Nicolae Ceaușescu’s huge and horrible House of the Republic in Bucharest (now called the Palace of the Parliament). Instead, it’s a beautiful and mysterious place full of hidden rooms, secret doors and forking corridors.

And speaking of Nicolae again, how does Romanian translate that most famous of all Orwellian phrases? Like this: FRATELE CEL MARE STĂ CU OCHII PE TINE. That looks as though it means something like “Big Brother is with eyes on you.” It’s snappier in Italian: IL GRANDE FRATELLO VI GUARDA. Snappy or otherwise, the phrase didn’t serve its purpose. Orwell warned us about mass surveillance in one of the most successful novels ever written, but it looks as though he was doomed to be a Cassandra. This Romanian edition is another example of how he succeeded hugely as a writer and failed miserably as a physician. You might say that Fratele has got us nowhere.

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The African Queen, C.S. Forester (1935)

Sometimes you read a book, like it a lot, and start hunting down more material by the same author. And sometimes you read a book, like it a lot, and don’t do that.

At least, that happens to me. I’ve liked The African Queen a lot every time I’ve read it, but I’ve never hunted down anything else by Forester. I think I came across one of his Hornblower books once, set on the high seas during the Napoleonic wars. But I didn’t like it, so I was confirmed in my disinclination to try anything else. I think I’m wrong, because I doubt that The African Queen is a one-off. It’s the excellent and engrossing story of two nobodies, a “Cockney engineer” called Charlie Allnutt and a missionary’s sister called Rose Sayer, who pull off an extraordinary feat by navigating an old steam launch down an unnavigable river in tropical Africa during the First World War.

The book takes its name from the launch. So did the film, a cinematic classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. I think the film may explain why I’ve never hunted down more of Forester’s work. It was entirely self-contained and I’m pretty sure I saw it before reading the book, so it might have influenced my idea of the book. But the book would have been sui generis anyway and it’s better than the film. Books usually are and in some ways they can’t be beaten. There’s a magic in mere words that is intensified when words become silent, sitting as static black ink on white paper. An ancient part of biology, the eyes, collaborates with an ancient piece of technology, the book, to create a world inside the head.

Film is superficial, literature is submarine. It dives beneath the surface, entering the inner worlds of its characters, exploring their psychology, motives and history in a way that film can’t. But action can be important in literature too and Forester, like H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson, can make the real world grow dim while you read. And this book dives beneath the surface in more ways than one. When the propeller and shaft of the launch are damaged in some dangerous rapids, Allnutt has to remove them for repairs:

The African Queen was moored in moderately still water in the eddy below the rock, but only a yard or two away there was a racing seven-knot current tearing downstream, and occasionally some whim of the water expressed itself in a fierce under-water swirl, which swung the launch about and usually turned Allnutt upsidedown, holding on like grim death in case the eddy should take him out into the main current from which there would be no escape alive. It was in one of these swirls that Allnutt dropped a screw, which was naturally irreplaceable and must be recovered – it took a good deal of groping among the rocks beneath the boat before he found it again. (ch. 8)

If he’d been by himself, he would never have attempted the job. He knows too much about machines, you see, and Rose knows too little: “He sighed with the difficulty of explaining mechanics to an unmechanical person.” But Rose’s ignorance gets them through. She’s the stronger character of the two and persuades Allnutt to try the repairs. To his surprise, he succeeds. Rose is an African Queen in her way and Forester is only partly ironic in naming her after England’s national flower, because she’s attractive in her way too.

But her attractions were fading, worn down by drudgery and subordination to her brother, when the war broke in on their remote African mission in a German colony. Her brother dies of fever, shattered when the German army requisitions goods and labour from the mission, so Rose wants to strike a blow for England in revenge. But how can she, a “weak, feeble woman”, do anything against the might of Germany? The arrival of the African Queen and Allnutt, “the Cockney engineer employed by the Belgian gold-mining company two hundred miles up the river”, gives her an idea. The two of them will take the launch downstream to “the Lake” and sink another African Queen, the “police steamer” Königin Luise that allows Germany to rule those inland waves.

Allnutt laughs at the idea of sailing down the river, but Rose persuades him to try and he agrees, thinking that he can easily sabotage the mission before it gets dangerous. But he’s caught up in the powerful current of Rose’s now unrepressed personality, and decides to do what she wants. He’ll do his best to get to the Lake. And here Forester becomes like one of his characters: he has “the difficulty of explaining mechanics to an unmechanical person.” It’s the mechanics of boating, navigation and hydrography. The African Queen is a quest-story, like the Lord of the Rings, and the best quest-stories read easy but feel tough. Forester has to write well to convey the hardships that his questing characters face: the rapids, the broken propeller, the ugly leeches that lurk beneath beautiful water-lilies, and the hot, stinking, malaria-ridden mangrove swamp that is the last and almost insurmountable obstacle before the Lake. Charlie and Rose have to pole and pull their way through the swamp.

Then they reach the Lake and the hardest part of the quest begins: sinking the Königin Luise. Forester has set up a grand finale and even threatens his characters with extinction, because the Queen will have to ram the Königin with high explosives in her bow. Charlie says that he’ll do it alone, but Rose refuses to leave him: “It all ended, as was inevitable, in their agreeing that they would both go. There was no denying that their best chance of success lay in having one person to steer and one to tend the engine” (ch. 14). And so they’ll both be close at hand when the high explosive goes off. In other words, they’ll both be killed. By then, that prospect will matter to you: you’ve suffered and sweated with Charlie and Rose, so you want them to succeed. The film brings you close to its characters too, but the film had to alter Forester’s ending. What works on cellulose doesn’t always work on celluloid. Literature is subtler, slyer, more sinuous, rather like a river.

And did Forester take the seed for this book from the sly and subtle W. Somerset Maugham? There’s a missionary’s sister, a working-class man, and a steam launch in Maugham’s short story “The Vessel of Wrath” (1931). And, just like Rose, the missionary’s sister in Maugham’s story is neurotically worried about rape, before she and the working-class man fall in love. The similarities are suggestive, but if Forester was influenced by Maugham’s story, he only took the seed from it. The African Queen has grander themes and is more exciting. And Maugham can’t write about action the way Forester can. Maugham was interested in psychology, not steam-launches. Forester was interested in both and a lot more beside. His wider interests make for richer reading and enhanced excitement.

And The African Queen is historically and sociologically interesting too. Forester was born in 1899 and his Victorian roots were still showing in 1935, when the African Queen was published. But he’s candid about sex in a way no respectable Victorian novelist could have been. There’s nothing explicit here, but his unmarried questers are lovers long before the climax of their quest. It all seems plausible: a novel is a kind of machine too and Forester was an excellent literary mechanic. If you’ve seen the film, try the book. It’s better and bigger and I really do need to hunt down more by Forester.

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