Thursday, 12 October 2017

On "Kristin Lavransdatter 3: Korset" (1922) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)

"All fires burn out sooner or later." So runs a refrain - almost a leitmotif - in this third and last volume of Sigrid Undset's masterpiece, Kristin Lavransdatter. Highly apt, too, given that we see the lead character slowly lose more and more of what matters to her as she herself slides inexorably towards her death. Yet far from burning out, Korset ('The Cross') is the most powerful, affecting, and dramatically satisfying instalment in the entire trilogy, a rare case of an author delivering the goods and then some when it comes to wrapping up a magnum opus. In the way Undset evokes and deliberately invites contrast with the first volume, she is clearly inviting us to view the two as book-ending and framing the middle section, bringing us full circle to "second childishness and mere oblivion". This is clear in a number of ways: less prominence is given to the cluttered political content seen in Husfrue, Kristin returns to her childhood home of Jørundgard, a more demarcated parent/child dynamic throughout reflects that of Kristin and her own parents in Kransen, and of course the paralleling of 'the wreath' with 'the cross', two objects of enormous import in Kristin's life which together form a chiasmus around her life as the wife of Erlend Nikulaussøn.

By the time the reader reaches the end of Kristin's life they have been in her company for 1,124 pages - not much less than Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, but with the vast majority of our time spent following Kristin rather than, as is the case there, a huge cast of characters. That is not to say that Undset has not fleshed out her supporting cast. Quite the opposite, in fact: Erlend, Simon, Gunnulf, and in Korset the addition of Kristin's various sons, remain fascinating, flawed figures, figures of sufficient complexity and contradiction that the majority of them could sustain a novel in their own right. And yet here they are merely satellites orbiting around of the woman anchoring this great saga, Kristin Lavransdatter; caught, one could say, in her gravitational pull. We travel with her from the age of seven until the very moment of her death at the hands of the Black Death. She has become so iconic a figure in Norwegian literature that her statue at Sil (pictured above, it is the centre of a literary pilgrimage undergone by the novel's many fans) has become a kind of shrine in itself, one accorded a status not a million miles away from that which the shrine of Saint Olav would have had in Kristin's day.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

On "Kristin Lavransdatter 2: Husfrue" (1921) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)

Ahh, the difficult second album. Just ask the Stone Roses, the Clash, or Joseph Heller, none of whose second efforts ever quite lived up to the hype of their barnstorming debuts. Once you've delivered, on your first go, something rich and profound and quivering with the joys and pains of what it means to be human, you're risking setting yourself up for a fall at the second hurdle. Inevitably you disillusion your initially wowed fanbase as you seek to woo both them and the as-yet-unconverted, leading to loud, enraged cries that you have "sold out".

Fortunately, the second volume in Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy - Husfrue ('The Wife'), published in 1921 - does not quite suffer from these traditional symptoms of Difficult Second Album Syndrome. For one thing, it is not intended as a 'follow-up' to Kransen, the first volume; it is rather the second volume of the same novel. In many respects it is a richer, still more developed narrative than Kransen; there is a much more pervasive sense of death and loss, as well as of birth and new life; seasons seem to whip by with greater speed as we race through Kristin Lavransdatter's adult years; and the vast political and religious canvas of Norway and Sweden in the 1330s comes under much greater scrutiny. It is a knottier, more complex book; gone is that streamlined simplicity with which Undset told the story of Kristin's youth and early courtship. This is a deliberate aesthetic choice, of course; as the lead character grows more into the ways of the world, suffers the ups and downs of a complicated marriage, lives with and moves among major political players, and experiences contradictory vacillations of the heart first in this direction and then in that ... it is no surprise that as Kristin's life has become harder still, the narrative which relates it needs must expand and become a more complex affair. And yet at points as I waded through political discussions, I found myself yearning for the sheer beauty of that first book, which was by no means innocent or naive or free of pain, but had a certain simple unclutteredness to it which was like a breath of fresh, unpolluted Scandinavian air. Husfrue is considerably more cluttered, and this can offend one's aesthetic sensibility, but then again, life becomes more cluttered as we move ever onwards, does it not? Perhaps our literature needs must become more cluttered, too.

Monday, 2 October 2017

On "Kristin Lavransdatter 1: Kransen" (1920) by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949)

Hers is not a name which will meet with much recognition in the Anglosphere, albeit perhaps a little more in the USA. But Sigrid Undset, a 20th century Norwegian novelist, was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, the culmination of a decade in which her two grand literary projects had been rapturously received. Both are set in medieval Norway: the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, published between 1920 and 1922 (consisting of Kransen 'The Wreath', Husfrue 'The Wife' and Korset 'The Cross'), and the Olav Audunssøn duology published in 1925 and 1927 (Olav Audunssøn i Hestviken and Olav Audunssøn og Hans Børn, released in English as a tetralogy with the umbrella title The Master of Hestviken and the individual names The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness and The Son Avenger). Of the two, it is Kristin Lavransdatter that is the more celebrated - the story of a life of a woman named Kristin Lavransdatter in 14th century Norway, the story of her childhood and adolescence; her relationship with her parents and her husband; her marriage and children; her religious faith; right up to her death. The life of this individual, spanning the years 1302-1349, is set against a tumultuous political backdrop of knights, lords, kings and priests, and in a society with sharply defined ethical codes and expectations about how people (particularly women) should behave.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

On "Candide, ou l'Optimisme" (1759) by Voltaire (1694-1778)

Candide, ou l'Optimisme - normally just Candide - is a strange, slippery work to have as totemic a place in world literature as it does: not quite a novella, not quite a short story, it usually gets classed as a 'conte', for which the best English word is probably 'tale'. It's short and slight (often printed with fewer than 100 pages), and yet it traverses the globe, taking in locations as wide-ranging as Westphalia, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Morocco, Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Russia, Latvia, Germany, Holland, Argentina, Paraguay, Eldorado, Surinam, France, and, erm, England. It's simultaneously absurd yet realistic, picaresque and satirical yet deeply serious, farcical yet full of rape, murder, slavery, and disembowelling. It's timeless and fantastical in many respects yet also deeply rooted in the current scandals, controversies and events of the mid-18th century (set, as the novelist Julian Barnes puts it, "among the headlines of the day"[1]). Despite - or perhaps because of - these contradictions, it lasted, and continues to last, to the impressive extent that the reputation of François-Marie Arouet (better known as Voltaire), for many people in the English-speaking world, rests almost entirely on this single, slim book. Martin Seymour-Smith listed it as one of The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written; it forms a part of Harold Bloom's Western Canon; it has gifted us the word 'Panglossian' and iconic phrases such as 'le meilleur des mondes possibles' or 'il faut cultiver notre jardin'.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

On "The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" (1759-67) by Laurence Sterne (1713-68)

Some early drafts of this review.
[Nota bene, reader: this review is not simply written about Tristram Shandy, but very much also in the style of Tristram Shandy. If it pleases you not, the book is probably not likely to be one of your favourites either.]

How, I beseech you, does an (almost, or as good as) penniless young man, faced with a book as rich and complex and difficult as The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, - a book which has gifted to this our formerly-Anglo-Saxon tongue such words as disparate and IDIOSYNCRATIC, to be sure, as "Cervantic" and "Shandean", not to mention a film written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, directed by Michael Winterbottom, and starring Messrs. Coogan and Brydon, - surely one of the greatest cultural artefacts of the as-yet-admittedly-still-green 21st century[1], notwithstanding the apparent lewdness of said film's title, A C*ck and B*ll St*ry - when faced with such a book, I say, how does such a young man have the slightest chance of knowing where to begin? 

"At the beginning!" ---suggests the indignant bookseller who sold that young man the book, or, perhaps, speaking more strictly, as if I were a schoolmaster, in the mood subjunctive as opposed to the mood indicative: he would have sold that young man the blessed tome, were it not the case that the young man purchased the book via the ever-more-popular medium of Kindle. 'Tis the latest in a long string of benighted attempts to usurp the goodly book - not to be confused with the (less general but more capitalized) Good Book, that which was long-ago-usurp'd, and is now yclept the Not Bad But Still Quite Problematic Book -, said string of benighted attempts including the theatrical extravaganza, the film, the television serial, the peculiar evil of the short story, the blog (heaven help us!), the soap (so-named, for the subject matter is always clean, and never bawdy), and the social media, which last is most goodly of all, for in the act of writing it everybody is allowed a turn. To the detractors of this last, I say "Honey's Sarky, Malley Ponce", as they seem to put it in the Twitter's Sphere; you and I, naturally, as devout Francofiles Phrancofiles  Phrancophiles, content ourselves with honi soit qui mal y pense, to wit, "may he think badly on it when he is a-shamed", commonly prayed in nunneries.

Monday, 11 September 2017

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 6 (13 May 1967)

What can we say after six episodes of The Faceless Ones? It never exactly set the world alight; it never even really set Doctor Who fandom alight for that matter. Ironically for a story all about identity theft, it has had its central premises done many times since, and often much more memorably or enjoyably, leaving their initial use here looking rather, well, faceless. The Doctor figuring out how to interact in the present day? The Web of Fear, The Invasion, and most of the Pertwee era for starters. Doctor Who does Bond? The Enemy of the World ... and most of the Pertwee era for starters. Bad guys who aren't all evil? Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Curse of Peladon, and Frontier in Space. Evil doubles and aliens disguised as humans? Terror of the Zygons, The Android Invasion (okay I didn't say they were all good)... Simply put, this story's USPs at the time have all been rather undermined by what came after, which is a pity, because much of what The Faceless Ones has done well has been rather enjoyable. 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 5 (6 May 1967)

"Remember the teaching of our Director: the intelligence of Earth people is comparable only to that of animals on our planet." At the risk of repeating myself, it's one of the funniest aspects of The Faceless Ones that, of all the races the Doctor has fought, the Chameleons must rank both down there among the stupidest and up there among those who go on about their own intellectual superiority the most. Every other line they're saying something about stupid humans or about how clever they are and how assured they are that their plan will work (the silliest bit is where the Director tells Jamie about how brilliant his own mind is, but he does so in third person, because he's pretending to be Crossland at the time). It's so ridiculous that, even though the production is played almost entirely straight, I have to wonder if the whole thing has a significant tongue-in-cheek element, to be honest, particularly because of how frequently, bananas-ly absurd the Chameleons seem to be much of the time: they don't come across as master-planners at all. "It was a pity that the Chameleons themselves were a bit unbelievable," wrote then-fan, later-playwright-and-Doctor Who-scribe Robert Shearman in Cloister Bell 6/7 in 1983, adding that "they .. weren't as clever as they imagined themselves to be". Spot on. It's such a shame that they're as daft as they are, because the make-up work is really good (the stuff of nightmares) and they're responsible for some genuinely intriguing, nasty images - Jamie discovering miniaturised people inside a drawer being another icky highlight. And, more importantly, there's a genuinely tragic dimension to them that's somewhat hampered by the silly 'evil bad guy' pretensions.

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 4 (29 April 1967)

One oddity about the Chameleons that seems, if truth be told, rather born out of the necessity of padding a story with a four parter's worth of ideas out to six parts, is the sheer variety of the technology they seem to have available to them. If that seems like an odd complaint, I suppose what I really mean is that none of their weapons or abilities seem to have much to do with one another. They have frozen ice gas but don't do anything to do with temperature or deep-freezing elsewhere, nor are they reptilian which might account for cold-bloodedness or hibernation. They have ray guns but only use them intermittently when they're not using strange pen-like devices that make people immobile. This seems like a rather impractical weapon that fails to kill somebody and leaves them handily lying around to recover later exactly when you don't want them to; why not just use your ray guns on them if they're somebody you want disposing of? Then there's the ridiculous matter of the button that's actually a grenade that Meadows slips onto the Doctor's back (and which Jamie pulls off him, easy as anything), which feels a lot more like a Bond gadget than anything else. Even sillier is the great big whopping laser they have on the wall in this episode, nicked straight from Goldfinger (it's a budget imitation of that famous scene, but the resolution is cleverer). They've tried to kill the Doctor and co. over and over again with all these rather different methods, failing each time; I almost wonder if the Chameleons are meant to be A Bit Crap?

Saturday, 9 September 2017

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 3 (22 April 1967)

I don't want to talk too much about Malcolm Hulke's Pertwee stories here - there's a time and a place for that (probably some time in the 2020s...) - but many of their hallmarks are things one can spot here, even if merely in prototype form. We've already discussed the modern-day setting, but it's also worth drawing attention to the fact that the Chameleons are distinctly characterised as individuals rather than as a gestalt - not just presented as mindless creatures stealing identities. Meadows, Blade and Spencer are all quite distinctive, with different attitudes towards the situation at hand, meaning there's potential for conflict on the opposing team as well as on "ours", so to speak. This is something of a step forward in the portrayal of alien species for Doctor Who, and we'll only see it develop with Silurians, Ice Warriors, and others during the Pertwee years. It helps, naturally, that the Chameleons are, well, chameleonic, and that they look just like us because they've stolen human bodies; it's much easier for us to think of them as individuals with whom we can negotiate. But it's one step towards thinking of monstrous-looking reptiles in battle-scarred armour as individuals with whom we can negotiate, too. The whole point of much of Hulke's writing is this expanding of our frame of reference.

035. The Faceless Ones by David Ellis & Malcolm Hulke: Episode 2 (15 April 1967)

The Troughton era, more than the Hartnell era I would argue, makes more effort to be outright, explicitly scary in the way that later phases of Doctor Who will also prioritize.  The stock music here is creepy as anything, going out of its way to unnerve and alarm; the whole thing is so beautifully atmospheric; Gerry Mill shoots it with Hitchcockian suspense and the close-ups of the scorched, veined face of the Chameleon aliens are really unpleasant (Polly lying comatose inside a packing box, her eyes wide and staring, is another good reveal). The Faceless Ones will never go down as the best Doctor Who script ever but, damn it, it's really nicely made. And the villains are basically Ryanair, which, well, yes.