Outstanding entries in two favorite crime fiction series (by authors who themselves are something of a mystery) Part One: Bill James
Play Dead is the thirtieth Harpur & Iles novel. I’ve read about twenty books in this series. They’re a really fast read – too fast, because I’m always left wanting more (as opposed to weightier tomes that lumber along at a snail’s pace until you want to yell “Get on with it already!). Play Dead clocks in at 220 pages – pages filled with James’s signature mix of frivolity, wit, savagery, profanity, and literary allusions. The prose style is so distinctive, it could belong to no other writer that I know of. (‘Col’ is what Iles calls his second in command, Colin Harpur.)
Apparently, in one of the local papers Iles had noticed a theatre advertisement for a play called The Revenger’s Tragedy, by somebody centuries ago he had heard of, or by somebody else he’d also heard of. One of the things about Iles was he’d heard of quite a few people from the past, not just the obvious like Nelson or Moses, but less familiar folk. This play was on at the King’s theatre in the city centre. He said: “As you’ll know, Col, some give the authorship to Tourneur, spelled with two U’s, not just the one as in “turner and fitter,” but many claim it for Thomas Middleton, and others say others. There are scholars who earn a fair screw by saying, “I’d bet on Cyril Tourneur with two U’s” or “I’d bet on Thomas Middleton,” or “I think X or Y or Z because of the unique way he uses the word ‘and’.” The piece has killings, rape, seduction, procurement by the hero of his sister – really zestful, joyous, lip-smacking evil. The hero talks to his very dead mistress, calling her “the bony lady,” meaning not that she’s anorexic but a skeleton.”
Among other things, this passage reminded me just why, all those years ago, I found my graduate school course in Elizabethan drama excluding Shakespeare so mind-boggling….
So, what’s this impromptu bit of literary criticism doing in the middle of a murder mystery? You have to read the novel to find out, and further, to get a handle on one of the strangest and most volatile working relationships in crime fiction.
Bill James – one of several pseudonyms used by James Allan Tucker - was born in 1929 in South Wales, where he still resides. Having served as a Royal Air Force pilot in the Second World War, he began his writing career as a journalist. A brief biography of Bill James can be found at the Severn House site. (I am most grateful to Severn House for publishing the work of so many fine crime fiction authors.)
I was delighted to find this (relatively recent) in depth interview with Bill James at the Detectives Beyond Borders site. And I am in complete agreement with Alex Grant’s assessment, made in 2002, of James’s place in the pantheon of crime writers.
In Play Dead, Harpur and Iles are tasked with looking into possible corruption in another police force. The first phase of their investigation is described in the previous novel, Undercover. (It so happens that Iles has a particular animus against undercover operations. He has good reason for feeling that way.) In point of fact, over the course of this series, a long story arc unfolds. You don’t necessarily have to start reading at the very beginning, but the farther back you go, the more enjoyment you’ll get from the series.
In Addition to Undercover, I’ve reviewed Girls, Pix, In the Absence of Iles, and Hotbed in this space. In addition, I wrote a retrospective of the Harpur & Iles novels in 2007.
This is the only photograph I’ve managed to find of Bill James:
Coming soon: Part Two: Peter Turnbull.
No one could be immersed in the world of popular fiction in 1984 and not be impressed by Tom Clancy’s sensational entry into the field. With The Hunt for Red October, he virtually invented the subgenre of techno-thriller.
At that time, I had been working at the library for only two years, and I well remember the heavy demand for that title. Our patrons were especially intrigued by the fact that Clancy was something of a local celebrity, hailing as he did from Calvert County in Southern Maryland.
I just learned from Martin Edwards’s blog that Robert Barnard has passed away. Barnard has long been one of my favorite writers of crime fiction. He was a master of the cozy style of British mystery writing; as Mike Ripley says in his appreciation, “It was a term he [Barnard] never denied or disparaged as he felt strongly that the goal of the crime writer was simply to entertain.” It’s something he did wonderfully well.
In addition to mysteries, Robert Barnard authored studies of Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens. He was also a stalwart of the Bronte Society. We had the great good fortune to hear him speak in 2007, at the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth. I wrote about this memorable occasion in a post entitled Haworth and the Brontes. I included several snapshots of Barnard and others in this post. Click on the thumbnails and they become full size. (This event was part of a Smithsonian Journeys Mystery Lovers Tour.)
In addition to numerous standalone novels, Robert Barnard authored several series. Most recently his police procedurals have featured Charlie Peace, who first worked out of Scotland Yard and subsequently moved north to Leeds. The novel on the reading list for the Smithsonian trip was from an earlier series featuring Perry Trethowen of Scotland Yard. It was called Death by Sheer Torture, and I found it wonderfully entertaining. Click here for a complete list of Barnard’s crime fiction. (Please note that four novels were written under the name Bernard Bastable.)
Martin Edwards has written a fine piece on Barnard’s life and work for Mystery Scene Magazine. The article is already posted on his site.
In addition to Death by Sheer Torture, I’ve written up several other Barnard’s titles in this space: A Fall from Grace, Last Post, and A Stranger in the Family. Other favorites of mine from among his works are:
In 2003, the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain awarded the Cartier Diamond Dagger to Robert Barnard for lifetime achievement in crime writing.
First, award nominations.
Note that one book appears on both: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’ve read all three of her other books – Interpreter of Maladies (winner of the year 2000 Pulitzer Prize), The Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth – and I’m greatly looking forward to reading this one.
The (extremely prestigious) Man Booker Prize has been in the news recently, due to the announcement of a broadening of the eligibility requirements. All fiction written in English will now enter the competition. We all know what that means. Watch out: the Americans are coming!
Inevitably, not everyone is pleased.
Eve if you’ve already read my recent post on public libraries, it’s worth taking a second look. Two thoughtful and engaging comments have recently been appended.
Thomas’s comment reminded me that I haven’t visited his site in a while. So I went there – and what treasures! Lists and more lists…
There’s been quite a bit in the news recently about the Fairfax County Virginia library system. It’s the kind of glaring media exposure that no organization wants. And as is so often the case, the situation arose from said organization’s combination of secretiveness, myopia, hubris, and just plain bad judgment.
Nestled up against the nation’s capital, Fairfax County is a prosperous, populous, and highly educated jurisdiction. So the citizens of same were not best pleased when it became known that the county library system was ridding itself of a large number of books. And not just ridding itself, but tossing said ‘detritus’ into dumpsters.
Just how many books are we talking about? Brace yourself: about 250,000.
Public libraries are required to periodically weed their collections to make room for new materials. With regard to this process, two important issues must be addressed: What are the criteria for removal of the items from the collection, and what is to be done with said items? It’s that second question that’s at the root of the Fairfax County flap. It seems that in past years, the system has done what many other libraries have done: made the items in question available for purchase by local residents. In many cases, volunteers will handle these sales events, thereby generating funds for the library and good will in the community.
Apparently, Fairfax County has gone this route in the past. But for some reason, they decided not to, this time. Was organizing a sale of materials deemed to be too much trouble? Who knows. At any rate, the deciders of Fairfax County opted for the quickest clear out possible of the unwanted volumes. Word of these draconian measures got out. Articles appeared in the Washington Post, including a piece by one of my favorite columnists, Petula Dvorak. Ms Dvorak does not suffer fools gladly (thus ensuring that she never runs out of subject matter), and she raked library officials over the coals for engaging in this egregious action. The controversy even made it onto the Post’s editorial page.
As usually happens when events of this kind are held up to the public gaze, the folks in charge began furiously backpedaling. The Fairfax Library Board of Trustees has announced their intention to suspend all further action “until the library board can get more input from library staff and customers.” Well, good for them. Would that they had solicited that input in the first place.
I’ve thought for some time now that the statistics made available by computerized circulation systems represent a double edged sword. Sure, they provide useful information about a library’s collection, but they also reveal which items in that collection are lovely movers and which are shelf sitters. Obviously, among the latter are some lesser known gems which will not be flying out the door on a regular basis. At the very least, those works selected for discarding on the basis of low circulation numbers should first be looked at by knowledgeable staff and evaluated for their intrinsic worth.
Despite the incursion of e-books, physical books are still very much with us. We still love them; some of us prefer them as vehicles of content. Who among the legions of lifelong passionate book lovers and library users has not discovered one of those ‘lesser known gems’ while idly browsing the shelves? To my way of thinking, stewardship of the back list should be a vital concern for all libraries.
And while we are on the subject of strange library-related matters, I would draw your attention to the strange and unanticipated fate that has befallen the public library of Hanover, Pennsylvania. In 2006, in place of a small and unpretentious, though somewhat aged facility, a new library opened in the borough of Hanover. There were now three floors to house an expanded collection. A large meeting room on the basement floor was fitted out with the latest in electronic accoutrements and other amenities. The new building incorporated elements of the old, most especially the lovely stained glass window. (Click here to read about the library’s history.)
Last month, I traveled to Hanover to deliver a lecture on Somerset Maugham and to lead a discussion of his novel The Painted Veil. The event took place in the library’s Hormel Reading Room, . (I’ve had the privilege of being part of this lecture/discussion series since its inception in the early 1990′s. I led two of those sessions that year; my topics were Sue Grafton and G Is for Gumshoe, and Judith Van Gieson and The Other Side of Death.)
My reception at Hanover was as warm and welcoming as ever. I held forth on Maugham in the Hormel Reading Room, home to the above mentioned window. As a venue for a lecturer, the space presented some challenges, but by and large, things went well. At the conclusion of my talk, I was entreated to come back next year. I accepted the invitation but intended to ask, at a later time, whether the venue might be changed.
I needn’t have worried….
Little did I know when I was there in August that the Hanover library was embroiled in controversy over a proposal to consolidate the library so that all the materials would reside on the main floor. This would make the second and third floors available for other uses, the first of these being a commercial enterprise aimed at repurposing the space for use in galas, weddings, and other such events. This meant among other things the wholesale relocation of the children’s and young adult collections.
By the reckoning of one prominent citizen of Hanover, the library will now possess less square footage than it did before the renovation.
Plenty of people in the borough of Hanover are feeling frustrated and betrayed. Like us here in Howard County and like the citizens of Fairfax County Virginia, they love their library. As for me, I feel just plain sad. The Hanover Library – actually the Guthrie Library now, after one of its major donors – has become a special place for me and given me a chance to interact with some wonderful people who love books and reading as much as I do.
While Sue Grafton has gone on to greater fame and glory, Judith Van Gieson never achieved comparable recognition, though I believe that she’s currently an esteemed regional author. I will always have a special fondness for her Neil Hamel novels. Neil is a lawyer; like her creator, she lives in Albuquerque. These books helped inspire me to visit New Mexico, the aptly named Land of Enchantment.
The Other Side of Death opens with a memorable description of a place, and of a love affair:
Spring moves north about as fast as a person on foot would— fifteen to twenty miles a day. It crosses the border at El Paso and enters New Mexico at Fort Bliss. Like a wetback following the twists of the Rio Grande, it wanders though Las Cruces and Radium Springs, brings chile back to Hatch. A few more days and it has entered Truth or Consequences and Elephant Butte. The whooping cranes return to Bosque del Apache, relief comes to Socorro. Los Lunas, Peralta and Bosque Farms take a weekend maybe. By mid-March the season gets to those of us who live in the Duke City, Albuquerque. On 12th Street fruit trees blossom in ice cream colors. The pansies return with purple vigor to the concrete bins at Civic Plaza. The Lobos are eliminated from NCAA competition. The hookers on East Central hike up their skirts. The cholos in Roosevelt Park rip the sleeves off their black T-shirts, exposing the purple bruises of tattoos. The boys at UNM take their T-shirts off, exposing peach fuzz. Women at the Pyramid Holiday Inn pick up their pillows, pay three hundred dollars and go within for a Shirley MacLaine seminar. Guys in Crossroads Park take their camouflage jackets off and lay their bedrolls down for free, burned-out Vietnam vets in spirit or in fact. Tumbleweeds dance across Nine Mile Hill and get caught in a sign that says Dangerous Crosswinds. Between the snake garden and the mobile home community the Motel Nine offers a room for $ 12.95 with a video of Wild Thang.
At my place in La Vista Luxury Apartment Complex, the yellow shag carpet needed mowing; the Kid’s hair was getting a trim. His hair is thick, black and wound tight and the way to cut it is to pull out a curl and lop off an inch. The hair bounces back, the Kid’s head looks a little narrower, the floor gets littered with curls.
He sat, skinny and bare chested, in front of my bedroom mirror, and I took a hand mirror and moved it around behind him so he could see the effect of the trim. “Looks good, Chiquita,” he said. I vacuumed up the curls and helped him out of his jeans, then we got into bed.
The afternoon is the very best time: the window open to the sound of kids playing in the arroyo, motorcycles revving in the parking lot, boom box music but not too close, the polyester drapes not quite closed and sunlight playing across the wall and the Kid’s skin. Warm enough to be nice and sweaty, but not so hot as to stick together. And in the breeze the reckless, restless wanderer— spring.
“Oh, my God,” I said in a way I hadn’t all winter.
“Chiquita mia,” said the Kid.
“A small fever beginning to rage. But of course this was not an invasion of malevolent bacteria, but love.”
In the title novella in this collection, a young woman named Mariana has just become the fourth wife of Austin Mohr, a much older man of the world.
The new wife, the fourth wife, was thirty-two years younger than the first wife, who was two years older than the husband.
The gap of years was like a fissure in the earth, treacherous only if one tries to leap across it.
The numbers matter.
Mariana is duly installed in Austin’s beautiful house overlooking San Francisco Bay – and there is no mistaking; this is his house. She is appropriately awed. Pieces of Austin’s past are selectively divulged. There is no doubt that secrets persist. And he has a way of talking to his young bride that is a mixture of tenderness and condescension.
As a comparative latecomer into his life, Mariana has trouble keeping all of Austin’s previous wives straight.
Often Mariana had to interrupt Austin to ask, with an apologetic laugh, “But wait–which wife are we talking about? When was this?” and Austin would say, “That’s not the point of the story, who happened to be with me then. It isn’t who or when that’s crucial, darling.”
She was rebuked in her superficiality! She was made to feel very young.
She was rebuked for thinking, with a tinge of inward pain–But if I love you so much, am I not crucial to you?
All the while I was reading “Evil Eye,” I felt the haunting presence of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. In that great suspense classic, a young second wife is made to feel wholly inadequate when compared to Rebecca de Winter, her stunning and dynamic predecessor. Rebecca is already deceased by the time the young unworldly protagonist (whose name is never given) meets and falls in love with the widower Maxim.
There the similarity ends, though. For Austin Mohr’s first wife Ines is still very much alive….
The second novella, “So Near Any Time Always,” concerns Lizbeth Marsh, a shy and somewhat introverted high school student who is taken up by a somewhat older boy who more or less picks her up outside the library where she’d been doing her homework. Desmond Parrish seems nice, if a bit odd, and he’s new to the small town of Strykersville. Located on the outskirts of Rochester, New York, it’s one of those places where everyone knows everyone else – and everyone else’s business. And so there is wonder at Lizbeth’s sudden acquisition of a boy friend – and wonder at just who Desmond Parrish is.
The fourth novella is called “The Flatbed.” As a young girl, Ceille was abused by a trusted family member.
Our secret. Just the little darling and me.
Ceille has now grown up; she knows those revolting stratagems and admonitions for what they really were. But the memories are preventing her from being able to fully love another man. What does she need ? Large doses of tender loving care, deep empathy, perhaps therapy – or, above all these, revenge?
I deliberately skipped over the third novella, “The Execution,” because I wanted to save it for last. Bart Hansen is a feckless college student and something of a waster. He’s awash in the tiresome bromides dished out by his earnest parents (who are nonetheless paying his bills). His father is stiff and judgmental; his mother, a bit softer, is sometimes on his side. Still, Bart, feeling a raging enmity toward both of them., decides he can’t take it any more. I don’t want to give away what happens next, except to say that it’s horrific.
Bart Hansen is a veritable case study of the narcissistic personality. His numerous woes are everyone’s fault but his own. His list of grievances is epic and endless, no one understands him, he is sorely put upon, etc. And as for that dreadful crime….who are they talking about anyway in that courtroom? Surely not him: he could never do such a thing!
Every portrayal in “The Execution” rings absolutely true: from the self-pitying Bart to Deekman, his slick lawyer; to his parents, with their fruitless exhortations – tedious arguments of insidious intent…. But it’s the way Oates does it, with her staccato sentences, sprinkled with dashes and italics and intermittent profanity. She grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. At least, she grabbed me. Others may have a different reaction. (I’m at a point now where I need to make my next selection for presentation to the Usual Suspects. If truth by told, I thought about this book. I really do think it would make for a great discussion. And members of this group are for the most part very broadminded. But I’m afraid that if presented them with this rather harrowing material, they might run me right off the premises!)
As you may have guessed, I found “The Execution” to be the most powerful of these four novellas. Joyce Carol Oates is so convincingly inside the mind of young Bart Hansen that there are times when I wanted to curl up into a ball and shout “Stop!” Yet I was the one who could not stop – reading, that is.
Critics and readers sometimes seem aggrieved and annoyed at Oates for being so prolific. (See “Heart of Darkness” by Caroline Fraser in the June 2004 issue of The New York Review of Books.) I think that if stories like these were constantly forming and reforming in my brain, I’d want to get them out as soon as possible.
“Bertrande stood in the sunlight and met, as in a dream, the long-anticipated moment, her breath stilled and her heart beating wildly.” – The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis
I vividly recall the 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre. It was a stunning recreation of sixteenth century France, and at its heart dwelt a strange and compelling mystery. The stars were the beautiful Nathalie Baye and a youthful and charismatic Gerard Depardieu.
The film was based on a true incident. Natalie Zemon Davis’s book on the actual history of Martin Guerre came out at about the same time as the movie. I read it, but I don’t remember it. I’m currently waiting for my reserve to come in so I can have another look.
I was unaware of a novel entitled The Wife of Martin Guerre until I read about it several years ago on D.G. Myers’s intellectually rigorous and bracing Commonplace Blog. I acquired the book and immediately set about reading it. After a few pages, however, I put it down. The prose seemed curiously restrained, almost to the point of flatness. I was looking for something more rapturous. And so I put the novel aside. Somehow it managed to elude the periodic purges of my book collection, probably due to its diminutive size: a paperback of slight dimensions, 109 pages in length.
Then last month, Michael Dirda of the Washington Post wrote this lyrical praise of the novel. I sought it out in my overcrowded library and found it wedged between two five hundred plus page behemoths. I began reading. And it was as if I’d fallen under a spell. I could not stop; I was bewitched.
Young Bertrande de Rols has married the son and heir of the Guerre establishment. Her new mother-in-law is given the task of acquainting Bertrande with the vastness the family’s agricultural estate:
She showed Bertrande the farm in detail, the stables, the granary, low stone buildings roofed with tile, like the house, set to the right and left of the courtyard before the house; showed her the room used for the dairy, the storerooms with their pots of honey and baskets of fruit, baskets of chestnuts, stone crocks of goose and chicken preserved in oil, eggs buries in bran, cheeses of goat’s milk and of cow’s milk, wine, oil. In the Chamber she showed her wool and flax for the distaff, th loom on which the clothing for the household would be woven. She showed her the garden, now being set in order for the early frost, the straw-thatched beehives, the sheepfold of mud and wattles,and last of all, returning to the Chamber in which the marriage bed had been dressed, Madame Guerre opened certain chests filled with bran and showed the young girl the coats of mail of the ancestors, thus preserved from rust.
In time, Bertrande knows, all of this will be in her charge. That is the true purpose of this in depth survey.
The Guerre farm is a world unto itself, completely self-sufficient. All the men and women living there must play their parts, perform their assigned tasks, the men of the family and the laborers working side by side. In return, they derive security and a sense of belonging from the community which they themselves constitute.
Janet Lewis is an author new to me. She was primarily a poet and achieved considerable success during her long life. (She passed away in 1998, at the age of 99.) In addition to The Wife of Martin Guerre, she wrote three other historical novels: The Invasion: A Narrative of Events Concerning the Johnston Family of St Mary’s, The Trial of Soren Qvist, and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron. I wonder if any of these are on a par with The Wife of Martin Guerre, a tale of cunning deception and profound love. In this novel, using prose that is pointillist in its precision and poetic in its beauty, Janet Lewis brings to light a lost world and makes it live again. Quel triomphe!
Click here to read the author’s obituary in the New York Times.
Here is a clip from the film The Return of Martin Guerre. This is the moment when Martin announces his return to his family’s vast establishment. There are no subtitles, but you can probably make out what’s happening anyway. And talk about a brilliant evocation of the past!
“In ancient times, had people believed this misty, twilit land was on the very edge of the world?” – The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards
It’s been quite some time since I read this sixth entry in Martin Edwards‘s Lake District series of mysteries. So, while the particulars of the plot of The Frozen Shroud are no longer fresh in my mind, my overall satisfaction with the book is still very much with me. One of its particular pleasures is that it serves as a virtual Baedeker with which to explore the historical and cultural riches of the Lake District.
Our chief guide for this exploration is the genial scholar Daniel Kind. He makes his first appearance in this novel as a lecturer at Literary Lakeland, a conference being held in Grasmere. His topic: Thomas De Quincey, local legend, notorious opium-eater, and connoisseur of murder.
Now I must digress for a moment to observe that I have lately been having a sort of Thomas De Quincey immersion experience. For one thing, I’m about half way through David Morrell’s Murder as a Fine Art, a novel in which De Quincey figures as a main character. And I’ve just read the first essay entitled “Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” (an experience I can’t wait to write about, but wait I shall, at least for the time being). Finally, upon opening Judith Flanders’s The Invention of Murder I encountered this pithy quote from the above mentioned essay by De Quincey:
‘Pleasant it is, no doubt, to drink tea with your sweetheart, but most disagreeable to find her bubbling in the tea-urn.’
Like Judith Flanders, Daniel Kind studies the history of murder. He’s especially intrigued by a killing that took place in the neighborhood of Ravenbank shortly before the outbreak of World War One. The victim was a young woman, and it is said that her ghost walks abroad in the Lakes….
Daniel Kind’s opposite number in this series is Hannah Scarlett. She’d been trained up in police work by Daniel’s father DCI Ben Kind of the Cumbria Constabulary. Now a Detective Chief Inspector herself, Hannah’s first order of business is to fend off the efforts of her boss Lauren Self to drastically downsize the cold case squad of which Hannah is the proud leader.
Because of Ben Kind (now deceased), there has been a connection between Hannah and Daniel ever since the latter retired from Oxford and moved up to the Lakes. He initially arrived with a Significant Other, and at the time, Hannah had a long term live-in boyfriend, bookstore owner Marc Amos. Since then, both have become unattached. We patient readers await developments.
Meanwhile, we can enjoy evocative descriptions like this one:
Tiny and remote Martindale might be, but it boasted two churches. They stopped to look at the ancient chapel of St. Martin’s. The font had once been part of a Roman altar, a wayside shrine; the gnarled yew outside was supposed to date back to Saxon times. People had worshipped on this site for a thousand years. Had they prayed for protection from the dark forces of the nearby headland?
In ancient times, had people believed this misty, twilit land was on the very edge of the world? The Roman legionnaires who strode along the road high above Martindale believed the country to be infested with spirits. But apparitions were untouchable, tantalising those who sought them out. However close they seemed, whatever form and shape they took, they remained forever out of reach.
I really loved this book. For my money, it’s the best Lake District novel so far.
Don’t miss Martin Edwards’s blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? It’s filled with mysterious happenings and reviews of both books and tv shows. I particularly enjoy the “Forgotten books” feature. All is set forth in Edwards’s lively and accessible style.
…a post in which I describe the way in which Kerry Greenwood’s novel sent me hurtling back in time to the world’s first great civilization. Out of the Black Land was a great read, for sure, but it was more than that. As a recreation of an almost impossibly remote time, it succeeded magnificently – at least it did for this reader.
The story is told from the alternating point of view of two main characters. First, we meet a young girl named Mutnodjme. This is how she introduces herself:
In the name of Ptah, in the name of his consort Mut after whom I was called and his son Khons, who is the moon and time, in the hope that my heart will weigh heavily against the feather and I may live and die in Maat which is truth, I declare that my name is Mutnodjme and my sister is the most beautiful woman in the world.
This bravura performance in prose serves as the opening paragraph of the novel. I was drawn in at once. And who is this peerless sister? She is Nefertiti, the soon to be Great Royal Wife of Pharoah Akhnamen. Names are fluid attributes in this strange and exotic world. Akhnamen’s own will soon be changed,, by his own inflexible will because of an equally inflexible obsession.
This is this same man who plucks the youth Ptah-hotep from the school for scribes where he is a student and bids him serve at the royal palace. It’s a great honor, but it also means separation from his fellow student, the dearly beloved Kheperren.
As the author takes us step by step through the tumultuous world of Egypt’s eighteenth dynasty, we follow in particular the lives of Mutnodjme and Ptah-hotep as they grow into adulthood in this strange and fabulous land. It makes for a riveting story.
Out of the Black Land awakened in me a deep fascination with ancient Egypt. I should say, reawakened, because this is an interest I felt as a child, especially after I was given this curious little gift, or one very much like it:
I am now reading a book about the rise and fall of ancient Egypt. Written by Toby Wilkinson, it’s unsurprising title is The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. It resides on my Kindle app, and I read a section or two each day, taking in the vast information in minute doses, the better to retain it. Inevitably, some sections are more challenging than others, but for the most part the book is highly readable. And now that I’ve reached the Eighteenth Dynasty I am filled with anticipation, for soon I’ll be reading about Akhnaten (aka Amenhotep IV), that strong willed iconoclast who was powerful in some ways, impotent in others. I’m eager to see the extent to which Toby Wilkinson’s description of him tallies with Kerry Greenwood’s portrayal.
The Middle Kingdom was the golden age of literature, when many of the great classics were composed. From the heroic Tale of Sinuhe to the rollicking yarn of The Shipwrecked Sailor, from the overtly propagandist Prophecies of Neferti to the subtle rhetoric of The Eloquent Peasant, and from the metaphysical Dispute Between a Man and His Soul to the burlesque Satire of the Trades, the literary output of the Middle Kingdom reveals ancient Egyptian society at its most complex and sophisticated.
This is how Toby Wilkinson introduces Part II of his book, entitled “End of Innocence (2175-1541 BC).” Kerry Greenwood references Satire of Trades in Out of the Black Land. That was the first I’d heard of it. The other above mentioned works were completely unknown to me, and I wondered why. In his introduction to Ancient Egyptian Literature, John L. Foster explains that we have been taught to revere our Greek and Hebraic heritage, particularly the latter, identified as it is with religious observance. These languages have been the lens through which we have seen the culture of the ancient world.
On the other hand:
Egyptian hieroglyphic is a dead language. Its meaning only began to be recovered when Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs in 1822. And it was not until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that a tradition of translating the hieroglyphs into English could even begin to develop. Translation of ancient Egyptian literature is barely a century old, only four or five generations of Egyptologists have had a chance to work on the language, and most of the effort has of necessity been devoted to basics — vocabulary, word order, and sentence patterns. These efforts of earlier language scholars have been absolutely fundamental to, and necessarily preceded, any attempt to recover ancient Egyptian literature as literature and as poetry. Our cultural traditions, along with loss of the key to the hieroglyphic language for so many centuries, have blinded us to the value of what has survived from the literature of ancient Egypt. It has riches thus far largely unrealized.
Foster’s preface is well worth reading. In it, he enlarges on the challenges of translating hieroglyphic writing, especially into poetic form. Immediately preceding the preface, and after the dedication, he places this verse excerpt from The Harper’s Song from the Tomb of King Intef:
I have heard the words of Imhotep, and Hordjedef, too,
retold time and again in their narrations.
Where are their dwellings now?
Their walls are down,
Their places gone,
like something that has never been.
Here’s what the original looks like:
The first poems following the preface are love poems. Of these, Foster states succinctly: “Love has hardly altered at all over the millennia.”
Judge for yourself:
Why, just now, must you question your heart?
Is it really the time for discussion?
To her, say I,
take her tight in your arms! For god’s sake, sweet man,
it’s me coming at you,
loose at the shoulder!
There are more like this. They took my breath away.
There’s plenty of love in Out of the Black Land; all kinds of love. After reading some the poetry in Foster’s anthology, I could not help but feel that in this novel, Kerry Greenwood got it right.
Composer Douglas Irvine has attempted to recreate the sound of the music of ancient Egypt:
Here is the “Hymn to Aten,” from Phillip Glass’s opera Akhnaten:
There are two online sites concerning Ancient Egypt that I especially like: The Ancient Egypt and Archaeology Web Site and The Ancient Egypt Site, curated by Belgian Egyptologist Jacques Kinnaer.
In her lively Afterword, Kerry Greenwood reflects with considerable asperity on the widely varying viewpoints of scholars in the field of Egyptology. She has also appended to her novel a highly useful bibliography.
The title of this post is taken from the first line of “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad reads Ozymandias:
Yet again – and probably for the last time, I present a talk on Somerset Maugham and The Painted Veil
So, this being my third discussion of this novel – and my fourth reading of it - was there anything more to be gleaned from yet another Somerset Maugham immersion experience? Amazingly, there was. It’s not so much that I unearthed any new information, but rather that facts already known to me took on a slightly different coloration. This was in part due to my revisiting Selina Hastings’s The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, a masterful recounting of the long and eventful life of a singularly fascinating and gifted individual.
Once again, while revisiting the story of Maugham’s abruptly destroyed childhood happiness, I felt pangs of empathy for the lonely, bewildered boy he must have been. Ted Morgan, another Maugham biographer, likens the writer to “… one of Dickens’ youthful heroes who are tempered by misfortune at an early age.”
I can hardly believe that the two other times I’ve led discussions of The Painted Veil, I’ve made no mention of the one novel by Maugham that has most consistently made it onto lists of greatest novels of the twentieth century: Of Human Bondage. It’s been years – decades, actually – since I read this book, and I was surprised to find, when reading a summary of the plot, that it contained so many autobiographical elements especially, in its early chapters. Here’s what Random House says of it:
It is very difficult for a writer of my generation, if he is honest, to pretend indifference to the work of Somerset Maugham,” wrote Gore Vidal. “He was always so entirely there.”
Originally published in 1915, Of Human Bondage is a potent expression of the power of sexual obsession and of modern man’s yearning for freedom. This classic bildungsroman tells the story of Philip Carey, a sensitive boy born with a clubfoot who is orphaned and raised by a religious aunt and uncle. Philip yearns for adventure, and at eighteen leaves home, eventually pursuing a career as an artist in Paris. When he returns to London to study medicine, he meets the androgynous but alluring Mildred and begins a doomed love affair that will change the course of his life. There is no more powerful story of sexual infatuation, of human longing for connection and freedom.
“Here is a novel of the utmost importance,” wrote Theodore Dreiser on publication. “It is a beacon of light by which the wanderer may be guided. . . . One feels as though one were sitting before a splendid Shiraz of priceless texture and intricate weave, admiring, feeling, responding sensually to its colors and tones.”
In England, Of Human Bondage was not an immediate hit. The country was one year into the First World War, and the novel was deemed too grim for the times. But in America, it was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. Before long, similar acclaim appeared in Britain.
(I mentioned that one of my few vivid memories of this novel is Maugham’s description of Mildred’s complexion as possessing a greenish tinge. A member of the Hanover audience commented that there’s a type of anemia that can give rise to this phenomenon.)
As the First World War got under way in 1914, Maugham was already too old to enlist as a soldier. But he was able to serve in France and Belgium in the Ambulance Corp, work for which he was well suited, with his medical degree and fluent knowledge of the French language. He was then recruited by British intelligence. For this work, he was based primarily in Switzerland, though he later did a stint in Russia. The work required that he be both self-effacing and cunning. Once again, he seemed ideal suited for the job. (Observing how much Maugham enjoyed being immersed in espionage, Lord Kenneth Clark commented: “I suppose he liked the light that it shed on human nature.”
Maugham distilled this experience, with its numerous subtle aspects and its tendency to be at once suspenseful and tedious, into a series of stories that comprise a volume called Ashenden, or the British Agent. Once again, I lamented the fact that this book remains out of print. These stories are riveting and not at all dated. Today, technology has provided us with new and astonishing ways to convey information and to carry out surveillance, but the moral conundrums that are ever present in the so-called ‘secret world’ remain essentially the same. (In a post entitled “Somerset Maugham: the great teller of tales,” I have more to say about Ashenden and some of Maugham’s other stories.)
In 1917, Maugham married Syrie Wellcome. They’d been lovers off and on for several years, and the relationship had already produced a daughter, Liza. But the marriage proved disastrous; Maugham’s single goal thereafter seemed to be to put as many miles between himself and Syrie as was humanly possible. His insatiable lust for travel served the purpose well. In 1919, along with his lover Gerald Haxton, Maugham sojourned to China. (He and Gerald had previously traveled together to the South Seas, a journey which produced one of his most famous short stories, “Rain.” This tale of passion both sacred and profane features one of Maugham’s most memorable protagonists, the free living prostitute Sadie Thompson.)
At the time that Maugham and Gerald Haxton were in China, the country was unstable and conditions for tourists were dire. As usual, Maugham did not let these factors deter him. He was fascinated by the place. China, he declared, is a country that “gives you everything.” For the first time in his peripatetic life, Maugham found himself in a place whose language was impenetrable to him. But reliance on interpreters posed no great obstacle, for Maugham was not so much interested in the Chinese people themselves as in the Westerners living in their midst. Selina Hastings tells us:
As before in Polynesia, The Americans and Europeans he encountered, the lives of doctors, diplomats, traders, missionaries, and their women, were the subject of his closest scrutiny, and his notes are full of their stories: the consul, the taipan, the desperate-to-be-married spinster, the missionary who had come to hate his calling, the agent of British-American Tobacco driven half mad by homesickness, the saintly mother superior in her white-walled convent who talked nostalgically of her family home in the south of France.
Ah, the saintly mother superior! And so we come to The Painted Veil.
In his preface to a later edition (possibly in 1952 or 1953, when the copyright was renewed), Maugham states that the idea for this novel came to him from a story told by Dante in the Purgatory section of The Divine Comedy. He quotes seven lines of verse in the original Italian, then translates them thus:
“‘Pray, when you are returned to the world, and rested from the long journey,’ followed the third spirit on the second, ‘remember me, who am Pia. Siena made me, Maremma unmade me: this he knows who after betrothal espoused me with his ring.’”
When Maugham a young medical student, he took advantage of a break in his schedule and traveled to Italy. He acquired a language teacher, and together they were working their way through Dante’s masterpiece. When they came to the passage alluded to above, his instructor offered him the following explanation:
…Pia was a gentlewoman of Siena whose husband, suspecting her of adultery and afraid on account of her family to put her to death, took her down to castle in the Maremma the noxious vapors of which he was confident would do the trick; but she took so long to die that he grew impatient and had her thrown out of the window.
Now, Maugham’s Italian tutor was a somewhat feckless young woman, and he had trouble imagining from whence she’d gleaned this strange tale. Nevertheless, it haunted him: “I turned it over in my mind and for many years from time to time would brood over it for two or three days. I used to repeat to myself the line: Siena mi fe; disfecemi Maremma.”
In a footnote, Selina Hastings confirms the story of Pia, though not the part about the defenestration. Hastings adds that Maugham had an addition source of inspiration for The Painted Veil. This had to do with the scandalous behavior of an Englishwoman in Hong Kong. She doesn’t elaborate, and I’ve not been able to find out anything further about who this person was or what she did.
One of the things that made Selina Hastings’s biography such fun to read was the vast number of celebrities whose paths crossed with Maugham’s at one time or another. Politicians, statesmen, writers, actors, and many others appear at various points in his long and varied life story. I kept a running list; here are some of the names on it: Eric Ambler, Kingsley Amis, Tallulah Bankhead, Bernard Berenson, Isaiah Berlin, Anthony Blunt, Charlie Chaplin, Rudyard Kipling, Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, Ian Fleming, Bette Davis, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, H.G. Wells, Graham Greene, Christopher Isherwood, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Eleanor Roosevelt, Cary Grant, Virginia Woolf.
As I said, that is only a partial list.
Shortly before the Hanover date, my husband and I had the pleasure of viewing once again the 2006 film of the novel. What a sumptuous production! Gorgeously photographed and with an exceptionally lovely soundtrack , and stellar performances by Naomi Watts and Edward Norton in the lead roles and Diana Rigg as the Mother Superior – a class act from beginning to end.
I recalled the way in which the ending of The Painted Veil was changed in the film, but on this viewing, with the novel fresh in my mind, I detected a number of other, lesser changes as well. Yet I feel that in the main, the film remains true to the spirit of the novel. They’re two different entities, and both are wonderful.
There’s much more that could be said, but since I’ve already blogged quite a bit about Somerset Maugham, I’m going to close here with a heartfelt thanks to my friends in Hanover for once again making me part of this book discussion series. I also owe thanks to my friends from Howard County who drove up to Hanover to attend this presentation and also to shop – two very worthy aims!
Portions of my talk were captured on video by my husband. Click here to view.
Finally, here is a photo essay on YouTube that I find quite moving: