BOOKS READ OCTOBER 2020

Andrew O’Hagan: Mayflies, p/b, London, Faber, 2020  

ANDREW O’HAGAN

Glasgow born Andrew O’Hagan has won applause in Britain and the United States for his thoughtful, engaging and edgy writing. Mayflies is a book about male friendships in two parts. Part 1 is the story of a group of Scottish teenagers, close friends post-school/waiting for university/work and a riotous weekend in Manchester made up of friendship, anti-Thatcher anger,  alcohol fuelled folly, the search for female ecstasy and rock’n’roll with The Smiths and Morrisey in full flight. This section is demanding for anyone not familiar with Scottish/British slang and humour, 80’s rock and young men freed from parents and living as if there was to be no tomorrow. The writing is very funny, always edgy and with a bit of the feel of Nick Hornby and High Fidelity on steroids. The two key figures are Tully Dawson and James the narrator, saved from a life of working class labour by his intellect and a gifted and caring English teacher Mrs O’Connor.

The second part is thirty years later and the both the boys are successful in their working lives and in steady relationships when Tully goes down with a terminal cancer illness and little likelihood of survival. This section is a powerful defence of the case for euthanasia, at that stage only available with difficulty from Switzerland. The language radically alters here but the friendship humour of the past frequently re-surfaces. The writing is  sensitive, deep, emotionally demanding and quite compelling.

Whilst the two sections link together somewhat awkwardly at times the novel is a powerful ode to friendship and the big questions of life.   The ending is unforgettable. 5 stars.

Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone, Edited, Introduction & Notes, John Sutherland, p/b, Oxford, OUP, 2008 (1868).  

WILKIE COLLINS

The Moonstone was first published in serialized form by Collins’ friend and mentor Charles Dickens who later came to dislike the novel for some of its themes and even possibly out of jealousy with Collins creating a large following from interest in the serial and its outcome. The story is a “whodunnit” on a massive scale with many complex themes interwoven into the narrative and characters. The basic story line is that of the life of a celebrated diamond, found in India and stolen by the British military officer and taken to England and the narrative follows the mysterious “career” of the diamond through several owners.

 Although the “Moonstone” is a fictional gem there are similarities with the faboulou Koh-i-nor diamond which was stolen from India during the British Raj and eventually given to Queen Victoria and now resides in the Royal Collection in London despite India’s pleas for its return. The Koh-i-nor is the world’s largest and most expensive diamond, uninsurable for that reason. It has now been cut and set in the British royal crown.

Of course, The Moonstone is far more than a whodunnit.  There are major themes running throughout the narrative including the controversial opium trade and the use of opium in Britain, the idea of mesmerising, parapsychology and mind control, and indeed the whole nature of sensationalising crime and lurid criminal stories that came with the expansion of a national press which occurred in Britain in the second half of the C19th. 

There are some memorable characters in the novel including the faithful retainer Beveridge with his extreme commitment to the wisdom of Robinson Crusoe, the lovelorn but doomed Rosetta Spears and her fascination with quicksand,  the outrageously diligent and indestructible Bible tract pusher Clack, the famous detective and rose grower Sergeant Cuff, the everbusy lawyer Mr Bruff and his unforgettable lad Gooseberry, the odious charlatan welldoer Godfrey Ablewhite  and the mysterious medical man and opium addict Ezra Jennings. Many of these characters become narrators in various parts of the narrative so the reader is left to put together the events of the crime. This methodology can become tedious at times but by and large the reader is held entranced and keen to read on in spite of the substantial length of the novel, some 466 pages in this paperback edition.  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel even with its lengthy serialised style and host of different narrators.  5 stars.

Robert Alter: The Art of Biblical Narrative,p/b, USA, Harper/Basic Books, 1981  

ROBERT ALTER

Robert Alter has been for many years the Professor of Hebrew at the University of California at Berkeley and has recently published a completely new English translation of the Hebrew Bible in three volumes, as well as publishing studies in modern Hebrew and Western literature.   The Art of Biblical Narrative created a revolution in Biblical studies on publication, with its appeal to readers to read the text as it has come down to us. The alternative rather of research into the excavation of other ancient Neat Eastern archaeological finds and texts and language links or the chasing down of the various documentary sources which were at some time in the formed the basis of the Hebrew text we now have.  The nature of those documentary sources and excavators insights are of course  legitimate studies in their own right but so is the interpretation of the text as we have it. This is the real strength of Alter’s approach.

Alter adopts a strong literary, rather than hermeneutical  approach to the Biblical text and uses his deep knowledge of the Hebrew text and translation to demonstrate links between sections of the narrative that previous source criticism might have separated, for example the intrusion of the story of Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38 which appears abruptly in the middle of the Joseph narrative.  One reason such a literary approach is unusual is because of the unique regard the Biblical text is held in both Jewish and Christian religious traditions as the unitary source of divinely revealed truth. Alter solves this problem by suggesting that the Biblical text can be most profitably regarded as “historicized fiction” or “prose fiction”. Whilst these terms may scandalise the devout believer in the inspiration of the Bible Alter points out that “history” writing itself has in common with fiction a series of imaginative constructs which the historian must create as accurately as possible,  given that no historian was ever actually present when the events they record actually occurred. Alter owns a debt to Erich Auerbach’s towering literature survey Mimesis as one of the first critics to show that the cryptic conciseness of biblical narrative is a reflection of profound art not primitiveness, [p.17].  

Alter pays particular attention to thought represented as quoted monologue [p.68]. For example in the David stories God makes himself known through oracles and prophets such as Nathan. In fact Alter can say that spoken language is the substratum of everything human and divine that transpires in the Bible. [p.70] God called the world into being with words, [p.70] and later, language translates itself into history. [p.112]. There is a tension between narration and dialogue. Alter calls it the inescapable tension between human freedom and a divine historical plan, [p113]  and again…every person is created by an all-seeing God but abandoned to his own unfathomable freedom. [p115]. There is indeed a tension between election and moral character seen particularly in the David stories. [p.117].  Alter challenges us to look to the literary techniques of narration, dialogue, repetition, the art of reticence, composite artistry and the intersection of incompatibles, helping us to see a high theological purpose in the Biblical authors.

One startling and unexpected  impact of Alter’s work is his frequent comparisons of Biblical literature with many other literary approaches including Balzac, Proust, Grass, James, Woolf, Mann, Flaubert, Fielding, Trevelyan, Coleridge, Shakespeare, Joyce, Stein, Boccaccio, Kafka, Cervantes, Ford Madox Ford, Homer, Diderot, Dickens, Film montage, Marvel, Rabelais, Sterne, Eliot, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Buber, Rosenzweig, Post-Cubist painting, and Rabbinic sources.  No doubt I missed some!

I very much regret that it has taken me forty years to read this book. I often wondered what the fuss was about. Now I know that my reading of Biblical literature will never be the same…the Hebrew text has been opened up to me in very new ways.   5 stars.

Eds. Goddio, Franck and Masson-Berghoff, Aurélia: Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds, The British Museum BP Exhibition, London, Thames &  Hudson/British Museum, 2016.

FRANK GODDIO

Franck Goddio is President of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology [IEASM] and this amazing book of the exhibition at the British Museum is a startling photographic record or a reclaimed underwater city brought to the surface over the past twenty years and now held in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and in several museums in Alexandria.

Many things are amazing here. First is the finding of the ancient cities of Thonis/Heracleion, Naukratis and Canopus, originally located at the north-western edge of the Nile Delta as it meets the Mediterranean and built during the first millennium B.C. At some point in the C2nd B.C. this land of lakes and islands suffered some sort of catastrophic event  (earthquake or tidal wave) which combined with rising sea levels and liquefaction caused by the weight of the massive temples and buildings established over the area, resulted in the submergence of the majority of the land into the waters of Abukir Bay. A much smaller community including some Byzantine Christian  buildings remained on the central island until the  C8th A.D. A civilisation was buried here including massive temple structures, statues of gods and men, over seventy ships, sphinxes, works of art and everyday utensils and furniture of daily life.  Over the centuries all of this was covered by tons of layers of sand, and mud hardened to rock. Although these cities were vaguely known to exist through literary references including Herodotus, very little was actually known of their reality.

The second amazing thing was the sheer complexity and sophistication of the underwater archaeological work carried out by the ISEAM team. After the initial discoveries, massive amounts of heavy duty mud, rock and slime had to be carefully removed before the painstaking work of preparing each find for bringing to the surface. This book’s extraordinary photography shows the herculean task of removing the overlay in action and also the encrusted state of the original objects which look at first just like jagged rocks but after cleaning and care turn into the most amazing statues, faces, precious jewellery and massive objects like the sphinxes. A strength of the book is the impressive underwater coloured photography showing the original state of the objects, as well as the ingenious methods of getting the massive structures to the surface and then the supremely beautiful finished products now on display in museums.

The third amazing thing for me was the exceptional interaction between the Greek and Egyptian civilisations in the C1st millennium B.C. Thonis/Heraklion is one city, not two as always thought. Heraklion is the Greek name.  Temples were built in honour of the gods of both societies and there was a remarkable interaction of trade, religious beliefs, art and science. The Greek Ptolemaic rulers who followed Alexander the Great’s welcome in Egypt were far more accepted in Egypt than their former Persian overlords. This  unique commixture of cultures lasted for centuries before buckling under Roman control. 

As one would expect from a British Museum publication, the attention to detail in this 272 page book of the exhibition is massive and requires staying power. it is a cultural adventure well worth taking and a tribute to the ingenuity of bygone civilisations as well as C21st technological brilliance and artistic skills of display.  5 stars.


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