Wednesday, March 30, 2011

E. M. Forster’s first novel introduces familiar themes.

It struck me that I hadn’t read Forster’s first novel in a while, and when I started it I wondered if I had ever read it before. It’s quite a wild story, but it’s one that surely inspired Forster's later novels.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread (128 pages, Dover, $3.50) lays out many of the themes that obsess him in later novels. At the opening of the novel, Philip Herriton’s sister-in-law, the widow of his brother, is on her way to Italy, where she will be the companion of a local girl who is traveling there.

Lilia was disappointed in her first husband, in part because his family tried to control her so extensively. Mrs. Herriton is the kind of dominating mother who assumes it is her duty to control everything around her. Her daughter Harriett is an even more gauche agent of control, and she uses the church to give her position some authority. Philip, the surviving son, is a bit ironic about it all and tries to remain detached, but he is as much a product of middle-class upbringing as any of them.

When it turns out that Lilia has fallen in love with a young Italian man, the son of a dentist, Philip is dispatched to bring her home. He has had a love affair with Italy, but the trip to retrieve Lilia is so sordid that the romance is driven out of Italy for him. What is sordid for Philip is the fact that these two people seem to be in love and that they have taken upon themselves to marry without a thought of the family in England. Philip goes so far as to offer Gino some money to let him take Lilia home, but when he realizes that they are already married, he flees.

The younger woman, Caroline Abbot, flees with him, and Lilia is left to make her way among the Italians. She fails at this marriage miserably, or the marriage fails, but that is in part because she really doesn’t understand the man she has married. He doesn’t understand her, either. And when he starts to stray, in what Forster presents as the inevitable Italian way, she becomes withdrawn and terribly unhappy. She does bear Gino a son, but she dies in giving birth.

The child causes quite a stir back in England. Caroline, who has been in the background up to this time, comes forward with the idea that the child must be saved from the wicked man who destroyed her friend. The Herritons agree, and Philip is dispatched once again. He does with a sense of foreboding, but it seems that Caroline has gotten there first. She rushes to the home of Gino and the baby, and there she finds herself swept away by the image of the young man and his child. Immediately she switches sides, as it were, and decides that the child must stay.
Philip sees her point and tries to work things out with Gino in an honorable way.

Harriet, who has come along to hector Philip into doing what’s right, takes matters into her own hands when she is dissatisfied with what the men have decided.
A tragedy ensues, and all the characters emerge brutally shaken. Caroline and Philip sees things in a similar way, and it seems for a while that they might bond over what is coming to be seen as their mutual loss. Whether they can or not is the problem the novelist sets himself.

The English misapprehension of Italy is the topic here, and the English need to control others. This need brings them into conflict with themselves, and Philip Herriton’s inability to escape the dictates of his mother is a measure of his inability to function in the world. The novel is tragic, but it is also exciting to see these ideas emerging: ideas that Forster will return to again and again.

E. M. Forster

Pick up a copy of Where Angels Fear to Tread at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The last days of Pompeii told anew.

I resisted reading this new novel about Pompeii for some time. I am not sure why, for when I settled down to read it, I found it riveting.


Robert Harris’s Pompeii (304 pages, Random House, $15) tells the story of the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, which buried Pompeii and the nearby Herculaneum in ash and pumice. Harris centers his tale on Attilius, an engineer, who has been given the job of running the Augusta Aqueduct when its director has gone missing.

No sooner is he in position in the Bay of Naples than the Aqueduct shows signs of breaking down. Sulfurous pools and lowered reservoirs suggest that something is seriously amiss, and when he begins to investigate he realizes that he will have to divert the Aqueduct near Pompeii in order to look for the break and to make repairs.
He needs to persuade Pliny the Edler, the author and admiral, to help him with funds and supplies, and before long he is on his way to Pompeii, where he hopes to get local labor to help with the job. His foreman seems to be antagonistic, however, and his trip is fraught with difficulties not entirely explained by various earthquakes and strange natural events.

In Pompeii he is confronted with a wealthy autocrat, who is also a former slave, who seems to control everything that happens in Pompeii. Ampliatus runs the town, but he also has rigid control over his family. His daughter Corelia, someone Attilius has encountered earlier, is being forced into a marriage against her will, and when she sees Attilius negotiating with her father, she tries to let him know how wicked her father really is. When Attilius gets the men and equipment he requires, though, he passes through the gate of the city to meet up with the crew he has sent forward to find the break.

Once he has found and repaired the break in the aqueduct, his trouble has hardly begun. Just before he makes his way back, he meets Corelia, who has run away from home. He sends her back to Pompeii, sure that she is safer there than she is with him on the mountain. She leaves, but as she goes he wonders if he is doing the right thing.

Soon enough the mountain erupts, and an incredible description of the phases of destruction, much taken from actual records of such events, makes this compelling reading. As the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are destroyed, Attilius makes his way to a ship that Pliny is planning to sail along the coast. Pliny wants to confront nature at its most violent and record what he sees in the depth of the firestorm. Needless to say, they do not get very far before being driven to shore.
From there they witness various stages of the volcanic eruption, each stage bringing even more devastation than the last.

In the midst of this violence, Attilius makes his way back to Pompeii in order to liberate Corelia from her father and attempt an escape before the storm of fire whips down the mountainside killing all in its path. This is chilling reading, as exciting as any thriller.

Harris has done a wonderful job of recreating the world of the Roman Empire and explaining what it was like to experience one of the greatest of natural disasters. This is a first rate novel.

Robert Harris

Get Pompeii at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

An eighteenth-century murder mystery, anyone?

Who can resist a ghost story set in eighteenth-century Cambridge, England? Well, I certainly can’t.

The Anatomy of Ghosts

Andrew Taylor’s The Anatomy of Ghosts (432 pages, Hyperion, $24..99) is set is 1786 and tells the story of a bankrupt bookseller who has lost both his son and his wife in the River Thames, next to which they were living in London. John Holdsworth is bereft but he also feels guilty. After his son’s death, his wife visited a medium who persuaded her that her son was near and that he was watching from the beyond. This angered John, who went so far as to write a book about the fallacy of belief in ghosts, The Anatomy of Ghosts of the title; and his wife’s belief drove him so crazy that he was driven to strike her. After that even she disappears, and when her body is discovered, it seems that she may have committed suicide.

With this background, Holdsworth finds a job that carries him to Cambridge. Lady Anne Oldershaw asks him to go to Cambridge to work with her son, who has been committed for his own wild expression of his belief in ghosts. Her son Frank has been a student, in good standing, at Jerusalem College, but suddenly everyone in Cambridge is worried about him. Lady Carbury, the wife of the ailing head of the college, has come to help Lady Oldershaw plead her case; and this Cambridge woman, whose first name is Elinor, finds herself strangely attracted to the bookseller. The feeling is mutual.

The Cambridge scenes are certainly harrowing. The students seem to be drawn into a private club, run by a local aristocrat, in which local girls are victimized and the students are caught up in a vicious activity that haunts them throughout their lives. Holdsworth finds himself in the center of this crisis. Frank Oldershaw’s mania is the direct result of a mysterious night in which two women have died.

As readers, we get peeps into the corrupt world next to which the college seems like a mere excuse. Gradually, though, the college’s own corruption becomes an important feature of Holdsworth’s discoveries.

The eighteenth-century context is wonderfully rendered, and what is especially interesting is how poor Frank Olderwshaw is handled in the asylum to which he has been sent. Luckily, Holdershaw manages to get him out of the asylum and to work with him on his own. This is an interesting sequence, and Frank’s gradual emergence into a coherent world of thought and speech is truly fascinating. Especially fascinating is his emergence as a silly undergraduate after all.

Taylor does a good job with the smoldering romance between Holdworth and Lady Carbury, whose husband is dying and whose desires are more than a little frustrated. The two barely spend any time together, but they are both so present in each other’s thoughts that they are hardly ever apart.

The ending is surprising and well-crafted, and the wealth of detail with which Taylor creates this eighteenth-century world is truly engaging. I hope he writes another eighteenth-century mystery soon.

Andrew Taylor

Get a copy of The Anatomy of Ghosts at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Jonathan Rabb writes a thriller set during the Spanish Civil War

I have enjoyed Rabb’s novels in the past, and I thought this one about the Spanish Civil War sounded intriguing.

The Second Son

The Second Son (304 pages, Farrar, Strauss and Grioux, $26) is another masterful novel by Jonathan Rabb. It tells the story of a liberal German Jew, who has been Chief of Police in Berlin until the mid-1930s. After he is asked to retire early, he decides he should go to Spain to look for his son, a filmmaker, who has gone missing just as the vents of the Spanish Civil War get most intense.

Nikolai Hoffner, the hero, has figured in both Rosa and Shadow and Light, and this is the last in a trilogy. In this novel, Hoffner, seasoned and nearly disillusioned as he is, realizes that there is little place for him in Berlin. His son’s disappearance at first seems like an excuse to get away; but as the novel develops, it becomes easier to sense his real dedication to the boy.

The early chapters of the novel involve getting out of Berlin just as Nazi power is reaching its height. As Police Chief, Nikolai has known and dealt with a lot of underworld characters, and they are the ones he turns to in hopes of getting a plane to increasingly war-torn Spain. Even at this early stage it becomes clear that Germany is deeply involved in the Spanish enterprise, supplying Franco and his soldiers with tanks, guns, and other machinery that they need to overrun the peninsula. Nikolai finds himself confronted with details about the secret arms shipment, and at first he thinks that his son was trying to get this information to him.

While in Barcelona he meets a woman, Mila. She is a doctor, and she takes him home and, in a sense, takes him in. Before long she is accompanying him on the search for his son. Her own brother has started fighting on the Franco side, and she, a staunch republican, wants to find him and see whether she can make any sense of his decision.

As Nikolai gets to know Mila, the relation becomes deeper; and before long they become the chief support of the other as the situation in Spain becomes less and less tenable. Because Nikolai speaks decent Spanish and can do a commanding job of self presentation, for part of the expedition he pretends to be a high-ranking Nazi official. This gets them closer to the their goal, but it doesn’t stop Nikolai from being exposed and thrown into prison. As he languishes there he starts to see what kind of a trap he has walked into, and he worries as much about Mila, his friend, as he does about his son.

In the end, the situation in Spain only gets worse, and Rabb makes it clear how deeply all the major powers are implicated in what has been happening just by turning their backs on the truth. As Franco receives the shipments from Germany, his progress through the country is remarkable. Nikolai and Mila escape just in time.

I won’t say whether or not Nikolai finds his son, but the last sections of the novel are truly intense. What started out as a quest becomes a bitter family battle, and the results would be brutal if Nikolai did not feel that he had Mila to turn to after all.

This is a taut and well-written novel that is in keeping with Rabb’s record. As other critics have said, he is a writer to contend with the likes of Alan Furst and Philip Kerr. I recommend it.

Jonathan Rabb

Get a copy of The Second Son at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

E. M. Forster’s earlier novels deserve more attention.

I decided to read an earlier novel of Forster’s after rereading Maurice. The early novels remain surprisingly vital. They prepare for the great later novels, like Howard’s End, Maurice, and Passage to India, to be sure. But they deserve more attention themselves.

The Longest Journey

E. M. Forster’s second novel, The Longest Journey (416 pages, Penguin, $14) first appeared in 1907. It is hard for us to imagine that Edwardian world, as blocked out as it is by the First World War, but Forster’s novel gives poetry to those odd years in which a culture was slowly dying. Almost as if he understood that death at the time, the novel is a tragedy. But it is much more than that as well.

The novel concerns Ricky Elliott, an undergraduate at Cambridge when the novel opens. Ricky is sensitive and intelligent, maybe not as intelligent as some of his Cambridge friends, but he is self-aware and ready to work at his classical studies. Even more important than his studies, for him and for many of his Cambridge contemporaries, are the friendships they are establishing. In fact, friendship could be said to be the most important issue in the novel. Even though Rickie meets a woman whom he loves, or thinks he loves, and marries, that is nowhere near as important as the friendships he establishes. “There should be a registry of friendships,” the Cambridge undergraduates declare.

The plot is complex, but it has simple contours. Rickie, who suffers a club foot, is lame and a bit withdrawn from the games and much of the social life at Cambridge. Instead he hangs out with an intellectual set, led by one Stewart Ansell, who imagines himself a philosopher and has an annoying habit of ignoring people if he doesn’t think they are worth his attention. One such person is Agnes Pembroke, a friend of Rickie’s who visits him in college. Ansell ignores her. This upsets Rickie, but it forebodes later developments in the novel.

Agnes is engaged to the handsome athlete Gerald. Rickie sees them as a kind of ideal couple, and when Gerald dies suddenly, he thinks that Agnes should dedicate herself to the memory of Gerald. When after a while, he befriends her again, they fall in love and they decide to marry. At first they are all right together, but before long it becomes clear that they are going through the motions.

By this time Rickie and Agnes are living in a boarding school, which Agnes’ older brother Herbert has started. Rickie’s teaching, and responsibility for boys at other times too, makes it impossible for him to keep up the writing he was doing when he was younger, but Agnes still encourages him. It is as if the writing might offer them an escape.

In fact they never do escape but something else rather shocking happens. They meet a young man at Rickie’s aunt’s house in the country. This rather rough, but handsome and direct fellow is known as Stephen. He and Rickie get on very badly, but when his aunt gets upset with Rickie, she lets it be known that Gerald is his half brother. When Agnes finds this out—she is there when the announcement is made—she is quick to decide that it has to be kept secret, and Rickie, weakly and reluctantly, goes along with her.

The rest of the novel is concerned with this deception, which Rickie regrets, and with his ultimately intense relation with this half-brother. Their relation, in the end, becomes the most important in the novel. Forster doesn’t call it or even describe it as a gay relation, but the novel feels as if it almost needs an explanation like that.

The ending is tragic, or perhaps bittersweet is a better word, but it is a profound analysis of an age that is nearly forgotten.

E. M. Forster

Get a copy of The Longest Journey at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Nicholas Sparks writes another tender romance.

I picked this novel up in a weak moment, knowing enough about Nicholas Sparks to think: an easy read even if dull. I have to admit to being more engaged than I expected.

Safe Haven

Safe Haven (340 pages, Grand Central Publishing, $25.99) is a touching romance set in a coastal town in North Carolina. Nicholas Sparks is on familiar ground here, as several of his recent novels and a few well-produced movies suggest. This attempt is the story of a woman who has escaped from a brutal and abusive marriage.

As the story gradually emerges, we find that Katy, who has appeared suddenly in this seaside town, has actually arrived fearing for her life, after absconding from a marriage in New England. She has scars, both mental and physical, and it is clear that she is hiding something, but at first she is unwilling to open up to anyone.

Luckily a neighbor probes gently—and sometimes not too gently—and we begin to get a glimpse of this hideous past. Another person who takes an interest in her is Alex, a widower with two young children who runs the local store and boat house. As Katy and Alex get closer, party through her involvement with his children, she at first seems too hurt and shy to tell him anything about herself. When she finally opens up a bit, she finds a caring and encouraging guide. Alex does not want her to do anything she doesn’t want to do, and he manages to make her feel a little bit secure.

As soon as she does manage to feel secure, of course, her past returns to haunt her. Her husband, an undercover cop and a drunkard, has never stopped looking for her. His sick love is all tied up in his anger and resentment, and he is not sure whether he wants to recover his wife or kill her. He has definitely decided, though, that he will kill anyone who comes close to her.

When he finally shows up in the little town, Katy is not at home. Rather she is babysitting Alex’s kids while he attends a wedding in another town. The climax of the novel comes as the husband tires to burn the building where Katy and the children are sleeping. They are saved because Katy’s nosy neighbor has noticed something odd.

There are some harrowing moments as the novel draws to a conclusion, and Sparks does a decent job of building drama at the close. As readers might hope, Katy survives the attack and ends up even stronger for what has happened.

At times a reader might wish that the characters were more complex or the conversations more fully developed. But Sparks certainly captures something about romance in these southern novels. There are few writers who are more popular.

Nicholas Sparks

Safe Haven is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.