Review – “Darkness at Noon” – Arthur Koestler

Darkness at NoonDarkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I enjoyed it this time almost as much as I enjoyed it the first time I read it. When I first read it — in the summer, with the long college holiday stretching out before me — I read it much faster, because I had hours to kick back reading it. It was also the one of the first novels I had read that was so cynical, depressing, hopeless and bleak, so gripped me for that reason.

On a second reading, the novel remains cynical, depressing and bleak. I still felt the same hope as I started the book hope that Rubashov, the protagonist and anti-hero, the representative of the revolutionary old guard who is unjustly(?) imprisoned, would somehow wheedle and weasel his way out of prison. As the book went on, however, I discovered again that although Rubashov might be innocent of whatever charges are about to pressed on him, he is not innocent — he has taken part in a revolution in which others have died, he has sacrificed a lover to protect his own position in the party (and save his own life, perhaps), he has been involved in the deaths of other adherents to the cause, he made little fuss when other members of the council of which he was member were removed and liquidated in the cause of the revolution.

Rubashov knows too that he is not an innocent, and constantly returns, as he waits in his cell, to memories of the incidents in which he took a willing part, or which he instigated. He also knows that the revolution of which he was a leading light has moved on somewhere else, to a place he no longer quite knows, and occupies a space he himself no longer securely occupies. He no more has the certainties he once had. Statements he has made in his jaded middle-age — innocent statements, he claims — can be misconstrued and can be used to paint him as a counter-revolutionary, a traitor to the new leadership. Koestler himself had been a member of the Communist Party of Germany, and has been implicated in the betrayal of a woman, a fellow traveller, with whom he had been in a relationship. The novel is thus informed by first-hand experience of revolutionary cant and perfidy.

The book is divided into sections based on his imprisonment, then successive hearings with progressively-less sympathetic inquisitors, including psychological torture, and finally a judgement. To say too much about Rubashov’s fate — his demeanour as the hearings continue, and the sentence passed down at what might be considered a show trial — would diminish the intriguing if joyless experience of following his slow descent into the very basement of the bleak world he in part created.

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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]


Review: Up at the Villa

Up at the Villa
Up at the Villa by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think I’m turning into something of a Somerset Maugham fan. I’ve yet to read anything truly bad by him. I bought The Painted Veil some years back on a whim from a charity shop, and it took me a couple of years to get around to reading it. When I did, I enjoyed it, and liked his style. Since then I’ve read various of his books.

This is more of a novella, or a very long short story. As the books of his I’ve read so often seem to do, Up at the Villa involves members of the smart set of his time, the kind who live in villas in Italy on small bequests or inheritances; that’s fine by me – write what you know, they say, and it seems Maugham did…

As usual, then, it was difficult at first to sympathise with the characters, who live in a world that has disappeared; yet, at the same time, the world is not that different to the Chelsea set of the 1960s, or the Beautiful People of the 1970s. I’m sure you can supply your own denizens of some belle monde for each decade.

When the narrative kicked in, I was hooked. To relate some of the plot of such a small novella would be to give too much away. To say it is a tale of love and passion, and honesty and guilt, gives some of the flavour. What happened in the story caught me somewhat by surprise, and the narrative twist intrigued me and kept me reading. The story was crisp, well-crafted. and well-formed.

If you haven’t read Somerset Maugham, but wonder if you should dip your toe in the dazzling Tuscan swimming pool of his writing, this book would be a good place to start.

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Review: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe
The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set in some unspecified time period in which people rarely die of illness, only of old age, such “unnatural” deaths are televised and have become a spectacle for an audience unused to such suffering. The book has been seen as a reaction to the intrusiveness of television and nascent reality TV programming; yet, in the end, it is predominantly a book about people and relationships in a particular near-future milieu.

Indeed, Katherine Mortenhoe doesn’t even appear on television until half way through the book; and then it becomes clear that this isn’t some modern, intense, immersive 24-hour reality show, but more in the nature of an hour or half-hour nightly documentary in which the audience is provided with edited highlights of the gradual deterioration and death of the subject.

Katherine Mortenhoe is to be filmed by Roddie, NTV’s star reporter, who has made his own sacrifice to become even more relevant and useful in a televisual age; he has had his eyes replaced with cameras. Having secretly watched her when she was diagnosed with her – fanciful – terminal illness, Roddie is certain there is going to be more to Katherine Mortenhoe than a pitiful victim slowly dying in front of an eager audience; Roddie is eager to follow Katherine and discover the woman who will persist, despite the pain and suffering, over her last few days, the real person who continues to exist even through the horror of illness and death.

Roddie and Katherine become closer than either would have imagined as Roddie chases the continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, who has accepted her ultimate fate in death but refuses to accept her fate as surrogate for suffering and pain.

The narrative takes an interesting tack in terms of point of view. Roddie’s point of view is told in first person; Katherine’s story is told in third person. The continuous Katherine is distanced, as if seen through the lens; Roddie, the voyeur, the surrogate viewer, is immediate and here. When the novel is in third person, other, minor actors sometimes become the viewpoint character, as if they are also now part of the dramatised and continuous Katherine Mortenhoe; and towards the end of the novel there is a sense that sometimes an omniscient narrator takes over, who can see everybody in, and knows everything about, the unfolding drama. These movements between types of viewpoint play with the notion of subject and audience, of watcher and watched, of voyeurism and gaze in an interesting way.

Both Katherine and Roddie are well-developed characters, and even the minor characters are filled out enough for us to understand their motivations; particularly Katherine’s husband and Roddie’s boss at NTV. I also found Compton’s writing style easy and enjoyable, with interesting turns of phrase.

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Review: The Road

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It is hard to review a book that has so many extant reviews, so many of which are so positive. The Road is my second Cormac McCarthy book; I have recently read No Country for Old Men, which I found interesting, gripping, a page turner, with hints of wider themes and interests. Like The Road, my edition of No Country for Old Men had many flyleaves that contained glowing extracts from glowing reviews extolling the virtues of the book. And though I enjoyed the book, I found that I had not discovered those virtues.

When I finished The Road, and returned to re-read the many glowing extracts from glowing reviews on its flyleaves, I found myself rather at a loss. I had enjoyed the novel, and its spare language and short, well-spaced paragraphs had made it a quick read, gripping enough to keep me turning the pages. Yet, I found nothing new or extraordinary in the book, nor in its language. The language was spare, certainly, and repetitive at times. Yet, The Road belongs to a genre — the post-apocalyptic novel. Of course, the post-apocalyptic novel has mainly been the reserve of science fiction authors, and I couldn’t help wondering if any of the reviewers who had written the glowing extracts from the glowing reviews had read J G Ballard, or Harlan Ellison, or Samuel R Delany or Walter M Miller or many others.

The post-apocalyptic novel has an honourable tradition in science fiction; The Road offered no new shocks and no new horrors, no departures from that tradition. What “new” horrors there were, over and above earlier entries in the genre, were more because of where we are, as readers and writers, in what we allow and what we accept, than in anything extraordinarily outre. Earlier authors, such as Delaney in Dhalgren had experimented with form; Ballard had been elliptical and distant in his series of ‘disaster’ novels, The Crystal World, The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World, and, of course, The Drought; in Damnation Alley, Zelazny’s hero has to drive a truck along a post-apocalyptic road.

Of course, in a Cold War world in which everybody was mentally prepared for nuclear disaster, the post-apocalyptic science fiction narrative thrived. Such was the currency of apocalytics and disaster in New Wave science fiction, the title of Michael Moorcock‘s collection of Jerry Cornelius stories, The New Nature of the Catastrophe, made perfect sense while being an ironic dig at a tradition he had helped foster.

This then, was my problem: The Road was a worthy entry into the tradition; but it carried with it nothing more than previous (mainly science fiction) authors had provided; and I would rather have The Drought, or A Boy And His Dog, or A Canticle for Leibowitz, or even Russell Hoban‘s Riddley Walker on my desert island.

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Yes, it’s Number One, it’s Top of the Pops!

And number 1 is… Michael Moorcock!

What are you talking about Steve?, I hear you ask.

Well, a couple of years after I started to read a lot, I began to record the books I’d read; first on paper, then in databases. Being a man of a certain age, this means I have records going back to the 1970s. Being also OCD enough to have copied my database of books to Goodreads, I can now easily see that the author I have read most is Michael Moorcock. Now, in the course of nearly 40 years, some of these books I have read more than once, and those that have had repeated readings will most likely be my favourites. Only my database can reveal which books have had multiple readings… However, I know I was a big fan of 1970s British New Wave Science Fiction, so I have read and reread the Jerry Cornelius books — A Cure for CancerThe Final Programme, and The English Assassin. Some of the 31 books in my Goodreads list for Moorcock are in fact collections for which he was editor, such as the various New Worlds anthologies; without these collections, Moorcock might have been under pressure from the author at position two in the charts…

In second place is Ruth Rendell. Now, as I only discovered Rendell, and her alter ego, Barbara Vine, in the late 1980s, I can easily recall those books of hers I have read multiple times. So, I recommend highly Vine’s A Fatal Inversion, which I have read about six times, King Solomon’s CarpetThe Brimstone Wedding; and Rendell’s Going WrongThe Crocodile Bird, and Talking to Strange Men. I have never been a fan of police procedurals, so the Wexford books do not interest me.

At number three in the chart is Frank Herbert. I read Dune in my teens and was enamoured by it. The fact that I have read all the canonical Dune books accounts, of course, for about a third of the total for Herbert. There are other books by Herbert that I have read more than once — Under Pressure* and Destination Void — but it is, in general, the Dune books to which I return. One of my friends once said Herbert’s books were full of half-arsed so-called philosophical ramblings. This perhaps accounts for the fourth entry in my chart.

In with an invocation and a silver bullet at number four is Colin Wilson, purveyor of much half-arsed nonsense and profligate philosophical posturing. I read and re-read The Occult when I was a young adult, and was almost tempted to become the next Cagliostro, or Count de St. Germain. I also read The Outsider and other of his “philosophical” works. Why Wilson attracts me, I think, is that he is an easy read; so he is often a good place to start with a topic, even if he is often wrong or muddled about something. It is his novels, however, such as The Glass CageThe Schoolgirl Murder Case, and Ritual in the Dark, that are I think under-rated. Crime thrillers set in the 1960s with more of that half-arsed philosophical rambling, they are well-written and a better vehicle for his ideas.

I could say more, but for the moment, I’ll stop here and simply note there are an awful lot of 70s sci-fi authors in this list…

1     Michael Moorcock  31
2     Ruth Rendell  23
3     Frank Herbert  19
4     Colin Wilson  18
5     Philip K. Dick  15
6     D.H. Lawrence  13
7     Henry Miller  12
8     J.G. Ballard  11
9     Barbara Vine  10
9     Aldous Huxley  10
11    Roger Zelazny  9
11    Isaac Asimov  9
13    Robert A. Heinlein  7
13    Keith Roberts  7
13    Iain M. Banks  7
16    George Orwell  6
16     William Gibson  6
16     John Fowles  6
16     Hermann Hesse  6
16    Jacques F. Vallée  6


* Also known as Dragon in the Sea in the UK, and 21st Century Sub