donderdag 31 maart 2016

"Pied Piper" by Nevil Shute

"The German got up and walked to the window. (...) 'I think that you must be a very brave man to talk as you have done.'
Howard smiled faintly. 'Not a brave man,' he said. 'Only a very old one. Nothing you can do can take much away from me, because I've had it all.'"

I've been reading a lot of so-called 'modern classic' authors lately, books from writers like John Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway and Evelyn Waugh seem to agree with me quite well. Nevil Shute is also from that era - his most famous novels are "On the Beach" and "A Town Like Alice". "Pied Piper" was published in 1942 and is the first of his novels that I've read. And a great introduction to his work it is.

As you will have guessed, the title is a reference to the famous folk story "The Pied Piper of Hamelin", in which a piper is hired to get rid of the rats that are infesting the town of Hamelin. When the townspeople refuse to pay him for his services, he takes his revenge by luring all the children away.

The 'pied piper' of Shute's novel is one of a rather different nature. John Howard is an elderly British gentleman, who -disappointed that his country doesn't seem to need his services anymore, even at times of war (Word War II has just broken out)- travels to France for a fishing holiday. While there, Germany invades France and Howard is stuck. He decides to try and find his way back to England. Friends of his persuade him to take their two children along and bring them to safety. On his way, he meets other children, abandoned or recently orphaned, and they join his ever-growing group. But leaving France is not without some major problems, especially with a bunch of children following in his wake.

John Howard is an unforgettable character. His sense of duty and dignity never wavers, even when all hope seems to be lost. This an excellent novel about a dark period in our history. War is madness and no-one gains from it. But it also shows us that -as long a there are people like Howard around- there is still hope for mankind. And -by God- we all know how much we need that is these troubled times.

Author: Nevil Shute
Title: Pied Piper
Publisher: Vintage, London
Year: 2009 (orig. 1942)
Number of pages: 303 p.
ISBN: 9780099530220

zondag 27 maart 2016

"Pavane" by Keith Roberts

"On a warm July evening of the year 1588, in the royal palace of Greenwich, London, a woman lay dying, an assassin's bullets lodged in her abdomen and chest. (...) her last breath started echoes that ran out to shake a hemisphere. For the Faery Queen, Elisabeth the First, paramount ruler of England, was no more..."

Alternate history is a literary genre that is usually described as a sub-genre of science fiction, although often very little science is involved. The premise is always based around a 'what if ' scenario: what if an actual event in history turned out completely different - what would be the consequences? How would history have developed? Famous works in this genre include Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle" (recently filmed for television), L. Sprague de Camp's "Lest Darkness Fall" and "Pavane" by Keith Roberts.

Keith Roberts' premise is the murder of Queen Elisabeth I in 1588, years before her actual death. In its aftermath, Spain defeats the British fleet and conquers most of Europe. The Roman Catholic Church seizes power, Protestantism is destroyed and the Inquisition reaches a terrifying climax.

The story starts in 1968 - or actually stories, as this is what is called a fix-up novel: a novel which is built up out of a set of interlinked short stories. We follow different characters in a radically different world, that overall seems to have reverted to the Middle Ages, and where the most advanced technology is the steam engine.

The structure of the novel is very original. The title refers to a medieval dance which had six parts and a coda, and the novel is structured in the same way: it has six parts (called 'measures' here) and ends with a coda. As a reader, you actually dance around some ideas and try to make sense of it all.

Although I do appreciate what Roberts was trying to do here, I did have a hard time getting into the book. Some of the stories were actually really good, and even very moving. But because of the fragmentary nature of the book, it couldn't hold my attention all the time. I was often wondering what was going on and what the actual point of the whole thing was. Sure, as you read along, it becomes clear that this is the purpose of the book - the reader has to do a lot of the filling-in by himself. Maybe I'll re-read the book with this in mind, because I do think it's a fascinating idea. But not right now.

Author: Keith Roberts
Title: Pavane
Publisher: Gollancz, London
Year: 2003 (orig. 1968)
Number of pages: 279 p.
ISBN: 1857989376

zondag 20 maart 2016

"De seizoenen" van Clem Schouwenaars

"Leven. Een abstract begrip. Wij zijn het leven, wij maken het en moeten het in stand houden. Ons leven. En het leven van al de anderen, van al het andere, stroomt daar omheen."

Na een bijzonder pijnlijke liefdesbreuk ontvlucht schrijver Anton Zevenbergen de stad en vestigt zich in een klein huisje op het platteland. De plaatselijk bevolking is nieuwsgierig, maar ook achterdochtig, en hoewel hij zich graag wil integreren, voelt hij dat hij altijd als buitenstaander beschouwd zal worden. Met de onuitstaanbare Noël speelt hij eindeloos spelletjes biljart. Diens vrouw, de breekbare Lily, wordt verliefd op Anton, net als de mysterieuze winkeliersvrouw, die hij tot 'Enigma' omdoopt. Zijn buurman Fritz wordt zijn drinkebroer, met wie hij zich graag lazarus zuipt om zo zijn problemen te vergeten. De vrouwen met wie hij het bed deelt, zijn verzetjes: echte liefde is hier -en nu- niet mogelijk. Alle personages die hij ontmoet, zullen een rol spelen in het helingsproces dat Anton ondergaat.

Een jaar vertoeft Anton Zevenbergen in het witte huisje in de Cayenne: tijdens de druilerige herfst; de koude, harde winter, waarin hij erin slaagt om eindelijk zijn roman te vervolledigen; tijdens de lente, die hem dan weer leeg achterlaat. En dan moet de broeierige, kurkdroge zomer nog komen. Met de seizoenen zien we ook de gemoedsgesteldheid van Zevenbergen veranderen: van verdriet, eenzaamheid, doelloosheid en wanhoop -die hem bijna tot de ultieme ontsnappingspoging dwingt- naar inzicht, loutering en hoop.

Aangezien we het hele verhaal volgen vanuit het standpunt van Zevenbergen,  en heel diep worden meegesleurd in zijn gedachten en gevoelens, had het voor de hand gelegen dat dit boek in de eerste persoon was geschreven.  Toch kiest Schouwenaars voor de derde persoon, waardoor dit een heel bevreemdende leeservaring wordt. We observeren het hoofdpersonage, volgen bladzijdenlang zijn gedetailleerde gedachtengang of luisteren naar zijn eindeloze monologen, die hij enkel tegen zichzelf verkondigt. Mijmeringen en filosofieën, in verhaalvorm gegoten. Het is een roman over wanhoop en hoop en persoonlijke overwinning, over de relativiteit van het leven en van het belang dat je als individu hebt in de wereld. Toch wel een bijzonder boek.

Titel: De seizoenen
Auteur: Clem Schouwenaars
Uitgeverij: Hadewijch, Schoten
Jaar: 1984 (oorspr. 1972)
Aantal bladzijden: 420 blz.
ISBN: 9070876124

zaterdag 12 maart 2016

"Ethan Frome" by Edith Wharton

“He seemed a part of the mute melancholy landscape, an incarnation of its frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface; but there was nothing unfriendly in his silence. I simply felt that he lived in a depth of moral isolation too remote for casual access..."

The unnamed narrator, an engineer, is spending the winter in the fictional New England village of Starkfield. There he meets Ethan Frome, a quiet, friendly, but weary-looking and limping old farmer. Frome is a well-known figure in Starkfield and the mysterious 'smash-up', which happened to him years ago, is still the talk of the town. The narrator hires Frome as a driver, and while spending some time at the farmer's place, held-up by a violent snowstorm, he learns Ethan Frome's sad story.

Flash back twenty-four years and we find a young and vibrant Ethan Frome living with his cranky, sickly wife Zeena on his late parents' farm. Also living with them is his wife's cousin, the young and beautiful Mattie. Tired of the self-centred Zeena's constant nagging and verbal abuse, he turns to Mattie for company and he soon falls in love with her. Piece by piece, Frome's tragic story is revealed up until the famed accident. The surprising ending packs quite a punch.

At 120 pages, this is a very short and concise novel, but just the right length to generate the effect that it does. What at first seems a bit of a banal story, turns out to be a very deep and heartfelt tale about the tragedies of life. I really like the way the cold and harsh rural landscape is used as a device to describe Ethan Frome's character and personality. This is a story about morality, solitude and isolation; it's about destiny and abandoned dreams. A wonderful read.

Author: Edith Wharton
Title: Ethan Frome
Publisher: Oxford Universtity Press, London
Year: 2008 (orig. 1911)
Number of pages: xxxiii + 120 p.
ISBN: 9780199538096

zaterdag 5 maart 2016

"Conan the Invincible" by Robert Jordan

"Conan's breath rasped in his throat, and the blood pounded in his ears. A growl built deep in his throat. He forced the man's head back. Back. Abruptly there was an audible snap, and the guardsman was a dead man sagging on his chest."

Years before he gained fame & fortune with his "Wheel of Time" series, Robert Jordan wrote a couple of Conan novels, based on the character created by Robert E. Howard. "Conan the Invincible" was one of his earliest books, the first of seven Conan novels by his hand (and also the first of the TOR Conan series, which was launched at the time of the popular movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and was to extend to over forty books, written by many different authors).

Conan, the mighty barbarian, is still a young man in this novel, and is spending his time in Zamora, drinking & womanizing, thieving when appropriate & killing when provoked. The evil wizard Imhep-Aton approaches him with a request to enter the king's palace and steal some items. When Conan learns about the phenomenal reward that awaits him, he doesn't think twice and heads for the palace, only to find out that someone has beaten him to it.  Conan sets off in pursuit of the thieves, to retrieve what he thinks should be his, while at the same time trying to rescue the fair maiden Velita, who was kidnapped in the process. Meanwhile, Imhep-Aton thinks Conan has double-crossed him and sends out his demons to destroy the barbarian.

As you can expect from any Conan story, there's lots of violence, wizards, demons, tons of blood & gore and a bunch of naked women, who are all too willing to open their hearts (and their legs) to Conan. If you know Jordan from his "Wheel of Time", you'll be surprised by this novel, which is a fast moving, action packed adventure without any trace of subtlety, and is nothing like his well-know series at all. It was already clear, though, that Jordan had a knack for writing fantasy tales. Sure, he is no Robert E. Howard - this book doesn't compare to the powerful original stories. But at least Jordan has written a very entertaining Sword & Sorcery adventure that you will enjoy, if you like this kind of thing.

Author: Robert Jordan
Title: Conan the Invincible
Publisher: Tor
Year: 1982
Number of pages: 284 p.
ISBN: 0812509978

woensdag 2 maart 2016

"The Third Man" and "The Fallen Idol" by Graham Greene

“We never get accustomed to being less important to other people than they are to us.”

"The Third Man" is probably best known for the 1949 film starring Orson Welles. As Graham Greene writes in his introduction, the tale he wrote was never meant to be read, but to be seen. Here's the story:

Greene was asked by film producer Alexander Korda to write a screenplay for a movie, directed by Carol Reed. The story was to take place in post-war Vienna, which was occupied by four main powers: the Americans, the British, the Russians and the French. Greene already had a story in mind and was enthusiastic. As he liked to flesh out the characters before starting on the screenplay, he wrote it out as a story and it turned out to be short novel I have here in front of me.

Rollo Martins is a writer of pulp westerns. He is invited by his longtime friend Harry Lime to join him in Vienna. But when he arrives there, he learns that his friend has died in a car accident. To his amazement, he is told that Lime was under investigation from the police for black-market dealing. Martins can't believe the Harry Lime he knew, could ever be a criminal, so he starts an investigation of his own. He is absolutely certain Lime was framed and murdered. According to the official statement, two men were with Lime when he died, but Martins is able to find a witness who saw there was a third man involved. But then that witness is murdered...

As always, Greene is fabulous at creating atmosphere - in this case the paranoid atmosphere of occupied Vienna. And although this might not be Greene's best book (a bit let down by the odd point of view, in my opinion), there are some unforgettable chapters here. The scenes in the Ferris wheel and in the baroque Vienna sewers, for instance, show exactly how good Greene was at making an Unforgettable Personality out of a character. One note of warning: if you're not familiar with the story yet, whatever you do: don't read the introduction first, as it gives away all of the plot.

Also part of this book is "The Fallen Idol", a short story about a young boy who witnesses someone he absolutely admires commit murder. Another great story about morality.

Author: Graham Greene
Title: The Third Man and The Fallen Idol
Publisher: Vintage, London
Year: 2005 (orig. 1949 and 1939)
Number of pages: 130 p.
ISBN: 9780099286233