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Monday, 31 August 2015

The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)

The Leopard is considered to be one of the greatest novels in Italian literature and also one of the greatest historical novels. Despite initially being rejected by several publishing houses the novel went on to both be critically lauded and commercially successful, going on to sell over three million copies. The Leopard was subsequently made into a critically acclaimed film by Luchino Visconti in 1963. Set between 1860 and 1910, the novel explores the political changes brought about by the unification of Italy and explores the themes of mortality and the power of historical change over the individual, mostly from the perspective of Prince Fabrizio Cornbana, a character based on Lampedusa’s grandfather.

Before tackling The Leopard I’d advise reading something about the history of Italy during this period in order to at least understand the basics, as it will greatly enhance reading enjoyment. Like much of Europe Italy underwent the ructions of nationalism in the nineteenth century and the process of the unification of Italy’s disparate states was played out in Sicily when Giuseppe Garibaldi’s forces, known as ‘The Thousand’, invaded the island which led to the eventual capitulation of its incumbent rulers. The Prince, although outwardly powerful both in stature and wealth, is a melancholic figure who is more interested in astronomy than his duty to the realm. As the revolution happens he merely accepts its inevitability and carries on as before, although he is forced to head the famous words of his rebellious nephew, Tancredi, that “If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change.”; a quote that escaped the confines of the novel to become somewhat of a cliche.

Ultimately whether or not you enjoy The Leopard depends on what you want from a novel. Those who appreciate beautiful well crafted prose would certainly find much to admire. Outwardly nothing much seems to happen plot wise as the majority of the Garabaldi led revolution occurs off stage. Instead there is a subtle exploration of decadence, mortality and a very European ennui. The Prince Fabrizio Cornbana may be wealthy, but he is trapped in a stifling world of nobility that he often feels alienated from and instead he prefers such intellectual pursuits as astronomy and mathematics. Those who enjoy history being brought alive will also find much to enjoy; Lampedusa encapsulates the landscape of Sicily and its history in a way that somehow engages all of the senses. In essence the novel is both intellectual and sensual, wholly succeeding in its portrayal of individuals being swept up by events mostly beyond their control.

Despite The Leopard’s obvious qualities and its reputation as a significant work in the canon of European literature, I did not fully engage with the novel. Although the prose is certainly beautiful, stylistically it has more in common with nineteenth century literature than that of the first fifty years of the twentieth century, something that perhaps caused my interest to wane at regular intervals. Overall it was very much the case of appreciating rather than enjoying The Leopard, which is no doubt sacrilege to a significant amount of admirers of the novel who read it at least once a year and claim it as one of their all time favourite books.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Seven Eves - Neal Stephenson (2015)

Parts 1 & 2

Seven Eves is my first Neal Stephenson novel, which means that I’m possibly arriving later to his work than pretty much everyone else interested in speculative fiction. I’ve been meaning to read his cyberpunk masterpiece Snow Crash (1992) for years now, but for some reason it has always passed me by. Seven Eves is an epic novel, both thematically and physically and consequently I’ve had to abandon it two thirds of the way through in order to start reading the diametrically opposite The Leopard (1958) by the gloriously named Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, in order to be prepared to run the upcoming book clubs at the library later this month. So rather than wait almost a month to talk about Seven Eves I thought I’d start with the first two parts.

Essentially Seven Eves is an apocalyptic novel that begins literally on page one with the moon blowing up due to a passing micro black hole, referred to as ‘the agent’. (I’m not really giving anything away here by the way...). Seven Eves is set in a near future in which the U.S president is female, the international space station, which is attached to an asteroid, is still in operation and technology is marginally more advanced than present times. Parts one and two detail the desperate two year effort by humanity to get enough people into space to survive the destruction of the biosphere by what is termed as the ‘hard rain’, which is the fall of millions of destabilized chunks of the shattered moon.

The novel’s premise is brilliant in its simplicity and the first two thirds mostly lives up to this initial promise. The science in Seven Eves' fiction is resolutely hard and although this helps in the credulity stakes Stephenson’s tendency to go into long detailed explanations means that some sections become almost tedious. The inner geek within Stephenson obviously just can’t help himself. This is, fortunately, not a fatal flaw and the story gradually becomes more absorbing and exciting. Once the ‘hard rain’ begins and the narrative wholly focuses on the humans selected to survive in space the novel really kicks into gear.

Although Stephenson’s characterizations are not as brilliantly realized as a science fiction writer like Iain M. Banks, the principal protagonists are rounded enough for the reader to care about what happens to them. Perhaps the strongest are two female astronauts who are stationed on the ISS, asteroid researcher and robotic expert Dinah MacQuarie and Ivy Xiao, the commander of ISS. The rather extravagant figure of Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris, a popularizer of science who first works out what the future holds for planet earth, is also a memorable character. Set against the inhospitable background of space, death, and techno-babble these characters provide an important focus. What eventually happens to them creates a great segue into part three: five thousand years later. I can’t wait....