Thursday 28 November 2019

Moon Tiger - Penelope Lively (1987)

Rating: Sublime

Moon Tiger is the best Booker Prize winner I have ever read and also one of the best novels I have ever read. Moon Tiger is only two hundred plus pages long, yet it contains everything you could possibly want from a novel. Lively has filled Moon Tiger with meaty themes - love, death, history, tragedy, war and incest (yes, incest...). The writing is simply superb and Lively manages that rare feat of experimenting with narrative form, yet remaining eminently readable throughout. Often a scene is described through the eyes of one character and then is repeated through the eyes of another, allowing multiple perspectives sometimes within just one page. Lively does this so well that it barely interferes with the novel's flow; something that also applies to the sudden switches between second and third person (something Lively is careful not to overdo). The novel is also determinedly non-linear, fragmented even, yet the jumps in time never detract from the engaging story being told; the life of Claudia Hampton, a 76 year old British woman on her death bed remembering her life in a manner that equates her personal history to that of the Twentieth Century.

In Claudia Hampton Lively has created an arrogant and sometimes cruel protagonist who is also an absolutely relatable and sympathetic character. Claudia is a fiercely intelligent and determined feminist (without ever referring to herself as one) who is caught up in the ructions of the mid Twentieth Century. Blagging her way into a journalistic assignment in Cairo during Rommel's push into Egypt, Claudia meets and falls for Tom Southern, the captain of a tank division fighting the Germans in the desert. As they lay entwined on the bed in the heat of the night a brand of mosquito coil called Moon Tiger burns steadily, representing one of the most obvious, yet also most deftly handled analogy for the passage of time and the finality of its passing I've ever read. I was continually impressed by the quality of Lively's writing, but she saved her most impressive moment for the last two paragraphs for what is the greatest death scene I've ever read. Across just two paragraphs Lively manages to profoundly encapsulate what it is to be alive, followed by what means no longer exist in the world, leaving you breathless with emotion and wonder. Just amazing...

Thursday 7 November 2019

Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake (1946)

Rating: Sublime

It's hard to know where to begin with this amazing novel, the first in the Gormenghast Trilogy, except to simply say that it is unlike anything else I've ever read, even though it is obvious just how influential Peake's novels have been. Gormenghast is the name given to the massive rambling city sized castle that is a world unto itself. Gormenghast houses the Groan family, whom have ruled for centuries and whose lives are governed by a multitude of rituals and rules, many of which are hilariously and inexplicably bizarre. Although powered along by multiple plot strands Titus Groan is a character based novel. Titus Groan is newly born at the beginning of the novel and therefore the adult characters dominate the narrative. These characters have fantastic Dickensian names such as, Swelter, Fray, Lord Sepulchrave, Nannie Slagg and the one and only Dr. Prunesquallor. Never have I been so enamored by what are essentially grotesque, vain and unsympathetic characters. The main protagonist is a classic anti-hero - Steerpike, a kitchen urchin who escapes the clutches of the obese chef, Swelter, to go on to hatch Machiavellian plots to advance his influence over Gormenghast.

Titus Groan is brimming with memorable scenes and world-building that is highly imaginative and strangely compelling. Peake's prose is beautifully ornate, erudite and highly descriptive without falling prey to pretension or rank excessiveness. It took me about one hundred pages to become used to Peake's prose style; often sentences required re-reading, but then after that I was re-reading them for the sheer pleasure of the beautiful language. The novel's Gothic sensibility is enriched by tragedy, deadly rivalries, intelligent humour, one hundred white cats and a strange sense of poignancy that pervades the shadowy rooms and corridors of Gormenghast. I have a beautiful illustrated edition (Peake was also an accomplished artist) published in 2011, featuring an introduction by China Mieville and containing the other two novels - Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). I'll be definitely reading these novels in the near future, but meanwhile it looks like Neil Gaiman will be involved in a new attempt at adapting the Gormenghast novels for a television series in the near future, which, for once, totally makes sense.