Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Author of the "Prometheus Bound" (CJ Herington)

availability: More widely available than it initially appears to be, but several sellers can be found when searching the internet, usually based in the US (and thus retailing in USD). UK enthusiasts can purchase from .

--The blurb--
"The Prometheus Bound has proved to be both the most problematic and the most influential of extant Greek tragedies. Especially during the past two hundred years, the character created here has transcended the boundaries of nationality, ideology and race: Goethe, Shelley, Marx, and - to judge by recently published translations - modern Russia and China have in turn been fascinated by this being who is tortured by the Gods for furthering the progress of man. Yet the interpretation of the play itself and its relation to the group of now lost plays with which it was originally produced continues to arouse violent controversy. At the centre of the controversy stand the questions, raised with increasing urgency during the present century, when the play was written and whether it is by Aeschylus at all. The original version of this work was composed for a seminar on ancient tragedy held during the American Philological Association's meeting in Toronto in December of 1968."

--The review--
As a one-time classicist I'm constantly on the lookout for various tidbits to indulge my interest. The tale of Prometheus is familiar, however, even to plenty who don't have a classical background (it was spoken of in Primo Levi's The Periodic Table, for instance), so even for those who haven't read Prometheus Bound yet, Herington's analysis of its background may well inspire the interested to do so.

The aim of the work is made clear from the outset: like many ancient works, the authenticity and dating of the play and its attribution to Aeschylus is uncertain, and Herington sets out to decode the Prometheus's origins, chiefly by comparison with Aeschylus' earlier plays. The slim volume is concisely expressed and clearly laid-out, with the author first addressing comparative linguistic trends (not only in those of Aeschylus' plays, but also in the works of other ancient authors) and then turning to a more topic-based analysis before concluding. It's a well-researched piece of work with solid premises and confident rebuttals of earlier academic approaches.

However, readers should be prepared for what I consider the book's one failing: the lack of translation of the Ancient Greek used. It is the one aspect of Herington's work to render it inaccessible to many potentially interested readers (including dramatists, who may not be interested in the play from a classicist's point of view), and I genuinely believe that all academics citing other languages in their works should take it upon themselves to translate them for accessibility's sake, whether this is in the footnotes, in appendices, or in the main body of the text. Despite this, though, the book is not rendered unreadable as a result: the points that Herington makes are still lucid and are finely restated in the volume's conclusion, while tying in neatly with the aims set out in the introduction.
The announced intent of the New Delphin Series is "to make accessible the critical and scholarly work consonant with the approach of the Arion school of classical criticism...ranging from traditional philology to literary criticism to translation." While, as I mentioned, this is perhaps let down on the accessibility point by the lack of translation provided on the author's part, a little further research on the principles of Arion Journal of Humanities and the Classics certainly confirms the concurrence of Herington's work with these. Arion, today as ever, aims to publish work that needs to be done and that without its help may not ever have been done. They pride in swimming against the mainstream, opening up rather than polarising classical studies, and encouraging intellectual daring.

Herington's work certainly concurs with this: it is an unusual and well-crafted piece of work on an oft-neglected topic, approached in a positive and unconventional way. Greater promotion is needed, however, both of the series and of Herington's overall oeuvre, in conjunction with the still encouraging availability of this particular piece of Herington's research.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

All In The Mind (Alastair Campbell)

--The blurb--
"The novel details the lives of its main protagonists over one weekend. There is Arta, an asylum seeker, who, having fled Kosovo, is raped in her adopted homeland; Emily, a teacher who cannot come to terms with the terrible facial scars she suffered in a house fire; David, whose abandonment as a child by his father seems to be the cause of his depression; and Ralph, whose alcoholism threatens not only his marriage but his career in the Cabinet. Linking them all is Professor Martin Sturrock, a revered and successful psychiatrist whose devotion to his patients hides the fact that he is fighting a few serious problems of his own."
blurb by Tom Harris at the Daily Mail

--The review--
The start of this novel is not especially enamouring in terms of its style; it seems clunky, awkward, and with too much 'telling' rather than 'showing'. However, despite this, there seemed to me to still be a good story in there, and it turned out to be rather fortuitous that I kept on reading. The characters are very realistically painted (although one of the characters, not aged 12-13, occasionally comes out with lines that sound like something I would have written in my diary at this age, which rather goes against the realism aspect), and by the end of the novel there is definitely room for empathy with one or more of the characters. It's difficult to tell, though, how well the 'life-changing' weekend idea really works: could so many people in such challenging situations, all so close to each other, really have revelationary moments almost simultaneously in one weekend that somehow render their lives changed? Can someone really go from apparently sane to totally mad in three days? However, as Campbell (or Alastair, as he requested we call him at the evening with him at WHSmith Paris) gets into his stride with his writing style, gradually the whole scene unfolds more believably, and by the end of the novel, you could well be riveted.

With the exception of the occasionally incongruous thirteen-year-old-girl-style statements, Alastair Campbell also writes very well in the female voice - as any aspiring writer knows, writing as the opposite sex can be a very difficult feat to accomplish. If you read this book without knowing who'd written it, it could have feasibly been written by a die-hard feminist. The sincerity and realism surrounding the women's issues in this novel is a remarkable achievement in itself, and yet when asked on how he attained this state of apparent utter empathy, all the author could say was that it had come very naturally to him, particularly after certain events he had witnessed in Kosovo.

The novel is also particularly diverse in the way in which it is peopled with characters, ranging from a shy young woman who can barely face the world to a high-profile politician. Such diversity requires considerable adaptation both of one's writing style and one's mode of thinking, and it is accomplished most satisfactorily here. The novel also aptly expresses the current state of the British press as, in Alastair's words, the best and worst media in the world.

The novel is not without its failings: I despise name-dropping of companies and brands in novels à la Franzen's The Corrections, as it detracts from their timelessness: it grates on me to know that your sandwich is from Prêt à Manger or that your music player is an iPod, as it limits my own visualisation, which is important to the general reading experience. It also perhaps detracts from the novel's "humanness" by homogenising what people do and use, and given that the humanity of the novel is arguably its most important quality, this is not a point worth glossing over.

It pleased me to know that Alastair has two new novels in the works. He is clearly a valuable addition to the seraglio of contemporary authors, and, more importantly, for his evident skills, rather than for his name.

Other works by Alastair Campbell
The Blair Years

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

La Petite Danseuse de Degas (Michel Peyramaure)

--The blurb--
"Marie Von Goethem was born into a poor Belgian family. Her father was a tailor, her mother a laundress. The family arrived in Paris in 1861. Like her two sisters, Marie became a "petit rat" of the Opera - a poorly-paid member of the corps du ballet. Her participation in shows and her willingness to pose for artists alike allowed her to contribute visibly to the family income.
Her path soon crossed with the artist Degas, who used her as a model for one of his most original pieces. How did this meeting come to pass? What relationship was established between the painter and his fascination with bodies and forms that led him to create one of the most magnificent and most celebrated statues in the world?
The story ties itself up with various passions and dramas. Michel Peyramaure recounts all of the story's flavour, resuscitating the artistic universe of the second half on the 19th century and the beginnings of impressionism."
*blurb from; translation mine

--The review--
Born in 1922, Peyramaure has established a long and solid career of writing relaxing historical fiction, and has an impressive trail of work from which interested readers can choose. I do not often read historical fiction; however, the beauty of such fiction is that it can and does appeal to a wide user base: not only because we are all interested in different aspects of history (even if we are not historians) but also because of the generally open and accessible style of writing that comes with this genre. Peyramaure is arguably the best-known historical fiction writer in France, and he certainly seems to tick all the boxes. His research is tight, and while he addresses relevant historical issues, such as Degas' declining health and the true nature of his relationship with Marie van Goethem, his style also leaves the novel suitably open-ended so that the reading public can make up their own minds on aspects that even the 'real' historians don't know the answer to. While there is perhaps a slight bias in terms of the relationship's integrity, this is countered by the old argument of the reliability of the narrator, meaning that there is satisfactory room for exploration by the reader.

As an enthusiast of all things dance, I found that Peyramaure's vivid descriptions of the dimly-lit theatre and the ballerinas' movements and clothes did not fail to disapppoint. Equally, as a long-time lover of Degas' art, I found that the author treated both the art and the man himself with appropriate respect and realism in equal measure. It was illuminating to have provided as much of a glimpse as is possible into the life of the man behind the paintings, and 'flesh out' the artist's personality in the reader's mind, while still leaving enough gaps so that imagination can be used to fill in the rest.

Peyramaure is clearly a master of imagery: initially, as a resident of Paris, I was not sure about all the name-dropping of various famous Parisian locations. However, they quickly became integral to the story and a delight to read, becoming as much a part of the novel as the man and his projects.

Perhaps strangely, one is left with a feeling of nostalgia at the end of the novel: a reflection, it could be argued, on the degree of success of the portrayal of this part of Degas' life. There is also to an extent a feeling of sadness: you cannot help feeling the loss of the artist, despite knowing that it is coming. Despite Peyramaure's employment of the third person throughout the novel, there is a very intimate, first-person feel to it that lingers far longer than the reading of the book itself. As a haunting and taut introduction to Peyramaure's work, it is perhaps to be held up as proof that it is certainly worth investigating more of his oeuvre.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Tout le monde s'en va (Wendy Guerra)

--The blurb--
"This debut novel takes the form of a private journal, that of Nieve, who is growing up in Cuba in the 1980s. She confides to the diary the defining moments of her existence, from childhood to the cusp of womanhood.
Torn between artistic and bohemian parents who are splitting up, she will soon know a future made up of constant departures and successive separations. The reader follows the personal, intellectual, political and artistic evolution of this young girl. As a child, just as her parents have separated, she goes to live in Cienfuegos with her mother and her mother's Swedish lover, who gives her a love of games and of reading. However, her father obtains custody of her and takes her to the mountains with his troupe of puppeteers. Having been subjected to maltreatment from her father, Nieve is then placed under the care of a Child Protection Centre (Castrist jargon for an orphanage), before being able to live with her mother again and leave with her for La Havane, where they never stop hoping for a permit to leave Cuba.
As the months and pages go on, Nieve's pen becomes more self-centred, to the point of becoming more self-analytical. Her experiences with relationships contribute to the awakening of her artistic sensibility and political conscience. Creative and artistic compulsion is at the heart of this work, as are the themes of accomplishment and resistance."
*blurb from; translation mine

--The review--
Published under the title "Todos se van" in Spanish, this oeuvre is unfortunately as yet unavailable in English. However, since none of us know what the future holds, let us proceed. Realistic child characters, both in personality and language, are difficult to create and still maintain integrity. Donna Tartt's "The Little Friend" was spoilt for me because of this. However, Wendy Guerra not only manages to achieve realistic dialogue and thoughts for the narrator's age at the start of the book (six or seven) but also manages to successfully capture the character's growth throughout the book (again in terms of the use of language as well as sophistication of thought).

The other characters are also all painted excellently, with both their good and their infuriating points shining through. The imagery is therefore vivid: the neurotic mother, the alcoholic father, the increasingly self-righteous teenager. However, I didn't feel that I could really 'connect' with Nieve, though perhaps (in an existentialist sort of way) I wasn't meant to - it's always difficult to tell whether or not this is the author's intention. However, I could empathise with some of the emotions, even though attachment to the character herself was not strong.

Learners of French or Spanish would do well to read this book: the language becomes progressively more complex in a realistic way, which serves as a very positive tool for learning. The novel is also not over-peopled with characters, meaning that while emotions meander as the character grows, the story also possesses a quality of sharp focus. It is a sophisticated and well-constructed coming-of-age story that deviates from the clichéed examples of this genre that are usually cited. However, this difference from other well-known exemplars is not easy to pin down: it does have a certain je ne sais quoi. Some qualities that do come to mind, though, are Nieve's obstinacy, which is admirable rather than irritating; a lack of attempt to be amusing, as is often common in fictional young diarists; and a lack of whininess, which makes the character more likeable than her other fictional contemporaries.
Reading about Wendy Guerra's life gives the reader some sense that Tout le monde s'en va is to an extent autobiographical, but this in no way seems to cheapen it, particularly as there is no particular overriding message or patronising missive of morality from the author as the reader reaches the book's end.

A promising novel from an author who deserves to be better-known across Europe.

Other works by Wendy Guerra
Platea a oscura (1987) - poetry
Cabeza rapada (1996) - poetry

Welcome, book lovers!

As someone who reviewed books for three years for her university rag, it's perhaps understandable that I should miss doing it a year after leaving. I tried joining the 50bookchallenge community on Livejournal last year, during my master's degree, but was unsatisfied with it for several reasons. However, I enjoyed the process of reviewing books, so have decided to return to it for your delectation.

A little about me: I studied Classics and English at Exeter University, UK, from 2004-7. Immediately following this, I read a Master's degree in Linguistics at Oxford University. After a summer on unemployment benefits (through no fault of my own, I assure you!), I moved to Paris where I now work as an English teacher in an international, bilingual secondary school and live with my boyfriend (and yes, we are glad to be out of the ridiculous long-distance arrangement that we had going for 3.5 years!).

As part of living in France, I read a lot of books in French, and I will be reviewing these as well. The reviews I write initially (i.e. in November and December of this year) will be to get me back into the swing of reviewing more than anything else. As of January, my reviews will be accompanied with a figure for my own interest, so that I can chart how many books I read during the year. The first year that I counted this, I managed 43 (not including rereads). It perhaps goes without saying that I hope to equal or exceed this in 2009.

The maxim that "a day without writing is a wasted day" is certainly something I ascribe to, although I don't spend nearly enough time on my novels and poetry as I should. I am, however, constantly tapping away at my beauty product reviews over at my beauty blog. When not teaching, reading, or writing, I enjoy singing, listening to all kinds of music, travelling, sleeping, food and drink, calligraphy, and anything Christmas.

I should probably also say what kind of books I enjoy reading. It's difficult to classify, but generally speaking, as long as it's of a high quality (and this doesn't mean reading classics all the time - some are abysmally bad!), I'll probably enjoy it. I can't stand overhyped literature and am generally not carried along by the crowd. A pretty vague description, and I'm sure you'll agree that someone who studied English at university level for three years should be able to sum up better than that. You'll soon find out what I like and what I don't. I hope you enjoy the blog regardless, and if I can make any improvements, please let me know.